Your Intuition is Wrong about Learning Languages

Do you have a vague feeling that you're too old to learn a language?

Are you still looking for the best way to do this?

Or do you just....feel like you're never quite doing enough?

Then we have the show for you!! Hit play now and check out episode 69 of the Creative Language Learning Podcast

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Episode 34: Language Learning is Too Hard and Inconvenient, And That is No Excuse

Welcome to an episode of the Creative Language Learning Podcast that both Lindsay and I have been very happy to bring you. We covered some topics very close to our hearts, had lots of fun and kept it under an hour. Yay!

Here's what you will hear:

  • Progress reports of how Lindsay and I have both been using our sponsor appHelloTalk. It's a free app for all smartphones and puts you in touch with speakers of 130 different languages, so go ahead and download it. Thank you HelloTalk for making our show possible.
  • Important questions about how to pronounce the words of the Messiah by Händel (the KANYE of his day), leading to the question of identity and why learning a language will never stop you from being the foreigner. Super interesting conversation about how languages can expand who you are, but they don't change it.

LANGUAGE LEARNING IS TOO HARD AND INCONVENIENT

After feedback and wonderful reviews from you listeners, Lindsay and I went hardcore on all the many reasons why people tell us they can't learn a language. Listen to the show to find out all about how to respond to the following arguments:

  • "It's confusing, and so much harder now that I'm an adult."
  • "I've not got the brain or memory for it."
  • "Everyone else is learning English, why should I bother?"
  • "It's HARD!!!"

LINKS AND TIPS FROM THIS EPISODE

Languages spoken badly this episode: Korean, Welsh, Spanish

So, are there easy and hard languages - or not?

Today I want to share a Youtube video created by Richard Simcott, a native English speaker who has studied an inspiring 16 languages!

Richard is a helpful language learning speaker, consultant, and also one of the founders of the Polyglot Conference (see you there next year?). The video he presents guides viewers through a great summary of why a language is considered hard or easy to learn for native English speakers.

But wait, you said there are no hard languages!

If you rewind a little bit through the archives of this blog, you will see that I have happily proclaimed "There are no hard or easy languages!" So before I go contradicting Richard's very valid points, let me explain what I mean:

The reason why you will find a language easy or difficult to learn can vary. There are the tangible factors of grammar, pronunciation, writing system and how familiar the words are. Those can't be ignored, they'll make your life easier or harder every day. But there is another attitude, much closer rooted in your own mind: The learner makes his or her learning easy (or difficult).

You are in charge of what's easy

Positive thinking is highly effective in language learning. If you believe that you're tackling a language that is difficult to learn, you may have a harder time. Instead, look at your motivation, consider why you're on this adventure and make yourself look at the bright side.

  • An unfamiliar writing system - did this attract you to the language in the first place?
  • A completely foreign vocabulary - could you consider this your new secret code, a fresh way of looking at the world?
  • When you catch yourself dwelling on the difficult parts of your new language, try going back to something you're already good at until the confidence returns.

Okay, so I admit this won't make Korean any easier than Spanish, but hopefully it can help fend off any big worries if you find your language in a class 1 or 2! Which language are you learning these days?

The Age Myth strikes again

English politics deserves a monarchy of misconceptions sometimes. Their “dire record on language learning” is “laid bare” for the whole world to see (as described in this article in The Independent), so journalists and politicians have sat down and taken a serious look at what could possibly have caused this bleak state.

I have previously tried my best to go myth busting on Fair Languages and on the Fluent Language blog. The equation younger learners = better language learners = not true. There are many things at play that make language teaching successful. Let's see how many factors Great Britain's ministers pay attention to:
We are addressing the chronic lack of attention paid to foreign languages in schools. It is vital young people start studying a language at an earlier age. That is why from next year we are ensuring that children learn a language from age seven.
— Spokesman for UK Dept of Education

That’s right, it's only the most popular language learning myth. If they just taught everybody foreign languages a year earlier, then we’d hit the magic age (seems they have decided that it’s seven – obviously seven), brains would click into gear and Britain’s new generation of polyglots would surely rule the world.

Image credit:  striatic  on Flickr

Image credit: striatic on Flickr

On Red Herrings

As a tutor who works with students from age 8 to age 60, I can see on a daily basis that the age at which someone starts learning a foreign language is not an essential factor in their ability. I teach 21 year old Chinese students, who learn German with more dedication and enthusiasm than many young kids do in our schools.

Yes, children are the future. That doesn’t mean they are the place where we adults should look for every problem to be fixed. If you want a whole generation to become impressive language learners, you have to BELIEVE in it. Changing the age, changing the language choice or making any other superficial adjustment- those are red herrings, cosmetic cover-ups invented by politicians who want to make the nation look better.

But the real noble goal should come from the inside. School children, teenagers and adult learners should love language learning because they can see what it can do for them. We need more role models who celebrate other languages, more parents encouraged to learn, more politicians. Foreign language learning is fuelled by the knowledge that there is more to the world than what we can see. It’s about the lure of another world and the belief that language is power.

Speak to the Future

www.speaktothefuture.org

www.speaktothefuture.org

The Speak to the Future campaign in the UK could be a place to look for well thought out ideas on fixing the “dire record”. They didn’t need a study to show them what was obvious: that Britain’s lawmakers need new inspiration for a fresh start in languages, and that we need to break out of believing in misconceptions.

You can also read this article on the great Fair Languages website.

6 Truths about Languages

Transient

Language learning is a subject of many myths and misbeliefs. In the past couple of months, I've been trying to debunk the main offenders that I've come across. They're common beliefs, perpetuated as universal truths, but actually not much more than a catalogue of handy reasons for some to avoid getting going on a new language learning adventure. We've gone and uncovered the many "no carbs after 6pm" nonsenses of language learning, so for your convenience here are the findings: the Six Truths about Languages.

Your age is irrelevant

Stop believing that you should have started learning a language at age 6, stop believing that it's too late to get started now, and stop believing that kids are better learners than adults. It's all rubbish. What matters are your passion, your interest and your memory. You've got those, right?

You don't need a native speaker around you

Native speakers are the best to practice on and tell you lots of interesting stuff about language use and customs where the language is spoken, but they're not all natural teachers who can beam a perfect linguistic skill into your head. There are plenty of things to be said for learning from non-natives too. You're good as long as you keep the spark alive by surrounding yourself with your target language, whether it's with films or music or websites or friends.

There is no language gene

If you never managed to remember even the numbers from 1 to 10 in French at school, that does not make you a language loser. Sometimes I find that students will pick up words and remember them extremely well, yet they have this belief that they are no good at languages. Give over! It's just not true. Brains all work in the same way, and language learning is about what you make of it - the logical folks among us can get into grammar, the outgoing ones can speak to new people and the shy ones can practice safe rules before getting going. Go along with progress at your own pace - there are no norms and no rules, meaning there's not even a concept of failure. How liberating is THAT!

Even English speakers get something out of learning new languages

Here are just seven things, off the top of my head: You get to show off, you get to talk to people you couldn't normally talk to, you protect yourself from strokes, you make yourself more employable, you learn about how different people do things, you become more open-minded and tolerant, you practice patience and dedication. That took 1 minute to write down. Comment if you can think of more reasons to learn a language.

Languages are an awesome CV addition

Your hard work sweating over those verb tables has taught you more than you think - you do well to mention all those great benefits and transferable skills from an analytical mind to a perfect toolkit for communicating with new people.

No language is harder than the next one

The variety from language to language is immense, but each one of them is ultimately a way of encoding the same message. Some might govern every single letter in every word with really precise categories telling you what ending to put on it, others might leave the meaning of a word up to the words around it. But in all of them, the aim is to get at the message and communicate accurately. If you don't enjoy all the cases in German, perhaps give a new language a go. If you're stuck with it, try understanding how the same thing is said in English. Remember: It is the same message, encoded differently.

Thanks for reading this article on Fluent, the Language Learning Blog. If you are feeling stuck right now, why not subscribe to Fluent and check out our language book shop.

Five myths about language learning: Myth 4

Why bother when everyone speaks English anyway?

Okay, so before I sit down and watch the highlights of last night's opening of the London Olympics, I had better get this blog post covered. Not lastly, the topic of our Myth 4 is rendered pretty current by such an international event, because now we're looking at one of Britain's absolute favourite reasons to avoid language learning: the belief that "everyone speaks English". Some of the parties that like to promote this myth are tabloid papers, right-wing politicians (often guising it as "holy crap! people dare enter our country and bring their own languages!") and, scarily enough, some of the learners themselves.

Language learning is about connecting with people, making your own life easier and understanding more about how people express themselves and what for. It should go way beyond parroting "Where is the supermarket?" and "I have a brother and two sisters", and be seen as a way of reflectively engaging with how people communicate. If you're only ever going to view another language as a means of obtaining basic necessities during a brief stay abroad as a tourist, then you're losing 90% of the benefit. Take, for example, the intricate system of Japanese honorifics or the special German terms referring to 20th century history (Ossi, Wessi, Ostalgie etc). Language evolves with society, and that's what's amazing about it: You'll get to know another place's history, values, food, traditions and so much more. And you don't even have to travel there.

Secondly, it may not have occurred to you that the feeling of pointlessness as you stare at a jungle of verb tables is much more closely related to language choice than lack of necessity. I believe schools would see a much higher rate in language take-up if they were able to offer a wider choice of languages. Maybe French was never much to get you going, but your love of yoga makes you wish you could read Sanskrit.

Now, what's

Or you would love to cycle through Spain, haggle 40% off a cashmere scarf from your local Indian market stall, get in touch with your Gaelic roots? It certainly worked for me, studying my way through the lyrics of Pulp's whole musical oevre with a dictionary by my side.

One final point: Yes, a very large part of the world now learns English as a second language. It's an also-ran official language in countries like India, Nigeria and Cyprus. Having said that, this doesn't mean that it is the international community's preferred language. Even the British Foreign Office seem to have recognised that you miss out if you're the monolingual guest at the world's multilingual party. The amount of literature, film, theatre and music from another country that doesn't even make it into an English-speaking country is staggering. It's like looking at a painting and only seeing one colour.

Luckily, the many other positive reasons for picking up a foreign language are only a google away. No one says that this is something you have to do, but just think how fun and enriching it would be to start seeing in colour.