5 misconceptions about language learning

In this article, I explain and debunk 5 misconceptions about language learning.  The misconceptions are: (i) Everybody speaks English; (ii) Young children always make the best language learners; (iii) Some languages are easier than others; (iv) You will reach fluency in a language by osmosis alone; (v) Grammar is not very important.  Remember that learning refers only to foreign languages.  I do not discuss misconceptions about acquiring a native language.

1. Everybody speaks English

English has become a global language.  There are at least two reasons for this: (i) the expansion of the British Empire and (ii) the emergence of the USA as a superpower.  English is now the dominant language of (among other things) trade, negotiation and academia.  It is the official or de facto language in over 60 sovereign states; it is an official language of the UN and the EU.  Moreover, English holds an important place in education systems all around the world.

English may be a global language, but this does not mean that everybody speaks it, or speaks it well enough to hold a conversation.  First, only educated speakers of other languages will know any English.  (In many parts of the world, access to education is limited.)  Second, even educated speakers of other languages may have forgotten the English they learned at school.  Governments are aware of the global significance of English, but this does not mean that every individual is motivated to learn.

2. Young children make the best language learners

The infant brain is predisposed to acquire language.  Even in the womb, the foetus is sensitive to the rhythm and intonation of its mother’s language.  Newborns know which sounds correspond to language and which sounds correspond to noise.  And young children all over the world pass through the same clearly-defined stages of language acquisition at roughly the same age.  This whole process unfolds regardless of parental feedback or correction.

Many people conclude from this that young children always make the best foreign language learners.  It is true that young children are adept in some areas of language learning, but this success is not necessarily thanks to biology.  Young children may find it easier to retain vocabulary, or they may lack the social inhibitions of older learners.  But older learners enjoy two important advantages over younger learners: (i) motivation and (ii) education.

Older learners may often find it difficult to retain vocabulary and to get into the habit of making foreign sounds.  They are, however, intrinsically motivated by factors such as travel and cross-cultural communication.  By contrast, young children are only externally motivated by parents and teachers.  (Intrinsic motivation is an important factor in determining language learning success.)  Older learners are also more likely to tackle grammar and to appreciate subtle grammatical distinctions than younger learners are.

3. Some languages are easier than others

Native speakers do not always spend much time studying the grammar of their language, because it comes naturally to them.  This is probably why the task of learning a foreign language seems so difficult.  It may even seem like your native language is intrinsically easier than the foreign language you are trying to learn.  But this is only because you take your own language for granted.  For example, it is just as difficult for an English speaker to learn Chinese as it is for a Chinese speaker to learn English.

It is tempting to conclude that English is more straightforward than other languages.  We do not have many verb endings or case distinctions like other European languages do.  And we do not have tones like certain Asian languages do.  But English has its own challenges.  For example, we have a huge vocabulary and in a lot of cases there are only very subtle differences in meaning.  You only think that languages like Chinese and Arabic are intrinsically difficult because they are very different from the European languages you learned at school.

4. You will reach fluency in a language by osmosis alone

Living abroad is the only way for most people to progress from an intermediate to an advanced language learner.  This does not mean, however, that you can become fluent in a foreign language by osmosis alone.  It is very important to have an immersive atmosphere, but it is also important to have the right kind of motivation (see misconception #2) and to analyze the language that you hear around you.  It is not enough just to hear a foreign language; you must work on internalizing it and turning passive input into active output.  An immersive environment should complement (and not replace) formal study.

The Second Language Acquisition (SLA) literature has many reports of language learners who picked up their foreign language by living in an immersive environment.  It is clear from these reports that the length of time spent abroad is not the only factor that determines language learning success.  Many language learners spend years living abroad and still make basic grammatical mistakes or speak with a thick accent.

5. Grammar is not very important

Many approaches to language teaching have come and gone in recent decades.  In the Grammar-Translation (GT) method, students learned grammatical rules and translated passages of classical tests.  In the Audio-Lingual (AL) method, students blindly repeated the instructor’s spoken language.  And in the Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) method, students took part in role-plays, interviews and other exchanges.  The GT method focused too much on grammar; the AL method focused too much on conditioning.  And the CLT approach did not pay enough attention to context.  

It is essential for language learning to have a context and to include realistic conversation.  This does not mean, however, that we should do away with grammar altogether.  There are (equally important) goals for a language learning session: (i) improving accuracy, and (ii) improving fluency.  It is possible to speak accurately but so slowly that your conversation partner loses interest.  But it is also possible to speak fluently but make so many mistakes that your meaning is lost.

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