5 language learning myths

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One of the things on my bucket list is to learn Spanish fluently. I learnt the basics during my GCSEs (16 years ago!), took an evening class at UCL in 2010, and have also dabbled with Rosetta Stone and Duolingo.

In the lead-up to our big trip, I decided to get serious and enrolled on a Rosetta Stone course online. I tested at intermediate level B1 and am currently working my way up. Meanwhile, Peter is brushing up on his basic French.

Between us, we should have large parts of the South Pacific and South America covered.

Linguistics is one of my passions (one day, I hope to do a Masters in it), so naturally when I started learning Spanish, I read up on some of the theory around language learning. To my surprise, some of my assumptions were proven wrong. Here are 5 language learning myths any language learner should bear in mind.

Myth 1. You’re too old to learn a new language

One of the things we hear most often is that children learn languages faster than adults. We are given the oft-cited example of immigrant children who pick up English without a foreign accent, translating for their parents at the doctor’s or dentist’s. 

This is usually rooted in the ‘critical period hypothesis’ which suggests that children are better at learning languages because their brains are more elastic [1].

However, since its inception, this theory has been repeatedly questioned [2] and experimental research has shown that adolescents and adults perform better than young children under controlled conditions [3].

In addition, it’s also a myth that younger children learn languages quicker than older ones [4]. In short: you’re not too old to learn a new language so don’t use that as an excuse.

Myth 2. The best way to learn is to live in a foreign country

Conventional wisdom dictates that if you want to learn Spanish, you should move to Spain. This sounds like a great idea, but moving to a new country without learning some grammar first will force you to pick up bad habits.

You may think you’ll improve with time, but consider how many first-generation immigrants use phrases like “I take it” instead of “I will take it” despite being in the country for more than a decade. Without the right motivation, moving to a new country is not a surefire way to learn a new language.

Instead, you may be better off practising at home first where you have the time and luxury to learn proper grammar and sentence structure first.

Myth 3. If you listen to a language every day, you’ll learn it by osmosis

There can be a temptation to put on a local language radio channel and hope that some of it enters your consciousness without effort, but effective language learning involves all forms of learning: reading, writing, listening and speaking.

Passive learning will certainly help your accent and pronunciation but research shows that it is insufficient by itself as a way to learn a new language.

Myth 4. Pronunciation doesn’t need active work

Many language learners assume that their pronunciation is sufficient because their teacher doesn’t correct them. The truth is, most teachers let slide all but the biggest pronunciation mistakes.

Unless you are being tutored privately, teachers don’t have the time to work on individual students’ pronunciation in class. As a result, it’s the most neglected area of language learning.

Test your verbal skills on real native speakers outside of a classroom setting and aim for a near-native pronunciation – this is where local language radio, TV and film will help.

Myth 5. It’s OK to make mistakes

As children, we are often prompted to interact in class with promises that it’s okay to make mistakes. In language learning, however, mistakes can be harmful. Each time you use improper grammar, you increase the chances of you making the same mistake again.

Some learners will want to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible but there is a big difference between fluency with mistakes and fluency without mistakes and it’s far harder to jump from the first to the second than building the second from the ground up.

Take the time to learn the grammar and to structure proper sentences. It will be slow going, but it’s the only way to do it if you want to be truly fluent.

[1] Lenneberg, 1967; Penfield & Roberts, 1959
[2] Geneses, 1981; Harley, 1989; Newport, 1990
[3] Snow & Hoefnagel-Hoehle, 1978
[4] Stern, Burstall, & Harley, 1975; Gorosch & Axelsson, 1964; Buehler, 1972; Florander & Jansen, 1968


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