Top myths in language learning – part 1

Whenever the topic of language learning comes up, usually it is not long before some myths start to follow.

Sometimes these feel more like excuses than myths or anything that would actually prevent them from learning and range from reasonable and fairly well grounded, to going completely against what the literature has been saying for the past few decades.

In this post, I want to go over some of the more common myths that I have heard relating to language learning, dispel them and offer some concrete advice in return.


The only/best way to learn a language is to live abroad

This is by far the most common one I hear out of all of them. Almost every time the topic of language learning comes up, a few sentences later someone always says "If only I could go to where the language is spoken, I would be fluent in no time".

Sometimes I feel like this is more of a romantic fairy-tail than reality. Imagining flying off into the clouds, to a distant land and somehow absorbing an entire language through osmosis.

So what does that mean for the rest of us? If we aren't prepared to pack up our bags and move, we should just give up on even trying?

Lucky for you this is far from the case. This might of been true pre-internet, or before we lived in such a multicultural society, but nowadays you can learn a language wherever you are in the world right from your laptop.

Assuming speaking practice is what you need then there are countless services online, free and paid, you can use to get the speaking practice you need in order to get yourself to fluency. Not only that, if you live in a major city, you have access to people from all around the world right at your doorstep!

Just last weekend I was hanging out with some of my friends from Hong Kong here in Bristol, and spend the whole Sunday chatting in Cantonese and learning (failing) at how to play Mahjong.

But let's take this back a second, if we could go to the country where our language is spoken, that would be ideal right?

Well yes and no.

If we are already at a comfortable intermediate level then more exposure and speaking is what we need Going to the country offers a great way to surround and immerse with a new language, and practice it on a daily basis.

If however, you are a complete beginner, then going to the country where the language is spoken straight off the bat may not be the best idea. Moving is very stressful, you have to deal with a new culture, new city, moving house, visas, bills and all of this in a language you haven't even started learning yet?

This whole experience can be very very stressful, and you will most likely just end up finding the other expats living in that area, spend your whole time with them and live inside your English speaking bubble the whole time.

It doesn't matter if you are surrounded with the language, the fact that it is too high level for you makes the input incomprehensible. And if you can't make out what is being said then this is not an efficient/useful way to learn.

And this provides a good segway into my next point.


We all need to watch TV/Movies in our target language

Whenever you talk to a native speaker about their own language, they almost always say the exact same thing.

All you need to do is watch more TV, you'll be fluent in no time.

Sometimes they even go as far to say as it's ok to put the English subtitles on, once you watch enough you will start to understand and then you can just turn the subtitles off afterwards.

This is terrible advice!

Like with the last point, movies and TV for a beginner learner of a new language are extremely hard to understand. If you try to watch without subtitles you will be quickly lost, bored and fed up.

But if you watch with subtitles then you will spend the whole time reading English and not even paying attention to what is coming into your ears.

So what then?

Look, I'm not saying TV/movies are always bad. Used as a supplement around your other studies to increase contact with the language and the culture, sure, that is an excellent idea!

At the intermediate and advanced stages where you can understand enough to pick up the plot, go ahead, spend whole weeks binge-watching TV shows if you want to.

But as a beginner learner, we need a different strategy.

It is very important that when we learn a language, we pick material that is at the right level for us, and that we have some way of understanding. This is what is known as comprehensible input.

If you want to start with native materials, then I recommend looking on Youtube. You can find a lot of very short videos, some even less than 1 minute long, with subtitles in your target language.

Search the CC for a topic of interest, and download the subtitles for a transcript to the entire video. Once you have done that, you can take your time and read slowly through the transcript looking up all the unknown words before you listen, and with enough repetition of listening and reading, eventually, even the hardest text becomes comprehensible.

Another good alternative is to start off with a good beginners course based on dialogues like I did with Cantonese.

Then if you still want to watch TV on the side, start with something that you are already familiar with and has a relatively simple plot. Then, if they are available, put the subtitles on in your target language and just try and enjoy as much as you can picking out the little bits of vocabulary you actually recognise.

A good example of this for me was to watch my childhood favourite anime dubbed into Cantonese, dragon ball. I have watched it enough times to know the plot, and with all the fight scenes it's entertaining even if I don't have a clue what they are saying!


We need to master the basics

This is something that I think has partly been drilled into us from our days at school. We spend hours learning words and structures to try and master them and pin them down so we will never forget them.

It seems to be every week, that a new course comes out "master the basics".

Through personal experience I have realised is that this is quite far from the truth. We never "master" anything. The idea that we need to stop and master everything before we move on will hamper you in the long run and lead to you spending way too long with your beginner resources.

In reality, some words we remember and some we forget. After enough time passes eventually we will forget everything. So we relearn it, and relearn it until eventually it starts to stick.

Where this is damaging is when we are so called "mastering the basics" we are not learning anything new. We are simply trying to pin down the few words that we have learned to try and stop us forgetting, which we innevitably will anyway.

However, if you move onto harder & harder content, all of the so called basics will get so much repitition in natural language, that they will stick over time. All this while being exposed to new words as you go. Every now and again when you forget you can always go back and refresh in the future.


Need to master the grammar first

Similar to "mastering the basics", another common belief is that we have to master and learn grammar rules.

Typically in school, a teacher will tell us a rule, and then have us practice it in production over and over again until we eventually get it right.

The fact that teaching is still done in this way is surprising, especially considering we have had research suggesting we learn in directly the opposite way. Something we now call comprehensible input.

In addition, learning and understanding grammar can be difficult in our mother tongue, let alone a language that is completely alien to us.

I always use the metaphor of trying to start with the inside of the jigsaw. Sure you can get a few pieces linked together, but you are making it a lot harder for yourself without putting all of the edges in place first.

If on the other hand, we expose ourselves to lots of input and natural language, we gradually build up our base and comprehension. We learn patterns through repeated exposure building up a natural sense of the most frequent words and structures, simply because we have heard them so many times.




There are a lot of myths floating around today about language learning, way too many to be covered by a single post.

Therefore, in the coming weeks I will release a part 2 to address some more of the most common myths and misdirection when it comes to language learning advise.

Is the myth you were thinking about not on this list? Stay tuned for the coming weeks to see if it ends up in part 2, or leave me a comment below this post to let me know!