The more arduous a task, the more pages you’ll find devoted to “shortcuts” and “revolutionary techniques”. Language learning is a prime example. Bah humbug, I say. Below are my five all-time favourite bullshit tips. (Incidentally, they all have one thing in common: Their faulty rationales are based on a tiny nugget of truth. Once you shine a light on them, though, they quickly turn into fool’s gold.)
“Learn like a baby”
This one has got to be the top fallacy coursing through the language forums. Actually, it’s not so much learners’ forums that propagate this myth, it’s companies trying to sell their “super effective” language teaching method, which will have you learning your new language with about as much effort as a rosy-cheeked infant sucking a candy cane.
Yeah. Right. First of all, have you ever observed a young child learning its first language? It makes a ton of mistakes and is corrected by its elders every two seconds. It’s definitely NOT a doddle for anyone involved. And neither are these companies going to supply you with a set of “language babysitters” to bake cookies with you and follow you around the house imparting all that useful domestic vocab every three-year-old has down pat.
Second, you are NOT a child. You cannot learn as fast as they do. And there is an even greater obstacle: You already have at least one language firmly installed into your brain. An old dog CAN learn new tricks, but there’ll be blood, sweat and a lot of yowling involved.
Any new language will, inevitably, be filtered through the linguistic framework that is already firmly imprinted into your hard-as-dried-window-putty grey matter; your adult mind is irreversibly “contaminated”, it will never revert to its pliable, pristine, virgin state. Besides grappling with unfamiliar grammatical structures, you’re highly unlikely to ever reproduce the full register of sounds. In other words, no matter how good you get, you’ll be speaking your second language with an accent, even if it’s only a residual, barely noticeable one.
Expecting an adult to acquire language in the same way a young child does is like expecting a frog to sprout a fifth leg. Well, bad news: that leathery old croaker is no longer a nimble little tadpole. And neither are you. And that’s that. That new leg will have to be a strap-on.
Grain of truth: There is something to be said for copying native speakers conscientiously, learning the appropriate language for a given situation and, above all, not overthinking things. A capital advantage, that very young children have, is that they do not question, they just accept. (Well, actually, kids DO ask a lot of questions from a certain age, but those are mainly to do with their surroundings). An adult language learner would do well take a leaf out of their book and not get bogged down in examining every single idiomatic expression in minute detail. “But it’s NOT logical!” is not an argument you can ever throw at a language and expect to win. Nor are you likely to hear it from a toddler.
“Start speaking the language from day 1”
Now back to reality: You cannot launch into a conversation if all you have is two dozen words and no clue how to string them into an intelligible sentence. Most people need a great deal more input and many hours of conscious listening before they are confident enough to actually speak. There is nothing wrong with that.
And, even more importantly: there is nothing whatsoever wrong with YOU if you don’t feel much like talking in the early stages. In fact, the most accomplished foreign language speakers I know are reluctant speakers who took their time before starting to verbalise their thoughts.
Grain of truth: Your mouth actually needs to practise making those new sounds, and the earlier the better. It’s no good just listening and thinking the words. Some people even practice with themselves in front of a mirror. I’ve not tried this, but I can imagine that it might actually work. You need to say the words out loud, repeat what you hear, and, whenever possible, be corrected by a native speaker. It’s just that I would not really class these early attempts of parroting words and phrases as “speaking the language”, but this is how certain language courses market themselves.
“Don’t translate – just think in the language!”
The rationale behind this little gem of ill-conceived tripe is as follows: Thinking first of what you want to say in your own language and then translating it into the target language takes an aeon. Hence, if you just ditched that time-consuming first part, you’d be virtually fluent straight away!
Let me give you an analogy: A management consultant is called in to make an airline more efficient. The objectives are to save on fuel and get the planes to their destinations faster. The consultant analyses all the processes, procedures, inputs and outputs in great detail. Then he puts his conclusion to the senior pilot: “Well, it seems that 60% of your fuel and 30% of your time input goes into take-off and ascent. We need to get rid of these two phases and just focus on cruising.”
You see the flaw in the logic, huh? In order to get cruising in a new language, you first need to get your capabilities up to the right altitude. You cannot possibly start off there. I no longer translate from German to English or from English/German to Spanish or whatever, I just switch. It took me years to be able to do this. I still have to laboriously convert every sodding word into French (since I’m a beginner), and it’s a total bitch.
Grain of truth: You will not speak fluently while you’re still needing to translate every word and every phrase. However, you cannot magically circumvent this phase – that would be a classic case of putting the cart before the horse! Translating in your head does not mean that you are inherently inefficient, stupid, or doing it wrong. You are just at that stage in your learning right now, that’s all.
“Adopt another persona – act like you’re of X nationality”
I remember being quite horrified when I came across this one for the first time. I can’t even think of how it might work in practice without having to cringe. Gallic shoulder shrugs performed by French learners to the point of articular dislocation? Students of German yelling “Jawoll mein Oberst!” at four hundred decibels like in a WW2 movie?
What could “impersonating” someone of another nationality/culture possibly entail if not a rendition of lame stereotypes? If there’s one surefire way of alienating the people whose language you’re trying to learn, then this has got to be it. Humans across the globe, as diverse as their cultural backgrounds may be, do not generally take kindly to fake people, and even less so if they appear to be ridiculing them.
Grain of truth: Once you’ve lived in another country for years, you adopt new mannerisms, hand gestures, facial expressions, cadence and speech rhythms etc. We mirror what we see around us, this happens quite naturally as we gradually adapt to a different social environment. It’s a basic survival mechanism. When a bi/multi-lingual human switches between languages, their way of thinking changes and a different aspect of their personality comes to the fore. It’s not an act. It’s who they are.
“You just pick it up”
It’s a pervasive misconception that all it takes to learn a foreign language is to go and live in a place where the language is spoken, and, hey presto, give it a year or two, you’ll be gabbing away like a native.
Remember, you’re an adult, not a preschooler. Without at least some targeted study of these alien structures, your brain just won’t know what to do with all this confusing information. It’s like seeds bouncing off a parched, unploughed field – in this unreceptive environment, they have nowhere to take root.
In order to assimilate new input, your brain needs to be taught to recognise, sort and categorise before it can deploy. You actively need to help this process by constructing a whole new set of “boxes” in your mind. New boxes have a habit of arriving in flat-pack format and they turn into a usable facility only by filling them, bit by bit, with new grammar, vocab and idiomatic expressions acquired by focused studying and real-life input working in tandem.
Grain of truth: Immersion rules.
Have you ever been seduced into following some ingenious-sounding language learning advice which absolutely did not work for you? What was it and why did it fail? I’d love to have your feedback :)
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