Like any other activity that requires time, effort and skill, language learning is saturated with strong theories and opinions about what can or cannot be done.
"Move abroad, otherwise you won't learn the language."
"Forget your native language, otherwise you won't be successful."
"I am getting older, so now I can't learn languages."
Let's discuss 5 popular ideas surrounding language learning that are not exactly true. Which ones have you been falling for?
Myth #5: "I Can't Learn a New Language Because I'm Old"
As language learners grow older, they are likely to claim they can't memorize words the way they used to.
They feel tired more easily, get confused more often, and need more repetition to get things right - at least, it surely seems that way.
However, there is no reason to go into Toxic Thought planet and thinking that aging is a death sentence for your education. Here's why.
It is undeniable that the brain goes through changes as we age, and thus the ability to learn can be affected.
However, that does not necessarily mean the brain cannot be retrained for a particular set of skills! Research has suggested that our versatile brain can be retuned to start processing differences between certain sounds that it couldn't process before, even at an older age. This is important because it strongly suggests the difficulties older language learners face may not be purely biological...but a matter of perception, culture and learned behavior.
The science of language learning keeps evolving and theories may change, but one thing is certain - telling yourself (or letting others tell you) that it's not your place to learn languages because you got older is self-sabotage, especially considering how much we still have to discover about language, the brain and the way they work together.
Indeed, the benefits of language learning later in life are multiple. Learning a new language can not only delay the effects of aging, but also grow your brain - literally. And that does not include the benefits that come with socializing with your course mates or other language learners online!
Myth #4: "I Have to Stop Thinking In My Native Language"
Raise your hand if you've been told that in order to learn a new language, you must stop thinking in your native language - or forget it altogether.
After all, if you keep thinking in your native language you are highly likely to get frustrated, since you will be confronted with massive differences between languages.
"Why do I have to learn three genders?!"
"Why do they say the 'moon' is male and the 'sun' is female, when in my language says otherwise?!"
"Why do people need genders at all?! My language has no genders!"
Stop thinking in your native language, right?
Regardless of the similarity between your native language and your target language, comparing them might not be as horrible as you've been led to believe.
If you go at it with the right attitude, that is. One of using this comparison as a convenient tool for language learning, not as a way to criticize whatever vocabulary or grammar comes your way.
Sometimes a word could become radically easier to remember because it is extremely similar to the equivalent one in your mother tongue. Same sound, same meaning, same gender...you've got it! On the other hand, if a word is so radically different between languages, comparing may not be so bad either. Sometimes we learn by contrast, not by similarity.
Additionally, it is undeniable that certain languages have a predictable pattern of translation due to cognates. If a word ends in "-ation" in English, it is likely to end in "-ación" in Spanish and in "-ação" in Portuguese.
For this reason, when language learners find themselves stuck during conversation and instead decide to make things up by translating directly from their native language...good for them! When it comes to achieving fluency, it is better to take risks than being afraid of talking.
Myth #3: "I Will Learn the Language if I Move Abroad"
Moving abroad is a challenge that brings instant reward. New faces, new names, new places, new lessons, and the opportunity to practice your target language at all times. If you do have the time, the money and the guts, it is definitely an effective strategy to learn a language as quickly as possible...
...but not always.
Moving abroad is not a guarantee that you will succeed. For example, there are several people who move abroad to live with their family or friends who share the same nationality, meaning they will spend a massive portion of their time in a community that speaks their native language rather than the target language. Additionally, once people realize you're a foreigner, they are likely to insist on speaking English to you rather than a local language, not to mention expats tend to associate with other expats in the first place.
Of course, being part of a welcoming community and spending time with family and friends is not something you should reject! This is simply an explanation for why moving abroad is not necessarily synonym with language learning success. Even moving abroad needs a proper method!
Alternatively, you can do your best to create an immersive environment wherever you are (even if you are learning Mandarin!). Here are some really unconventional tips on how to surround yourself with language learning materials!
Myth #2: "I Need to Feel Ready Before I Speak"
In your opinion, which of these language learning methods is better?
- Learning the language first, and only attempting to speak after I know what I'm doing.
- Speaking as soon as possible while I keep learning.
Most of us would rationally choose number two. Of course we want to start speaking a language as soon as possible! But when it comes down to reality and speaking a foreign language under pressure, most will say something along the lines of:
- "I just know I will sound stupid."
- "I just know that if I study a bit more I will feel ready, and then I'll be able to talk."
- "I don't feel ready yet. I understand everything people say, but I just seem to lose my confidence as soon as I'm supposed to open my mouth. Maybe I need to work on my self-confidence first."
You will never actually feel "ready" because language learning and exposing yourself to real-life conversations will always present a degree of discomfort.
There will be awkward silences. There will be uncomfortable moments in which people misunderstood you or didn't get what you tried to say at all.
The best part? These moments will be nothing compared to the way you will feel when you manage to get your message across - and that will be the majority of the time.
How can we be so sure? Well, because you will be talking to human beings. Even if you mispell a word, choose the incorrect grammatical gender for a given word, conjugate a certain verb incorrectly or create a plural where it shouldn't exist, people will still understand you.
As an English speaker, would you feel completely lost if someone told you "Joanna went to the local market yesterday and buy some oranges"? Of course not! Even with a small grammar mistake, we can still understand the full idea.
Making mistakes will be inevitable, and it is only through repetition, exposure to context and getting corrected that you will reach the level of fluency that you want to achieve. Of course - you should still keep practicing your reading, listening and writing skills, because fluency does not exist in isolation - every little gesture contributes to it!
Myth #1: "Native Speakers Always Know Best"
"Practice with native speakers."
"Find a pen pal who is a native speaker."
"Ask a native speaker your questions."
Native speakers are almost seen as gurus or spiritual guides in the language learning world. They grew up surrounded by this beautiful, complex language you are now trying to learn. They know its tricks, its corners, its subtleties and its patterns. It is only natural that we would want to be guided by those who know best, right?
Native speakers are the best advisors when it comes to pronunciation and word choice. They help you decide which words are used more often, what words make no sense, and what words come in the dictionary but are not used at all. They are also key partners when helping you develop fluency.
However, non-native speakers who are learning the language just as you are can give you precious advice when it comes to understanding the "backstage" of the language. Most native speakers never stop to think about grammar or the logic behind their language, unless they have actually studied linguistics.
Our advice? Don't close the door on non-native speakers who have been devoting their time to the language, especially if they are immigrants in the country where your target language is spoken. Outsiders also get to notice aspects of a language that could be interesting and useful for your language learning!
A Final Tip - What is the Best Way to Learn a Language?
Don't let yourself be demotivated or dissuaded by common sayings or misconceptions.
Don't have the money to move abroad? Try creating a friendly learning environment wherever you are. Can't find a native speaker to practice with? Try speaking to peers who are going through the same challenge.
Regardless of your nationality, age or location, remember - the science of language learning is far from finished or steady, and there are many things we don't know about the brain yet!