6 Myths About Learning a Second Language

From the internet to the classroom, we’re bombarded with reasons as to why learning a second language is anywhere from challenging to impossible. You’re old or you’re too young; you’re too close to the language or you’re too far away. But is there scientific evidence for any of these claims? Here are some of the most common myths about second language learning.

The number of places to explore and people to meet throughout the world is greatly greater with more than one language.

Myth: You’re Too Old

If you’re reading this, you’re probably too old to be putting random items in your mouth. Use your mouth to expand your vocabulary in a foreign language instead! Photo via Unsplash.

No! While there are benefits to starting to learn earlier, it’s more complicated than that. First, consider that children are expected to know a lot less vocabulary than adults. As a result, there is a bit of an illusion that children learn more quickly than adults. However, according to research, adults and adolescents perform better than children.

The theory behind why it may be easier to learn at a younger age is called the “critical period hypothesis.” This has to do with the brain’s plasticity, or how much the brain can change and grow at an early age. While certain aspects of a language may be easier to learn during this period, such as developing a native accent, research does not say languages are harder to learn later. Not only is learning a second language possible later in life, but multilingualism could also benefit your long-term health. Studies have found that bilingualism reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

tl;dr: Start learning a second language before puberty if you can, but if not, that is not an excuse.

Myth: Americans Can’t Learn Languages

Many Americans know more than one language. Though she has lived here for many years, even Lady Liberty comes from a bilingual background. Photo via Unsplash.

Absolutely not. To be clear, 20% of Americans do speak a language other than English at home. But even if you come from a monolingual household, bilingualism is possible, thanks in part to how language education has evolved over the years.

Language learning used to follow the audiolingual method, also known as the “drill and kill” method. Because the military had success with this method during World War II, the approach spread across the country. Now, standards focus not on memorization, but communication. The Association for the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) rewrote the world readiness language education standards in 2015 to focus on the 5 Cs: communication, cultures, connections, comparisons, and communities. This change in standards also spawned innovations in how teachers assess skills, focusing on how a student communicates ideas rather than memorizing conjugations.

So no matter where you’re from, before someone tells you that you can’t learn a second language, remind them that 60% of the world is fluently bilingual in at least two languages. Bilingualism is the norm; monolingualism is the anomaly.

Myth: You Can’t Learn Multiple Languages at Once

Languages are like travel: the more the better. Photo via Unsplash.

No. Learning second languages is not a zero-sum game. Actually, because of meta-linguistic transfer, knowing one language can help you learn another. Studies show, especially for certain languages, that one’s knowledge of how sounds and letters interact can transfer across languages.

Even more, it may be preferable for multilingual parents to speak multiple languages at home. Researchers have found that having a parent speak to their child in their native language can be better for linguistic development in multiple languages. In other words, if a parent speaks Japanese fluently, does not speak English very fluently, but wants their child to learn English, the parent should speak Japanese with the child using academic language while the child should seek educational opportunities in English from fluent English speakers. Especially for languages that share similar morphemes and grammatical structures, learning both languages will assist comprehension in both.

Myth: Learning a Language Means Replacing Other Subjects

To be honest, trying to understand Einstein’s theories on physics in English doesn’t seem much easier than trying to understand them in German. Photo via Unsplash.

Not necessarily. One language education strategy is to teach another subject in the target language. This strategy, called content-based instruction, helps students make meaning and makes the language less abstract. This strategy is central to immersion-based schools, including dual-language schools, that use language as a vehicle to learn subjects rather than an end-goal in itself.

Myth: You Can Learn Languages On Tape While You Sleep

If you’re asleep or dead, don’t bother listening to a language lesson on tape. Photo via Unsplash.

This is just wrong. Beware of products that claim to be based in neuroscience but are actually just “neuromyths.” There have been some recent studies that connect language learning to sleep, the experiments are under specific conditions. One experiment showed subjects that listened to words while sleeping were more likely to recall them than those who heard them awake. However, everyone in the experiment had already learned the words. While you may not be able to learn an entire language in your sleep with headphones, sleep is important for memory consolidation: an important part of learning a language.

Myth: Immersion Is Automatic

Like most foreign vehicles, immersion is not automatic. Photo via Unsplash.

No. Just because you are surrounded by a certain language somewhere does not mean you will enjoy all of the benefits of immersion. True language immersion takes work, especially if you socialize with networks that speak your native language, consume all of your media in your native language, or communicate with friends and family frequently in other languages. More importantly, if you are only listening to the language you intend to learn and never have meaningful conversations, it will be difficult to improve. Instead, intentionally create opportunities for immersion: live with a host family, work or intern in the language, and seek out friends who are willing to practice with you.

Not a myth: You should go abroad

While immersion isn’t as easy as showing up somewhere, immersing yourself in a language and culture is extremely valuable. Traveling is essential not just for your language skills, but to better understand the culture and context in which that language is spoken.

Take a look at Cultural Vistas’ opportunities outside the United States and inside the United States to have an international exchange experience abroad. 

Lauren Aitken

Lauren is pursuing her Master's Degree in Education Policy and Management at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, focusing on language education policy. Previously, she worked in international exchange programs at the U.S. Department of State, Cultural Vistas, and Meridian International Center.
Lauren Aitken

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Lauren Aitken

Lauren is pursuing her Master's Degree in Education Policy and Management at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, focusing on language education policy. Previously, she worked in international exchange programs at the U.S. Department of State, Cultural Vistas, and Meridian International Center.

View all posts by Lauren Aitken

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