There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding language learning. Maybe you’ve heard that children are better language learners than adults. Or perhaps you’ve read that it only takes a few months to learn a new language. These and similar myths are often based on observations that have been generalized and presented as facts. However, the truth is that language is so complex that it cannot be described with generalizations. Instead, it needs to be explained in a more careful and fact-based manner.
In this post, we go over 12 of the most common myths about language learning and give you the facts based on what researchers have discovered. Broadly, they fall into two categories. Some are related to the nature of language and our innate ability to learn and speak it. They address things like children’s ability to acquire language and the effect of memory on language learning. Others tend to relate to learning and speaking a foreign language, and address topics like study abroad or the skills and time required to learn a new language. Once you get a sense of what is and isn’t true, you’ll be better equipped to focus on your language learning journey and achieve success! Let’s get to it!
Table of Contents
Myth #1: Learning a second language requires a unique skill set
One common myth is that learning a second language requires a unique skill set. In other words, some people are simply “good at languages,” and others just don’t have the same talent. The truth is that everyone can learn a new language. In fact, some researchers believe that you use the same skills to learn language that you use to learn other types of things. Most of these skills rely on two types of memory systems in the brain: declarative and procedural memory. Declarative memory is used to learn things like facts and rules, and to memorize words and grammatical structures: for example, an English student learning to add “-ed” to a verb to create the past tense. Procedural memory, on the other hand, is used for more automatic tasks like riding a bike or speaking a language without thinking about it. The good news is that we are all equipped with these fundamental learning abilities, so everyone is on the same basic foot!
Related to this myth is the concept of language aptitude: the idea that some people have a higher capacity to learn a new language really well because of their ability to recognize patterns, tell different sounds apart, and/or easily memorize words and grammar. However, having high aptitude does not guarantee that someone will learn another language more easily. In fact, many other important factors come into play in language learning, such as motivation, time spent learning, and knowledge of other languages. Want to learn more about language aptitude and how it’s measured? Then check out our video, “Are some people just good at learning new languages?”
Myth #2: Language learning is easier for children
Another common misconception is that learning a second language is easier for children. This myth probably comes from the observation that children often develop more native-like skills than adult learners. But does this mean that children have an easier time than adults overall? And what do we mean by easier, anyway?
One reason people think learning language is easier for children is because we tend to imagine them learning in an immersive environment. An immersive environment stimulates language acquisition by providing motivation and input at a time when the brain can easily make new connections. This often results in native-like command of the language. On the other hand, adults tend to learn in a classroom environment, and even after years of study may still feel like they make mistakes or that their accent is not as good as that of a native speaker. To put this in perspective in terms of time, it takes at least 4 years of constant input and interaction for a child to develop their first language, and about 5 to 7 years for a child to achieve native-like proficiency in a second language. However, it isn’t unheard of for a motivated adult learning under optimal conditions to achieve high language proficiency at the same rate, or even quicker than children! For more on this topic, be sure to check out our “The Science Behind Language Learning” series, where we answer the question, “Am I too old to learn a new language?”.
Myth #3: You need a great memory to learn a foreign language
The idea that you need a great memory to learn a foreign language is only partly accurate. While memory is a key component in language learning—it’s needed to store new sounds, new words and their meanings, and language patterns – it’s also complex. What may be more important than having a good memory is being able to optimize your memory so that your new language gets stored in the best way possible. There are great tricks that anyone can use to help store the language they’re learning. Here are two of them:
Did you know that the Mango app was designed with all of this in mind? Check it out for yourself! In addition, check out our video on tricks and tips on how to use spaced repetition when learning a language to make the most out of your memory!
Myth #4: You must simultaneously learn to write and speak
It’s a myth that you need to simultaneously learn to write and speak your new language in order to learn it. In fact, while language is natural to humans, writing systems are invented. Many languages don’t have writing systems at all, yet people still learn them! How you choose to learn your language really depends on your goals. If you’re planning on majoring in French studies or texting with a new friend, then you might need to learn how to write the language. However, many people can live their lives just speaking their language without the need to write it. Now, does writing help in the language learning process? Absolutely! Writing helps you learn how to use words appropriately, and is really important for succeeding in language classrooms. Check out our post “How to Improve Your Writing Skills in a Foreign Language” if you are curious to learn more!
Myth #5: Grammar is a must-study subject
When we think about learning a new language, we often think that we need to memorize a textbook’s worth of grammar rules! [Buzzer sound please!] This is a big myth! Yes, mastering grammar is a key part of language learning, and grammar rules are a convenient way to organize and explain the patterns of the language. But memorizing grammar rules is by no means the only way to learn. In fact, many researchers have argued that learning a language through explicit grammar rules may not be the best way to go about language learning. But before you panic (or celebrate) and throw all your language textbooks in the garbage, let me tell you about the concepts of implicit and explicit learning, how they fit into studying grammar, and how finding a happy medium might be the key to success!
Implicit learning happens when you learn something without realizing it. For example, while singing along with your favorite song in your target language, you may incidentally pick up on some elements of pronunciation. Implicit learning is a fun way to learn language, and can be very effective to help you get an instinctual feel for how the language is used. Explicit learning, on the other hand, is learning that you do on purpose, like studying verb conjugations or memorizing vocabulary using flashcards.
And while the ultimate goal of learning the language is to have that implicit knowledge that will allow us to communicate fluently without having to think about the rules, getting to that point takes time, as well as lots of exposure and interaction. Explicit learning can facilitate this process. In fact, many researchers believe that explicit learning can direct students’ attention to more nuanced parts of a language or aspects that are not easy to pick up on through implicit learning alone!
In sum, there are benefits to learning grammar rules, but they don’t have to be the main goal of language learning. You can learn more about implicit and explicit learning by checking out our post, “Can you learn a language without trying?” from the Science Behind Language Learning Series.
Myth #6: It is always costly to learn a language
Some people think that you need to take expensive courses, study abroad, or hire a tutor to learn a new language. This simply isn’t true! There are plenty of ways to learn a language that are cheap or even free! For example:
Myth #7: You must live in a country where the target language is spoken
It’s a misconception that you need to live in a country where a language is spoken in order to learn that language. You can find native speakers of most languages all over the world. There are many other ways to connect with speakers or find resources in the target language right where you live. In fact, many individuals who move to foreign countries as adults never learn the local language, so living or studying abroad is no guarantee. Besides, there are many factors that affect language learning success that are more important than location. Don’t let your geography limit your imagination! In fact, why not listen to what ACTFL’s 2022 Teacher of the Year, Heather Sweetser, has to say about finding immersive experiences wherever you are!
Myth #8: Learning a foreign language ensures that you will be able to relocate abroad
Unfortunately, learning a foreign language does not ensure that you’ll be able to relocate abroad. It’s true that speaking a foreign language can give you an advantage on the global job market, and that it’s probably easier and more comfortable to move to a country where you speak the language. However, immigration is a complicated legal process that varies greatly from country to country, and may be unrelated to whether or not you speak a foreign language.
Myth #9: Translation tools are enough, and learning isn't required
The idea that translation tools are enough for communication is misleading. Translation tools have improved a lot in recent years and can be very helpful—for example, if you’re in a place where you don’t speak the language and you suddenly find yourself in an emergency. Translation tools can also help language learning by acting as dictionaries you can use to look up a new word or phrase. However, translation tools will never replace the ability to use a foreign language in real human communication. This is because language conveys complex, subtle, and culturally-embedded meanings that cannot be fully captured by translation software. What’s more, translation tools have a long way to go before they can “translate” things like intonation and body language! On top of all of this, learning a language has some really amazing upsides such as delaying the process of brain deterioration as we age and improving memory. Check out this video if you are curious about the benefits of being bilingual! We have a lot more to say about this topic in our post, “You Versus Your Translation App,” so be sure to check it out if you’re interested.
Myth #10: A new language can be learned in a few months
Under normal circumstances most people cannot fully learn a new language in a few months, despite what some marketing campaigns might claim. It’s true that you can learn many new phrases, words, and concepts, and—under optimal conditions—achieve a relatively high level of proficiency in a short period of time. However, acquiring the complete system of a language and becoming a fluent speaker typically requires years of intensive study and practice. In addition, factors such as age, language similarity, motivation, and the time you spend on learning can influence how quickly you learn a language. Check out our post on how long it takes to learn a foreign language if you are curious to know more about these factors and want some practical tips on how to optimize your time spent learning a language.
Myth #11: You can learn a language just by reading books and using apps
It’s true that you can learn a lot of language just by reading books and using applications. However, you can’t learn everything you need to become a fluent speaker through books and apps alone; you also need to produce language. To understand this myth, it’s useful to look at the concepts of language input and output.
When we read, we are exposed to what is called language input: raw information about the language. Input is the most important component of language acquisition because without it, it would be impossible to learn anything at all! However, in order to be able to express yourself accurately and fluently, you also need output; in other words, language that is produced (usually by interacting with others through speaking or writing). Output forces you to come up with a well-composed message in order to be understood, and to pay attention to the choice and arrangement of words and word parts. Output contributes to language learning by reinforcing your knowledge of the language, and by connecting the language in your brain with the movements of your mouth and body.
However, this doesn’t mean reading isn’t a great way to learn language; it can help you learn vocabulary, grammatical forms, and lead you to research new structures. But if you wish to interact with others, then you will need to engage in activities that require both input and output. One of the really cool features about the Mango app is that it provides both input and output. Make sure you check it out today!
Myth #12: There are rules in languages
The idea that languages have “rules” in a language could be misleading, since they might not be what you think. More often than not, when you formally start learning a language, you will learn about grammatical rules; for instance, “to make a noun plural, add -s.” As learners, we are told to memorize these rules in order to apply them in conversation. Although these rules can be useful to know, they are not what ultimately end up in our brains. Allow me to explain.
Broadly speaking, the so-called “rules” of language come in two flavors: explicit and implicit. Explicit rules are the ones in the textbooks that we try to memorize and apply when we are being tested (remember what we said about declarative memory earlier?). Implicit rules are the intuitions we have about the patterns of language that are stored in our brains. We are often not even aware we have these rules in our brain! Think about it: do you know all the rules of your first language? Unless you teach it, the answer is probably no! For example, if your native language is English, you know that a sentence like “Who do you think that asked her?” sounds wrong. However, you might not be able to say why. This shows you that you don’t need to have an explicit rule because you know the language implicitly!
Language is full of implicit “rules” that can’t be fully learned by memorizing explicit ones. However, the rules you find in a textbook are still a good way to represent and organize common patterns of the language. And although memorizing these rules won’t guarantee that you’ll be able to speak the language fluently, in some cases they can help you detect the patterns of the language faster than if you were left to your own devices to figure it out.
What are some common problems in language learning?
1.Not enough input
When we think about how children learn their first language, one thing stands out as being key: children receive copious amounts of input for years before they make their first complete sentence. This translates to thousands of hours during a crucial developmental phase of life. Assuming you are an adult, think about how much time you spend learning your second language. Maybe you take a 2-hour class twice a week and spend 4 hours on homework and review. Do you see the issue here? Not enough input! While it’s unrealistic to expect that an adult will spend the same amount of time with language as a child, the gap should put into perspective just how much time you need to achieve fluency. Hopefully this will help you set realistic goals, and above all, encourage you to increase your exposure to input as much as possible!
2.Focusing too much on the grammar
Traditionally, we are taught that grammar rules are all we need to learn another language. Many language courses teach rules, have students apply them in drills, and then test them on quizzes and exams. Because of this, some language learners may focus too much on learning rules and leave other important aspects of language learning to the side. While understanding how a language works is important, focusing on communication and culture can be just as important and satisfying. So why not find a balance where you can sit back and enjoy a song, movie, or story in your target language without feeling the pressure of needing to know all the rules? You’ll be surprised by how much you can understand if you cut yourself some slack, and how much you’ll learn while doing it!
3.Afraid of making mistakes
Mistakes are not only inevitable in language learning (and life!)—they are also necessary! So it’s best to learn how to embrace them and make the most of them. There is a very well-researched concept in second language acquisition relevant to mistakes called the interlanguage. The interlanguage is basically a learner’s own version of the target language that they construct in their mind during the learning process. Learners go through many stages of acquisition, and changes in their interlanguage, as they learn to command new structures and make generalizations about the language. For example, if an English learner knows that to make the past tense they need to add “-ed” to a verb, they might easily say “listened,” “opened,” and “closed.” However, they might also say “runned” or “speaked.” This represents a certain stage in the interlanguage. As learners advance to the next phase of acquisition, however, they will eventually realize that some past tense verbs do not end in “-ed.” Researchers believe that these mistakes aren’t one-time occurrences (i.e., slips of the tongue), but rather systematic errors that learners will overcome with time and experience. So rather than getting hung up on the errors you make, try to keep in mind that they actually reflect natural developmental processes! You’ll overcome them eventually!
4.Not using learning time effectively
We often feel that in order to truly speak a new language, we need to be immersed in it 24/7. Well, not quite. It’s more important to use the time you have effectively! You can still achieve great progress if you are consistent and maintain realistic goals, even if you aren’t fully immersed in your target language. In fact, setting realistic and attainable goals can help you stay on track and motivated to learn. Want to know more? Check out our post on how to set good language learning goals and the worksheet that goes with it!
How to learn a foreign language without myths?
Now that we have dispelled some common myths about language learning, you can focus on what is really important in order to achieve your language learning goals. To recap:
- Bialystok, E., Craik, F. I., & Luk, G. (2012). Bilingualism: Consequences for mind and brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(4), 240–250.
- DeKeyser, R. (2020). Skill acquisition theory. In Theories in second language acquisition (pp. 83-104). Routledge.
- Ellis, N. C. (2005). At the interface: Dynamic interactions of explicit and implicit language knowledge. Studies in second language acquisition, 27(2), 305-352.
- Hoff, E. (2013). Language development. Cengage Learning.
- Lyster, R., & Sato, M. (2013). Skill acquisition theory and the role of practice in L2 development. Contemporary approaches to second language acquisition, 71-92.
- Ortega, L. (2014). Second language learning explained? SLA across 10 contemporary theories. Theories in second language acquisition: An introduction, 245-272.
- Paradis, J. (2007). Second language acquisition in childhood. In E. Hoff & M. Shatz (Eds.), Blackwell handbook of language development (pp. 387–405). Blackwell Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470757833.ch19
- Swain, M. (1993). The output hypothesis: Just speaking and writing aren’t enough. Canadian modern language review, 50(1), 158-164.
- Ullman, M. T., & Lovelett, J. T. (2018). Implications of the declarative/procedural model for improving second language learning: The role of memory enhancement techniques. Second language research, 34(1), 39-65.
- VanPatten, B., & Rothman, J. (2014). Against rules. The grammar dimension in instructed second language learning, 15-35.