Like most students in the United States, I took two years of a foreign language in high school as a graduation requirement. I received the lowest grades in those two classes of all my high school courses. I then took two semesters in college, as required by my university. Again, my performance was pretty terrible, and I decided I simply wasn’t good at learning languages.
That all changed after college, when I moved to Italy to live with an Italian family. I listened to an Italian language CD as I packed. That was the extent of my lessons in Italian until I arrived. The mother of the family said that, of the 11 summer babysitters they had, I picked up basic Italian the fastest. What?! How could this be true?
Fast forward nearly 15 years and I found myself studying Spanish in Virginia. Prior to this course, my husband—who had a similar high school and college experience—also confessed that he was simply bad at learning languages. I reached professional level proficiency in five months. He reached beyond professional level, near fluency, in three and a half months.
I have devoted a significant amount of time to reading and pondering academic research, engaging with language teachers, raising two bilingual children and working at a professional capacity in a language other than English. And I’ve come to believe that many misconceptions are getting in the way of high-quality language learning.
Let’s take the first two together.
1) Children must master their primary or home language first, then learn another language.
2) You don’t learn a language early in life, you can never be fluent.
Americans, take note: A majority of the world’s population speaks more than one language. Those who speak only one language are in the minority. While at a friend’s house in Sierra Leone (West Africa), I watched a two-year-old switch easily from speaking Arabic to his mother, English to his father and Krio to his nanny. While it blew my mind at the time, I now understand that this is much more “normal” than most of us realize.
Our brains are wired to distinguish every type of tone and sound each language produces from birth (Medina, 2014). The earlier children are exposed to multiple languages, the better. So, it is true that learning language early in life is easier on the brain and occurs more naturally.
But researchers also have found that lifelong learning means just that, even older adults can learn much more than previously thought (Rule, 2017). We just need to go about learning a new language differently with older learners. This brings us to the next three misconceptions.
3) Learn the language first, then learn academic content.
4) Start with simple words like colors and numbers.
5) Some people are just bad at language acquisition.
A young child learns colors and numbers because these are concepts that they can understand. But a 12-year-old who understands more abstract ideas should not start with learning “blue” in another language. How boring.
Like all learning, the more interesting and relevant to the learner, the easier it is to learn. And the more we can connect discrete facts, words, or examples to organizing concepts and ideas, the easier it is to memorize them.
We can teach academic content through language acquisition. We don’t need to wait. Take a look at a sample lesson or chapter titles in this introductory, middle school-level Spanish book by J. Rafael Angel, who has influenced my thinking about language learning:
- Can school be my second home?
- Are festivals genuine reflections of culture?
- What do we need to do to be healthy and happy?
- Is urbanization an indicator of progress?
- How did we find information before the internet?
During one of his workshops, Angel said:
“I want to talk about life with my students. I began to rethink the way we teach language so students talk about their fears, their dreams, their beliefs. I asked myself, how can we go beyond the festivals and food of foreign language learning? I realized that if we give students big ideas, they want to say big things.”
Wow. This relates to how I learned Spanish as an adult. We rotated through themes related to current events: politics, war, climate change, poverty, technology, nuclear proliferation. I learned a lot of “content” about the world as I acquired Spanish vocabulary, grammar and fluency. This brings us to the next three misconceptions.
6) Students who speak a language other than English at home are at a disadvantage compared with those who speak English at home.
7) Technology and the spread of English make learning other languages less important.
8) Culture is about food and festivals.
Speaking multiple languages is associated with a huge array of benefits: cognitive, social, emotional and physical. Research has found that people who are multilingual recover more quickly from traumatic health events such as stroke and are even more resistant to dementia (Vince, 2016). So, let’s stop using a deficit outlook for our English language learners, who now make up nearly 25 percent of U.S. schoolchildren. Bilingualism or multilingualism can and should be something to celebrate.
And if I’ve learned anything from learning, living, working and playing in other languages, it’s this:
Only through learning the language of others can we truly understand how they view the world. As we begin to study cultures different from our own, we become aware of our own unique lens through which we see the world, which has been shaped by our experiences and cultures.
Culture and communication are inseparable. The ways in which we live our lives, the things we emphasize and de-emphasize, celebrate and mourn, and other daily interactions are expressed through our word choice, tone and syntax.
I would not trade my experiences communicating in another language for just about anything. It brings such joy and satisfaction to understand the different nuances of the way ideas are phrased and communicated.
What do you think? Can and should we rethink the ways in which we treat language learning so that life becomes richer and fuller for all involved? Comment below.
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1) Medina, J. (2014). (2nd ed). Brain Rules for Baby. Pear Press: Seattle, Washington.
2) Rule, P. (2017). Can't Teach Old Dogs New Tricks? Nonsense. Tips for Learning Later in Life. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/cant-teach-old-dogs-new-tricks-nonsense-tips-for-learning-later-in-life-85776
3) Vince, G. (2016). The Amazing Benefits of Being Bilingual. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20160811-the-amazing-benefits-of-being-bilingual
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