There's a lot of misinformation about language learning out there: how long it takes, how hard it is, what you need to do to get comfortable using a new language! Here's the truth behind some of the most common language-learning myths.
I need to memorize all the words in the language.
The truth: No one—really, no one!—knows all the words in their own language, much less in a language they are learning! And successful communication doesn't depend on it, either. What matters more is being able to explain what you want to say, and understanding others' explanations. You encounter new words in your own language all the time, and even if a word is brand new to you, you can often glean its meaning from context clues or an educated guess.
Learning a new language means building up those skills in that language! As long as you can describe the word you don't know ("Yes, I'd like the pastry in the back row, behind the croissant, no, on the left"), you'll be communicating, using a lot of language, practicing what you already know, and—yes—maybe learning a new word in the process!
I can become fluent if I just...
The truth: There are no quick fixes, easy hacks, or ways to learn a whole language in 6 short weeks (or 3 easy steps, or with this one amazing trick). Language learning takes a long time! It always involves training your brain to make new connections among words, grammar, and how they are pronounced, and even re-learning a language requires strengthening previously-abandoned links between words and meanings.
Certainly there are ways to make this happen better and faster—like practicing consistently and using your new language in your daily activities—but the simple, tough truth is that it takes a long time of dedicated practice to reach higher levels of proficiency. That's why setting short-term personal goals for yourself can really help with motivation: You'll be able to see your progress and get excited about the next milestone!
Older people can't learn new languages.
The truth: With the right resources, motivation, and chances to interact with and use the language, adults can be successful learners, too! Yes, children are great language learners, but some of the reasons why might surprise you! There are differences between kids' and adults' brains for sure, but grown-ups are also strapped for time, juggling family and work obligations, and often don't get the kinds of opportunities for language learning that kids have.
That's why, for adults, it's even more important to develop good study habits that can survive hectic schedules and daily life and keep you on track in your learning journey. Find ways to build the new language into your existing habits and skills, by studying at the same time each day (like with your morning coffee), capitalizing on your hobbies and interests (make a playlist in the language for your next work out), and setting short-term goals to help motivate you (maybe by the end of the summer your goal is to understand some of the dialogue in the show you're streaming).
My pronunciation has to be perfect to be understood.
The truth: Everyone has an accent in their own language, and your new language will be no different! Learners sometimes think they'll need to "sound native" in order to communicate successfully, but using native-sounding as a goal is unrealistic and (thankfully) unnecessary. In fact, having an accent in your new language can be really helpful: It says you know a lot more than what you're expressing at the moment, that you might be unfamiliar with some slang or cultural information, and that you're interested in learning more!
Instead, learners can focus on communicating clearly and confidently. Sounds can be especially hard for adult learners, for reasons that have to do with how your brain treats new sounds and how hard it is to teach your tongue and mouth to move in new ways. (That's true for your hands and face when it comes to sign languages, too!) There are some general speaking and pronunciation tips for learners of all languages, in addition to learning the details of the language you're studying (like Spanish or French).
I need to wait to practice speaking until…
The truth: You can benefit from speaking on day 1! For many learners, speaking their new language is more intimidating than reading or listening to it. Another myth about learning is that it's better to wait until you've done… something… before getting yourself to practice speaking. That "something" might be finishing a particular unit, or feeling comfortable listening, or knowing more vocabulary or grammar, but the longer you put off practicing this important skill, the harder it'll be to start!
Instead of waiting for a particular milestone before you begin speaking in the language, think about practicing what you do know. That will likely mean speaking in simpler sentences and focusing on more basic topics (describing things, talking in the present tense, etc). You can start building up your speaking "muscle" from the very first day!
I need to learn correct grammar.
The truth: You can get your point across long before you've learned all the nuances of grammar. What's considered "proper" or "correct" grammar is the result of language politics and sometimes really arbitrary decisions made centuries ago. And what's recorded in a book as "proper" grammar is often really different from how people actually speak! A good question to ask yourself is "Who do I want to communicate with?" (Or, uh, "With whom do I want to communicate?" 😏) Especially at the start, it's more important to focus on being understood than it is to have everything exactly right. That will come with time and lots of practice.
If you'll be writing formal emails or communicating professionally in the language, those rules of what's "correct" will be more relevant, but if your goal is to converse with family, use the language while traveling, or enjoy music and movies in the language, focus instead on how people actually speak and what gets your own message across!
Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction!
When it comes to learning a new language, sometimes the truth about how we learn to communicate is more surprising than the myths. Getting your point across in the language you're learning is about more than vocabulary and grammar, so take comfort in knowing that there's a lot of flexibility built into expressing yourself—and being understood!