So, when was the last time you tried to learn a foreign language? Are you a language lover and keen student, or have you dabbled in a few language courses and not become fluent yet? Is there something that’s stopping you?
Well, in today’s post I’d like to debunk some myths about language learning. Now, perhaps some of this is a partial de-bunking of the myths, since of course, other than the evidence I’ve cited, this is my own personal take on these issues.
1: You’re Too Old To Learn A Language If…
So, what does age have to do with learning a language? Well, to be honest, maybe a lot – and maybe hardly anything – at the same time. Like most educational phenomena, this one’s up for debate in the literature. Here’s a brief summary of a few findings:
- Way back in 1967, Lennenberg developed the Critical Period Hypothesis. It was kind of like a “magic” age range in which you could best acquire a language.
- How true is it, after 50 years of research in the field? Well, some studies show multiple critical periods. If you learn a second language before the age of three, for example, you may be better at acquiring the sounds in the language. Other studies have shown that starting when you’re 11 may be better than starting when you’re 4 or 8 (Munoz, 2006)
- A researcher called Lightbown (2000) argues that language learning context is more important to language learning than age. I completely agree. Where you study, how often, and how you use it are key, in my opinion.
Personally, I don’t think anyone is too old to start learning a language. I’m 32 and I learned Spanish from scratch in 8 months. People focus on perfection, rather than being able to communicate. Communication is something I truly believe everyone can achieve. Will it be harder to learn as an adult? Maybe, but I think that depends on motivation and willingness to try more than anything.
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2: If You Start Learning as An Adult, You’ll Never Speak like A Native Speaker
Well, I can cite a handful of personal examples – people I know – who can prove this wrong. Since individual differences are part of my PhD research, I can definitely tell you this isn’t everyone, though. What stops people?
- Motivation – While this isn’t a big part of my current research, the more I learn, the more I believe it’s true!
- Phonetic Training – How many of you have taken a language class where you actually learn the sounds that are in a language, compared to the sounds in your native language? Well, I can tell you that I’ve never been to a language class that focuses on the sounds from the very beginning.
- Context – How much of an effort are you making to be surrounded in the context of your language? Books, films, language exchanges. So, you definitely don’t have to be in a country where the language is spoken to make it happen!
3: Speaking Like A Native Speaker Is The Most Important Part
So, what do you think? Is your goal when you learn a foreign language to speak like a native speaker? Why is this the most important goal?
Personally, I believe that speaking as a native speaker does is a wonderful goal, but it doesn’t have to be your first goal. First, you could aim to complete simple tasks in the language while on holiday, read a novel, or watch a film without subtitles.
By the way, native speakers are not perfect speakers, either! Sometimes, they have the grammar totally wrong. So, keep that in mind when you’re setting your goals.
Need help setting realistic goals? Check out my post on How To Set Goals for some help.
4: If You Don’t Use It, You’ll Lose It
Well…kind of. While you may “lose” the language temporarily, it’s still there. For example, last year I hadn’t used my French for a good 4 years, and even then only for a few weeks’ research in France. So, I hired a French tutor a couple hours a week. In about 3 months, my French was better! In fact, I visited a friend in May 2016 and was surprised at how fluently I could speak and how many colloquial expressions I remembered.
Now, I visited again eight months later for a New Year’s Party, having not practiced. Well, it was quite a different scenario, as I struggled to get words out for the first couple hours! However, it simply motivated me to practice more and watch more French movies.
A researcher named David Birdsong gave a seminar at the University of Barcelona in 2015. He emphasized the difference between dominance and proficiency. The more dominant a language is (the more you use it), may be different to how proficient you are in a language. The good news is – this can change over time!
5: Studying Abroad Is The Best Way To Learn A Language
So, last but not least, is my favourite topic – studying abroad. Working as an au pair in Morges, Switzerland in 2004 was my first experience abroad. Actually, it completely changed the way I learned French. Since then, I’ve been fascinated with the question – is studying abroad the best way to learn a language?
No, not always. Well, it depends. As I’m analyzing my current data, it’s obvious to me that simply being abroad can do nothing for you. Motivation, forcing yourself to be in the second language context, being okay with making mistakes, and studying a lot make a huge difference.
For example, the first year I was in Barcelona, I consistently avoided speaking English or joining expat groups. Now, this takes effort, especially with such a big expat community and a university program in English. I joined Meetup groups in Spanish, took photography and painting lessons in Spanish, took intensive language courses, and tried my best to do everything in Spanish.
If someone asks me if I want to speak in English, I say no. In fact, given the choice, I still do activities (my ski lessons, personal training sessions, and sailing group) completely in Spanish. So, I’ll admit that I made my “study abroad” experience intense – but, it worked! 8 months after arriving I passed the B2 official exam with 100% on the speaking exam and 90% overall.
Have you studied abroad? I would love to hear from you. Please comment below, as it’s my favourite question to ask. I’d love to know what your study, work, or living abroad experience has been!
P.S. Photo fans, the main photo for today’s image is one I took in Girona, Spain, at the Flower Festival in 2015
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