Language Learning Myths Debunked

Three World Language Myths Debunked

The truth about challenging common foreign language misconceptions

May 20, 2014

As the Dean of Students in the Upper School at Carolina Day School in Asheville, North Carolina, one of the joys of my job is that I am exposed to a world of fascinating, new excuses on a daily basis.  

“Of course I was on time this morning!”

“I thought this was ok for the dress code!”

"I didn’t think the teacher would mind that I was snap-chatting in class!”

While these excuses are certainly entertaining and provide me with countless teachable moments throughout my day, there are a few untruths and misconceptions that I come across often and want to clear up once and for all. 

Over the last fifteen years, I have taught Spanish to hundreds of students in grades 6-12 and have heard dozens of reasons why learning a new language was “too hard”,  “too complicated” or just plain “unnecessary”. The myths that exist around second language acquisition can sometimes seem logical but are not necessarily backed by science.  

Myth # 1: “I didn’t learn a language when I was a young child, so I can’t learn it now.” 

There are many studies illustrating the benefits of having children start learning a new world language at an earlier age, which is certainly beneficial because the student will have a greater amount of the language over time. In many cases, exposure alone does not necessarily lead to greater language acquisition. Having extended exposure to the language before puberty can enable to student to have an advantage in obtaining an authentic accent, however, the ability to grasp a deeper understanding of grammar and cultural significance is much easier for an older student.    

In actuality, children and young adults learn and think differently. The level of motivation that can exist in older students allows them to have a greater level of understanding. The ability to make connections based on a historical context, cultural knowledge and personal experience make older language learners fully capable of mastering a new world language.

Myth #2: “I have a trick to learn language overnight.”

Despite the convincing arguments from the best late night infomercials, history has yet to prove someone can learn another language without investing time and effort. Are there tips to learning a new world language a bit faster? Absolutely! Can you master some languages from a particular region once you have a good base knowledge of one? Most definitely! Can I acquire my next language by listening to it on my iPod while my brother finishes the latest episode of Duck Dynasties? NOPE! One proven way to accelerate language acquisition is through immersion. Language proficiency is best acquired when it is learned in a meaningful social and cultural context allowing the learner to create deeper connections with the language.

Myth #3: “Most of the world speaks English, so I do not need to learn another language.” 

False! This is the most embarrassing of excuses and also the most inappropriate. To begin, this is completely inaccurate. Five of the six billion people in the world are speaking a language other than English. This lack of cultural awareness causes us to fall further behind in business on a daily basis as the world becomes more connected through technology. Being monolingual in a globalized world connected more and more easily via technological advancements is a disadvantage. In the business sector, more companies want globally competent employees, including multi-lingual competencies. Needless to say, there is a definite need and benefit for continued language acquisition in America.

Have a language myth you would like to share? We’d love to hear about them in our comments section.

Lincoln Gray
Lincoln Gray works as the Assistant Director of Summer Programs for MMLA and is Dean of Students for Carolina Day in Asheville, NC.  Lincoln has worked in public, private and boarding schools for the last fifteen years, teaching students languages while focusing on the whole child.  In addition to his students, Lincoln and his wife Beth have four kids of their own.   
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