Dispelling 10 Myths About Language Learning
You’ve probably heard a bunch of incorrect, disheartening, and sometimes downright damaging things about language learning. I heard a lot of them myself when I first started out. What you’ll come to realize, as I did, is that most if not all of them are myths. And today we’re going to dispel them.
1. Language learning is hard
This might be the most damaging myth of all. It goes in the same category as “X language is hard”, and it simply isn’t true. It doesn’t tell even a fraction of the story. Some languages are harder than others, sure, though even this isn’t an accurate statement.
The truth is, language learning takes time and effort. You’re learning a brand new skill; and if you’re starting as an adult, things will take you more time, because your brain has had a long time to develop the habit of doing things a particular way. Learning a new language is forcing it to change, to break that habit, and think differently. That would take time, wouldn’t it?
What you should not do is go into this thinking it’s hard; instead, go in knowing that you will simply have to work at it. Have patience, and remember that natives of the language learnt it once, too, so there’s no reason why you can’t also.
2. Language learning is a waste of time
Well, it depends what you consider a waste of time. Is it a waste of time to learn to communicate with people who don’t speak your language? Is it a waste of time to be able to understand and enjoy untranslated media, literature and music in a completely different language? Is it a waste of time to expand your brain capacity and memory, and even delay dementia?
I would say no to all the above. Learning a new skill, especially one that opens up the world to you, as speaking a foreign language does, can never be a waste of time. Think about all the hobbies you and others have that teach you nothing. If you don’t consider those a waste of time, it would be unfair to consider language learning a waste of time.
Check out my post The top 12 reasons to learn a second language to see all the benefits.
3. You can’t learn a new language as an adult
This one always makes me laugh. I’m proof that it’s complete and utter nonsense! You can learn a new language at any age. I repeat, any age. You’re never too old.
People who repeat this myth are usually misconstruing the information we know about how easy it is for children to pick up new languages, and that natural, native-like acquisition becomes impossible once a person reaches 18. While this is true, this does not in any way mean that learning a new language after 18 is impossible.
What it does mean is that adult learners won’t speak the foreign language as naturally as they do their native tongue, but this is unnecessary for fluency. Adults are perfectly capable, and sometimes even more equipped than children, to reach fluency in a new language.
For information about learning as an adult, check out my post Can you learn a language at 30, 40, 50 and beyond?.
4. You can’t learn more than one new language
Again, a complete fallacy, which I, and many polyglots, can attest to. A person can learn as many languages as they have time to learn. The human brain is an extremely powerful thing, and it doesn’t limit you in this respect. In fact, it actually becomes easier to pick up new languages the more languages you have under your belt.
You’ll start to spot patterns quicker, and you’ll have developed a more efficient way of studying that can be applied to future language study.
Multilingualism is the standard in many places across the world, where you can find people – young and old – speaking multiple languages, and not batting an eyelid.
In the post How many languages can the average person learn?, I talk about how it’s possible to learn several languages successfully.
5. You have to be super smart to learn a foreign language
Not true at all. Being intelligent, or having a high IQ, is not a prerequisite for learning a new language. Average intelligence is more than enough; and with that you can learn as many languages as you like.
IQ has very little to do with language acquisition. Will some concepts be easier to parse if you’re smart? Well, sure, but that’s the case with most skills. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s not necessary. Think about all the people in the world who speak more than one language, sometimes even 3 or 4 of them. Are they Einstein-level geniuses? No, statistically that would be impossible. Yet they’re all able to do it.
Time and effort, I cannot stress this enough. Perhaps it will take a little more of both for some people to grasp brand new concepts, but anyone can do it.
6. You can learn a language by osmosis
This one also amuses me. We’ve all known someone who’s moved to a foreign country and, after being there several years, sometimes decades, is unable to speak the language. This is pretty common, and it arises when people believe that language learning happens by osmosis. Well, it doesn’t, so let’s put that myth to bed for good.
You will not simply move to a country and miraculously know how to speak the language because you’ve been there a while. Immersion doesn’t work like that. You actually have to learn and practice… all the time. Being surrounded by it does make it easier, but if you don’t use the language yourself, you won’t learn it.
You need to be actively reproducing it, thinking in it, speaking it with locals, for you to reap the full benefits of immersion.
7. Everyone speaks English
While English is the most widely-spoken language in the world, and the current lingua franca, it is still only spoken by around 2 billion people, which is just one quarter of the global population. So that still leaves 6 billion people unable to speak English. A far cry from everyone, huh?
Then you have to factor in how many of those 2 billion have more than a basic knowledge of it. People tend to exaggerate their language skills, particularly in places where English is a requirement for jobs.
The bottom line is, no, not everyone speaks English. Most people don’t speak it. And if you want to communicate with them, gain a new perspective on the world, learn about new customs and cultures, you won’t be able to do that in English.
8. You can learn a new language in your sleep
This is an old myth that still baffles me. Not only is it nonsensical, it’s easy to test for oneself to prove that it doesn’t work.
No, you cannot learn anything in your sleep. A language’s vocabulary will not penetrate your subconscious through slumber, and you will not wake up one day knowing how to speak Italian!
It has been suggested that it’s possible to pick up some vocabulary you’ve already encountered, by listening to it over and over again while you sleep, but the science in this area is very thin.
The reality is, you will never learn a language during your sleep, because even if you were able to hear some of the words, you would still need to process and actively use the information, which you cannot do asleep.
9. Learning a new language is expensive
This is one of my favorite misconceptions to debunk. I don’t like spending money – I’m The Language Hobo, after all. And, although I have spent loads on my language learning habit, I did so because I wanted to, not because I needed to.
The truth is, there’s no need to spend lots of money learning a new language. There are so many free and cheap resources available – from books to apps to courses – for all budget types. Make use of secondhand books, or free sites and apps like YouTube, Duolingo and Tandem.
Expensive courses aren’t required; and some of the most expensive ones can actually hurt more than help you on your journey.
For a look at how to learn a language cheaply, check out my post How To Learn A New Language Free (Or Really Cheaply).
10. You can only learn a language by living in the country
This couldn’t be further from the truth. Think about all the people who speak English as a second language. We just learned that there are about 2 billion of English speakers, 1.5 billion of whom speak it as a second language. How many of those people have ever lived in an English-speaking country? Probably less than 20%.
Which means that everyone else uses the language in their homeland. If you go to a non-English speaking country, you’ll find non-native English speakers there who have never left! This tells us that they learned perfectly well without living abroad. So, it’s definitely possible to learn without moving to a country where the language is spoken.
Yes, it does help for immersion’s sake if you live in the country, and are surrounded by it all day, every day. But you are more than capable of creating an immersive environment from your own home. I talk about just that in my post 15 FREE ways to create immersion from home.
Language myths are dangerous, and can be the difference between you starting your journey or putting it off entirely. Don’t listen to any of them! They’re almost always false, or at the very least inaccurate, and don’t tell a complete story.
You should always remember that every language learner is different; what works for one might not work for the other. This is why it’s important to start learning and see what works for you. Then you’ll be able to tailor your methods to suit your personality.