Misconceptions about Language Learning

The Magic Age

Let’s say we all agree that language learning is fab. Whether you are keen to revive a dormant GCSE Language or dream of opening up a new world by learning a new one, have you ever stopped daydreaming and asked yourself “What’s stopping me?”. Well tell you what, I’m going to go ahead and try to guess your excuses and help you get over them as well. Language learning really is a little bit like dieting or taking up exercise: there’s never a reason not to do it.

Never too old

I’ll start off with one of the most common misconceptions about language learning I have come across, and that is the “magic age“. Seems like most would-be multilinguals out there look at being bilingual as something that you could never achieve unless you were born into it. It’s like a golden garden of multilingual children, all of which magically and effortlessly picked up two or more languages before they were even six. How could you ever live up to such standards! The trick is this: don’t try to. Being bilingual is all good and well, but is always the result of extraordinary circumstances and exposure. Instead of talking yourself out of language learning because you think you’re past a magic age, just pick up what you can.

It’s so easy to get started with a new language if only you can work out where to start. I spent my first ever Spanish lesson on the alphabet and pronunciation and it made me a lot less wary of the foreign sounds. The first ever Latin lesson started with a native language grammar re-cap – get your toolkit sparkling before you pick up the tools. But when I first learned English at a much younger age, it was more about songs and words for everyday things. Fact is, kids learn differently to adults and will be able to make a lot more out of being encouraged to copy phrases. If you forget something and you’re 5, that’s normal. If you forget something and you’re 35, that’s still normal but a lot of us will make it into a small failure.

Your attitude can be young again!

Confidence and fear of failure are two real factors that affect adults so much more than children when it comes to language learning. So realise this and take back those skills from the magic age. Look at your language adventure as a bit of fun, sound out all the words that really seem strange, get a song or two in your target language, perhaps a comic and make it about what interests you.

I encourage you to approach your learning like a child approaches a new toy, but be as wise as your adult self. You know by now what works for you. You’ve learnt a lot of stuff, be it ironing or driving or long division. Get the learning methods right and mix them with a positive attitude, then cut the fear of failure, and we have ourselves a learner at the NEW magic age!

There is a Language Gene, and I’ve Not Got it

No learner and in fact no human being will be unfamiliar with a low in confidence every now and then. We cast our eye over strange letters, 35 units in the Beginner’s textbook and a brand new dictionary. We look at native speakers and the way they use this complicated code so easily. How on earth do you get from one to the next? And that’s the moment. Watch out, you’re vulnerable. You might think that some people are just born to learn this, and you’re not one of them. Your memory is poor, you attention span is weak and you can’t even spell your own language. It’s clear that language learning is not in your DNA, so better not even embarrass yourself by trying. You’re more of a science kinda guy anyway.

Just like the belief that there is a magic cut-off age which excludes you from progressing to fluency, this belief in the magic race of linguists should be unveiled for what it is: a fake! Many experts of motivation and life coaching endorse the massive power of positive thinking. One of the education writers who really have opened up our understanding of how beliefs can prevent us from learning successfully is Paul Tough. His work on low-income areas and achievement does make me think of the similar invisible barrier in a lot of our heads when it comes to language learning. You don’t think it’s for you, and that makes it all the harder to try.

Beating That Nagging Voice

So remember this: Maybe you can get only half way to an ambitious goal if you try, but you’ll certainly get nowhere if you believe your endeavour is doomed from the start. Our big ambition is the mastery of a foreign language, but forget about the pressure and just have a bit of fun with it. Free yourself from a belief that language is not for you, because more than likely it really is. Once you get your motivation and method clearly laid out, you should know why you’re doing this and where it’s meant to take you.

Here is a quick exercise for putting affirmation power into your language learning:

Look yourself in the eye. (A mirror would help.) Say out loud: “I have a real talent for languages.” Better still, insert your chosen target language. If it feels ridiculous, try and examine why that might be. Break down all the reasons you can come up with. Is it the bit about talent that doesn’t feel like it’s very you? Or perhaps the language part? You need to address the words that don’t feel right, perhaps replace them with similar ones that work for yourself. It could be that you find that “talent” is not quite what you’re actually aiming for, so replace it with “dedication” or “passion” and then speak up for yourself!

Repeat the exercise until you start believing what you’re saying. Shouldn’t be long now, and I’ll see you in Japanese class!

Languages are for Holidays

Have you ever heard the term “island mentality”? It’s used to describe a sense that contact and interaction with nations and cultures other than your own are not necessary. “Islanders” are likely to hold back when it comes to learning about unfamiliar things, and lack a sense of curiosity about looking beyond the horizons of wherever they live.

In terms of language learning, we come across this type of attitude particularly commonly where the first language is English! Poliglotti recently published the results of a survey of over 6500 travellers which showed that only 11% of British travellers speak another language fluently. The survey was conducted by TripAdvisor, whose spokeswoman tried to soften the blow by stating that “most of us at least attempt to learn the basic pleasantries before we go on holiday.”

This is one of the key issues I have come across in the UK, and leads me to my third language learning misconception which is that the purpose of a language is being able to exchange pleasantries while you’re “on holiday” (that’s “on vacation” to you Americans out there). A lot of the language learning materials and UK exams are geared up for this purpose, leaving out whole key pulses of a culture like its literature, music and films. No wonder language learning is considered boring.

No Man is an Island

Here’s why I believe that language learning should be disassociated from holiday-making: The purpose of a holiday for most people is to switch off and experience a temporary treat. There is no space in there for the nerves of speaking to someone for the first time in their own language, and especially the pressure of trying to understand a new accent. Most importantly, the break is temporary by definition! Exchanging pleasantries in your target language does give you a positive feeling of being a good guest, and hopefully the great reinforcement of a smile from your hosts. But it’s too narrow-minded and too shallow! Believing that you must exchange pleasantries while failing to conjure up an interest in the real place you are visiting defeats the point of travel in my eye, and it deprives you of the real riches that other places have to offer.

When you learn a language, you should get yourself in there for the long haul. Do some discovering, find the coolest bands that sing in your target language (Seeed are big favourites of mine) and stop thinking of yourself as the one that is only accepted temporarily. You can become great at your language, you can become bilingual and even bicultural, if that is a word you would like to use. The hosts can become friends and colleagues and enrich your life in ways way beyond what a simple one-week break could do.

No language learner should make it their long term goal to be able to go on holiday to somewhere once and leave it at that. There’s just too much to be discovered. In the words of Nick Hornby, who stole them from Jon Bon Jovi: No Man is an Island.

If I’m not speaking it, I’m not using it

A short while ago, I wrote about the phenomenon of languages being banned to the bottom of your CV. We know that employers like multilingual candidates, yet the language ability is considered “only” a skill. As I thought about this, it occurred to me that there is a big misconception at work: The idea that, when you aren’t speaking a language, you’re not benefiting from it.

Let’s take this thought experiment by looking at a simple skill that also falls victim to the “no use if not using” view: driving. You only use this skill as you are in a car, on a road. But the benefits are wider: You have learnt the highway code, you are better at estimating journey times by car, and you are more aware of the economics of owning a vehicle. Being a driver is more than just driving.

So what are the wider benefits of speaking another language?

  1. On this very blog, there’s plenty to read about the good things language learning can do to your brain. It is a genuinely healthy thing to do. Heck, it can even make your brain grow! The intensive application of language study has been shown to increase the size of your hippocampus. And who wouldn’t want that!
  2. Languages give you great transferable sills. Learning to speak another language is an exercise in patience, humility and communication. Looking at this list of the most desirable skills employers cite when they are looking for the perfect job applicant, you should get an idea of what I am saying. Language skill is more than just language skill, it is also hard evidence of the many soft skills that make you a great colleague and employee.
  3. You will learn more than you bargained for, as language learning can teach you cultural awareness better than most textbooks ever could. It gently forces to immerse yourself in another mindset and get involved. For example, let’s look at the following German words. Do you understand how much they can tell you, in one word, about history and culture in Germany?

It is so natural and effortless

Okay, this might be a controversial post but I want to tell you what I believe and don’t believe about language learning. This is a big market. The available products go way beyond dictionaries and verb tables, and language learners pick from a big range of courses in books, on CD, DVD and online.

The choice is a great thing. The advertising budgets, maybe not.

Just as I don’t believe that there is a cut-off age or DNA pattern for linguistic talent, I want to be skeptical about “too good to be true” claims too. In the time since I have started offering language lessons as a private tutor, I have seen an awful lot of ads. The claims were intimidating. They talk about being “fluent within weeks” or learning “naturally, like a child”. I can’t possibly guarantee anyone that! But making you magically fluent in a foreign language is not my philosophy.

Here’s what I don’t believe in

Language learning is never entirely natural, or surely not more natural than cooking or writing. You have got to learn it because you’re not born with it.

Is it ever “effortless”? Well, I don’t know. I realise that learning Spanish was so much easier for me than learning French, but that was because the rules are similar and because I had made an effort before. You make that effort at least once, but most likely hundreds of times. What the Brits so beautifully call “getting your head ’round something” is an effort, and I remain to be convinced about how learning a whole new set of rules for communication is meant to come without an effort.

And about learning like a child, I think that claim gets me up on the soapbox every time. If you’re over…what, twelve?..you’re not a child. How are you learning like a child? There are patterns and stories that you have started seeing in the world in your maturing process. You understand the world in a different way, so you will need more rules and make sense of them in your own way. Stop thinking about childlike learning as the ultimate method of acquiring a language, and start using what you’ve got!

But here’s what’s true to me

I do believe that language learning can be fun. The whole point of it is partly to have fun, and come on, opening the door to another culture has got to make you smile! No? Not even when Henning Wehn pulls faces?

It can also be fast, if you are willing to put your mind to it. The claim of becoming a comfortable speaker of a brand new language in less than half a year is not crazy, but you will have to work hard to get there. It’s not comfortable, it will push your limits and challenge anyone wanting to take it on. A friend recently told me about the “Insanity Workout” – there is a language learning equivalent, but don’t expect it to hurt less. And don’t put yourself under too much pressure. Progress is good, but it is not the pace that matters because you are learning for life (hopefully).

Language learning can even be free – of course it can, although if you want to pay for help you’re better off looking for value, not freebies. Above all, I believe that language learning is worthwhile and enriching, and that it’s worth making the effort and spending the money as well – if it’s well spent.

Follow these simple rules, and you will be safe:

1) Find your medium and learning style
Some learners love listening to CDs and Podcasts on the drive to work, others like writing everything down by hand. It’s not even an age thing – I’m on the cusp of digital nativeness, but when it comes to learning a language I often notice that words don’t stick if I see them on a screen only. I have to write things down and have that engagement with a body movement. Others learn much better from hearing and repeating phrases and words. What are your own experiences of finding your learning style?

2) Try out freebies and see what sticks
Most kind private tutors will offer you a free or cheap trial lesson, and many apps offer you free trials as well. These don’t mean there is a hidden obligation to buy – they mean that the provider is so confident in their product that they think you’ll be convinced. But we realise the truth of point 1). We are all different and what is simple and comfortable for one person might be a difficulty for the next. So make “try before you buy” your mantra, even in addition to reading real users’ reviews online.

3) Invest when it’s right
This is like investing in a gym membership or any other plan that requires commitment. Yes, I do notice how many sports and diet comparisons I use. You will need skepticism about over-positive claims, a bit of consideration and the commitment to keep returning to the service in order to get that value for money. But once you’ve found something that works for you, go forth and experience success.

They definitely got it right in school

Hassled teachers, giggling back rows, noisy common rooms… many would-be learners will have memories of school that are not encouraging future learning. If you are above the age of 13 and you attended school, you are very likely to have come into contact with language learning. The common scenario is that your tuition was in a larger group of your peers, involved homework and regular tests, and was structured around a curriculum set by people who don’t know you. And for some learners, it wasn’t right. The amount of people who mention this scenario to me when they talk about language learning is staggering!

But let’s get real: You’re not a teenager anymore. You are not herded into a classroom anymore. You can learn like an adult, go at your own pace and feel free from constraint. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have you ever learnt with a goal in mind?

A goal is not something imposed on you that you don’t believe in. Some find themselves motivated by the desire to score an A on the next exam, but others do not. So if you have never had a goal that was relevant for you, it might be time to put a value on why you want to learn.

  • In past learning environments, did you feel proud of your successes?

You should be able to look at your achievements with a good, satisfied glow. I’m new to indoor climbing and I cannot tell you how pleased I was with myself last week when I put a new move into practice for the first time. The same goes for language learning. Be pleased with yourself when you achieve something, otherwise you won’t be going for long.

  • Was the pace right for you?

Pace is usually an issue with group learning in a set curriculum environment. The goalposts are set by people who don’t know you as an individual. They may be making assumptions about your general age group, or even worse, they might just have counted backwards from the exam content and guessed at how to squeeze that content into an academic year. Just consider this teacher’s view of how far the reality in UK schools is from the ideal language school.

Don’t let others tell you how fast or slow you are supposed to be. If you want to understand an issue in depth before moving on to the next, do it. If you want to skim many lessons and get a big picture view, do it. It’s important to be consistent. Pace is secondary.

  • Did you get answers to all your questions?

Some learning systems make assumptions about what learners want to know and what they don’t want to know. If you felt that learning a tense stoked your curiosity, just to be left clueless about where to find out more, you may have taken away the belief that your way of learning wasn’t right. The way to address this is to investigate who will give you that information and how you want it to be delivered to you.

Draw Conclusions

If the answer to any of these questions is no, your misconception shaped by past experience may be holding you back. Think about what you like and didn’t like in past experiences, what worked for you and what made you feel like you’re achieving and progressing well. Consider different methods: group tuition, e-learning, individual lessons or language exchanges. It might be time rearrange your learning landscape for productivity and motivation. Take a break from what others say (yes, even we on Fairlanguages) and have a good old session with yourself, your questions and a piece of paper.

One Method to Rule Them All

What’s the best way to learn a language?

There is no step-by-step language learning solution that will guarantee you fluency, and unfortunately not even a brain-friendly online workout for it. Languages aren’t easy. They’re rewarding and empowering, and worth the hassle. But that doesn’t change the truth – it takes some discipline and commitment.

So, if there’s no best way, what can learners do? I want to share the Hows of Language Learning – not miracle cures, just some sensible advice to consider.

  • Do it your way

Just like Atkins diets or GTD methods can’t work for every human, you will struggle to find the one single language learning method that works. So my answer to “What’s the best way to learn a language” is this: Change the question.

Find out about the many ways there are. List at least five that you can think of, like taking a class or asking your Polish neighbour for a word a day. Then think about your personality – are you an extrovert? Visually stimulated? Music lover? Find the method that integrates your preferences for the most efficient way of learning.

  • Learn to love it

If you cannot beat them, you have to join them. Stop looking at a far-off result. It is my belief that you cannot become fluent in less than a year, so I’d rather advise language learners to start enjoying the journey you’re taking there.

Instead of working towards that fuzzy idea of “fluency”, try reaching smaller milestones. Enjoy the glow of actually achieving goals, and have it rightfully boost your confidence. It doesn’t matter how small they are, they could be “remember 10 types of German sausage” or “recite the conjugation for être in under 30 seconds”.

  • Practice persistence

Persistence and commitment should not mean strictly prescribing a set of training hours or verb tables. That wouldn’t be fun – the real commitment is in finding interesting ways of engaging with your target language, ever again.

Learning little and often is better than having weekly 5 hour sessions. Your brain is stimulated by repetition and working in these smaller doses will often allow you to make improvements and adjustments so much more effectively. If you attend regular classes, make sure you look at your notes at least once a week – not on class day.

If you are self-taught, this is also important. You can vary your input, vary the exercises and generally have a bit more flexibility. But one word of warning: Don’t get complacent. You should follow some kind of plan, make sure you progress and repeat the same things only so many times. It doesn’t matter if you can’t remember 100% of lesson 4, move on anyway and trust that progress builds on previous knowledge. (As an early stage Russian learner, I know how hard this one can be, but if I try to make the word for “buy” and “sell” stick in my head any more it may just melt.)

So, these are my thoughts on best ways to learn a language. Please share your own thoughts – do you believe in having found the one best solution? If yes, what is it? Or do you plod on, changing course whenever necessary, but always with the end goal in sight?

Without Moving Abroad, you will Forever Miss Out

A lot of prominent language learners on the internet are expats of some kind. Some have been on the road for years like Mau Buchler, others like David Mansaray are posting about their experiences of living in a different country. It’s completely reasonable to assume that language and this sort of mega-immersion of living abroad are inextricably linked, but as a learner could this mindset be putting a bit of pressure on you? Instead of busting a myth as I usually do, my aim today is to make you consider a different angle of language motivation.

Cultural generosity

Certainly, my own motivations in language learning were not life changing at first. Languages are a great thing to learn if you’re into finding out more about people, and later it was all about connecting with music in the target language. These days I teach many native English speakers who are learning the language of places they may have not seen for real yet. They are learning for many valid reasons such as travel and moving abroad but also fun, personal interest and growth.

I felt that Harry Eyres recently went ahead and summed this up so well in a recent Financial Times article. Here is why I learn languages – not because I want to travel and live everywhere but because:

Learning and speaking foreign languages [..] is also an act of cultural generosity, a way of opening yourself to others, of learning about the rich variety of the world. It is an acknowledgment that there is a multitude of ways of being and expressing oneself, all of which have untranslatable nuances.

Nothing wrong with the stationary language learner

If you are reading about language learning methods and feeling like you’ll never do this right if you don’t re-root your whole life to another country…Don’t worry, you are normal, or at least I’d say I’m like you. The study of languages is interesting, stimulating and enriching for me, and so what if I don’t have a trip to Moscow booked. I’ll get there when I want to, not because I feel that I won’t manage to learn Russian without it.

Here are my three top reasons for being proud if you’re a stationary language learner:

  1. You get to be the guide. Travel can have its escapist downside and I quite like the place where I live. I am enjoying getting to know it even better, and look forward to the day when I can show a guest around speaking Russian or Spanish. Do you agree that this is every bit as cool as being the one who moved to a foreign country?
  2. You are more independent from externally imposed performance measures and you can set your own pace of language learning. Nobody should tell you which CEFR you’re supposed to be at after x months. I’ve seen many dedicated learners lose their confidence over this, which is still incredible to me.
  3. This is the 21st century. You can connect with other learners. Other travellers. Other teachers. With anyone living on the other side of the world with free tools as simple as video chat. No need to take your family and your life and shift to another country just for the sake of improving your language skills.

Even if you will never visit your target language’s country, you are still growing and learning and the number of stamps in your passport is nobody’s business but yours. Enjoy the freedom of finding your own way.

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