Myths about language learning

In this blog post, I want to tackle a couple of common myths and misconceptions about language learning. This is just a selection, but includes the ones I come across most frequently as a language teacher and linguist in the UK.

Myth No 1: Us Brits are just bad at languages

Alternatively: I just suck at languages (because I am a Brit).

So, basically, a bit of national or personal self-flagellation, is used as an excuse not to come back to language learning and is often accompanied by quoting the lack of success of the past in learning another language.  I cannot count the number of times I have heard this at dinner parties and receptions.

Why the ‘Brits are just bad at languages’ has entered common folklore I just don’t know, in particular given the wide cultural links of the Empire. I actually think that language policy has a big role to play in establishing that myth. Colonialism with its emphasis on teaching the language and culture of the homeland to the natives, the resulting dominance of English as a world language (leading to myth 2: Everybody speaks English. I don’t need to learn another language).

Add to this geography – the fact that Britain is surrounded by water rather than bordered by countries in which other languages are spoken.

And then policy again: Policies of how language are taught (I talked about this in my first blog post), when they are introduced at school and for how long they are being taught have influenced generations of language learners. Whilst it is absolutely not a problem to start a language relatively late (say in secondary school), the fact that, since 2003, students have been able to drop them at age 14 is, as students are unlikely to have learned anything useful beyond ordering a cappuccino at this point. Add to this the fact that the parrot-lake phrase learning still dominates in many UK schools does not make for a very motivating experience.

Therefore, the “Brits are just bad at languages” is has turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is politics and policy-makers that need to react with a bit of tough love to re-motivate the country for language learning.

Myth No 2: Everybody speaks English. I don’t need to learn another language.

Oh yes, that one, ‘everybody speaks English’. It is certainly true that English is a very widely spoken language, that, if you travel anywhere touristy, you have a good chance of ‘getting by’ with English (albeit sometimes in a rudimentary way), and that English is often used as a means of communication when there is no other shared code. Linguists call this variety of English ‘English as a lingua franca’.

And yet, ‘everybody speaks English’ is a myth:

Go anywhere out of areas and regions where tourism or international business reigns and there is a good chance that you’ll struggle to find an English speaker. I struggled to make myself understood in central Shanghai when I tried to ask for a bus route and directions.

Secondly, it is not English that is the most widely spoken language in the world. Estimates suggest that Mandarin Chinese is spoken (as a native and a second language) by more than twice as many people than English. Moreover, one mustn’t forget that, in many regions of the world, Spanish is used as a lingua franca rather than English.

And thirdly, language is about so much more than about making yourself understood. It is about understanding. Whilst it may be perfectly possible to use English, or another shared language, for basic transfer of meaning, learning another language always also entails learning another cultural ‘code’, for instance how to complain in the other culture without causing offence. Plus, speaking the language of your conversational partner is just simple courtesy. I’ll talk more about this in a blog post on Reasons for learning another language.

Myth No 3:  Learning a language gets more difficult with age

There is actually a bit of truth in this one – children, if put in an immersion setting, tend to pick up a foreign language incredibly easily. Whilst they will, very soon, speak the language without an accent and pretty-much error free, their parents are likely to retain some accent and, whilst becoming pretty proficient, not equal native-like proficiency. However, an adult will not usually be exposed to the foreign language as much as a child; they will approach the task of learning more analytically and with more fear and apprehension.

However, studies on children and adult learning a second language have shown that adult learners can be advantaged as compared to children, in particular in classroom settings, as they can use their problem-solving skills, memory and general linguistic knowledge to facilitate their learning journey. This actually puts them at an advantage, in particular in ‘classroom’ settings in which they are not surrounded by the foreign language day in day out.

Studies have actually shown that, when language learning takes place in a classroom setting, it is the intensity and quality of instruction that counts more than the age of the learner. Many language programmes that start as a young age suffer from the fact that the rate of progress is low, thus de-motivating the learner.

Moreover, native-like proficiency is rarely a necessary goal for an adult learning a language. A good language learning programme and realistic goals can therefore lead to a good result even when starting on the learning journey relatively late in life.


Myth No 4: You can learn to speak French in 10 days!

Is this the CD that came for free with your Sunday newspaper made you believe? Well, sorry, but I have to disappoint you. Whilst it may be possible to learn a few set phrases for your next holiday within 10 days (replace with any equally ridiculously short period of time…), you will hardly be able to acquire any real conversational fluency beyond routine situations. This takes months or years of practice, depending on what your ultimate learning aim is. I’ll talk about goal setting and learning aims in a later blog post.


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