Language Learning Myths and Misconceptions that Might be Holding You Back
Language is beautiful. It brings us together.
In an increasingly globalized and connected world, learning a new language helps us to understand nuances of other cultures, makes us more empathetic to others, and allows us to build productive personal and professional relationships with people from all over the world.
Understanding and speaking a foreign language broadens the global conversation and makes us better cultural interpreters. It also opens doors: in a progressively competitive job market, being bilingual is often all you need to make your resume stand out.
But learning a language is also hard. And sometimes we may even sabotage our learning with some of the false beliefs that we have about language learning.
In this article, I’ll review 8 common myths that you may believe about language learning that could be holding you back. Understanding them—and rejecting them—may help you recommit and stay motivated to learn a language.
8 Myths You Might Believe About Language Learning
Myth 1: Learning a Language Requires a Special Talent and I Don’t Have It
This is certainly one of the most widespread myths about language learning: that you have to be gifted in languages to do it.
As an English teacher, I’ve seen people give up studying a new language just when it starts to feel difficult. It seems to come with a ready-made justification: learning a new language requires a special talent. This myth seems to stem from school when some people got an easy “A” in French, and for others, it felt impossible.
If learning a new language was only for the linguistically gifted and talented, how is it that roughly half the people on the planet are bilingual? Or why, in certain regions, like Quebec in Canada, or Catalonia in Spain, do most people speak two languages? Is it because Quebecers and Catalonians are smarter than everyone else?
No, obviously not.
Some people find it easier to learn a language because they were exposed to it earlier, or their school system supports language learning. But anyone can learn a language.
What do you really need if not a gift for language learning?
Everything You Need To Learn a Language:
- Great study tools. Pimsleur is one based on the science of language learning. There are others. But study aids are a must.
- Focus. You need to study consistently over a long time. It takes work to learn a language.
- The right attitude. Research has actually found that the more positive your attitude towards learning a language, the more you’ll learn.
- Time. Language learning takes a long time. It just does. The real reason people don’t learn a language is because they stop after a few weeks. Keep with it for months and years and you’ll get there.
What separates you from the people who speak 20 different languages is not intelligence. They have just found study methods that work for them, stayed focused, enjoyed the process, and spent a lot of time doing it.
If you do those things, the sky’s the limit.
Myth 2: I’m Too Old to Learn
Virtually anyone can become fluent in any language at any age.
It’s true that language learning is easier when we’re children. Children’s brains are still being developed, and they’re especially well set-up to acquire language. It’s harder to learn as adults than it is as kids.
But it’s just as easy to learn at 60 as it is at 25. More importantly, even late learners can become fluent in a language. A brilliant command of another language’s vocabulary can be achieved at any age.
Research supports this. Some research suggests that, while older learners do not remember the meaning of foreign language words as well as younger learners, older learners make up for this by being more sensitive to grammar and meaning. They are better at analyzing language and deconstructing it.
In other words, older learners tend to use different strategies but can be just as successful in learning a language.
Some researchers even say that “Studies that compare children and adults exposed to comparable material in the lab or during the initial months of an immersion program show that adults perform better, not worse than children”
Children and adults learn differently, yes. But adults, and even older adults, are absolutely still able to learn a language.
Myth 3: I Have to Master All the Grammar Rules to Reach Fluency
Sometimes we equate speaking fluently with understanding grammar perfectly. But nothing could be further from the truth.
When you were five years old and were already perfectly able to communicate in your native language, did you already master the grammar rules? Probably not.
Grammar is, of course, important for languages. It’s like traffic lights on the road: grammar helps organize language in a predictable way so we understand what people are saying. You do need to understand it.
But memorizing grammar rules is not how you become fluent in a language. It’s not like philosophy or psychology where we learn about it. We learn a language mainly by using it.
Learning grammar rules should not be your priority when studying a new language, which is why Pimsleur focuses on teaching language in context. The trick to speaking a language fluently is speaking it. Grammar is important, especially at the lower levels, but you don’t need to memorize all the rules and exceptions to speak fluently.
Myth 4: I Will Only Get Language Immersion if I Travel Abroad
Many people think that they need to spend a lot of money to go on trips or exchange programs to have a real cultural immersion that will teach them to speak like a native.
As Scott Young demonstrated when he challenged himself to learn the whole MIT curriculum for computer science without attending a single class, you don’t need to go to Brazil in order to learn Portuguese or spend two years in Paris to speak French like a Parisian.
To have a real language immersion you do need to surround yourself with your target language. But that doesn’t mean you have to leave your hose.
How can you build a language immersion program?
By doing things you normally do in your native language but adjusted to the language you want to learn.
- You can listen to podcasts at the gym as you normally do—but in your target language.
- Try cooking in your target language. If you’re studying French, for example, you can choose a French recipe (try French Onion Soup) and make your shopping list for the supermarket in that language.
- When choosing a book at the bookstore, look for a French title. The same thing when watching a movie: look for subtitles in the tongue you’re studying and pay attention to the new vocabulary. You can even use video games to learn a language.
- Also, if you want to practice chatting with natives, there are numerous applications available to chat with people from all over the world.
Each of these small actions will help you create immersive environments for yourself.
Myth 5: Once I Can Speak a Language, I No Longer Have to Study
The reason you never forget how to communicate in your native language is simple: you are practicing all the time. You talk to people, read news and documents, listen to music, and watch movies in your native language—and most of these things are repeated every day.
And even then, we are constantly learning new words. (I just recently learned what “anosmia” meant)
So why do we believe that when we learn a new language, we no longer need to study or practice it, as if it were magically stored in our brains?
For lasting results, you need to keep things fresh by practicing whenever possible, studying, and consuming material (music, books, films, videos) in the language you have learned. Otherwise, little by little, you’ll find that you get rusty.
To maintain your language, build it into your day. Form a plan, allocating a certain number of hours each week and you’ll keep yourself fluent.
Myth 6: I Have to Speak Perfectly or Not Speak at All
There is a secret method among polyglots about how to quickly gain the confidence to speak a new language. It’s this: speaking.
It is common for us to think that we need to be fluent before we really try to have a conversation. We know that we’ll likely make mistakes and we don’t want to make a fool of ourselves. We feel uncomfortable not really being able to express ourselves.
But guess what? You’ll only gain fluency by making a ton of mistakes. Mistakes are a necessary part of learning.
So get used to the discomfort. Be aware that there will be a long time when you won’t know every word and may have to pull out Google translate or be satisfied with a bunch of pauses in your sentences. That’s normal.
The good news is that most people are friendly, and they won’t mind if you make mistakes.
Speaking in a new language is like dancing or playing the guitar: to be better, you have to practice. Even if that means you hit a bunch of the wrong notes at first.
Myth 7: Learning a Language is Too Expensive
If you’re reading this article, you probably have a laptop or smartphone with internet access. With the internet and a gadget, you can learn basically any language.
Lots of people want the security of following a course when they’re starting a new language. As a language teacher, I think that’s a good call. It’s difficult to know what to prioritize or how to start when you’re just beginning learning a language.
But while taking a course at university or a language school can be really expensive, there are excellent online options, like Pimsleur, that are much more affordable. Certainly more affordable than traveling to Korea or living in France for a year.
Curious about the Pimsleur app and language program? Try it for yourself right now. Lesson One is Free. We’ve got more than 50 languages to choose from.
If you like what you see, start a Free 7-Day Trial with unlimited access to all levels in the language of your choice. Afterward, pay as you go from only $14.95 /month.
There are also lots of free resources. These can be great, and you can use them to find native texts or audio to supplement your language course. Some great resources are the millions of YouTube videos, online learning forums, ebooks, among many others.
Myth 8: Translation Tools Are Good Enough to Help Me Get By
Translation software is getting better and better, so some people are starting to wonder if it’s even worth learning a language at all at this point.
An online translation engine can be helpful if you are in a city whose language you don’t know, or when you need to quickly translate some text. However, we’re not at the point where you can use it to have genuine communication with people. You still need to learn languages to really connect.
It also might keep you healthier. Several research studies have found evidence that foreign language training can protect against cognitive decline. The mastery of more than one language has a strong impact on neurological structures and processes, making bilingual people at lower risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Improved memory, enhanced concentration, problem-solving, and critical-thinking skills, in addition to many others, are some of the benefits you’ll never find if you just stick with using Google Translate.
Don’t believe those myths. Language is not for the specially talented, it’s not about being rich and traveling the world, and it’s not about obsessively learning grammar rules.
Language is about connecting you to other people and other cultures. And while it’s not easy, it’s very rewarding.
Make a plan and start learning today. And don’t let these myths hold you back.