In today’s article, I want to present and challenge some of the most common ideas or beliefs that really drag us down or limit us when it comes to the language learning process.
I’ve been able to observe these beliefs in many people, including myself, and that’s why I want to challenge them, because they couldn’t be farther away from the truth and because they affect our language learning process tremendously, especially when it comes to our attitude towards it.
These are the most common ideas or beliefs I’ve witnessed:
Adults can’t learn languages, or this is way more difficult
We’ve all heard expressions like “I’m too old to learn languages”, “only children can learn languages”, “I’m not patient and capable enough to learn languages anymore”, “I wish I’d learnt languages when I was younger”, and the list goes on and on.
Not only are these all false, but there are also many studies that prove that it’s actually easier for adults to learn a language, because of their greater knowledge of the world.
As usual, the problem comes from the approach we’ve been using to learn a new language. When using a traditional approach based on the conscious learning of grammar rules, memorization of vocabulary lists and so on, it’s actually normal for us adults to feel less prepared, since our ability to memorize stuff has probably decreased, so has our time for actually studying the language, we might find it harder to concentrate and study because we haven’t done it in quite a while, and many other similar reasons.
All these obstacles contribute to reinforce this false belief and lead us into frustration, and as I’ve said many times before , we’ll probably end up giving up or even hating languages.
However, none of this obstacles is real and they have no impact whatsoever when the right principles by which a language is actually acquired are applied. The same principles that, let’s not forget, help each and every kid acquire their native languages.
Actually, we adults are even going to be able to learn a language more rapidly, since our knowledge of the world is way greater, as well as the variety of topics we can talk about.
Let’s now present an example of an experiment that proves this fact:
In 1977, James Asher - who created the Total Physical Response method - carried out the following experiment: nine elementary school TPR classes involving Spanish as a foreign language, from grades five through eight, and an adult education TPR class, were compared with two control classes from grades seven through nine. TPR classes had only 20 hours of instruction while controls had 200 hours of instruction focused on repetition, formal instruction and emphasized Spanish grammar. The test used was the “Spanish Picture Test for Listening”, which asked students to judge whether a given sentence was true or false in relation to a picture. All TPR classes, with the exception of grade five, outperformed controls after 100 hours, and the adult class, after only 20 hours, outperformed controls after 200 hours. SImilar results were obtained using a reading test.
What this experiment shows us is not only the stunning dominance of those methods that are based on the right principles, but also the greater capacity adults have in order to actually acquire a language, as I said before.
Language learning is a hard-working process that requires effort and study
We probably don’t use these exact words, but this belief is a part of the life of thousands and thousands of language learners. The good news is that it’s false as well. I’ve already talked many times about how being aware of this has changed my approach to language learning dramatically, obviously for the better.
As I said with the previous belief, this idea comes from spending our entire life learning languages the traditional way, that is consciously learning grammar rules and memorizing vocabulary lists, among others. This is a indeed a hard-working process and that’s why this idea is so wide-spread, but we already know what the results of this approach are.
Personally, I’ve been interested in language learning for quite a while, but because I knew no alternative, my approach was always the same, the one based on grammar rules, vocabulary lists and so on.
I was always extremely motivated about the possibility of learning a new language, but my motivation would slowly fade away as I started to realize that this was indeed a hard-working process that just wasn’t worth it.
As I’ve said a couple of times before, everything really turned around when I tried to learn Polish the traditional way. That was the moment I realized we were doing something wrong. With closer or more similar languages to my mother tongue (Spanish) like English, French or Portuguese, you can fool yourself for a while and experience some sort of improvement despite the tedious and ineffective traditional process, but when I gave such a different language a try, it became an eye-opening experience.
What I do now in order to keep improving and working on my language skills is read books, watch tv shows and sport events, make language exchanges with native speakers of my target languages, and similar activities. They’re all activities that I already carried out in my mother tongue and that I find especially pleasant and entertaining. Believe me when I say that the difference is simply spectacular. And I know these activities are helping me out way more than the traditional hard-working process.
I’ve also been a student in classes that are based on the right principles (TPRS was used in this case), and it’s a whole different experience.
So for those of you who have this belief (I did too), you need to stay calm and know that not only is there a more pleasant and interesting way of learning languages, but it’s also way more effective and appropriate.
I’ve never been good at learning languages
Fortunately, we’re talking about a false belief once again. It is actually true that the process might be a little bit easier for some people and that our output will show up at different times, just like it happens with kids and their native language.
However, ANY person can learn ANY language if the right principles are applied.
Once again, the problem comes from the way languages have been learnt traditionally.
Because we’ve based language learning on the idea of effort, the conscious study of grammar rules and the memorization of vocabulary lists, many people will indeed have difficulties with this process for a variety of reasons (they’ve never been good students, they find this approach boring...) and they’ll think that they’re not good at languages, or even worse, that they’ll never be able to learn them; when it’s actually not their fault. In fact, I believe that finding this approach boring is a perfectly normal reaction.
Other concepts like error correction or that stupid idea of perfectionism that we have will make us believe when making a mistake (which is bound to happen all the time, by the way) that we’re just not good at languages, because we’ve been told that mistakes just can’t happen. Actually, we’re not allowed to make mistakes in most classes, through grammar exams and exercises, error correction during our speech and so on.
On the other side, if language acquisition is based on interesting and entertaining activities, if mistakes are not consciously corrected all the time and if we understand that every individual will develop their ability to speak at a different time, we’ll be challenging this belief and improving people’s motivation to learn languages.
Check out this article on what polyglots know that most people don't for more information on this belief and what we need to do in order to truly acquire a language.
I’m afraid of speaking because I’m actually afraid of making mistakes, sounding stupid…
Unfortunately, this is actually not a belief but a reality. I’ve included it in this article because I believe it’s possible to leave it behind. Once again, it’s going to depend on our approach to language learning.
As I talked about in the previous point, error correction and our stupid idea of perfectionism are some of our worst enemies, and they’re going to make this fear show up. When our mistakes are constantly corrected, most people are going to develop beliefs like “I’m just not good at languages”, and they’re going to be afraid of speaking.
We’ve actually been told several times that we shouldn’t be afraid of mistakes (this is actually good advice), but the problem with the traditional approach is that despite our consciously knowing this, this fear is actually going to stick somehow in our subconscious mind and we won’t have the freedom we’d like to possess.
I have personally experienced this fear as well because of how much time I spent learning languages the traditional way, but the knowledge of how languages are actually acquired and the principles by which this process comes about has really helped me fight this fear tremendously.
The most “interesting” part about error correction is that not only does it make this feelings and fears show up, but it’s also ineffective when it comes to improving our language skills, because the conscious knowledge of a particular mistake doesn’t mean that we’ve been able to acquire it and that we’ll be able to get it right the next time around.
The idea of wanting to sound perfect also contributes to the manifestation of this fear. If we believe that our speech ought to be perfect, frustration will constantly show up and we won’t be able to get over our fear of making mistakes.
Moreover, if you actually come out to the real world, you’ll realize that 99.99% of the people you talk to don’t care about how many mistakes you make but about whether you’re actually able to communicate with them. As I’ve said many times before, the message or communication is the most important thing, and not form.
Finally, the idea of the silent period also plays an important role in this process. If we’re forced to speak when we’re not ready for it (that is, when we’ve consciously learnt something but haven’t truly acquired it), this fear will manifest again, and if we combine it with error correction and the idea of perfectionism, we’ll be entering a vicious circle of fear that’ll be hard to overcome.
So the key to overcoming this fear comes from applying the right principles by which a language is actually acquired and from key concepts like the difference between input and output and between learning and acquisition, the silent period, the inefficacy of error correction and many others. Both in and outside of the classroom.
I truly hope this article helps you realize that these beliefs are actually false and that you can perfectly leave them behind, because they really drag us down and limit our language learning process. But most importantly, I hope it helps you find hope, change your attitude towards language learning and realize that we can all learn any language regardless of our circumstances.