Common misconceptions about language learning

Common misconceptions about language learning

by Erin McGann

Updated November 9, 2022

People learn a new language for all sorts of reasons: immigration, love, work, or just to stretch their brain. Whenever Erin mentions that she’s learning German as an adult, people react quite strongly listing off all the reasons and misconceptions that they have as to why they can’t learn a language. Erin debunks these ideas!

5 misconceptions about language learning

1. I’m too old to learn a new language

I moved to Germany with my son, who was six years old at the time, and he has picked up German very well. This doesn’t surprise anyone, as kids learn languages quite quickly. However, I was in my late thirties when we moved, and I did not speak a word of German before we decided to move. Not quite true – I knew the words ‘Frühling’ and ‘blut’ from a previous job editing programmes for operatic song concerts. Not exactly useful, however. I have been working my way through, and I’m proud to say I’m now an intermediate German language student. Age has nothing to do with it when it comes to language learning. Sit down and put in the time, and you’ll learn it. 

You’re never too old to learn

2. It’s too hard to learn a new language

Difficulty is something that’s challenging to pin down as a concept when it comes to learning a new skill. Learning a new language is a skill, like woodworking, cooking, or knitting. If you don’t have any experience with speaking another language, it may take a bit of time to get your head around new ways of expressing yourself. But just like woodworking, cooking, and knitting, you start slowly with someone showing you the way. No one expects you to knit a jumper on the first day. Keep going to class and you’ll soon find yourself able to speak one sentence, and then another. One day, watching a TV show will be a bit easier, even without subtitles. Just take it one step at a time. 

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3. It takes a long time to learn a new language

Yes, it does take some time. But it’s not an either/or type of situation where you either know a language or you don’t. All through the process you will be enjoying a view into another culture and experiencing a new way of expressing yourself. Like any learning process, there are days where nothing is coming out right and your brain isn’t making sense of the words on the way in either. But the moment when a meaning pops into your head, without translating a sentence word for word, is like magic. 

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4. I can’t do languages

Honestly, this is something people say when they are afraid to try something. I know, I’ve said it too about other things (sports, mostly). Speaking a language is a skill, and it’s a skill with many different facets to it. There is listening, reading, writing, and speaking. It’s not uncommon to find one of those much easier than the others. I’m pretty good at listening to someone and understanding what they are saying, and picking up inflections when I speak. My husband can master verb conjugation tables that make my brain swim, and he’s better at reading long texts than I am. Neither of us would say we ‘can’t do’ languages. Take it one lesson at a time and you will be doing it.

Common mistakes adult language learners make

5. It’s useless, everyone speaks English

This is just not true, and not helpful. Learning another language, even if you aren’t perfectly fluent, will always look good on your CV. Speaking another language opens up your options for working with employers in other parts of the world, and allows you to negotiate for a better salary. Besides the career benefits, learning another language also allows you to better understand other cultures. Just reading the news in a different language is an eye-opening experience, let alone investigating history books from another perspective. 

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