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You Are Not So Smart (At Learning Languages)

Cincinnati Reds vs. Chicago Cubs - June 6, 2009 - Great American Ballpark

"Dude, just stare on the screen for 15 seconds and French teaches itself. True story."

Everybody on the intertubes is talking about a book which tells them unpleasant things about themselves. This, in itself, is a phenomenon worth noticing – and then, the book turns out to involve some pretty useful topics. What is this book? Why didn’t I write it? And how does that concern learning languages? All will be explained in todays post: I will deal with several common misconceptions people have when learning a language. See if you can spot the one you’re guilty of…hop on! The book I alluded to is called “You Are Not So Smart,” and in an era of crowdsourced, self-righteous e-folk wisdom, it’s a wake-up call we all needed. The central premise of the book seems to be this: there are things going on in your head that you have no control of. This, in itself, is nothing new (Freud, anyone?) – what is refreshing is the way it’s presented (check out the trailers!). It turns out that the book’s title applies to learning languages as well. There are several misconceptions and myths involved in language learning. These are the things that slow people down, steer them away from the useful stuff and ultimately assist failure. Here is a handful of them – along with some ideas for dealing with these mind-traps.


1. “Hey, I found this cool app / program / website that teaches me a language!”

What’s wrong with it:This attitude is inspired by an assumption that resources, in themselves, will provide language exposure and tuition. Smart marketing messages will have you believe that by buying this application, or subscribing to that online service, you will learn a language.

20080914 - Magda S. 01 (Leamington)

"Shh. Leave me alone. Hungarian lesson."

 What’s the truth: Unless you’re actually learning a programming language, it’s pretty obvious that you will be spending a lot of time using it for communication. You know, with real people. But don’t despair; people are pretty useful for learning a language. They will provide you the help you need, correct your mistakes and guide you through the vague and uncertain areas better than any machine will.

How to deal with it: for any new language-related purchase, keep a 20-day waiting list. This will help you to siphon off the marketing hype. After 20 days, if buying that thing still sounds like a good idea, consult other users – listen to their feedback before buying!


2. “Yeah, man, I cracked the code. This language learning method is ultra-fast and mega-effective.”

What’s wrong with it: You’ve been told about a brilliant, revolutionary method that increases your memory, or decreases the time it takes to learn a language. You’ve been also told why this particular method is better than any other, and you were assured that it will work for you.

What’s the truth: A one-size-fits-all method does not exist. Just because a particular way of learning a particular element of a given language works better in a specific context…doesn’t mean it has to work for you, does it?

How to deal with it: Accept that languages are an extremely complex things to learn. This is the first step. After that, keep an open mind and a cool head: some language learning methods are good (even brilliant) for certain things, but few are good at teaching you many aspects of language at once. Experiment, test, measure, find out what you’re comfortable with.


3. “Hey, language X is easy, right? It’s just like language Y with some words that sound funny.

What’s wrong with it: This is a simplistic view of a language as a set of building blocks (words) which only differ in shape, size and colour from one system to another. This, incidentally, leads to many examples of “funny-sounding” utterances: you’re trying to use foreign words with your own grammar / style / pragmatic mindframes = fail.

What’s the truth: even within one language, there are countless differences: there’s slang and jargon, there are taboo words and codes of behaviour, there are things implied, alluded to, hinted at…How could you assume that none of these things will change as you go from one language to another?

How to deal with it: be humble. Ask stupid questions. Listen to the language you’re learning. Notice a lot.


4. “I can speak X like a boss, dude. Check out these swear words I’ve learnt on my holiday…”

What’s wrong with it: Why do people assume that swear words are the most useful and the coolest things to learn in a foreign language? (OK, this tends to be a fact most of the time, but why do people assume that?)

What’s the truth: so you can now abuse and intimidate people in a foreign language. This, however, is not learning a foreign language. A parrot can do that.


How to deal with it: I’m not going to believe that you’re able to use your foreign swearwords correctly until you’ve learnt your language for a minimum of 5 years. And even then, you’ll be behind native speakers in every potential cuss contest. So don’t even try that!


Guys, you’ve probably heard a lot of these as well: people think they know how to learn languages, but when you talk to them…they don’t seem to be making much sense. Share these in the comments. Let’s have some Shadenfreude here!

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One Responseso far.

  1. […] Despite my passion for languages and gadgets, I don't think these two go together especially well. I have seen many people who become so obsessed with technology in language learning that they forget the point of it – which is: to communicate with other people. (See my post about language learning misconceptions) […]