Myths keep people form learning a language
While I was drowning myself in a few pints with some new American friends a bar (pub) I was also drowning in cliche questions about learning a language. At first, I was annoyed. But then the hops hit and I realized these reoccurring questions and false statements of ‘facts’ were coming from well-engrained myths about language.
This group was not thick. Quite to the contrary, they were educated. The group consisted of an attorney, a successful business owner, and a university professor. Language was not their area of expertise, it was mine.
That’s where I started to think about the many misconceptions around language learning. After our happy multi-round evening I realized these myths about learning a language are not harmless. These myths sadly prevented people from learning a language.
The truth about language learning myths
Below I debunk the most common language learning myths. Learning a new language is easier than you realize. Don’t let these language learning myths keep you from speaking a new language.
1. Everyone speaks English
This is one of the most widespread languages learning myths.
This myth originates because English is the most widely spoken language. However, the reality is that more people speak Chinese than English. According to Ethnologue, Chinese speakers account for about 12% of the world population.
Surely English is the second most spoken language in the world, right? Wrong again. The number of people speaking Spanish comes in second accounting for about 6% of the world population.
Is English at least the third most spoken language? Yes, but barely. English speakers account for about 4.9% of the world population with Hindi close behind in 4th place with 4.4% of the world’s population – and Hindi is expanding rapidly.
Only 5 of 100 people speak English
As Education First, an international language education company located in Sweden puts it,
“If you went to a party with 100 guests, 17 of them could discuss the fruit punch and the snack variety in Chinese. Six of the attendees could converse about the DJ’s playlist in Spanish and five of them could chat in English while waiting in line for the bathroom. There would be four guests who could complement each other’s dance moves in Hindi . . .”
Five out of every 100 people is hardly ‘everyone’. Although English speakers can be found in more parts of the world than Chinese or Hindi, it is unevenly distributed and the level of English proficiency varies greatly.
That means that you will encounter 100 out of 100 people speaking English in some areas, like parts of Canada, but zero people out of 100 in other parts of the world like some parts of China.
2. You need exceptional talent to learn a new language
It’s a myth that you need some sort of magical natural talent to learn a new language.
We live in a world where up to 75% of the people speak at least two languages. But research indicates this has not always been the case. The percentage of multilingual speakers was much higher in antiquity.
In areas where hunter-gatherers still live, the type of lifestyle all humans used to live in, multilingualism is much higher, almost 100%.
Papua New Guinea, which has a high percentage of hunter-gatherers, has at least 832 different languages. Aboriginal Australia contains 130 languages. These are areas where people are often or constantly on the move, so one must be multilingual to survive. Our ancestors experienced the same types of social environments.
The fact that so many people speak two or more languages suggests that our brains evolved to speak many languages. The problem many people face today is that they are not used to or have no opportunity to learn another language.
Getting in language shape
Learning a language is a lot like exercise. Our bodies evolved to be active, to walk long distances and run for miles. However, a sedentary office worker would have a difficult time running a 10k. If they made an effort to get into shape it might be difficult and painful, but we know a sedentary office worker can get into shape and easily (not effortlessly) run a 10k or even train for and complete a marathon.
Our brains may be made to speak many languages but monolinguals brains need to get into shape and train to learn languages, then it becomes easy (not effortless).
3. Learning a language is just too difficult
This is one of the most popular language-learning myths because it is partially true and because many people have experienced the frustration of beginning to learn a new language.
Language learning is difficult, but only at the beginning. And even then, the right approach to learning can make that easier.
The TEDx Talk, One Simple Method to Learn Any Language uses swimming in the ocean as an analogy to learning a language.
If you want to swim in the ocean you must first get past the breakers. This is very difficult as the power of the waves drives you back to shore, pushes you underwater, and frustrates your progress.
They call this the zone of frustration. But if you can make it past the breakers, past the zone of frustration, the water is calm, easy to swim, enjoyable, and limitless.
Once you are past the first difficult, frustrating days of language learning, where you feel you are not making any progress, the language becomes easy to speak, enjoyable, and you see the possibility.
How long in the zone of frustration?
The real question is, how long will you be in the zone of frustration? Will it be days or months?
To shorten the time in the zone of frustration find a language learning system that focuses on communication rather than grammar and gets you speaking on day one – that’s Easy Travel Speak, by the way.
Then speak as often as possible with native speakers, other language learners, anyone who will speak the language with you.
Yes, you will be frustrated for the first few days but you will quickly make progress and be past the breakers.
4. Children learn a language faster
As adults, we want to believe children learn a language faster because it gives us an out. Unfortunately, we need to come up with a new excuse because it is not true.
Counter to what you have been told, it is easier to learn a language later in life.
A meta-study done by Steven Brown from Young’s Town University and Jenifer Larson-Hall at Kitakyushu University found that adults learn languages faster than children. That’s right adults learn a language faster!
Yes, children can master the accent more easily than adults and they can attain fluency faster, but age has the overall advantage.
Think of it this way, if you spent the next 3 years immersed in a country where no one spoke any English you would probably be fluent in their language. Certainly further ahead than a 4-year-old child entering preschool.
The reason adults learn faster than children has to do with an adult’s ability to learn. Adults have been trained to learn, they have more experience learning, and they have more discipline and focus than children.
5. You can learn a language just by using an app
Oh, how I wish this was true, but it’s not. 🙁
Language apps are great for training you how to choose the right phrase from several options or fill in the blank but that’s not how language is learned and that’s why most language learning apps fail to teach you a language on their own.
To learn a language you must have input and output. You must have interaction. That means you have to speak with, listen to, and respond to someone who speaks the language. Sure, the input is vital to language learning, but it’s literally only half of the equation.
It’s a bit of a paradox, you must speak and listen to a language to learn it, but the only way to speak and listen is to have already learned the language. The way out of this paradox is to jump right in.
Start speaking the new language immediately
Find a language program that gets you speaking immediately, on day one, and start speaking immediately. You may only be able to hold a simple one or two sentence conversation for a minute or two, but that’s how it starts.
That’s also what makes language learning so frustrating at first, the inability to communicate at any length.
But, if you interact daily the learning process moves forward exponentially. In extreme cases, such as extreme immersion, you can attain proficiency in as little as 12 weeks. Young and Jawalis showed this in their daring experiment of never speaking English for 12 weeks in 4 different countries.
6. Language learning is unnecessary with modern translation technologies
Of all the language learning myths out there this one may be the most damaging.
Yes, technology and translator apps are helpful, but they are nowhere close to the same as speaking a language. It’s like saying texting is the same as having a one-on-one conversation. It’s just not. You miss all of the nuances of the language and the interaction.
Yes, it’s great to have your phone when you are with a friend and share a meme. But the phone is just a tool to enhance the interaction, it’s not the interaction itself.
Ashoka writes in Forbes:
“Language instruction introduces us to the nuances of cultures, allowing us to build productive personal and professional relationships with people from unfamiliar cultures.”
Translator apps have two additional drawbacks:
- It takes a lot of time to enter the information
- The translation is often inaccurate or misleading
My experience relying on a translator in Thailand and China was enough to stop me from relying on a translator.
Many apps work by translating word for word and this is a great way to get yourself in trouble.
One app I looked at translated, “I like you” in Italian as “Io piace voi” which is totally wrong. You say it as “Mi piaci”.
And from Thailand, this translation wishing the owner of a new restaurant good luck, “I’m really diligent. I salute you” is a bit puzzling.
Translators are helpful with the odd word here and there and the common phrase but don’t count on them to actually translate for you.
7. You must study grammar
Studying grammar is one of the worst ways to learn a language. We learn by interaction, by speaking and listening to others who speak the language. Time spent on grammar is more time spent in the zone of frustration.
Do you understand this sentence, “Who are you going with?” The grammar is incorrect but it is understandable. The correct way to say this is, “With whom are you going?” In the same way, you understand, “I go store” just as well as “I am going to the store.”
When beginning to learn English, is it better to spend weeks or months trying to understand how a helping verb works when most languages don’t have helping verbs? Or when to add the -ing ending? Or which preposition is correct? Or the addition of an article? All this to get to “I am going to the store” which really just means “I go store”.
By saying “I go store” the learner has communicated, which is the point of language. The more the learner speaks the more he or she will hear the correct grammar and begin to use it.
Next time you are trying to figure out if you should use La, Le, L’ Les, Las, or something else, forget the grammar, pick one, and talk.
If you are asking for a beer in Italian and are saying “Il birra” (incorrect) and your Italian friends are constantly saying “La birra” (correct), you will very quickly and naturally start saying it correctly.
Don’t let the 7 language learning myths stop you from learning a language
Now you know the truth about these language learning myths.
Don’t let myths and misinformation stop you from experiencing the joy of speaking a second language. Speaking another language eliminates frustration and anxiety when you travel and opens up the possibility of creating wonderful memories.
When learning a new language you can eliminate a lot of your frustration by focusing on what you need to know. In fact, I created a 5-part formula to help you learn a new language – any language faster by focusing on all the right things.
Take a few minutes each day to learn a new language, get through the zone of frustration, and you will be on your way to a whole new view of the world.