The 5 Most Annoying Pieces of Language Learning Advice

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.

OldFrog

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”

Nice idea.

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.

Frenchman

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.

Cake rules, too!

Cake rules even more…

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 🙂

You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com

 

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105 thoughts on “The 5 Most Annoying Pieces of Language Learning Advice

  1. roughseasinthemed

    Mmm, agree partly, disagree too. I actually did translate literally when learning languages at school. I’ve learned as an adult not to do that. I dream in English, Spanish, French, maybe Italian and Portuguese for all I recall.
    Many years ago, I was on holiday in Fuengirola and the barman said: ‘when you can speak to me in spanish as well as I can speak English, we’ll talk in Spanish’.
    And yes, I went back the following year. He didn’t recognise me, or remember the conversation. Nor did we speak in English. Or if he did remember me, he was very clever 🙂

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Great anecdote! It’s very satisfying when you meet people again after a long time, and they are surprised by how much progress you’ve made. That also goes for making a quiet comparison in your own head, i.e. between how much of what they said you understood in the beginning (20%) and how much of it you get now (95%) etc.

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  2. Jay Dee

    Living in Japan, I’ve actually had a lot of trouble “picking up” the language. It just doesn’t work. You need to actually study to do it. When I was single, I studied quite a bit. I got lazy from time to time, though. My listening improved drastically, while my speaking was awful. The thing is, I just didn’t spend time hanging out with a lot of Japanese people in places like bars. You see, I hate bars. And it’s not easy to just go somewhere and start talking to Japanese people. They’ll always try to switch things to English. I spent most of my time at work, teaching English. I didn’t use Japanese there. I had to speak English, because that was my job. Now that I’m married and have a kid, I spend all of my time speaking English at home for my daughter’s sake. I’m the only English speaker she has to learn English from. Even so, she speak 90% Japanese. I don’t dare speak Japanese, because she’ll learn my bad habits, and she won’t learn enough English. My wife criticizes me for not being able to speak Japanese well. It is partly my fault for not studying harder, but it’s also difficult to find the people to speak with when they all want to speak English with me! The funny thing is, I think I’d learn Japanese faster while living in Canada.

    Liked by 2 people

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Aw, I see your dilemma… you’re being pulled into two directions, and your daughter depends on you, linguistically speaking. Thanks for sharing your experience, much appreciated 🙂

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  3. marcusbird

    I had to laugh at this article heading because there was a time I definitely thought like this. What I didn’t garner from the article, was your personal experience in language learning. I was going to kind of drop a line about how some of these things actually work, but if you haven’t tried to learn a language recently, maybe what I say will sound like more BS based on the context this article is written. Have you tried to learn any languages recently and if so what was your approach? I’m curious.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Hi there! I’m currently learning three languages, including Spanish by in-country immersion (I live in Spain). If you have time to waste, have a look through my blog, I’ve written quite a lot about my experiences. And mishaps 😉

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  4. Expatorama

    Agree in particular with the point about speaking from day one. Unless there is an emergency or you are trying to order food or drink, you need to listen listen listen. It’s amazing how much you can sometimes pick up when you only understand one or two key words when you pay close attention to body language.

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  5. Debbie Smyth

    Oh yes, I agree with your points! A language really takes a huge amount of regular study (whatever form). My Spanish is still rubbish because work stopped me getting to my class regularly and I haven’t had time to get to Spain much recently.
    I think the “no translation in head” comes along gradually – I always think that once I catch myself dreaming or daydreaming in the language I am successful – but still not necessarily fluent!

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  6. NancyTex

    My first two languages were learned from birth/as a child, but my third was learned as a teenager. I started dating my husband when we were in high school and we quickly became that annoying couple who spent every spare moment together. Much of that time was at his house, where his parents and grandmother exclusively spoke Portuguese. I honestly don’t remember HOW I learned it, I just know that within a year I understood everything they were saying. A year after that I was speaking – not the greatest (I hadn’t nailed the pronunciation), but others could readily comprehend me. So, I definitely learned through immersion, but I couldn’t specifically tell you how. It just seemed to happen through osmosis.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Hi Nancy! Still recovering from “boot camp”?!

      What I generally find with people who have learned through “osmosis” (as adults, I emphasise), although they may understand pretty much everything, their speech is often riddled with real clangers of grammatical mistakes which they seldom manage to eradicate. Of course, there are always exceptions, and age definitely plays a role as well.

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      1. NancyTex

        As far as I’m concerned, I’m not looking to conduct business in Portuguese or author a book in that language, so as long as I can have a conversation in Portuguese without augmenting any English words and be completely understood…#Winning.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Jackie Cangro

    I’ve heard all of these horrible pieces of advice, especially the one about not thinking in English before I translate everything into Italian. I tried not to translate in my mind, but I would get very frustrated and then kind of shut down. You’re right about the best advice: be patient with yourself and try not to get frustrated. I’m working on that!

    Side note: My friend has enrolled her two-year-old son in French classes so he can learn two languages simultaneously. She was just telling me that he doesn’t speak much in either language. Could he be confused? Have you heard of any toddlers in language classes?

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    1. Kim G

      I have a Vietnamese friend living in Boston who had a baby (a while back now), and the baby was exposed to both a lot of Vietnamese and a lot of English. It took her a long time to learn to speak, but now she speaks both languages fine and is a bright young girl. So I wouldn’t worry if I were you. Though toddlers have a tremendous capacity for language, even they will have to work hard to sort out two different languages simultaneously.

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  8. Ellen Hawley

    What the learn-like-a-baby advocates forget to mention is that it takes babies a long time to learn a language. Years, in fact.

    The British approach (which I’m aware of because even the British make fun of it) is not to learn the language but speak English. Loudly.

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    1. BerLinda

      Or just add ‘o’ to the end of words and assume they’re speaking Spanish or Italian 😉 Great post, Simone! For me, the ‘just pick it up’ advice is the worst. I’d love to meet someone who ‘just picked up’ German!!

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      1. ladyofthecakes Post author

        …and who’s not under ten years old! It’s really frustrating when people who’ve never learned a language think you’re somehow deficient because you’re still struggling after living in a country for a couple of years.

        Liked by 3 people

  9. Daniel Welsch

    I have an article about how “just think in English” is generally terrible advice, here in Spanish:

    https://aprendemasingles.com/2014/10/20/como-cambiar-el-chip-para-empezar-a-pensar-en-ingles/

    I think it’s like when people who have been working out for 25 years say “just listen to your body” and I think, “my body’s telling me to sit on the sofa and eat chocolate rather than working out.” It’s easy to say “just think in English” if you’re already thinking in English, but otherwise it’s totally useless. Thanks for this article, I liked it a lot!

    Daniel.

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    1. Oleg

      Having finished the Duolingo Spanish tree just couple of weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to read the article without dictionary, understanding more than 90%. Meanwhile I tried to control my process of understanding and found that I translated in my mind only those few words which I didn’t know surely or at all.
      But the image of ‘chip changing’ appears too brutally physical for me, imagine opening the crane, removing one chip and inserting another one 😮 I like more the ‘code switching’ idea 🙂

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      1. ladyofthecakes Post author

        You’re making good progress, I see! The changing the chip thing is a common Spanish phrase in this context – worth remembering for conversations with Spanish speakers 🙂

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      2. Oleg

        Oh yes, Google gives so many references for ‘cambiar el chip’ that it can be really a common turn of speech, but I still consider the metaphor to be technically lame

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  10. Kim G

    I’ll second Ellen’s comment: babies take a long time to learn a language. Right? Would you be happy to speak your second language (or third or nth) at the level of a 4 or 5 year-old? I certainly wouldn’t. And if I spent 4-5 years working hard on a language, I suspect I’d be able to speak better than a native born on the day I took my first lesson. So, yes, the “learn like a baby” is complete bunk.

    However, I have to disagree with you about speaking from day one. Language is inherently not a written thing. Writing came MUCH later than speaking did in human history. So I think one should try to speak from day one, though clearly one isn’t going to have much of a conversation.

    And actually (you’re going to hate me by the end of this comment), I think I’m also going to agree with the “don’t translate” advice. Yes, particularly when working through tricky verb conjugations it’s tough to avoid initially. But that doesn’t mean it’s not good advice. Think of the times you’ve had to translate something like a placard in a museum for someone standing next to you, and think of how tough and awkward that was. Right? I personally could sit down and translate written Spanish into written English relatively easily, but doing it spoken in real-time is very hard. Sure, real-time translation is clearly possible, but it’s kind of hard because each language has its own cultural context and it’s own “way of thinking.” The sooner you abandon translation, the sooner you’ll get the rhythm of the new language.

    “Adopt a new persona” — total bunk in my opinion, and pretty much for the reasons you outline. Fake NEVER works.

    “Just pick it up.” Yeah, I’ll take “grain-of-truth” for five hundred dollars. Yes, you *can* just “pick it up,” but it can’t be as lazy a process as that phrase makes it sound. Though I’ve been working hard on Spanish since about 2007, my recent insight on “just pick it up” is that I need to clearly remember someone speaking a new phrase or word visually, and think about it for a day or two and repeat it in my mind. Then I can “just pick it up,” but it’s a lot more work than the phrase implies.

    In the end, as you imply, there’s no substitute for just doing the work. Yes, language acquisition is one of the things that makes us innately human, but there’s no free lunch.

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    DF, México
    Where we are busily grilling our new Mexican friends about the uses of various words and phrases.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      High quality commentage from you, as ever 🙂 Am not completely disagreeing with you on the speaking issue… I feel, though, that sometimes it’s marketed by language service providers in an disingenuous manner, i.e. “learn with us and you’ll be speaking the language from day one!” But actually, you’ll just be repeating stuff, when they’ve created quite a different expectation there.

      And yes, I was going to bring in the point that, after three years of study, an adult may well be able to discuss the local impacts of climate change in their target language, while no three or four-year old native speaker would be able to do that. So, comparing a child to an adult learner is like comparing apples to oranges in many respects.

      So, will there be a post on your latest linguistic progress? And faux pas? I very much hope so 🙂

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      1. Kim G

        Hola Simone! I have thought about writing a post on improving one’s ability to recognize speech, particularly that coming out of a TV or down a phone line. But while it’s a never-ending journey, I’m sufficiently comfortable in Spanish these days that I’m mostly in “refinement mode” — pruning away errors, improving my accent, and trying to learn to speak with a higher level of finesse and (hardest of all) tact. In fact, it’s that last bit — delivering an unpleasant message in a nice way — that is the ABSOLUTELY HARDEST thing to do in a foreign language.

        And thanks for your kind reply!

        Saludos!

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      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        Oh, and the blasted phone! That’s got to be the worst… and if you’re having to say something “difficult” from an emotional perspective, even worse. Or something technical. My first few conversations with the phone companies in Spanish… worse than root canal surgery!

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  11. Carissa Hickling

    Giggled (ok snorted!) my way though all of these! And the comments too – clearly struck a chord this one. 🙂

    Loved your myth vs grain of truth… and yes immersion DOES rule! Once you have some kind of modicum of foundation and keep working at it. 🙂

    The speaking from day 1?? That was my 1st Hindi class. The professor believed in only speaking in Hindi. At the time, how many words did I know?? Um… almost none… Can we say ‘screwed!’ However with a heck of a lot of work managed to somehow survive… barely.

    So for my 1st Urdu class, I came prepared and taught myself the Arabic script before stepping foot in the room. That prof wasn’t quite so strict… she thought it was ok to teach mostly in urdu with a smattering of ‘help’ in Farsi, Arabic and French. Deliberately not one single word of English was spoken though technically it was a class at an English University. This time? I did waaaay better than survive as I had my earlier Hindi class floundering foundation and had mastered the Arabic script so was actually able to mostly learn what was thrown my way.

    But man – anyone who says “You just pick it up!” just makes me want to burst out into that “Learn like a baby” howl!! It is serious hard work gaining a level of proficiency in a new language as an adult!

    And bravo to folks like you Simone who keep gamely tackling and sharing your linguistic adventures!!

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Thanks for this insightful contribution, Carissa!

      Not sure any amount of smatterings of Farsi would get me anywhere, LOL! I’d love to learn a non-European language at some point. Maybe when I’m 70. I’ll be in touch… 🙂

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      1. Carissa Hickling

        Actually it was quite complimentary – lots of Farsi and Arabic words are used in Urdu. Just amusing to have Urdu de-mystiffied in three languages – and be amazed as the professor would fflip effortlessly between them!

        We could start the 70s language club – see how many we can beat our brains up over struggling to acquire!

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      2. TheLastWord

        My dad learned Farsi in school and could speak Urdu better than he did Punjabi. Thank god, though, that he read all those English authors!

        I tried the Arabic script…. but those squiggles had me beat. I can sort of get the gist of what’s being said. A lot of Arabic, Farsi, Urdu is mixed into the Hindi we speak.

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    2. lisangc2168

      Your experience reminds me of my first day of Arabic 101. For starters, this was my very first class at a rather large university in a city unfamiliar to me. Not having a car, I had to take the bus in to school and wound up taking an “express” which didn’t mean a faster way to get to the university. It meant a faster way to get to downtown. After a tour through downtown and back up to the university district, I finally found the building and the classroom, which was packed with students. I managed to spy a seat at the very back of the classroom. After squeezing my way past several desks, I proceeded to sit down.

      No sooner had I done so than my instructor called upon me to recite the Arabic alphabet, which I had never seen before in my life. I cannot tell you how painful it was to have her point at the Arabic letter and then look at me and wait for a response, mouthing the start of the letter when I clearly couldn’t come up with any sound of my own. But she did not quit on me. We went from aliph to yā’, and did not skip a single letter in between. It was so uncomfortable that I remember it to this day. I don’t regret it for a moment though. It made me work just that much harder and I would go on to perform very well in her class.

      Years later I watched a film called “Mona Lisa Smile.” In it, all of the women in this art history class pose a challenge for the professor because they had all clearly studied the course material the summer before. Had I thought to be so proactive way back when, I might have taken it upon myself to have at least learned the alphabet before the first day of class. But then that first day of class might not have ever been quite so memorable.

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      1. Carissa Hickling

        Haha!! Sounds indeed like a memorable start! And the only reason I came prepared was because of the earlier Hindi class where I was CLEARLY out of my depth! So, in both our cases, “lesson learned”! 🙂

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  12. heatherinde

    Ah yes, my favorite has to be “just start speaking from day 1.” Here’s how that would’ve gone for me… “Ein Bier, bitte.” Aaaaaaaand stop. I think I’ve fairly well mastered the listening part, though I still struggle to just open my mouth and talk in German. Ex: at lunch with BV’s parents today, I’d say I got at least 75% of the conversation. But anytime I wanted to say something, even in German, I say it to him quietly and then he interprets. He’s a great interpreter because he usually knows what I want to say even if it comes out completely mangled, but it’s definitely a crutch for me. Maybe if I threw on my Dirndl and went as my German alter ego, that would help. 😉
    Great post!

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      1. heatherinde

        Haha, thanks. I figure it’s about time my German genes come in useful for something, even if it’s only Dirndl-wearing and beer drinking. I’ll tell BV that it’s your doing when I kick him off the Bierbank next Wiesn. 😉

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  13. joannesisco

    I have absolutely nothing useful to add since I’ve failed so miserably at learning another language besides English. On even the best days, my brain and mouth don’t co-operate well together but after a few glasses of wine, my fluency in French seems to improve noticably 😉

    There is one thing I know to be absolutely true – I love custard slices, and your photo of cake appears to have a custard slice in the background. Yum.

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      1. joannesisco

        The damage is done. I’ve got custard slices on my mind now and tomorrow I will need to go to the bakery. It’s been a long time since I’ve had one and you’ve reminded me of it 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  14. expatlingo

    I find that when I roll my t-shirt up over my belly like an old Hong Kong man on a hot day, I can suddenly speak Cantonese without hesitation! (I am now offering special ‘Old Man Canto’ shirts for sale to new language learners! Only $50 US per month and you’ll be speaking Cantonese in no time!)

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  15. solberg73

    You’ve created here a wonderfully clear and true summary of ‘what dunna work’ which nicely leaves the desired trees standing visible in the forest (or some such fractured metaphor). A joy to read, and it was satisfying personally to realize that I had independently come to the same conclusions on each point. I cruise fairly effortlessly in Hebrew as my 95%-use language these days, but oh the take-offs and landings required! Again, an excellent post: needs a refrigerator magnet fer shure/ JS/ Israel

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  16. Anonymous

    I’m not sure the advice is bad but I agree it’s impractical for many of us. I find myself being too lazy or self conscious to give experiential learning a fair go, but I’ve seen non-English speakers, particularly those with no money or family, ‘pick up’ languages more effectively than I have through years of studying. Unfortunately the heightened receptiveness to a new language achieved by those who have no choice seems to be very hard to emulate in a relaxed learning environment.

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  17. Kim in Fiji

    I laugh, I nod, I applaud this post. However, I have given one of these pieces of bad advice ONE time to ONE friend and it did help. My dear elderly friend was actually fluent in French for reading, writing and listening, but her accent was so atrocious that no one could understand her….. so I suggested she adopt a French personna. She was a librarian, so I was encouraging “prostitute” – but I think she settled on “actrice.” Anyway, this did loosen her up and made her spoken language more understandable – though she would never have passed for a prostitute or an actress, and I don’t think she ever came across as fake.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Aw, I remember you mentioning that French was a disaster for you… I fear the same will happen to me once I actually set foot in France. I shall be delaying it as much as possible!

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      1. Oleg

        How can you be so frustrated with French having learned Spanish? Yeah, it’s probably more difficult than Spanish, but knowledge of the last must help: for me it was vice versa, French helped me to learn Spanish.
        A small tip: most French satellite channels have hidden subtitles for those who have problems with hearing, including free-to-air France 2, France 3, France 5, TMC etc.

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      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        It does kind of help… I understand most of the structures, what the subjunctive is, etc, so that’s a bonus, but I’m still barely able to communicate. It’ll come, in time, I guess 🙂

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  18. Loving Language

    I think we also need to leave behind the idea that “learn like a baby” means “just pick up a language effortlessly.”

    Babies don’t learn effortlessly!

    I used to speak Russian to my kids. It was exhausting–for me and for them. They just cried. It was hard. They wanted to speak English. Why not? It was easier! I gathered that kids’ brains are ruthlessly utilitarian: why learn two words for “water” when one will do?

    Just as you say that babies get input non-stop, they’re also processing language and working non-stop. Little kids get overloaded and stop talking–whether by going off by themselves or by crying. They get to plateaux and then make progress later on. It takes a *ton* of processing power to get their brains to learn language. Don’t forget, it takes a good five years of active working, completely immersed, for a two year old to get to a seven year old level.

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  19. Emerald

    Having English as my third language, I have to say that not all languages are learnt in adulthood. I started learning English at four years old and I went past the translation stage etc quite quickly. The part about never being able to be properly fluent in the language is also false—I don’t have an accent and English is also my primary language now. Maybe this is truer for when you start learning a language at an older age, but plenty of young children are multilingual too, most notably second generation immigrants.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Hi there! Well, if you’re learning a language AT FOUR YEARS OLD, one definitely has the capacity to speak it flawlessly – at that age a child is still capable of reproducing the full range of sounds. English is also my primary language – I’m more competent in English than I am in German – but, since I learned it in my late teens/twenties, I have a residual accent.

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  20. TheLastWord

    I almost never got past the frog with a strap-on image. But I persevered … and did read the entire thing.

    The only time I tried learning a new language as an adult was a 3-month course of French. Now… here is another thing I’d add as advice. Conjugation is necessary but language teachers need to find a better way to teach verbs and their forms.

    I’m a little confused by your bit about translation. Are you suggesting you should or you shouldn’t?

    I see a lot of Indians do it. They write English as a translation of whatever language they think in. This is, in my mind, not a great way to go about it. First, colloquialisms do not travel well. Then, the structures of the sentence are messed up. Finally, we have issues with tenses, genders, voices and all those articles… which is why so many Indian bloggers I read forget the articles. Thus they don’t understand that ” I have few issues with it” and “I have a few issues with it” are opposite in meaning.

    For some silly unfathomable reason, your posts are not showing up in my reader. Time to clean up the followed blogs list and lose some of the eager beavers who post an article every 30 minutes…. ( how the hell do they do that!! )

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Hi there! Aw, conjugations… they are hell. And I’ve not yet found a fun way of internalising them 😦

      RE. translation – I didn’t mean doing literal translations per se, but thinking of what you want to say first in YOUR language and then, as the second step, thinking of how you’d convey the same thing (though not necessarily literally, you may already know the correct idioms required) in the target language. I think we all do it that way in the beginning, and it’s nonsense telling beginners not to.

      The workings of the Reader are a total mystery…!

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      1. TheLastWord

        hmm – ok. Yeah, if you’re fluent in a language you don’t realize how you got that way.

        One of the new things we see is Hinglish, where we mix Hindi and English (constructs, idioms, words et al). There is also Bonglish, where Bengali and English are mixed in the same way.

        It’s all very sophisticated and complex….. 🙂

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  21. lisangc2168

    Though I refuse to believe that adult students of a foreign language must resign themselves to speaking with an accent, I must admit that your comments on that topic were rather true for most.

    But as for taking on a new persona, in a way, I somewhat disagree. If someone freezes up every time they attempt to speak in a foreign language and adopting a new persona helps them loosen up, why not encourage them? True, nobody likes those who are fake and few, if any, like to be mocked, but it doesn’t always have to come across as such.

    I used to work with linguists and one day while working with them I noticed something. Some of them enjoyed mimicking others just in general — not foreigners but fellow English speakers. It was uncanny, at times, how well they could reproduce the same mannerisms and vocal peculiarities of another. And what I discovered is that those who had a gift for mimicking others also tended to be the more gifted linguists. It changed my perspective on my own approaches to learning a language and I think that epiphany has helped me in more ways than I realize.

    Apart from any differences of opinion on some of the points you make, I want you to know I thoroughly enjoyed your article. You really have a very talented way with words and create unique but apt analogies. Plus, you are incredibly funny. I laughed heartily throughout this piece of writing. Very well done … in any language.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Hi there, thanks for your kind words and thanks for sharing your experiences. It is certainly true that we have a tendency to copy other people’s accents and ways of speaking during the course of communicating with them, it happens automatically in quite an unconscious way, just as we tend to mirror their body language to some extent. I do it, too… sometimes I catch myself and feel quite silly 😉

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  22. Pingback: Friday Links February 26th | Charlotte Steggz

  23. hannas123

    Hey i did sort of respond to your Learning Language blog -see my feb blog “Inexplicable Lingua Espanol”.I am struggling more with the managing the blog(computor skills) than with the writing or learning Spanish.Off in 3 weeks to Spain,this time walking from Algeria to Granada and maybe reach Cordoba ,if my hips hold out

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  24. TBM

    I remember taking French classes in college and the teachers refused to speak English and then would get frustrated when I didn’t understand what they were saying from day 1 until the end of the semester. I see the point, but sometimes you can’t follow the rule to a T.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      It’s a divisive topic, this… I’ve had very frustrating experiences like this myself. I’m firmly in the pro-bilingual teaching camp where beginners are concerned. I believe that input needs to be, first and foremost, INTELLIGIBLE to be useful.

      For high intermediate and advanced classes, it makes sense to teach those exclusively in the target language.

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  25. Pingback: Bad Advice – Luso

  26. Pingback: A mid-week language-learning rant: the B level plateau and the lie of “upper intermediate” | pohltry

  27. lliyrapohl

    THANK YOU for this! I’ve linked it in a post – I hope that’s all right! Also, in another post about losing your German (can’t find it for the life of me at the moment) you mention German blogs you follow here on WP. Would you mind passing on a few links if you have the time? I also need to brush up but Actual German books are so daunting – all those accusatory unread pages…

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