Language is everywhere. We hear it all the time in conversations, in the streets, on TV. We read it all the time on street signs, books, computers. We even have language going on non-stop in our heads all day.
As fish are to water, we humans are to language.
As such, there are certain myths about language that most people never take time to consider. In this post, I would like to debunk nine of these myths…
Myth #1: Learning a foreign language requires a special talent.
As someone who speaks multiple languages, many people assume I have a natural “gift” for language. In other words, they believe there is something unique in my DNA that “enables” me to learn.
As the myth goes, this strand of language-learning DNA exists only in a select few. So if you are struggling to learn Spanish, that must mean you aren’t part of this special group of people.
Of course, this makes zero sense when you consider the fact that any child can learn any language anywhere.
We ALL have have the language learning gene—it’s part of what makes us human.
So then why do some adults succeed at learning a foreign language while others don’t?
Simple—practice and approach.
If you are failing to learn a language, it’s either because you’re not practicing enough, or because you are taking the wrong approach.
When you see a polyglot like me or anyone else speaking multiple languages, it’s not due to our genetics, it’s due to countless hours of deliberately practicing the right things.
Most things we think of as talents are actually just heavily-trained skills.
Myth #2. Children are better at learning languages
Everyone seems to take it for granted that children are the ultimate language learners. Challenge a 6 year old to a race to learn Farsi, and they will blow you out the water, right?
When it comes to language learning, children have one major advantage—they’re blank slates.
They don’t have any pre-existing pronunciation habits to interfere with the new language. They’re not going to try to make sense of the foreign grammar using the incompatible native grammar.
Furthermore, children are blank slates in identity, so they’re not worried about looking stupid.
This is their biggest advantage over adults. To learn a foreign language, you need to spend a lot of time making mistakes and saying the wrong things.
For adults, this can be nerve-wracking. For children, this is just another day of life.
Since children don’t care about embarrassment, they get all the practice they need. Meanwhile, adults hide behind books and apps so we can pretend to learn without putting our reputations on the line.
But when adults can overcome their fear of looking bad, they can beat out children with intelligence, discipline, and consistency.
A six year old doesn’t have the discipline to sit down for several hours a day to train language. Adults do.
That’s why you have adult polyglots like myself, who can achieve a high level of fluency in a matter of months—something it would take a child years to achieve.
Myth #3. You should train written and spoken fluency at the same time.
Most language learners learn to read and write at the same time they learn to understand and speak.
On day one of Spanish class, you learn how to say “Hola” in a conversation, AND you learn how to write “Hola” down on a piece of paper.
This may seem like the most sensical way to learn a language. Both oral and written fluency are useful, and they’re related, so why not learn them both at the same time?
First, it’s always faster to do two things sequentially rather than simultaneously.
Imagine switching back and forth between cooking dinner and filing your taxes. Do that, and you’ll probably burn your food and spill sauce on your 1040A form.
It’s way better to first focus all your attention on cooking dinner. Then when that’s done, focus all your attention on filing your taxes. This way, both tasks get completed well and quickly.
Spoken fluency and written fluency are two separate skills.
It’s possible to be conversationally fluent in a language without knowing how to read (e.g. blind people), and it’s possible to read and write in a language without knowing how to converse (e.g. deaf people).
So if you’re learning in sequence, which one should you start with—conversation or writing?
Most language learning programs start you on reading and writing because it’s easier for people to teach. You can learn to read and write in silence without risking embarrassment.
But that’s not the order you learned your first language. As a child, you first achieved oral fluency, then you learned how to read and write in school.
At The Mimic Method, we recommend you learn in the same order. First develop your capacity to learn the sounds, then learn conversation by ear, then move to reading and writing once you can already have a basic conversation.
Do it this way, and both oral and written fluency come to you much faster.
Myth 4: Pronunciation is a Bonus Skill You Save for the End
When I tell people that our company makes courses for people to learn pronunciation, a common response I get is:
“Oh, so it’s for people who already know the language, then?”
What people fail to appreciate is that human speech is nothing more than a string of sounds we make with our mouths.
So if pronunciation is about “how to make those sounds with your mouth,” then pronunciation can’t be a bonus skill…
Pronunciation is at the foundation of language.
That’s why, when people have really strong foreign accents, you can’t understand them, and they can’t understand you.
Who cares if you know how to spell every word? If you can’t pronounce those words, the language is useless to you in conversation.
Moreover, any sounds you have trouble pronouncing will have a domino effect on your speaking ability.
A word gets stuck in your mouth, and that makes you self-conscious. That self-consciousness makes you mess up even more words, starting a vicious cycle.
That’s why your first step in learning a language should be to identify the Elemental Sounds you are mispronouncing.
Our Elemental Sound checklists will help you with that.
So while your pronunciation doesn’t need to be perfect, the better it is, the faster you will be able to learn everything else.
That’s why our program starts with pronunciation—making sure we lay a strong foundation, and then build everything else up from there.
Myth 5: You need to study grammar.
In your first language, you probably speak with perfect grammar. Is it because you hold conjugation charts in your head all day? Is it because you’ve memorized all the grammar rules and their official names?
No, you learned grammar organically through mimicry.
If I said to you “I has a cheeseburger,” you would instantly know it was ungrammatical, because no one ever says it that way. Your ear would immediately register it as “off.”
This intuitive sense of grammar is what you want to have in your target language. But you won’t get that from studying theory.
In fact, studying grammar theory too early can actually slow down your learning.
When people study grammar, it stokes the fire of perfectionism—a fire our teachers have been stoking our entire school careers.
Perfectionism is the enemy of progress.
Instead of focusing on correction, focus on connection. Do you understand what the native speaker is saying? Can you get your point across clearly.
If the answer is yes, then you’ve succeeded. Who cares if you didn’t use the right preposition—those nuances will come later.
Myth 6: You can learn a language through books and apps alone
Too often do I hear people say:
“Yeah I’m learning Spanish now. Just got the Duolingo app.”
The hope is that, with a free app and a couple minutes a day on the train, you can achieve fluency in a foreign language.
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.
You’ll never achieve conversational fluency through books or apps alone.
Sure, books and apps might help you learn vocabulary or troubleshoot concepts.
But the whole point of learning a language is to have conversations with real people.
So even the perfect book or app will never replace putting yourself out there and practicing conversations in the real world.
The only path to conversational fluency is to practice lots and lots of conversations with real human beings.
All the other methods should just be there to steer you along your path.
Myth #7: Languages have rules.
People like to speak in terms of rules.
Like, “the rule in French is that you have to put the accent here”.
But in reality, there are no hard and fast rules—language is constantly evolving.
True, there are governing bodies who make edicts on language.
But at the end of the day, language is not dictated by the “Academy of the Spanish Language,” it’s dictated by conventions that arise organically among groups of people.
In English, for example, we used to say, “never split the infinitive.”
But then Star Trek came along and said, “To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before.”
And now, “to boldly go” sounds normal and grammatical. The “rule” has been broken and replaced. Just like that.
Context is also key for determining what language is “right” in a given situation.
Saying, “I ain’t got time for dis” would be incorrect if I wrote it in a school essay, but it’s totally fine when joking around with my friends.
Indeed, I would be more impressed by a foreigner who made that joke. But if another foreigner said to me, “At the present moment I lack the temporal means with which to achieve said end objective,” that would just be weird, even though it’s grammatical.
Because there are no rules in language, what matters most is context.
Myth 8: I can’t learn languages or pronunciation because I’m tone deaf
If you think you’re tone deaf, then you’re probably not tone deaf.
Tone deafness is a real medical condition called congenital amusia. It’s when a person is physically unable to distinguish between variation and pitch in music.
But it occurs in just 4% of the population.
Despite this fact, more than 50% of people claim to be tone deaf!
Why? Because they can’t sing in tune.
But the reason most people don’t sing in tune is not because they are tone deaf, it’s because they haven’t practiced singing in tune.
This is yet another example of people being bad at something they’ve never practiced and then assuming it’s because they are not naturally talented.
Myth 9: People want to learn languages
People say they want to “learn a language,” but languages don’t really matter. What really matters is people.
People just want to connect with other humans, and language is our biggest tool for this.
When someone says, “I want to learn Spanish,” for example, what they’re really saying is, “I want to connect with these Colombians,” or “I want to make friends in Madrid when I travel there.”
And in order to do that, they need to learn Spanish.
So ultimately, it’s not about the language, it’s about the people.
Whatever you’re doing to learn a new language, make sure it helps you connect with other people.
Don’t believe the hype. Language learning is not for the specially talented, it’s not about following rules, and it’s not about memorizing grammar.
Language is about connecting with people.
When you start from that basic truth, all the other myths start to melt away.