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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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Do I need to know grammar to learn a language?

Many potential language learners are put off by the thought of having to study the grammar of a new language. What are the reasons?

– You have never been trained in grammatical terminology, not even in your own language. Verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs are all one and the same to you. If you have been to school in the UK in the past twenty or thirty years, it is quite likely that you have not had much instruction in grammar, neither in your English classes nor in a foreign language class (that is, unless you have had classes in Latin or old Greek – in that case, you will certainly know your verbs and nouns!).

– Or, you HAVE been taught grammar. You have been taught it until it came out of your ears, until any creativity and joy of language was squeezed out of you. This is more likely if you didn’t go to school in the past thirty years, or if you went to school abroad.

So should you study grammar if you want to learn a foreign language? The answer is: well, maybe!

If you are studying the language  solely for basic communication – and by basic, I mean basic (predictable situations such as ordering a hotel room, buying a train ticket, introducing yourself to others, small talk) you can get a way with no or very little grammar. In these cases, it doesn’t matter if your grammar isn’t all the way correct. It is much more important that you are understood. Moreover, you can much relay on so called formulaic expressions or junks, i.e. set phrases that don’t change.

The situation is very different if you want to do a bit more with the language, for instance if you want to write texts that need to be accessible to others, and if you want to engage in any conversations in which you react flexibly to what others are saying (e.g. professional negotiations). In these cases, junks are not enough. Grammar will give you the building blocks to express, in speaking or writing, what you need to express.

If the thought of grammar still makes you sweat, don’t despair: this blog will, at times, take up different grammar topics and introduce you to those verbs, nouns and adjectives. And the adverbs. Also, good language teaching doesn’t treat grammar in isolation, but embeds it into meaningful communication, either oral or written.

 

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Language teaching methods

Our experiences of language learning are invariably shaped by how we have been taught. In this blog post, I will introduce various methods for language teaching that have been used through the ages. Do you recognize the one your teachers have (predominantly) used?

The grammar translation method: If your language learning has followed this method, your learning would have involved learning lots of target language rules. You would then have applied these rules to translating texts from the target language into your native language and vice versa. You would have given very few opportunities to actually speak and listen to the target language.

The audiolingual method: If you were taught using this method, you would have learned the target language in the same work a mouse learns to associate spinning a wheel in a cage with getting food. It is based on the theories of behaviourism, meaning that the goal was for you to speak the language at an unconscious level. Your learning would have involved lots of grammar and vocabulary drills, repeating particular patterns. Discussions of grammar would therefore have been kept very brief, and the use of the native language in the classroom would have been minimal.

Communicative language teaching: This method aims to make language learning purposeful and to teach language for use in realistic communicative settings. Your classes would have involved lots of communication in the target language, often through role plays, partner work and group work. Although communicative language teaching can involve a focus on grammar, your teaching would probably have focused more on making you a fluent speaker. Grammar might have been practiced, but rarely in isolation from real communicative settings.

Do you recognize the method you have followed? When I learned English (mostly in the late 80s and the early 90s), the method used by my teachers was a combination of grammar-translation and communicative language teaching. There was lots of focus on grammar (I still have no problems of converting a sentence such as ‘Jim is repairing a car’ into a present perfect conditional, passive voice – ‘The car may have been repaired by Jim’), often practiced through translation. There was also ‘communication’, but often only for the purpose of practicing grammatical structures. In fact, when I first went to live in an English speaking country, speaking English utterly perplexed me. On the other hand, I passed a grammar test with flying colours many years after last having a proper English lesson.

Whatever method you have used, it will have shaped your experiences of learning a foreign language, for the better or for the worse. If you want to try your hand and another language, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will have the same experience. Before you embark on a course, just ask you teacher or the institution where you will be learning how you will be taught, or ask to do a trial lesson to see whether the method suits you and your needs.

Unfortunately – but this is personal opinion – most British secondary schools generally follow the communicative approach with no emphasis on grammar at all. This means mainly that learners learn to repeat set phrases, without any idea on how to break them down and manipulate them. I believe this has de-motivated a generation of language learners.

So go ahead, get you head out of the sand and try again! This blog is there to help you on your way!

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January 20, 2014 · 9:15 pm

Welcome!

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