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How NOT to learn a foreign language

December 20, 2011

There are a great deal of opinions and ideas related to language learning that are either founded on solid pedagogical theory and tested strategies and others which are clearly urban myths to the point of almost being ‘old-wives-tales’.

I myself, have undertaken research in bilingualism in adults and children and have been facilitating language learning for professionals in France, in Poland and in Russia over the past twenty years, so a lot of this post is realated in part to theory and a lot to practical experience, working with learners. I have often met people who state that they cannot learn a foreign language, which I feel is total nonsense – albeit that by simply uttering a defeatist statement, defeat usually follows, so I guess they are ultimately right.

I have never met anybody who was not capable of learning a language, although I have met many who were not willing to put in the effort and hard graft that is required to learn. Furthermore, I have never met a complete beginner in language learning, in as much as they have not one single word of vocabulary or a very simple sentence or phrase that they can rattle off.

That said, I meet on a daily basis, many people who have strong opinions or beliefs as to how a language should be learnt, and unfortunately a lot of their ideas have very little solid truths, so let’s have a look at some of the myths and misconceptions regarding language learning.

1. To Learn a Language effectively you must go to the country where it is spoken.

This is partly true and also false, especially if we look at the vast numbers of Indian, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Mexican etc. immigrants in the UK and the US or some of the English in France, who still have problems mastering the language for various reasons.

One of the reasons is the community aspect, where people live and move almost exclusively through their community in their own native language.

Satellite tv and radio, also means that the news and entertainment comes to them in their native tongue too, so there are times when it is not even necessary to acquire all but the rudiments of another language to survive.

For language learners who do not live where the language they are learning is spoken, this would be a good compliment to a language learning program as long as the conditions are right.

Student exchange programs are so often done as a job lot to enable learners on a limited budget, access to this type of program – one of the intrinsic problems here is that they usually end up living and speaking with their friends in their native tongue, embracing the foreign language and culture briefly.

There is also the problem that I have seen where learners go to the UK to learn English and spend half the day in a classroom (could they not do this in France too?) then half a day sightseeing with their friends (unfortunately speaking French). This seems a bit of a waste of time and money, especially as they are often boarding with a family that sometimes has little time to speak with them at the end of the day, or during mealtimes.

Going it alone, can be a good solution to language learning on-the-job, but it needs a certain kind of temperament to be separated from ones family and culture and be plunged into a foreign one, alone, the learner would also need to have a certain ability to get-by in the language to survive over a period of time, either working or studying.

2. Children Learn Languages Quicker than Adults

Studies have shown that children’s initial efforts pay off better than adult learners, but adult learners acquire languages more effectively over a period of time. One of the reasons for this is that children see another language as another opportunity to play and to imitate, which adults can have issues with as learners. Adults have experiences of learning and grammar patterns using memory strategies that children have not yet learnt, which helps in the recall process of language learning – some are later overtaken by children. When children play with other native children, they imitate, shout and copy their friends whilst enjoying the language interaction, whereas adults are often too self-conscious to even go all-out in role plays in a learning situation.

There have been studies in bilingualism, Lenneberg’s Critical Period Hypothesis for example, which have argued that there is a certain age when true bilingualism is no longer possible – at around the age of 14 years of age (some say younger).

Lenneberg’s theory argues that the plasticity of the brain in children up to the age of 14 years of age, allows for the rapid and effective acquisition of languages to bilingual standard, this theory has been criticised by Newport and Snow & Hoefnagel-Hoehle 1978 but all of the theories relating to natural accent and  language use are difficult to compare as the research methods differ, they have been either diachronic, synchronic, or experimental.

3. Starting Young Makes For Better Language Acquisition

This can be true in authentic situations where children are using the language at the same time as they are learning, but not always the case where Children have little or no authentic usage for the language in their lives with interaction with native speakers – either friends and family or in school. It has been shown that the age that a child starts learning a language is not so important as the volume of input and stimulation they they get to use the language in authentic situations. There are many examples of, for example, an English child learning both French and English through the interaction with their mother or father in English, and in the world outside the family in French. There are also instances of families where the father is English and the mother is French and the child grows up being monolingual in French, being able to understand English but not being able to speak English fluently.

4. Language Learning is a Quick Process that can be acquired Rapidly

You must have come across the books and Audio CDs “Learn French in 20 Lessons” and other such pie-in-the-sky promises whilst browsing a bookshop. Well, believe me it’s a lot of hot air, as I’m sure you know, although it’s very hard to resist the temptation to believe it at times. Learning a language is often a hard and difficult task that takes years of effort and practice to perfect.

5. Pronunciation is not important.

Pronunciation is of utmost importance in language learning in order to be understood by native speakers.

This is why so many English speakers understand each other in a learning setting when they speak a foreign language such as French but can be floored when they realise that French native speakers can’t understand what they are trying to say.

Take, for example, the word “Souhaite” in French – to wish or to desire, a close pronunciation would be akin to the word “Sweat” in English but very far from ” Sue-Hate”, which many English speakers say.

See the blog post on Linkwords, which is a good technique to help remember pronunciation.

Problems with pronunciation occur for two main reasons; either the learner has read the word but never heard it spoken by a native speaker or the word has been spoken by a ‘teacher’ with pronunciation problems themselves – which is very common.

I have seen the word “clothes” phonetically spelt in my sons English learning book for school as “Cloth-siz” and heard most French speakers pronounce the word thus.

6. Having an Accent is Bad for Foreign Languages

As we have seen, from Lenneberg’s study, most of us will inevitably keep our own native accent, however strong or mild it remains, but never fully eradicate it when speaking a foreign language.

This is not a great problem as long as what we are saying is pronounced well and intelligible for native speakers.

An accent in a foreign language is both a part of our own identity and can be charming when speaking.

I personally hate hearing my own accent when speaking French, and I have been here for 18 years, but people tell me that it is charming and that I should keep it – grrrr.

See our post on Accent and Pronunciation.

7. You can Learn a Language by Learning The 100 most Commonly Used Words

This is another urban myth that is often promoted as the next biggest thing in language learning.

Think about the words you use in your own language an a day-to-day basis, now choose 100 of those words.

Do you think that this is sufficient to be able to operate and communicate effectively?

Your list would probably consist of articles – The, A, An, then pronouns; Him, Her, They, Us, We, It, Hers, His, Ours, Theirs, I, You, then prepositions; on, in, into, out, under, behind, in front of, next to, near, far etc., now before you start looking at verbs and tenses you already have 25% of the language – to be able to communicate effectively.

The chances of you choosing the remaining 75% of the language to communicate is pretty slim and quite frankly, impractical.

8. Languages Can Be Learnt Through Interactive CD ROMS

This myth already has a mistake in the title – a CDROM is only as interactive as the original programmer has designed it.

A CDROM will never be interactive in the way the people are interactive, it will never surprise you after you have been through the activities once.

It cannot speak faster, louder, or as varied as a real person.

It will never speak to you as a person does, such as turning away from you to say something.

You cannot rewind a person or get them to repeat exactly what they said and how they said it as you can rewind a CDROM back to the beginning.

OK a CDROM has its uses but is a very limited aid in language learning and is only a part of the toolbox and not the whole toolbox as some companies would have us believe.

9. Grammar Rules Must Be Learnt to Learn a Language Effectively

Grammar rules can be useful to learn a language but are not essential.

Grammar terminology is a way of describing the way a language works – but it does not mean that by not knowing what the present perfect tense is, that we cannot become very able in a foreign language.

English schools abandoned teaching grammar rules in English teaching during the 1970′s, but this does not mean that English children cannot learn English.

Indeed they may have difficulties when attempting to talk about the functions of the language, in terms of knowing the labels for parts of the language – this was something that I learnt later at University.

I was unable to put a label on parts of the following sentence “I have lived in France for seventeen years”. But I had no problems writing, understanding or speaking English.

I would suggest that grammar patterns and grammar functions are more important for language learners – more, how the language is constructed and what the functions do taking precedence over knowing the terminology.

If You feel it important to know the labels, then OK, this may work for you, but difficulties arise when a learner tries to transpose the rule they have in their own language to a foreign language.

French learners who try to make a parallel between the present simple in French and the present simple in English will know what I am talking about. The function and the tense, although sharing the same label has a completely different function in terms of describing time and its usage.

10. Making Mistakes is Not OK

This is one of the biggest surprises for me to see written in black and white on websites. I can’t believe that people can even think that making mistakes is a bad thing as I consider that making mistakes is a good sign of a learning process actually happening.

I would add that making continuous systematic mistakes and not learning from them would indicate otherwise.

If we aspire to learn and speak a foreign language we will inevitably make mistakes along the way – this is a natural occurrence in learning and is, the part of the way that we learnt our own native languages at the outset.

Banning mistakes means making people aware of their weaknesses in such a way that they are not permitted to dare and experiment – take this away and learning becomes restricted almost to the point that it just does not happen.

In summary we have seen here some of the urban myths surrounding language learning – maybe you can recognise some of them and maybe you disagree, that’s fine and you can add a comment to let me know what you think – I would be interested and grateful to hear what others think.

When all is said and done, language serves a social purpose for a social animal; for humans to communicate.

A language can therefore, not be learnt effectively in isolation using whatever method or technique available, without the opportunity to use it for its pre-destined function – to communicate with other people.

Language is quite simple when we boil it down to the basics – it is made up of only four skills (I would add others but it may be just nuance): Listening, Reading, Writing, Speaking (Hearing I would add too, which is needed in order to listen and cultural skills).

In order to effectively learn a language requires an holistic approach which encompasses the 4 skills plus lots and lots of dedication – there are NO shortcuts, so don’t bother looking for them.

To fully learn a language requires an additional aspect where the learner is able to embrace and understand the culture of where the language is spoken.

Language and culture are two determining factors in understandings across languages and culture and cannot be dissimilated from the learning of language.

Winston Churchill once said of Great Britain and America, that they are, “.. Two countries separated by a language”.

But we both speak the language don’t we?The jury is still out on that one ….

© 2011, ©Active Consultants 2011. All rights reserved. Copying in part or in entirety only permitted by written consent

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