Don't Believe the Hype

Let's say you decided to learn a language. You know what language you want to learn (or need to learn) and purchased the books and CDs you need to begin. Don't start yet until you read these pointers. Look for and avoid unrealistic advertising strategies. Can you really learn conversational Spanish in 7 days? Does Michael Phelps still speak Chinese? With the materials they give, you can't learn a language as fast or as easy as they claim. Many people do not realize what learning entails and that's why most of them fail after a few lessons. Here are some common, unrealistic expectations about learning a language:

MYTH #1. You will be fluent in a matter of a month, or just a few days.
We'll talk about that word "fluent" later in this book, but for now don't expect immediate mastery of a language or remember every item of vocabulary the first time or two. Language is like any other skill - some people are great with languages, while others are better at math, science, or music. Everyone has the potential to learn, but the fact is that some people are just more capable of learning language than others.

Some may need their self-confidence boosted, or some more motivation to reach their goal. The amount of time you need to reach your goal also depends on the language you are studying, as well as your own native language. Some languages are more challenging than others and take more time to master. But as long as you continue in your studies, you will find success in your work. Just keep in mind the old Chinese proverb: "Don't mind going slow, as long as you keep going."

MYTH #2. It will be very easy to learn. You saw smiling faces on TV and at the website when you bought that language learning software; they were having the easiest time in the world. And the company's website said it was the fastest and easiest way to learn a language.
When learning a language, I've seen people all excited and ready to learn that language, and in my years of learning and teaching I've seen these types of people everywhere. They go to the bookstore or shop online, and they're buying a language course book or two. Then they get one with CDs, and then they see another with video, a software learning package....oh, don't forget the dictionary! They are paying anywhere from $100-$1,000 for language learning materials. Most of these people have been convinced to buy these courses because it looks easy on TV and online. The reality is that the person will not make it past the first few lessons as their enthusiasm disappears and they now have hundreds of dollars' worth of language course materials being sold at their next garage sale for $20.

MYTH #3. Skip the exercises. Who needs to do exercises? You already sat through the lesson and they expect you to do extra? Just move on to the next lesson or end your session early. You will remember all of the topics covered when needed.
Exercises and practice quizzes in a language course are meant to give you a chance to practice the vocabulary and structure and test yourself on how well you've learned or are learning in each lesson. They are not throwaway extras you can live without. When choosing a language course, try to find one that has practice exercises sprinkled throughout the lesson - not just a set of 10-15 questions at the end of each lesson. All these extra ones can help reinforce what you're learning before going on to the next section.

MYTH #4. Don't allow yourself to make mistakes. Mistakes are for losers. You're a winner. Therefore, you should get everything right the first time you try it. Why subject yourself to the humiliation of making mistakes?
We all make mistakes. Even I still make mistakes in my own native language! One of the biggest problems that language learners must overcome is their fear of being embarrassed by making mistakes. Do not listen to those who say you'll be a laughingstock overseas, or you will say the wrong thing and end up in trouble. You naturally want to express yourself well, but the truth is that there is no way to learn anything without making mistakes. You must practice to learn, and the more you practice, the more your mistakes go away. And the more you speak, the better you will be understood. So overcome your shyness and use the language you learn!

MYTH #5. Leave the language learning in the computer. You already give an hour a day learning from your app or language software. That's too much already. So don't bother reviewing your notes or playing with flashcards later — they're not necessary. You learned it in the lessons, why go further?
You may not know this, but the human brain is pretty lazy. It will not learn anything the first or second time something is being done. It's like a muscle. You can't lift a five pound weight once or twice and expect to get bigger arms. In order for the muscle to get bigger and stronger, you need to regularly exercise it over and over until you achieve the desired results.

The brain needs that exercise. It has to learn that when you repeat something it needs to store it into a permanent form so it can be recalled later. As mentioned in myth #3, exercises and practice quizzes are meant to reinforce what you're learning into your permanent memory. So don't just learn with your app or on the computer or with your book and end it there. Take something with you and use it - your flash cards, notebook, MP3 player. They are the training wheels you need to use the language in a real situation outside the classroom or home. Look for language opportunities around you (most packaged items in Europe and the United States are printed in multiple languages).

Keeping It Real »