A: Seven misconceptions about language learning.There are over 6,000 languages in the world. Some ar



A: Seven misconceptions about language learning.

There are over 6,000 languages in the world. Some are more important than others, not better or more advanced, just more important. Why? Because they are spoken by more people, in more countries. That does not mean that Finnish is not important to the Finns, and Maori is not important to the Maoris. It is just that these languages are not so important to the rest of us.

On the other hand, Mandarin Chinese is spoken by over one billion people. Chinese origin words account for 60% of Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese vocabulary. Knowing Chinese will help you learn these languages too. It helped me. Chinese culture has influenced the world for thousands of years with its art, philosophy, technology, food, medicine and performing arts. Today China's economy is booming. Chinese seems well worth learning.

Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese are essentially dialects of the same language. If you learn one, you can learn the others. I did. If you learn Spanish, you open the door to the culture, music, history and possible business dealings with 800 million people in 60 countries, including the US and Canada.

If you get ambitious you could try Russian, as I have been doing for the last two years. Once you have Russian you can probably communicate with other Slav speakers.

But hold it here! Before getting carried away, let's look at the present situation of language teaching. According to one Canadian survey, after 12 years of daily French classes, only one high school graduate out of 147 (0.68%) achieved "intermediate" proficiency. Another survey of immigrants learning English in the US showed that "classroom instructional hours" had little impact on progress.

If we cannot teach our own official languages in North America, what hope is there for other languages like Chinese or Spanish, let alone Russian, Arabic or Hindi?

As a speaker of 10 languages I know the benefits of speaking more than one language. We simply have to change the way we go about teaching languages. To start with we need to dispel seven common misconceptions about language learning.

#1 Language learning is difficult

It is only difficult to learn a language if you don't want to. Learning a language takes time, but is not difficult. You mostly need to listen and read. Believe me, it is that simple. I have done it many times. Soon you feel the satisfaction of understanding another language. Before you know it you start speaking. It is the way languages are usually taught that makes language learning hard to like.

#2 You have to have a gift for learning languages

No you don't. Anyone who wants to, can learn. In Sweden and Holland most people speak more than one language. They can't just all be gifted at languages. Foreign athletes in North America usually learn to speak English faster than people in more formal learning environments. In language learning it is attitude, not aptitude, that determines success.

#3 You have to live where the language is spoken

Some immigrants to North America never learn to speak more than halting English. Yet we meet people in other countries who speak flawless English. In 1968, I learned to speak Mandarin fluently while living in Hong Kong, where few people spoke it. With the Internet, language content is available to anyone with a computer, and you can download it to your iPod and listen. Where you live is not an obstacle.

#4 Only children can learn to speak another language well

Recent brain research has demonstrated that our brains remain plastic well into old age. Adults who lose their eyesight have to learn a new language, braille, for example. Adults have a wide vocabulary in their own language and are better language learners than children. I have learned 4 languages since the age of 55. Adults only need the child's willingness to experiment and desire to communicate, without the fear of ridicule.

#5 To learn a language you need formal classroom instruction

This is the crux of the problem. Classrooms may be economical to run and a great place to meet others. They have the weight of history and tradition behind them. Unfortunately, a classroom is an inefficient place to learn a language. The more students in the class, the more inefficient it is. Languages cannot be taught, they can only be learned. Theoretical grammatical explanations are hard to understand, hard to remember, and even harder to use. Drills and exercizes are annoying to most people. A majority of school kids graduate unable to communicate in languages that they study for 10 or more years.

# 6 You need to speak in order to learn (and I have nobody to speak to)

Speaking the language is usually the goal of language learning, but speaking can wait. Once you have acquired the language, you will find the opportunity to speak. When you are learning the language it is more important to listen. Trying to just pick up a few "handy" phrases to say is likely to just get you into trouble. If you meet a native speaker, you will inevitably spend most of your time listening unless you already know the language. You do not need to speak in order to learn, you need to learn in order to speak.

#7 I would love to learn but I don't have the time

How about the time you spend waiting in line, commuting, doing things around the house, going for a walk? Why not use that time to listen to a language on your iPod? Once you get started, even 10 or 15 minutes a day will soon grow to 30 minutes a day, or one hour. If you believe you will achieve significant results, and if you enjoy doing it, as I do, you will find the time.

B: Five (weak) excuses for not learning a language

We all have the ability to learn to speak more than one language. Throughout history, whenever languages co-existed in close proximity, people managed to communicate across the language divide, naturally. They had to. That is still true today. Where different languages brush up against each other, people have no trouble learning another language and using it, whether it be children selling souvenirs in the market, or business people in international meetings. This is true in Asia, Africa, America and Europe.

We don't need a special gift for language learning. Doing so is natural to us all. Today, in the Internet and information age, we no longer live in isolation, linguistically or culturally. The opportunity to engage with other languages is greater than ever.

So why don't more people learn other languages, especially in North America? In part it is because of the seven common misconceptions about language learning, which confuse people. There are also five common excuses for not learning a language. But are they valid?

1) I am not interested in languages, I don't need them.

Is this really true? What if you could do it for free, free of cost and free of effort?

I sold encyclopedias door to door, almost 50 years ago. My door-opener was, "if you could get a complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica, free of charge, would you be interested?". That often got me in the door. Parents could visualize an encyclopedia to share with their children. Once I explained that it was not free, "but for less than you spend on coffee or cigarettes...," I was usually shown the door.

I use the same question with reluctant language learners. "If you were guaranteed to learn to speak another language, without a lot of hard work, would you be interested?" The answer is usually "yes".

Many people who say they are not interested, would really like to speak another language. Some may even have heard that language learning is excellent stimulus for the brain. But too often the image they see is one of tedious study. They do not have the experience of speaking another language. They cannot visualize the feeling of satisfaction that this brings. So in many cases the interest is there, it is just a matter of getting started.

2) I would like to learn but I cannot seem to get started.

Sometimes the goal of fluency in a language seems too far off, and difficult to envision if you have never done it. It may be better to set a short term goal to kick-start your studies, to "get your feet wet" and overcome this inertia. "L'appetit vient en mangeant" say the French, "appetite comes with eating". You just need to create the incentive to take that first bite.

Why not plan a trip to another country, and make it your goal to learn enough of the language before going, so that you can communicate and really enjoy your stay? Or, if you cannot do that, you could promise yourself that you are going to read a book, or watch a movie, in the original version. Maybe you have a friend or relative whom you want to surprise by speaking in their language. If you can make that first step, inspired by a short term goal, and if you study in an enjoyable way, you will be surprised how addictive and satisfying language learning can be.

3) I have tried before but gave up.

You are more likely to continue if your language study is meaningful and enjoyable. For most people, languages classes at school were a chore, and few students graduated speaking the language they were learning. Nowadays you have more options.

Just go to google and check out the many podcasts and online courses available for learning languages. You can also find blogs and forums and social networking sites, all dedicated to language. Once you get good enough in the language, you can search your iTunes directory for leading podcasts and blogs in different languages, on travel, technology, modern culture, or whatever you are interested in. You can also buy audio books in various languages via the Web, and in many cases the texts are also available for download at sites like Gutenberg.

With your MP3 player, you can listen over and over to things you find interesting, while absorbing the language. I recommend you to use those sources that have both audio and transcripts. That way you can read and use online dictionaries in order to understand what you are listening to. You need not get bogged down in grammar and drills. You will be surprised how fast you learn when you are enjoying yourself.

4) I am just not disciplined enough to study on my own.

Then by all means get a tutor to help you with your learning activities. You can find tutors for most major languages on the Internet. A good personal tutor can be one of the best investments you make, providing you with feedback and encouragement.

You do not need to spend hours a day with your tutor. A few hours a week, or even one hour a week, can be enough to keep you on track. You can arrange times that are convenient, and talk to your tutor via voice over Internet, from wherever is most convenient. You avoid the travel to and from class, and on the Internet it is easy to cancel or change your tutor whenever you want.

5) I can't afford the cost.

It need not cost that much.

In all likelihood you already own an MP3 player, and have Internet access. You can find audio books and other material at libraries and there is a lot of language help available on the Internet, free of charge.

Some people spend over $1,000 per month at language schools, but this is not necessary. You can do just as well on your own. Save your money so that you can make that trip you promised yourself to start it all.

C: The three stages of language learning

"You are what you eat"

-popular saying

In the global information age, maybe it should be "you are what you can say". Language, in its varied manifestations, is mankind's defining achievement, and it also defines us. Language can be social, political, technical, practical, entertaining, sensual, philosophical, and much more. At the banquet of life, each language is another course. The better you can use languages, your own and others, the more you can enjoy the feast. At least that has been my experience.

I have achieved varying degrees of fluency in 12 languages, and look forward to learning more. To me, there are three natural stages in language growth, which I outline here. Billions of dollars are wasted on ineffective language and literacy instruction programs, which ignore these natural stages.

The first stage Connecting with the language - 60-90 hours

My Goal: To become familiar with a strange language
My Measurable: Learn to recognize 1000 words
Main task: Listen repeatedly to short, simple content
My Target Languages: (planned) Czech, Arabic, Hindi, Turkish

When I begin, I need to "connect" with the new language and overcome my resistance to its strange sounds and structure. I don't need to speak. I don't need to understand any grammar. I don't need to get anything "right". I am not interested in mastering a few phrases or simple greetings. I want to get into the language, to get a feel for it.

Here is how Fred Genesee of McGill University describes the beginning stages of language learning.

When learning occurs, neuro-chemical communication between neurons is facilitated, in other words a neural network is gradually established. Exposure to unfamiliar speech sounds is initially registered by the brain as undifferentiated neural activity. As exposure continues, the listener (and the brain) learns to differentiate among different sounds and even among short sequences of sounds that correspond to words or parts of words

I start by repeatedly listening to short morsels of content. These are 30 seconds long at first, eventually growing to one minute or longer. I listen to the same mouthful (earful?) 20 times or more, to help forge the new "neural networks" in my brain. Ideally these short episodes are part of a longer "story", which makes the whole context meaningful. After focusing intensely on a new episode, I review all the old ones, so that I am able to digest longer and longer cumulative doses of the language. The Internet and my iPod shuffle make this content accessible and portable like never before in history.

Nowadays, I read the text of whatever I am listening to on my computer. This allows me to access an online dictionary and create my own database of words and phrases for review in a variety of ways. This acquisition of words and phrases, encountered in my listening and reading, is my key measurable goal as I grow in a language.

New words in a language at first seem strange and confusingly similar to each other. However, by staying with simple content, where common words appear often in different contexts, these words eventually start to stick. I usually associate the new words and phrases with episodes where I have heard them. The more associations I can attach to a word or phrase, the easier it is to remember.

I don't speak much at first. I have so few words anyway. I practice repeating words and phrases out loud to myself, in a haphazard manner. I don't worry about pronunciation. That will be easier to work on once my brain gets better at distinguishing the sounds.

I might speak a little, just for fun, to try out what I have learned. I can easily find a native speaker tutor or language exchange partner via the Internet. I don't got to classrooms, since I don't want to be confused by other non-native speakers.

The second stage Getting comfortable in most situations 180-360 hours

My Goal: To understand ordinary conversations and most everyday language
My Measurable: Less than 10% unknown words in most conversations
Main tasks: Listen to natural conversations; Work on vocabulary; Step up speaking and writing activity
My Target Languages: Russian, Portuguese, Korean 

Now that I no longer find the language strange, I want to deal with the language as it is usually spoken or written by native speakers. This is sometimes referred to as "authentic" language.

Conversation is the easiest "authentic" content to understand, because the most commonly used words of a language account for 90-95% of conversations. The same most commonly used words usually account for 70-75 % of more formal written material.

Each item of study is now longer, 3 to 5 minutes or so. I listen to each item less frequently and cover more material, in order to learn more words. I use dead time, doing chores, driving or jogging to listen, over and over. The more words I already know, the easier it is to learn new words. Vocabulary is like money, "the more you have the more you get" or "the rich get richer".

I like to stick to interesting and familiar subjects in my listening and reading, so I quickly drop anything that is uninteresting, or where I do not like the voices. At first it seems that native speakers talk very quickly, but my brain gets used to the natural flow, with enough repetition. I am not frustrated when I do not understand "authentic conversation". I feel exhilarated when I do.

Again, Professor Genesee's observations are helpful. Students' vocabulary acquisition can be enhanced when it is embedded in real-world complex contexts that are familiar to them.

I sometimes talk to native speakers on the Internet. Speaking helps me to identify weaknesses, missing words, concepts that I can't express, and words that I have trouble pronouncing. I can then work on these things on my own.

With limited contact with native speakers, I also write, especially on Internet blogs and forums. Writing is great for learning. I have time to compose my thoughts, and retain a record of my mistakes and problems.

At this stage, my main emphasis is still to listen, read, and increase my vocabulary.

The third stage Constant improvement 180 hours to forever

My Goal: To continue to enjoy the language, to learn more words, and to use the language better
My Measurable: Less than 10% unknown words in contexts that are of interest to me
Main tasks: Follow my interests
My Target Languages: French, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish, Swedish, German, Italian, Cantonese, English

This is the most rewarding stage. I can travel to the country where the language is spoken, or meet with native speakers. I know I will enjoy the experience, even though I make mistakes. I can maintain the language, even if I go for long periods without using it.

This is the best stage to study grammar. I have books and audio books on grammar, intended for native speakers of the language. I am now familiar enough with the language, through exposure, that I can use style and usage manuals intended for native speakers. Nevertheless, my personal interest takes me more to history and literature. I find reading books and listening to audio books, on subjects of interest, is the most enjoyable and most effective way to continue improving, or to refresh in a language that I have not used for a while.

I am not required to take any language proficiency tests. If I were, this is the stage when I would prepare in earnest for them. The keys to success on these tests are, the ability to read quickly and comprehend the spoken language, and a wide vocabulary of words and phrases, all of which I have already acquired, enjoyably and painlessly. Only at this level would I take these test, since I know that I would score well.

This is also the stage to work on special skills like making presentations, writing academic papers, or producing business reports. It is easy to find relevant material in the target language on the Web and elsewhere. The goal is to imitate the wording and turns of phrase, as well as the ways of organizing information, that are most appreciated in a particular language and culture. It is easy enough to find a native speaker professional tutor or coach, again via the Web, to work on these skills.


Having done it a few times, I know that I can learn a new language, or improve in a language I already speak well, including my own. So can anyone else who wants to. The key is motivation and enjoyment, not a school or a diploma. I know, as well, that the pursuit of perfection in any language is futile, so I am happy to make mistakes and do not really ask to be corrected. I just like to feast on languages, drinking, eating, tasting, chewing and digesting them. I never get full, although I may get a little intoxicated from time to time.












1. 學習外語難


2. 你必須有學習語言的天賦






















有時候,流利地說一種語言的目標似乎太過遙遠,如果你從來沒有做到過的話,那個目標也很難想像。設定一個短期目標來開始你的學習或許會更好,“先把你的腳弄濕”,克服這種惰性。法語所說的“L'appetit vient en mangeant”就是“食欲越吃越旺”,你只需要找一個吃第一口的動機。

















第一階段 和外語建立聯繫 - 60-90小時













第二階段 在大部分情況下變得舒服 180-360小時













第三階段 持續改善 180小時-永遠













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