A majority of Americans don’t speak a second language mainly for two reasons: language education in the U.S. has limited government funding, and people think that being bilingual has no use because English is the universal language. As a result, in spite of overwhelming research on the personal and career benefits of learning a second language, many young Americans are made to believe that they already have sufficient skills to thrive in a global marketplace.
But even with language instruction dropping down the list of national budget priorities, anyone can still take proactive steps to learn a second language. As with any endeavor, one of the first steps is to debunk common falsehoods that prevent people from reaching their full potential, or in some cases, get started.
Here are myths you need to stop telling yourself if you want to learn a new language:
It’s impossible to learn after puberty.
Popular opinion holds that the “critical period” for language learning is childhood. The Critical Period Hypothesis has led people to believe that you’ll never have native-like fluency in a second language, or will consistently have problems with grammar if you learn after puberty. We can’t deny that children are able to spend more time and have an easier time absorbing new information. According to Suzanne Robin in her article “Why Is It Easier for a Child to Learn a New Language Than An Adult”, “young children are hardwired to learn language in the first few years of life.”
While this may be true, it doesn’t mean that, as an adult, you can’t learn a language. If I can master Mandarin Chinese as an adult, anyone can.
The bottom line is, all you need is a language book or app, or enroll yourself in classes to begin your language learning journey. The only difference between now and when you were 7 or 8 years old is that your learning speed will be commensurate to how much you focus and spend time learning. It may take a bit more patience but you can do it.
There is a gene for language learning.
There is no such thing as a natural “gift” for language. Most people believe that polyglots, those who know and are able to use multiple languages, have that DNA that makes them so uniquely positioned to become as such.
But similar to what was mentioned above, what about younger people who can just start learning any language one after the other, or simultaneously? What then about adults who can do the same thing? Is it genetic make-up that enables them to become multilingual? The short answer is, not really.
If you are not succeeding at learning a language, you should assess whether you’re practicing enough, or are taking the wrong approach. I tried several programs and failed before finding success with my now business partner Kassey Wong. She asked me one simple question. “What do you want to learn about and what do you need to learn about?” I told her that I wanted to learn about work. Because I was learning to speak about something I did everyday within 12 months, the words were rolling off my tongue. This needs-based approach is a great way for anyone to learn a new language. Don’t get stuck learning words and phrases you will never use.
Training how to write and speak a second language should be done simultaneously.
You may think that if you were learning Spanish, for example, you need to learn how to say “Hola” in a conversation, and immediately, study how to write it on a piece of paper. Makes sense, right?
Let’s say for example that you were asked to do two things like, cook dinner and file your taxes. In this scenario, it would be extremely difficult to chop vegetables and then fill out a page of your tax form, after which you move to the next step of your food prep, and then jump again to working on your tax form.
The same goes with written fluency and spoken fluency, which are two separate skills. It’s quicker and more efficient to do things sequentially, rather than simultaneously. In other words, you’ll be able to accomplish more if you focus on one task, before you move on to the next.
Most expats living abroad only learn to speak the local language. Often times, that’s the skill that they find more useful for day-to-day interaction. Once you’ve learned to speak, learning to write is much easier and is great practice for your spoken language skills.
Learning proper pronunciation is not really important.
In some classrooms, language learners often assume that they already have good pronunciation because their peers are able understand them, and teachers hardly correct them.
In traditional settings, teachers often ignore pronunciation mistakes and will only interrupt a student if he or she is saying something that’s completely erroneous. One reason might be that instructors are not equipped to help students with poor pronunciation and are only tasked to teach them vocabulary and grammar.
Imagine then going to a foreign country after having perfected sentence structure, and knowing the right phrases to say in specific situations. However, the moment you talk to a local, the words that come out of your mouth are so unintelligible that they have to keep asking you to repeat what you just said. Fact is, good pronunciation is key to having an easy and pleasant conversation with native speakers.
In the end, with persistence and tenacity, we all have the capacity to acquire a new skill no matter how hard it may seem at first. So if you have language learning in your bucket list slotted for 2018, you should cross off these misconceptions and just take the leap!