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Language Learning Myths

Every person has wondered about the origins of language. Do all languages come from one common source,

If so, why would they be so difficult to master? From Noam Chomsky’s theory of ‘Universal Grammar’ to the Rosetta Stone (both the rock and app), we’ve all had a curiosity for how we learnt speech. To fill in the blanks, we’ve turned to the myths and legends of language. They’re beautifully written tales passed down through oral history about the Gods and Muses and Profits of language, division and the very origin of speech.

Perhaps you were wondering who the ancient Greeks worshiped for language learning? (Mnemosyne - Mother of the Muses)

Who the Egyptians believed invented writing?

(Thoth - God of the Moon, Learning and Writing)

There came legends about a Tower of Babel and flood that divided all people and separated languages, all myths explaining how separation created our separate languages. Myth and legends around writing and language have lived with us for longer than books have been around.

We live for myths to tell us about secrets from the past and interesting histories. Yet some of those myths have also become dangerous and even counter productive rumors that keep us from learning how to bridge these language divides.

Countless myths and gods around language and speech still creep up in our lives, but the most annoying myths still prevail. The most absurd myth being: Only certain people can learn another language.

We have all, in some way, had to confront a myth about language learning in our lives. Some of us are trying to face these myths as adults. Trying to learn a new language as an adult is a difficult journey that takes focus, commitment and persistence; a modern day Odyessy in itself. Yet we are held back by regressive beliefs of language learning that prevent us from confidently going forward in our language learning journey.

Let’s confront these myths now, the terrorizing beast with five heads, and see how you can overcome these myths in your lessons.

The Myths:

1. You have to be a child in order to learn another language.

This is one of the most common myths because it takes a simple fact to an extreme end. Yes, it’s easier to learn a second or third language when you’re a child. This comes from the fact that you have more neural connections in your brain at a young age, making it easier to connect new ideas with long term memory.

As an adult, this is an obstacle that should be confronted through adaptive learning: gradually changing your memories as you learn a new language. You take the memories and facts that you do know, your basic language, and adapt them to the language you want to learn. This is a skill of being able to connect that what you would say in your language has an equivalent in the new one. By slowly adapting your vocabulary through regular practice, you’ll begin to recall new words and phrases faster and faster alongside your original language.

2. You’ll never be fluent in another language if you learn it as an adult.

This idea ties into the idea that only children can learn a second language, and creates the idea that “fluency” is the mysterious goal of all language learning. Yet it doesn’t take into account that we all have various goals in language learning that serve different needs.

It’s important to establish what your long term and immediate goals in language learning are before declaring “fluency”. Be honest if you only need to learn how to write simple emails or learn how to answer basic questions vs learning business English or being able to be on a debate team. Your needs may be more easily met by focusing on gradual language adaption or basic reading and writing comprehension. As you continue your studies, you tackle harder goals as your needs shift. Don’t believe you have to be fluent first, focus on the small steps in your journey.

3. You have to have a talent for learning languages.

Any kind of artistic or academic talent is pure practice and skill. The same is applied to language learning.

You develop the skills in language learning the more you practice and expose yourself. Working regularly with a tutor, reading new materials and practicing in different methods will help you learn a language faster. It will also help you master the novices in languages such as grammar, metaphors and common figures of speech.

4. You have to live in a foreign country to learn a new language.

Exposure therapy might work for overcoming phobias, but it’s not very good for learning languages. I moved abroad to both China and Germany yet I only know basic German and Chinese even after spending a year around native speakers. The only reason why I know these languages is because I focused on learning how to read and speak for my basic necessities.

While we may want get out of our comfort zone when we’re learning a new language, over exposure will only create more confusion. Treat language exposure as if you were learning how to swim, by gradually immersing yourself into new situations rather than by diving straight into the deep end. Give yourself small goals and targets that you decide to practice in public each day, adding on a new challenge to more you go. It can start by saying you will talk to someone for five minutes a day and order a coffee in that language, then gradually move to asking about bank statements and talking about new books.

5. All you need is a good book and a good app.

While stories about magical swords and mystic books are fun to read, they are all fictional. One book or app will not help you learn a new language all by itself. Learning is a process of endless reading, speaking and correction.

The best way to learn a new language is always by speaking. Books and games are great ways to review as a fun memory challenge to help you recall what you’ve previously learnt. But relying on a single source won’t be an efficient tool for your learning journey. Plan ahead to use books and apps as study tools, but focus your attention and practice with real-life conversation partners.

How do we overcome these myths?

A myth in learning is similar to a stereotype, it’s something that can prevent us from growing as people and exploring new ideas. To overcome our ingrained fear of trying to learn, we need to know that we’re not alone. Many people have tried and succeeded in learning new languages! They will all explain that it was difficult but one of the most rewarding things they’ve ever done.

Even when you feel like you are at a standstill in your learning journey or it has become difficult for you to try something new, know that you are not alone. There are many resources available to help guide you along your journey, like tools of the trade and practice materials. And of course, there are great people who are here to serve as guides.

Whether you are a beginner or a skilled second language learner, Blue Ridge Literacy has the staff and skills needed to help you along your language learning journey. Ask for a reference to learn how one of our volunteers can help you today!

About the author:

Coquina is an educator in Shanghai, China and Roanoke local who grew up speaking two languages with her family. She currently works as an early childhood educator and reading specialist as well as a freelance writer. Her current clients are design firms and education organizations such as Bright Design Studio, Bright Minds, ESL Passport and Compass Review. When she’s not writing, she draws comics and organizes events for the teacher community in Shanghai through her own organization Good Thoughts.


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