Learning a foreign language is an art and a science. It’s simple, but should never be made simpler than it actually is.
With the advent of communication tools today, there are more tips and advices being spread around that is neither research-backed nor realistic for the end user.
Let us be clear: there are many useful advice out there coming from amazing bloggers, linguists, and polyglots. But with all the noise out there, it’s hard for beginners learning a foreign language to navigate which is bad or good.
This is why we’re going to get to the bottom of this issue by sharing our top 10 awful pieces of advice to ignore when learning a foreign language. Hope it serves you.
1. “You’re too old to be learning a foreign language…”
Most of us make more excuses than we think when it comes to learning a foreign language. But being too old to learn another language makes it to the top every time. Sure, a child who is five years old will likely learn how to speak Spanish faster than someone who is sixty years old with no previous Spanish experience. But the differences are much smaller than you think.
A study done by Hakuta, Bialystok and Wiley compared the language learning abilities in adults of different ages. Each participant was taught the same words in the same learning environment. The results showed that people over 50 learn just as well as people in their 20’s or 30’s.
Don’t let the year you were born control what you can or cannot learn.
2. “Why don’t you go live in another country?”
This is another bad advice that’s heard from the media and amongst friends/family. Telling someone to live in a foreign country to learn a language, is no different than telling someone to sign up for a gym to get a six pack.
What’s blocking people is rarely the environment or resources, but it’s the internal motivation. You’ve probably seen individuals who lived in a foreign country for over a year, only to come back with little to zero knowledge in a language. Then you see self-starters who work a full-time job at their local city, while managing to learn several languages within a period of time.
What’s the difference? Motivation, not the environment.
3. “Conversation can be taught in the classroom”
Tim Ferriss, who’s a polyglot and bestselling author, says:
“Somewhat like riding a bike, though unfortunately not as permanent, language fluency is more dependent on practicing the right things than learning the right things. The rules (grammar) can be learned through materials and classes, but the necessary tools (vocabulary and idiomatic usage) will come from independent study and practice in a native environment.”
Tim’s point is simple. While the rules can be taught in the classroom, conversation skills only come from the real world.
This brings us to our next point…
4. “Why pay for a teacher? Just use Duolingo!”
While apps like Duolingo are useful for learning and practicing new vocabulary and grammar rules, we often hear the same feedback about them: lack of accountability, no live speaking interaction, and not challenging enough.
Using Duolingo to learn a language is like depending on Fitbit or another fitness application to get in shape. Our recommendation is to continue using Duolingo, but leverage it as a complementary tool to other learning methods that will deliver better results, like finding a private teacher.
5. “Pay more for better results”
There is also the other side to this argument. “If Duolingo is free, then paying more for a solution should provide better results right?”
The cost of a solution can be determined using multiple factors that does not always have to do with quality. For example, a book on Kindle is 25% cheaper than a physical book. Does that mean the physical book will provide better results or is a superior product? It depends.
If you value tangible, physical books that you can read from, then it could be. But if you hate having books take up your living space, and love being able to hold thousands of books from one device, then you’re technically paying less to get more value.
The same applies to learning a foreign language. The higher cost of a language school is not correlated with a better curriculum or learning experience. Most language schools charge a higher fee because they have to incur overhead costs like building tax, insurance, staffing costs, and more, that have nothing to do with offering better education.
Solutions like what we offer at Rype have taken out the middleman, similar to what Amazon did with bookstores, allowing us to charge less for better value (1-on-1 lessons versus group lessons).
6. “Pick a language with the largest amount of native speakers”
Are you still wondering what language you should learn? It’s tempting to blindly choose languages like Mandarin, Arabic, or Spanish, simply because they have the most native speakers.
As the popular polyglot, Benny Lewis states, “even if you go live in the country, you’ll be unlikely to visit more than a handful of times and come across the same number of speakers as you would in any other country.”
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn those popular languages. It just means you need more motivation than an “ego boost” to sustain the long journey of learning a foreign language. Here’s our list of the most useful languages to learn.
7. “Language learning is a full-time job”
One of the most common myths about learning a foreign language is that you have to sacrifice your busy schedule to learn it.
This is because most people still think enrolling into a language school is the only effective way to learn a language. In this case, it is structured as a full-time job, since you’re expected to learn 2-3 hours per session, complete a list of homework assignments for the next day, and commute 60-minutes round trip. That comes to about 5 hours a day, which isn’t too far from a regular working day.
But attending a language school is not the best way to learn a language, especially for busy people. People living an ‘on-the-go’ lifestyle need an ‘on-the-go’ learning experience that fits their busy schedule, and there are many solutions out there.
8. “Don’t translate — just think in the language!”
Yes, eventually this is how you want to think. But it’s impossible to start thinking in a foreign language if you’ve never learned it in the past.
Everyone, even the top language experts start from Phase one, which is translating the foreign language into your native language. Over time, as you feel more comfortable with the foreign language, you can begin to transition from translating each word to thinking in the foreign language, but you can’t simply skip this phase.
9. “Stick with just one method for learning a foreign language!”
Starting with a single method can work for most people, like using a single textbook, or working with a teacher’s resource.
But once you reach an intermediary level, polyglots like Luca Lampariello recommends diversifying the methods you’re using to challenge yourself in different aspects. This is because no curriculum is right for everyone. You have to understand how you best learn, why you’re learning the language, and your strengths & weaknesses. Then you can explore the various methods that are out there for you to take advantage of.
10. “You can forget about getting pronunciation down”
With hundreds of different sound units (phonemes) in the world’s languages – between 300 to 600, depending on who you ask – it is easy to feel overwhelmed. Particularly when it comes to long strings of consonants like Russian or Mandarin.
According to Benny Lewis, it isn’t that these words are hard to pronounce, but that English pronunciation and spelling rules are so weird.
Here is what he recommends for anyone struggling with pronunciation:
1. Pick the phonetic sounds you’re struggling with the most
2. Then pick a list of words that you can try out yourself (i.e. pick common words that you would normally use)
3. Check your pronunciation using Forvo.com or with your private teacher
4. Repeat the words over and over again, and eventually your muscle memory will naturally take over. It will become easier and easier, where you’ll begin to internalize the patterns
Over to you
Are there awful advices you’ve heard about learning a foreign language that we didn’t share in this article? Let us know the worst ones in the comments below, and let’s have a laugh about it!
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