Mastering your mindset is critical to successfully learning a second language.
After all, you’re your own biggest fan. If you’re (subconsciously) sabotaging your learning, you’re not going to progress at the speed you want.
And some of the biggest limiting beliefs that hold you back? They’re myths about learning a second language.
Y’know, the “truths” that “common wisdom” dictates…or something. Stuff you passively absorbed from your childhood or from school.
Let’s set the record straight and bust some language-learning myths.
- Myth 1: Adults are bad at learning languages
- Myth 2: You have to have the “language gene”
- Myth 3: You have to be immersed
- Myth 4: It’s not worth it unless you can be fluent
- Myth 5: You have to have a lot of money to afford classes, a tutor, or expensive software
- Myth 6: I can’t learn pronunciation because I’m “tone-deaf”
- Myth 7: Why bother learning a language when technology will always be there to translate for you?
- Language-learning myths, busted
Myth 1: Adults are bad at learning languages
Fact: Adults are just as good as, if not better than, kids.
This is a super pervasive myth and it’s ultimately, I think, the most damaging one. I hate it.
And so does the science, as it turns out.
Adults are faster learners than kids
In a study published by Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages Quarterly (TESOL Quarterly) called “Age, Rate and Eventual Attainment in Second Language Acquisition,” researchers from the University of Southern California and UCLA found that “adults proceed through early stages of syntactic and morphological development faster than children.”
In plain English: adults pick up both (1) word order and (2) the relationships between words more quickly than kids.
What does this mean?
It means: adults learn more quickly than kids.
And this makes sense! We already know English. We know how language works, subconsciously. We have a foundation to build on.
There’s no “critical period” for learning a second language
A study conducted by researchers Catherine E. Snow and Marian Hoefnagel-Höhle of the University of Amsterdam called “The Critical Period for Language Acquisition: Evidence from Second Language Learning” tested, essentially, the “kids learn better than adults” hypothesis.
(I’m oversimplifying—if you want the backstory, read the article.)
They found that adults and kids 12-15 made the fastest progress in the first few months of learning Dutch. At the end of a year, kids aged 8-10 and teenagers had better control of Dutch than the adults (or toddlers aged 3-5). But the adults didn’t have significantly worse control of Dutch. In fact, the authors declared that “the notion that younger children are better than older children or adults in second language learning must also be rejected.”
Adults have psychological advantages over kids
And if you’re still skeptical, let’s compare the psychological differences between kids and adults with regards to second-language acquisition, in which David P. Ausubel from the University of Illinois argues that 2 major advantages adults enjoy over kids are:
- Adults don’t need to acquire new concepts; they just need to acquire new ways of representing those concepts;
- Adults can study grammar and make logical choices about how to correctly form sentences, whereas children have to learn inductively.
This makes sense, logically. How long does it take for kids to start speaking? 2.5 years of nonstop exposure? Adults can speak a language from day 1.
Now, I know what you’re thinking.
“But Jake. Why do the kids of immigrants always speak so much better than their parents?”
I have another study for you 🙂
This one is called The Effect of Experience on Adults’ Acquisition of a Second Language, conducted by researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In it, they looked at Chinese immigrants and divided them based on their status (student vs. nonstudent) and their length of residency in the United States. Then they measured their English abilities.
The results? Students had much better English (and students with longer residency did even better), but no impact on residency was found for nonstudent adults.
Now, I know you already knew this. That’s not the point.
The point is to think about why students had better English.
They were surrounded by English all day! Think about it. These kids wake up, go to school for the entire day, and are forced to listen to English-speaking teachers, communicate with English-speaking peers, and then do English-language homework. No wonder they learned!
And their parents or the people who weren’t students? They had more opportunities to avoid practicing. They could seek out others to speak their native language with.
Now, I’m not knocking these adults: learning a second language is hard. Being an expat is hard. And it does take conscious effort.
But the reason we think kids are better at learning languages is because our society forces the kids to be better at learning languages. They have to. They’re going to school.
Myth 2: You have to have the “language gene”
Absolutely not. In some countries (or cities) in the world, being bi- or trilingual is super normal.
For example, 45% of Quebecers speak both French and English. Quechua has been an official language of Peru since 1975. About half of Israel’s kids grow up bilingual. Singapore actually legislated bilingual education back in the 1960s—all Singaporeans have to study English and one of the country’s “mother tongues” (Mandarin, Tamil, or Malay).
Do you think that half the popular of Quebec has the “language gene”? Or the entire population of Singapore?!
Of course not. That’s preposterous.
The more logical explanation is this: anybody can learn a second language.
Think of it this way: chances are, at some point in your family’s history, somebody was bilingual. If there’s is a language gene, who you are to assume you don’t have it?
Maybe the “language gene” comes with being human, like the desire to sit outside in the sun on a nice day.
Myth 3: You have to be immersed
Absolutely false. You do need to practice and immersion helps get more input, but it’s not a requirement.
In fact, I know plenty of people who learn a language in their home country so that they can use it when they travel.
I was never “immersed” in Mandarin until I went to Taiwan for the first time in 2018, but I had taken six semesters of it at college. I could navigate the city by myself just fine.
The immersion misconception
You already know this is false. How many immigrants or expats have you met who struggle with their adopted country’s new language? TONS, right?
But there’s another way I know this.
I learned my third language, Portuguese, while studying abroad in Brazil. (I went with AFS.) There were a few other students in my city with me—one from Turkey, one from Germany (who also spoke English), and one from Italy (who also spoke English).
The students from Turkey and Italy learned Portuguese with no problem. (The one from Italy actually moved to Portugal!) The student from Germany, though? He had a much tougher time.
Why? Surely, Portuguese is no further from German than it is from Turkish.
The answer is because he spoke English when he could get away with it. He was immersed in Portuguese-speaking Brazil, but speaking Portuguese was hard, so he defaulted to English!
Immersion for the sake of immersion doesn’t work. What DOES work is intentional practice.
Learning a second language at home with artificial immersion
I took 4 years of French in high school. In what was a happy accident of scheduling, I guess, we had 90-minute blocks of class every day of the week for the semester.
While this makes some techniques like spaced repetition more difficult (as opposed to yearlong, shorter classes), it makes artificial immersion a huge success.
In my third year of French class, when we had the basics down but still weren’t comfortable speaking, my teacher told us we’d have a 2-week grace period to review all the grammar and vocabulary we learned so far. And then it was a French-only classroom.
I canNOT tell you how effective this was. It was artificial immersion, but it worked.
Now, you might not have a classroom filled with 20 other people your age and a teacher. That’s fine. But you can create pockets of immersion in your own life. Schedule it out.
Myth 4: It’s not worth it unless you can be fluent
This is a matter of opinion, I guess, but I categorically disagree that “fluency” is something to chase after it.
For me, the purpose of language is to communicate. If I can communicate with the people I want, then I “speak” the language.
And what even is fluency, anyway? If I can speak fluidly but with a limited vocabulary, am I fluent? If I can walk into a restaurant and describe the menu to a stranger, am I fluent? What about reading a novel or a newspaper? And if I hear expressions or cultural references that I don’t understand, am I any less fluent?
Of course not. Fluency is nebulous.
Maybe you just want to be able to speak without thinking? Or speak perfectly? But you forget words in English all the time, don’t you? You mishear song lyrics all the time.
Set your own language goals
Think about what you want to get out of a language. Are you learning Japanese and want to be able to watch anime without waiting for the sub to come out? Do you eventually want to be able to travel to or more to Japan?
Maybe your distant family in Chile only speaks Spanish or Quechua and you want to be able to talk to them.
Or perhaps your family emigrated from Italy (hello, fellow Italian expat!) and you want to rediscover your roots and feel the language that your blood used to know on your tongue.
The point is: learning a language is an individual journey, and “being fluent” is a bad goal anyway because it’s so nebulous.
Myth 5: You have to have a lot of money to afford classes, a tutor, or expensive software
Throwing money at the problem does not automagically get you to speak a second language.
I learned French going to public school in a rural county. (Getting stuck behind a tractor was a legitimate excuse for strolling in 20 minutes late.) My teacher did not even have a proper hole punch. We did fine.
And then I studied abroad in Brazil and plenty of my peers there (who had much more disposable income than me) had worse Portuguese than me!
Then I went to a private, liberal arts college and met kids who came from families much wealthier than mine who still struggled and eventually gave up on their target language.
They had the money and resources. So why didn’t it work out?
The money myth
Obviously, better resources will give you a better return on your investment.
But that return on investment is proportional to the amount of effort you put in.
There are plenty of free alternatives to expensive software like Rosetta Stone.
And you certainly don’t need a private tutor (I’ve never had one!).
Classes help…but I’m willing to bet you’ve taken a class or two that did not give you the results you wanted.
People teach themselves languages (at home) all the time. All you need is a little resourcefulness and the willingness to put in hard work.
Myth 6: I can’t learn pronunciation because I’m tone-deaf
This is a common misconception. I’d like to point out that:
- Being “tone-deaf” is actually a medical condition. You would know.
- You learned how to pronounce English, no?
- You think you’re “tone-deaf” because you can’t sing in tune. But you can’t sing in tune because you haven’t practiced singing in tune.
Just like how native Spanish speakers have trouble learning the English “th” sound, you will have trouble learning sounds you’ve never been exposed to! This is NORMAL.
Think of it this way: I have a bad ear and I still speak 5 languages. (How bad? If you fired a gun next to my head, I might hear it in that ear.)
You probably have better hearing than I do, and I managed just fine.
Still doubt me? Try the tone-deaf test from researchers at Harvard. I bet you’ll discover that you actually aren’t tone-deaf.
Myth 7: Why bother with a second language when I can translate everything with my phone?
Remember when I said Myth #1 was the worst? That was a lie. This is the worst.
All the more so because…it’s kind of valid. Relying on translation is a lifestyle choice. You can wait for somebody else to do the work.
And as English speakers, we have that privilege. You won’t find English everywhere…but if you stick to the commercial travel activities, you’ll have no trouble finding English speakers and seeing enough of the world that’s presented to you and only connecting with other people who have learned English.
That’s not an interesting lifestyle choice, but it’s valid.
But to me, the value of speaking another language is too big to pass up.
Translation sucks, anyway
I wrote my college senior thesis on translation and machine translation. I’ve also translated a lot of things in my life. And, quite frankly, translation sucks.
The perfect 1:1 translation doesn’t exist except for the simplest of cases. (That’s why we publish new translations of the Bible every 50 years.) You’re always going to lose the extra nuance and music and shades of meaning when you translate.
You can read the translation of a book and walk away with more or less the same story, but you lose the artistry in the writing.
And if you want to read, say, Dante? There’s a lot of real estate in the different translations of Dante, and choosing one style often means foregoing and giving up the other.
And sure, from a utilitarian standpoint, you wouldn’t care. Just throw technology at the problem. But if that’s your mindset, something tells me you’re not really dedicated to learning a second language anyway.
Language-Learning Myths, Busted
Limiting beliefs about your ability to learn a second language are incredibly damaging.
Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list of language-learning myths.
But I think the MOST damaging myths are the ones we believe about ourselves.
What doubts or fears do you have about your ability to learn a second language? Let’s have a discussion in the comments.
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