Dispelling Language Acquisition Myths: Learning a Foreign Language 101
So you want to learn a foreign language. But there are so many ways to go about it! It can be easy to focus too much on how to learn and how quickly you want to do it, instead of experiencing the learning itself. At times, you may even feel overwhelmed or discouraged. The important thing to remember is to define your personal goals and set realistic expectations for yourself.
I am bilingual: my native language is English and I learned Spanish. And having taught Spanish at the university level, I’ve become familiar with the misconceptions many people have about learning a new language. I’m here to dispel some of the myths about foreign language learning to help you stay positive and determined as you learn a new language.
Myth #1: There is a correct way to learn
Everyone learns differently, and different methods are better for certain goals. For example, if you want to become bilingual, studying grammatical details will help you build a lasting foundation in the language. You may benefit from classic methods like taking a class or full immersion, which allow for a structured, methodical approach. Conversely, if you want to be conversational for upcoming travel plans, perhaps you should focus more on vocabulary. You might look into more modern methods, for instance, computer programs such as Rosetta Stone or mobile apps like Duolingo, which offer the convenience of self-directed, on-the-go learning. Realistically, people often learn best by combining a variety of methods. In the end, it may take some trial and error, but knowing your objectives up front will help you find the right way for you.
Myth #2: Being fluent means knowing and speaking the language perfectly
A big misconception is that fluency means being 100% proficient. In reality, fluency is being able to communicate and understand with relative ease, not perfectly; you can generally figure many things out based on context, and you can rephrase things to carry roughly the same meaning. And keep in mind that fluency is a spectrum. If being fluent really meant being perfect, none of us would be fluent in our native tongue!
Myth #3: You can become fluent in less than a few months
Becoming fluent depends heavily on, among other things, the learning method, the time you dedicate to it, and the difficulty of the language mostly in relation to your own (for example, a native-speaker of a language with Roman characters studying one that uses Cyrillic). The numbers vary widely, but even the most ambitious estimates say it takes at least 3 months for basic fluency. But, just like schemes to “Lose weight fast!” and “Get rich quick!”, very unrealistic expectations abound when it comes to how long it takes to become fluent. Like most acquired skills or new habits, successful foreign language acquisition takes time and dedication. Think about it like this: none of us came out of the womb speaking our native languages.
Myth #4: You should be able to discern everything anyone says
Literally countless times, even in my early stages of learning, a Spanish song or commercial would be playing and someone in my family would ask, “What are they saying?” I felt stupid for not knowing the answer. What I didn’t realize was that, while listening (vs. reading, writing, or speaking) is typically the skill we learn first, it can be one of the most complicated. And on top of the infinite number of accents, regionalisms, intonations, and other quirks native-speakers of any language have, practicing listening skills through media can be even more complex due to the varied forms and ways in which they’re transmitted. In the end, even in our native languages, we don’t always understand everything perfectly. It takes time, practice, and patience to become a good listener in any language.
Myth #5: This word in one language = that word in another
When my students would ask me how to say something in Spanish, they would often get frustrated at how many times I replied “It depends. What are you trying to say?” Why is the same sentence expressed in 4 words in one language and 13 in another? Why can one word have 2 meanings in one language and 10 in another?
Language is largely dependent on culture and each culture varies widely from the next. Not only do words not always translate directly, but certain concepts don’t even exist in other languages. After all, there’s a reason for the phrase “lost in translation.” And, think about how many jokes are based on puns, which we often don’t realize are specific to one language, like “A blind man walks into a bar… and says ‘Ouch’.” In English, “bar” means both the building and the counter, so it works, but it doesn’t work in Spanish, because each idea has its own word (bar vs. barra). Like I used to tell my students, don’t treat language like mathematical calculations; every word does not have a direct translation.
Myth #6: I’m too old to learn a new language
Many studies claim that young children are more susceptible to picking up language, but that’s not entirely true. Children do have more plastic brains, but in some ways, children are at a disadvantage compared to adults. Adults have existing language knowledge and already know how sentences are built, meaning that they can build on this knowledge rather than having to learn it from scratch. Furthermore, the results of these studies can be misleading because success in language-learning is measured differently for adults than for children. Children aren’t expected, for example, to write emails or carry on business communication. There is nothing that happens as we age that makes it harder, much less pointless, for us to acquire a new language. As long as you’re committed, you’re never too old!
If you’re ready to learn a new language but feeling intimidated, don’t believe the hype you hear. We need to adjust our expectations of ourselves. Be patient and realistic about the process of learning a language—it’s difficult, but it’s not impossible. Being aware of your goals and how you learn best will help you feel confident and stay focused. Remind yourself of the benefits you stand to gain! How rewarding learning another language is can’t be put into words (no pun intended).
If you liked this post, check out some of our other posts on language and culture.