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Archive for May, 2011

Language Learning Myths

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

There are so many wonderful assets to knowing a second language — from being able to communicate well with friends, co-workers and clients, to obtaining a better job, to lessening the affects of Alzheimer’s, or to be reinvigorated about life because you’ve learned a new skill.

I believe it’s important that people aren’t fooled by myths to keep themselves or others from obtaining a skill that can so greatly improve their lives. Here are some of the myths I’ve heard about language learning over the years:

In the Past, Immigrants Learned English with the “Sink or Swim” Method

Many people argue that we shouldn’t give any special treatment for immigrants to learn English in America. They believe that, in the past, immigrants learned the language quickly and without any help, so current immigrants should do the same. This theory has some flaws.

It’s highly possible that many adult immigrants of the past did not learn English well, for quite some time, if at all. People moved into ethnic neighborhoods, socialized with each other and worked in entry level jobs where little English was needed.  Think about how multilingual the country must have been during the European immigration years. For example, there were newspapers in many different languages in all the major cities.

In addition, immigrants of the past had fewer reasons to learn English than they do today. Today many jobs require at least a high school degree. You’ll need more than that, if you want to actually support a family. Not to mention, the myriad of forms you’ll have to fill out (in English) to get a job, deal with insurance issues, government papers, enroll your children in school, etc.

It may have been possible to “get by” without English a hundred years ago, but this is not true today. We need to help immigrants learn English, so that they can have a better life for themselves and their families and contribute to the society as a whole.

Children Learn Languages Quicker & Easier than Adults

A child is exposed to a language for at least a full year before he ever utters a word. Then when he does, it’s very elementary. He may start with one word at a time and then add others, but without using the correct grammar. We don’t even start teaching grammar formally until the second grade; after a child’s been exposed to the language for about seven years with parents helping his progress along the way. I wouldn’t say this is considered “learning a language quickly and easily”.

Then, when we start teaching a child a second language, we do it more naturally than we do for adults. We teach children simple vocabulary and phrases, with pictures, short stories and fun activities. Conversely, we typically start teaching older students with grammar first. This is the complete opposite of how we learned our first language. It’s much harder than gradually being exposed to the language naturally. This is another reason why we think it’s easier for children to learn, but it’s definitely not true.

The Best Way to Learn a Foreign Language is to Live in another Country

Living in a foreign country for a substantial period of time, will help you to understand the everyday language of the country and learn basic speaking skills. But, you’ll have to support your learning with formal instruction or independent study. Otherwise, you will just learn what you need, in order to survive.

By living in a country where you don’t know the language, you’ll be forced into a position where it’s inevitable that you’ll make many mistakes, because you’ll have to speak. Natives won’t correct you, because they’ll try to be nice and understand you, even if your grammar or pronunciation is horrendous. Then, your mistakes can turn into bad habits, which are hard to break.

Learning in your own country may be a better option, if you can find a good language school, can motivate yourself and can find opportunities to practice the language you’re learning. After you’re confidently fluent in the target language, then going to another country can help to improve your language proficiency. Not to mention, it will be great fun, to be able to speak well to the natives.

Unfortunately, these and many more myths surrounding language learning keep people from embarking on an exciting adventure of learning a new language and culture. Now that you know some of the truths, I hope you won’t let any myths stop you from benefiting from all the great assets you could obtain from being bilingual!