Unveiling myths and discovering facts about language learning

As toddlers we all learn to speak our first language seemingly unconsciously, probably being distracted by trying to master the art of walking. Later in life our language acquisition abilities diminish, and learning requires a little more effort.

People can, and do, learn new languages at all stages of their lives. Unfortunately, there are a number of myths and fallacies surrounding the process of language learning that may hinder or even discourage students.

Some languages are too difficult to learn

James Clapper, the director of US national intelligence, has said that the governmental security services have difficulty finding speakers of Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Dari and Urdu. He said: ‘If you hark back to the Cold War days, it was much easier for us to raise and have a cadre of highly qualified linguists, say in Russian and east European languages, which come to our people much more naturally than these mid-east languages.’

Clapper’s contention that North Americans are more likely to be able to speak Russian and Polish than Arabic or Farsi says more about the country’s education system than it does about the languages themselves. Until relatively recently few US colleges taught Arabic. By comparison, eastern European migrants, arriving in the 19th century, ensured that their languages were represented in US schools.

English is particularly difficult for foreigners

Books such as Crazy English by Richard Lederer and Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson delight in pointing out the idiosyncrasies of the English language. Such reading has created the impression that English is a mostly ruleless and profoundly mysterious tongue. The truth is that English is fairly simple: it is easy to make nouns plural; verbs rarely conjugate; and there is a happy lack of genders.

Adult learners will never truly learn a new language

Eric Lenneberg’s Critical Period Hypothesis appeared in 1967. In it he proposed that, after puberty, neurological changes make it impossible to learn a language completely. His study was based on children who had received no language-based contact at all until after puberty. Over the years Lenneberg’s work has been wrongly generalised, and the myth has developed that adult learners will always be irrevocably deficient in their language of choice.

Learning a language is easier in its native country

Whether it’s an Anglophile studying one of St Georges language courses in London or a Spanish lover arranging a home-stay with a Mexican family, many a person has deluded themselves into thinking that nascent foreign language skills will magically flower by spending time in the language’s native country. While this is true for those willing to study, those who hope that casual interaction will boost their skills are sadly mistaken. The reality is that someone deeply committed to learning will succeed whether they learn Spanish in London or Mandarin in France.

Gisele Navarro Méndez

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