Delete These Ideas from Your Head About Language Acquisition

I am shocked how I have heard even very educated people, experts in their field, even, repeat the notion that learning a language to fluency is impossible as an adult.

ei kay

This mythology tends to be especially prominent in the United States, and I think it is more of a political reason than a scientific one: if you keep your own population monolingual (or try as hard as you can to keep it the case), you can ensure economic dominance more easily.

(Note: countries known for being “Economic Powerhouses”, [Germany is one notable exception] are “known” for being “bad with languages”, such as Russia, China, Japan and Brazil).

Do you know how many people believe this “critical language acquisition” idea in countries such as Sweden or the Netherlands? ZERO! Or, at least, none that I have met…

As of yet I cannot create world peace or stop climate change. What I can do, however, is ensure that this dangerous myth about “being bad with languages” is put in its place: namely, outside of the realm of credible ideas.

People tend to treat me like some variety of demigod (not a joke!) when they hear me sample a number of my languages (my regrettable recording software ensures that my polyglot video isn’t coming for quite some time yet). They think that I must have a “special brain” or a “special talent”.

I think I might be repeating myself from a previous blogpost, but for a mythology as dangerous is this, I will repeat myself as many times as I have to: I AM NOT TALENTED. I just spent a lot of time with the tasks that I wanted to achieve. If that meant sidelining English-language entertainment from my life completely, then so be it.

If that meant being tripped up endless times and being responded to in my native language and making grammatical errors and significant laughable malapropisms, I would be willing to take it.

One of the most transformative experiences of my life was when I found out that I could learn a language to fluency as an adult. Once that happened, I applied myself significantly – not with an excess of textbooks, but with surrounding myself in a virtual culture, even for languages that are official in only one country that I have never visited. Textbooks were a part of that, but songs, cartoons, and news reports were more important.

And as for the accent? There’s no way you could learn that convincingly well?

Ha.

Here’s what I tell people: if you can imitate a voice, then you can do an accent well. Even for the hardest ones. (Full disclosure: hardest accent for me was “Rikssvenska”, or Standard Swedish. Easiest for me were Tok Pisin and Norwegian. Odd how that works…)

I am not saying that you could gain all of the benefits of speaking just like a native in little time. That takes thousands of hours (although you could definitely do THAT if you tried). All of my professors who spoke English as a Second language? Sometimes they were reaching for words that they had trouble with and made grammatical mistakes. No one said you would be perfect. The only thing that counts is that you are good enough.

Which do you think I can understand better? A Faroese Folk song or an English scientific text?

Fact is, you don’t need to know everything, and there are still things that I am learning about my native language, often through the lens of my other languages: for example, a slang term for a garbage can in a workplace is a “circular file”, which appears in both German and Swedish (and I may most likely encounter them in other Germanic languages, too).

Will you let myths steal your dreams away?

I know I won’t.

May we live in a day in which everyone is free to pursue his or her own goals, without “science” telling them what is possible and what isn’t.

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