I’ve received a lot of questions about language learning over time and have had the chance to hear the challenges that many people have faced.
What I’ve found is that a series of limiting beliefs consistently hold people back and prevent them from making progress towards their desired level of fluency.
I genuinely believe that anyone on this planet can learn another language, regardless of their age, intelligence and work situation.
A big part of the battle in language learning, as with so many other things, is in the mind and a great place to start is by dispelling those limiting beliefs. I’ll explain why each of the 5 main myths I’ve encountered is baseless and offer my own solutions to the challenges associated with each one.
1) Adults are Bad Language Learners
One of the most common reasons that keeps people from even getting started with learning a new language is the belief that once we pass a certain age, learning a language becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible.
While there may appear to be a general trend of adults not learning languages as well as children, this doesn’t mean that aging impedes our ability to learn a language. Or to put it statistically, correlation does not equal causation.
The difficulties that adults face in language learning are far better explained by the fact that they often follow a misguided learning approach, are learning in an unfavourable environment and suffer from a lack of enthusiasm or clarity for why they’re trying to learn a language.
In fact, scientific research has proven that adults are actually better learners than children in some areas. A study from the University of Haifa in Israel showed how well learners from different age groups picked up grammar rules. A group of eight year olds, twelve year olds and adults were all tested, with the adults consistently coming out on top in all of the areas measured.
While some argue that children are better at absorbing a language unconsciously, adults can still do this exceptionally well and combine it with a capacity for processing rules that allows them to understand the logic behind a language in a way that is far deeper than children are capable of.
Olly Richards, who I interviewed for the podcast, speaks 8 languages but didn’t start learning his second until he was 19. Benny Lewis, another well-known polyglot, didn’t learn his second language until the age of 21. These are just two examples of the countless people who have learned multiple languages successfully as adults and there is absolutely no reason you can’t do the same if you’re that way inclined.
If there is one main advantage that children have over us adults it’s that they are unconditioned by the type of limiting beliefs that cripple us. This makes them less afraid to make mistakes and more likely to enjoy the process of language learning, rather than turning it into a tiresome chore.
2) There is a Language Learning Gene…And I Don’t Have It
Another myth that rears its head in all fields of learning is that innate ability is the key driver of success in any field, and this is no different in language learning.
So many people believe that because they may have faced difficulties in the past, they simply don’t have the language-learning gene that allows others to pick up languages so easily.
As a result, they end up condemning themselves to a lifetime of monolingualism and either don’t make the effort to start learning a new language or give up within a few weeks of starting after they run into their first real challenge.
While some people may be more predisposed to picking up languages (it’s been proven that people who were bilingual as children have a greater capacity for language acquisition) the impact that this has on the learning process is massively overstated.
I believe that our mindset and the amount of consistent deliberate practice we put into language learning is far more important than any level of innate ability we may or may not possess from birth. The problem is that if we’re not aware of our own beliefs, we may not even be able to recognise that we have them.
We inherit many of our beliefs from our families, schools and the cultural environment we live in. In India, it’s quite common for people to speak as many as 5 languages, while the Swiss grow up in a country with 3 main languages – French, German and Italian.
In this type of environment, speaking multiple languages is the norm, not the exception, so there are fewer limiting beliefs around the challenges associated with learning languages.
If you’re British or American on the other hand, you’re likely to have grown up in an environment where monolingualism is the norm and you’re constantly being told how difficult it is to learn a second language.
This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and it’s not hard to see how you might explain your difficulty with languages as something externally determined, like a lack of talent.
The good thing is that once we become aware of these beliefs, we no longer have to be held prisoner by them. All it takes is the awareness to acknowledge them when they arise and keep moving ahead anyway.
3) A Huge Time Investment is Needed to Learn a Language
When most people think of learning a language, they frame it as the mental equivalent of climbing Everest. They often believe that it will take many years of hard work and countless hours spent hunched over a desk studying vocabulary and grammar books to become fluent.
While this may be possible for people who work with different languages every day, what about those of us with full time jobs, bills to pay and our own set of adult responsibilities?
It’s easy to see where this perspective comes from but the assumption at its core is fundamentally flawed. Learning a language is not always a huge time investment depending on your goals and how quickly you want to progress.
Picking up some basic Italian to get by on a trip to Venice will require far less time and effort than preparing to lecture a class of undergraduates at a university in Rome or writing an article for an Italian publication.
The problem is that when we start off learning a language by framing it as a difficult task that requires a huge time commitment, we’re already setting ourselves up for failure by creating mental resistance.
Most successful language learners make the time to learn despite having busy full time schedules, but they don’t do this for multiple hours per day. Instead they set aside a regular time when they can study the language for as little as 15 minutes and take advantage of as many opportunities to practice as possible.
If they meet a native speaker, they dive into a conversation; if they’re waiting for a bus or train they pull out a phrasebook or run through some flashcards on their smartphone. It’s these little habits that add up in the long run and eventually allow them to hit their goals – not a commitment to study for 4 hours a day.
4) There is One Optimal Method for Language Learning
We’re all brought up in a society that teaches us three things:
1) There’s a single best way to achieve a goal, a right answer to our question and when we find it, we’ll succeed.
2) We should always trust experts over our own personal experience.
3) Putting in as little effort as possible is good and desirable.
Whether it’s pills that promise rapid fat loss, day trading methods that will make you millions or accelerated language learning strategies that will help you absorb information like never before, we’ve been trained to think that others can tell us what the best option is for us, that there’s one best way of doing things and that we need to keep searching for it until we find it.
When one strategy doesn’t work, a new one comes along and we try that but get the same results. This leaves us cycling between methods with increasing frustration until we become dispirited and give up on our goal. If we’re using "the best way" then there must be something wrong with us if it doesn’t work.
The thing that all the businesses and gurus claiming to have a magic pill that will propel you towards your goals don’t want you to know is simply this: “There is no way. There is no magic pill. There is no silver bullet.”
When it comes to learning the same is true - there is no single best way to learn anything for everyone in every context.
If I open my browser now and search for “Language learning strategies” I will get an endless choice of methods suggested by so-called experts who all claim to have the best strategy. Can they all really have found the one best method, or is it possible that they’ve just found one of many ways that work in a certain context?
I’m not suggesting that all language-learning experts out there are charlatans selling snake oil. I’ve learned a lot from many of them and have interviewed several of them.
What I am suggesting that if a certain method works for someone and their students it won’t necessarily work for me or you. And many experts out there will acknowledge this if you ask them.
No matter how much you want to believe otherwise, the truth is that no single method or technique is guaranteed to work for you – you’ll only find out through your own experimentation.
5) Total Immersion is the Only Way to Learn a Language
Another common myth that holds people back from getting started in language learning is the idea that learning by immersion through living in a native speaking environment is a necessity, rather than a luxury.
If your goal is to reach a truly native level of proficiency, you may eventually need to spend time in a country where your target language is spoken, but this isn’t necessary until the latter stages of the learning process.
Most of the language-learning experts that I’ve interviewed almost always start learning a language in their own countries before spending time abroad and they often don’t have the time to dedicate themselves to this type of full time immersion experience.
One thing that they all do is integrate the languages into their lives wherever they’re living by applying certain universal principles to their learning.
These principles can be codified into specific behaviours that accelerate your learning wherever you’re living.
For example, when I was learning Portuguese in 2014, I’d often pause during my daily conversations in English and try to translate what was being said. If I couldn’t translate accurately, I’d note it down and look it up later and this proved to be extremely effective in improving my vocabulary and fluency in conversation.
Another great way to get more exposure is to do activities in your target language. When I was learning Portuguese I started taking some Samba classes in London as a way of accessing the culture and meeting other Brazilians who I could speak with more regularly.
This is essentially a form of temporary immersion that gives you some of the benefits of authentic experiences without being in the native country.
Our belief systems are play a crucial role in our ability to learn and language learning is no different.
By dispelling our limiting beliefs and seeing them for what they are, we are far more likely to fulfil our potential, reach our goals and enjoy the journey.