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Debunking Some Myths About Foreign Language Learning

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

Only children can learn a foreign language. Children do seem to learn more easily, but it\’s perfectly possible for an adult to learn a new language.  And it\’s great exercise for the brain.

 Two years of high school foreign language instruction should guarantee fluency. Because of this notion, the U.S. is full of people who are convinced that they are no good at languages, when the truth is they weren\’t given a real chance to learn.  Short of moving to a foreign country, the best thing you can do is to immerse yourself in the language as much as possible.  Sign up for courses, both live and online.  Watch kids\’ TV programs–the vocabulary and the concepts are simple, but the language is real.  Movies are a great tool.  Watch the movie first with subtitles, and then watch it again but cover the subtitles with a piece of paper.  You may only catch a few words at first, but you\’ll be absorbing the rhythms and tones of the speech.

You do not truly know a foreign language unless you sound like a native. This goal is unrealistic for most adults, and unnecessary.  It is possible to master another language and be perfectly understood by natives without ever being confused with one.  Henry Kissinger, whatever you think of his politics, is a good example of this.

–Learning a language is like learning to ride a bicycle.  Actually, it\’s more like learning to play the violin.  If you don\’t use it often, it will get rusty.  This can happen even with your native language.  The good news is that, unlike playing the violin, your language skill will come back quickly once you start to use it again.

Learning a language is only about grammar and vocabulary.  Body language is a big part of communication, so you need to be a bit of a ham.  Try to impersonate native speakers.  If it\’s Italian you\’re learning, move your hands;  if it\’s French, shrug a lot;  if it\’s Spanish, drop your American smile and look serious.  A glass of wine helps with all this.

Every word matters.  Only true if you\’re interpreting for a head of state.  Perfectionism is the enemy of fluency.  Expect to make hilarious mistakes when speaking, and realize that you\’re not going to understand every word you hear.  Aim for the gist.  Be pragmatic.  And leave (almost all) your pride at the door.

13 Responses

  1. i like the idea that a glass of wine helps. i had a harrowing experience in mexico one time, and my high school spanish came in pretty handy—they thought i was fluent, when i was not, and i think that my rudimentary spanish really saved me.

  2. I learned Italian in college, including a year spent in Florence living with an Italian family. Ten years later my Italian was quite rusty, but when I had babies I decided to share my Italian language with them. (My grandparents are Italian, but didn't teach their children, including my dad.) Just trying to use it every day started to bring it back up out of the depths of my brain. I've bought children's books and music, and both the babies and I learn so much from them.

  3. “Perfectionism is the enemy of fluency.” That has been my downfall in learning Spanish. I am always shy about speaking Spanish unless driven by the necessity to communicate. Otherwise I tend to be too self-conscious to make the attempt, especially when speaking to someone whose English is better than my Spanish. But when I did overcome my shyness to make the attempt, I found the people in Mexico invariably appreciative of my fumbling efforts. I didn’t mind their sometimes unsuccessful efforts to control their hilarity at my more bizarre mistakes.You’re right about “wine helps.” I recall a memorable evening spent in a campground in the Sierra mountains with a group of tourists from Barcelona. One of their group spoke a little English and I had my high school Spanish, and with the two of us acting as translators and the aid of a bottle of Spanish brandy, we talked far into the night on topics ranging from philosophy to the history of the Spanish civil war. When they asked about what wildlife they might see around the Monterey Bay coast, we were stymied until I acted out my best impression of a seal barking, which brought the house down.I’ve often found that charades and pantomime can be a big help in augmenting a meager vocabulary. I once got help locating honey in a store in Mexico by acting out a bee flitting from flower to flower. And I still remember the word “miel” that I learned that day.

  4. I totally agree with this. And I needed the reminder., having just arrived in italy for three months and with virtually no Italian language ability other than what was self taught in bed woth various apps on my iPad before I left. The dignity is long gone! And now we're off for an evening stroll and gelato.

  5. This spring I was waiting for a table in a restaurant in Chicago with my son who has continued to work at Spanish since he studied in Segovia a few years ago. A group of 4 women from Barcelona were waiting near us and it was delightful to listen to him chat with them as we waited. And as you said, my high school Spanish from nearly 50 years ago came back enough that I could join in a little too. Letting go of pride is a big part of being able to communicate — I found the people in Spain were so generous with me.

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