If I had a dollar for every time I made “Learn French” a New Year’s resolution, I’d have about $12 … Okay, that might not sound like a lot of money, particularly in this
economy, but 12 years is a long time to keep fumbling for a goal.
I guess I lost steam because I got demotivated thinking that the older I got, the closer to impossible it would be to learn a new language. Because that’s “a thing”, right…?
Kids have it easy while older people struggle to learn languages?
Actually, NO. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is a popular language myth. And there are a LOT MORE out there, which are not only
exerting unnecessary pressure on would-be learners but are also going as far as distracting them from doing the real work it takes to become fluent.
Because of this abundance of language learning myths and misconceptions, the team here at Brainscape decided to write this guide you are now reading. Consider it a
reality check if you’re considering learning a new language, or a course correction if you’re in the midst of that marathon. You might still have to brace yourself for a few truth slaps, but this guide will help to keep you focused and on track to become fluent quicker.
We’re the brains, minds, and hearts behind the
world’s smartest study app. We’ve brought together top students, professors, and language experts to compile comprehensive collections of study guides, like this one, and digital flashcards for 90+ of the world’s languages, from Arabic to Zulu.
(We also have certified, expert-curated flashcards for
French, Spanish, and Chinese, with many more on the way!)
What sets Brainscape apart from any other language app is that its adaptive learning algorithm leverages decades of cognitive science research. And through the principles of
spaced repetition, active recall, and metacognition, we can help you learn key vocabulary, verb conjugations, grammatical rules, and common phrases TWICE as efficiently as traditional study methods.
So, now that you know who we are, let’s get cracking on dismantling some language learning myths and misconceptions!
10 Myths about language learning Language myth # 1: Not everyone is “a language person”
I’m sorry, the fact that you’re reading these words is irrefutable evidence that, yeah, you are a language person. Everyone is a language person. Human beings are built for this: literally, our tongues have evolved for articulated language.
So, if you’ve been telling yourself that the reason you struggle is “because, well, I guess I just suck at languages”, it’s time to change your tune.
Well then why do I seem to be so slow at picking up on new words?
The difficulty you have doesn't lie with some kind of innate deficiency. As we said, you’re built for spoken language and communication. Your struggle probably has got far more to do with a
lack of intrinsic motivation to endure the marathon that is language learning—to practice when you don’t feel like it, to push through the embarrassment of making mistakes, and to find the time to learn when, perhaps, you’ve got a ton of other commitments on your plate.
The bottom line is that you have all the cognitive equipment you need to learn a language. You did it as a kid and you can do it again. Just stop trying to keep pace with everyone else and
stick it out. What about people with dyslexia or ADHD?
I’ve never met someone with dyslexia or ADHD who
couldn’t talk. Have you?
Sure, it might take neurodiverse humans a bit longer to learn a new language—and they might need to
find unique learning hacks to get focussed and stay committed and on track—but as children they mastered their native tongue so they can do it again with whatever language they wish!
How brain science can help you learn a language faster’ Language myth # 2: Children are better than adults at learning new languages
The only reason this myth might hold credence is because as we age, the brain becomes less “plastic”, which makes learning and remembering more challenging—especially for senior adults. However, if you think about the incredible amount of learning you do every day—in college, at work, or even at home—your brain is
In fact, it can master
anything you’re truly motivated to learn!
Take, for example, your favorite video game or hobby. When you first started, you sucked. But because you had so much fun playing or doing it, you kept going. Before long, you became good at it. And now you’re probably better than most other people.
The only difference between learning to play a video game and learning a language is MOTIVATION. We enjoy the
process of playing games and doing hobbies, whereas, with language, we typically only enjoy the outcome: being able to successfully hold a conversation.
The point here is that
no matter how old you are, you can learn a new language. You just need to be motivated enough to put in the daily time and effort. Okay, but then why ARE kids able to pick up languages quickly, whereas adults never seem to achieve fluency?
This likely comes down to
two very real learning obstacles that cripple most adults: EGO, and Lack of necessity
We feel embarrassed when we screw up.
Kids don’t. They just chatter away, completely unaware of how many words and grammatical laws they’re butchering. Heck, we even find it adorable when they make mistakes. It’s all a part of the learning process, right?
So then why do we turn upon ourselves with zero patience and tolerance for error, cringing everytime we say something wrong or refusing to “put ourselves out there” and try? This is why most adults who start learning a new language never reach fluency… because they
. give up
And then there’s the fact that adults can always
fall back on our native tongue if we struggle (and we do so far too often in order to avoid embarrassment). Kids, on the other hand, have the ultimate motive to be brave language learners: if they don’t try, they won’t be able to communicate.
These are the real reasons why it feels like kids are better at learning languages than adults. It’s also why
: you are driven by the most powerful motivator to learn, which is that if you don’t, no one will understand you! immersion expedites language learning
Is it really easier for a child to learn a second language?’ Language myth # 3: It’s impossible for seniors to master a new language
As we’ve made clear, you can learn a language at any age. And while the brain does become less “plastic” with age, that
doesn’t make it impossible. In fact, language learning increases the plasticity of your brain and this preserves and even improves your cognitive health, which is pretty important for older folks.
Besides, when you retire, you’ll have plenty of time to dedicate to learning a language; and then travel to countries where that language is spoken in order to practice it. Again, it might take you a bit longer to learn than younger people but it is more than possible: millions of people do it every year!
For the full science on
learning a new language when you’re older (and how to do it), check out the linked article. Language myth # 4: You need to have a good memory to learn a new language
Sure, having a decent memory is a pretty useful tool for learning a new language (or learning anything for that matter). But I’m going to challenge this thesis entirely by saying that if you think you have a crappy memory,
you probably haven’t been studying the right way until now.
You see, most people read something once or twice, do the exercises in the workbook, and then move on to the next chapter or module. What happens next? Within days, they forget everything they covered in the previous lesson.
When it comes to learning anything—but especially languages—
repetition is key. And this, my friends, is why Brainscape is such a powerful adjunctive tool for learning any language. Through our sophisticated spaced repetition algorithm, our flashcard app drills you on the words and phrases you struggle with the most, while saving you time on reviewing the concepts you’re already comfortable with.
Done this way, Brainscape helps you
scaffold your knowledge of a language, learning increasingly more complex terms in small enough increments that your brain can easily manage; and then coming back again and again to revise older concepts so that you never forget them.
The best way to learn a language online—your complete toolkit’ Brainscape’s flashcards drill you on common words, phrases, and sentence constructions, focusing on your weaknesses by repeating harder concepts more often and easier concepts less often. And it’s this spaced repetition of content at precisely the right interval for YOUR brain that makes Brainscape so effective for learning the building blocks of new languages.
Brainscape has been engineered to help you learn
and remember vocab, verb conjugations, and basic sentences TWICE as efficiently as any other study method. So if you get our app on your devices and practice flashcards for your chosen language a little bit every day, being “forgetful” won’t be an obstacle to learning. No, really, I am forgetful. I have a terrible memory!
Look, language is a skill, which means that you’re going to become better at it through
practice and repetition. Yes, there’s memory work required for grammar, vocabulary, and basic sentences but they are just the foundations (and Brainscape can help you with that). The rest is daily practice—listening, reading, and conversation.
It’s through this practice that the brain deeply and permanently ingrains information. So even if you have a spotty memory, you will retain new words and phrases quicker because you’re
using them regularly.
Check out ‘
Reading is one of the BEST ways to learn a language’ and ‘ Why you should practice SPEAKING a second language’. Language myth # 5: Apps like DuoLingo will have you fluent once you’ve completed their programs
We’ve all seen the language apps that promise fluency once you’ve worked your way through all their gamified “levels”, and DuoLingo is a great example of such an app. It’s successfully transformed language learning into an
addictive game, which is why it’s loved and used by millions of people.
With each gamified challenge you pass, you unlock new levels, which reveals new, increasingly complex vocabulary and random short sentences, with the end goal being to unlock an entire “tree” of hundreds of courses. All of this makes Duolingo a fun way to learn a new language, and an excellent adjunctive tool to use with
apps like Brainscape.
However, the drawback is that DuoLingo—and other apps like it—delivers its content in a
linear fashion without systematically repeating the vocabulary, sentences, and pronunciation you’ve covered in previous lessons. And without repetition and practice, , no matter how fun the learning activities were along the way. you’re just going to forget everything as you progress
To quote the author of the article,
I Completed DuoLingo Chinese. Here’s Why You Shouldn’t: “That summer I spent so much time using the app that I actually completed the DuoLingo Chinese tree. Yet by the end of the summer I not only wasn’t fluent, my spoken Chinese was no higher than a lower elementary level or A1 – the lowest rung on the European framework.”
All-in-all, Duolingo is a master of motivating users to engage its content, which makes it a great tool to use alongside more sophisticated language-learning apps like
Brainscape; but without repetition and conversational practice, you aren’t really going to be able to speak your chosen language by the end of it.
Make sure you understand that from the outset before you invest your hopes and dreams of becoming fluent in a single app.
Language myth # 6: You don’t need to practice with other people to learn a new language
The whole point of learning a new language is to establish
human connection, whether it’s to exchange ideas, solicit goods and services, or propagate your genes. This is where the real motivation to learn a new language comes from: from . being able to connect with the people around you
Nothing motivates human behavior quite as much as social acceptance.
Trying to learn a language with a couple of apps and an online course may teach you the essentials. But you are so much more likely to
succeed in becoming fluent if you practice regularly (and establish connections) with other native speakers.
I’ve said it a few times before and I’ll say it again: the key to learning a language is having the motivation to stick it out! Having said that, if you don’t have the luxury of language partners, check out this video…
Language myth # 7: Everyone should learn a second (or third) language
Here at Brainscape, we’re HUGE fans of learning languages. In fact, it’s how we started over 15 years ago: as a language app for learning Spanish and then French.
But while we love the idea of everybody learning a second, third, or even fourth language—and being
the most effective language-learning app that helps them to do that—the reality is that not everybody has the time, passion, or motivation for it.
So if you aren’t
serious about committing (or cannot afford to commit) yourself to practicing a little bit every single day, learning a new language might just not be for you. And there’s nothing wrong with that!
Should you learn a foreign language? Maybe not (and that’s ok)’. Language myth # 8: “I can’t afford to learn a new language”
I didn’t pay a cent to learn a language as a young kid, did you? And when I picked up a second language from having learned the basics in school and then from being surrounded by friends who spoke that language, it also didn’t cost me anything.
The point is, you
can learn a new language for free or for very little money, provided you have access to the Internet, a library with a foreign language section, and a handful of conversational partners. (You can even use Brainscape to make flashcards for vocabulary, verb conjugations, and basic phrases for free or sign up for as many of our certified and user-generated collections of language flashcards as you want for as little as $4.99 per month!)
Alternatively, you can spend tens of thousands of dollars on private tutors, tuition at a fancy language institute, and a handsome suite of expensive textbooks, audio tapes (if they’re even a thing anymore), apps, and other learning materials.
Learning a new language can be expensive but it doesn’t have to cost you a cent either.
Language myth # 9: “I don’t have the time to learn a new language”
Look, I’m not going to argue with you here: if you work full-time and have family responsibilities, I’m sure the last thing on your list of priorities is adding an hour of studying to your daily to-do list. But let’s be clear on one thing: if you
really want to learn a new language—and if you really need to— you will find the time to do it.
With the diversity of language learning apps and free online resources out there, there’s no reason why you can’t:
Repurpose 5 or 10 minutes of downtime here and there to practice your vocabulary, verb conjugations, and pronunciation using Brainscape’s flashcards. (Those little snatches of time throughout the day add up!) Listen to a foreign language audio book or podcast while you’re driving, preparing dinner, or doing more menial work tasks that don’t require you to think too heavily. Get a foreign-language buddy to call you once a day to practice your conversational skills. Read a couple of pages of a foreign language storybook at night, using Brainscape on your phone to make flashcards for the words and sentences you’d like to drill yourself on later.
All of these tasks can be done between, during, and after your usual responsibilities. You just have to be MOTIVATED enough to commit to it daily.
How long does it take to learn a language?’ Language myth # 10: “I speak my second language way better when I’m drunk”
I have years of anecdotal evidence from when I lived in Thailand that this popular language myth is actually true. Except that, well,
correlation isn’t causation. Being a couple of beers and a tequila down doesn’t give you superior powers of cognition, transforming your crappy, less-than-elementary Thai into full, conversational awesomeness. (I’m sure many tuk-tuk drivers will agree with me on that.)
does is lower your inhibitions which makes you care less about embarrassing yourself by speaking BAD Thai, bordering on incomprehensible garble. In your mind (as with SO many things when you’re tipsy), you sound awesome. In reality, however, your language skills are no better than when you’re sober. In fact, they’re probably worse. The only difference is that you don’t care.
It’s the same thing with children who don’t allow ego to get in the way of them trying to communicate, with one notable difference: they don’t have alcohol impairing their cognitive acuity.
Do we speak foreign languages better when drunk?’ Myths about language learning: in conclusion
We’ve traversed a pile of the most odiferous yet popular language myths and misconceptions, and it is our most ardent hope that you now feel unburdened by the doubts and excuses that have been keeping you from diving headfirst into your language learning journey.
We just wanted to conclude with this final tidbit of advice, which is
the key to learning any language …
Throughout this guide, you’ll have noticed a common theme: the importance of MOTIVATION. It’s motivation that will
drive you to put in the time and effort every day, even when you don’t feel like it and even when you might not have a lot of time to spare. It’s motivation that will propel you ahead, even when you make mistakes and feel like you’ve embarrassed yourself in front of native speakers. And it’s motivation that’ll keep you at it after the first few weeks’ of novelty wears off and the months and years of hard graft drag on.
In other words: you’ve got to FIND YOUR MOTIVATION. Then, when you start, you’ll have that powerful tail wind in place and, because you’ve read this guide, none of the inertia or wasted time of chasing myths and mirages.For more fantastic advice on language learning, check out
Brainscape’s Language Academy and our collection of flashcards for 90+ of the world’s languages.