In fact, this post is not only aimed at students learning English but to anyone learning a language. Throughout the years I have been teaching, students have asked many questions about how long it takes to master a language or simply communicate, which the best learning method is, which the best age to starting studying is .... and what I can see is that there are many myths regarding these questions. So, I share some information about English learning based on tested and proved theory and practice!
Myth #1 The best way to learn a foreign language is to go to a foreign country.
Fact: While going to another country may seem like a sure-fire way to master a foreign language, it is not so. Without sufficient motivation, you will learn very little and are likely to end up speaking in an understandable way, but with lots of mistakes. Most immigrants in America don’t speak English very well, even after living there for 20 years. Many of them have been making the same basic mistakes for decades. They typically speak with strong accents, which enables others to instantly classify them as Asians, Latinos, Russians, etc. Being in a foreign country only forces you to learn what is necessary to survive — the ability to understand everyday language and just enough speaking skills to order pizza and communicate with your co-workers or co-students. The rest is up to you, your motivation and ability to learn — which means that you’re not much better off than someone who’s learning the language in his own country. All things considered, learning in your own country will be a safer (and cheaper) option than going abroad, assuming you can motivate yourself and can find opportunities to speak in the language you’re learning. After you’ve learned to speak the language fluently, you can go abroad to polish your listening skills and make your vocabulary a bit more native-like.
Myth #2 The best way to learn a foreign language is to speak it
Speaking is imitation. When you speak your native language, you don’t make up your own grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. You use the same grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation as people around you.Similarly, when trying to speak a foreign language, your goal is to imitate the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, so that your way of speaking is correct and natural. By contrast, it is important to point out that speaking practice does not develop your vocabulary or grammar. It helps improve your fluency (moves your knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation from your “slow memory” to your “quick memory” — however, first you must put something in your “slow memory” through input). At the same time, you should study the phonetics of the language, practice pronouncing its sounds, and learn the pronunciations of words. Sadly, the importance of input may be underestimated. Teachers may be mistaken if students are expected to speak in class almost from the first lesson, even though they have had almost no chance to absorb the grammar and vocabulary of English.
Myth #3 It is OK to make mistakes
The reasoning is that mistakes are a part of learning, therefore it is pointless to try to avoid them. But what teachers and learners must bear in mind is that making mistakes is not OK if your goal is to speak fluently and correctly.
Myth #4 As a beginner, you’re bound to make a lot of mistakes
While you cannot eliminate mistakes completely, you can speak and write with very few mistakes, even if you are a beginner. The trick is to put input before output. If you follow good examples (i.e. build your sentences out of correct phrases and patterns that you have read in books or heard from native speakers) you will be avoiding mistakes. If you are careful and patient enough, you can learn with very few mistakes and gradually acquire the ability to use more and more phrases until you can express anything you want in the foreign language correctly and fluently. But, don’t forget that making mistakes is part of the learning process and what you have to avoid is allowing mistakes hinder communication intellingibility.
Myth #5 You are a foreigner, therefore you will always have a foreign accent
The fact that most foreigners have a foreign accent does not mean that you have to be like them. Many comedians are able to perfectly imitate the speech of actors, politicians, etc. Renee Zellweger was able to do a perfect British accent in The Bridget Jones’s Diary, even though she is from the South of the United States.
You will need at least some talent for imitating sounds. To make your accent more native-like, you will need to learn about the Phonetis of the language. First, find a resource which has recordings of all the sounds of the language you’re learning (like the table with English sounds we have for English). Then, discover which sounds are used in which words by listening to the language and by reading phonetic transcriptions in dictionaries.Perhaps you will not be indistinguishable from a native in the end, but you are likely to achieve clear, pleasant pronunciation.
Myth #6 If you didn’t learn a foreign language as a child, you will never be fully proficient in its grammar
Lenneberg (1967) suggested that one’s first language must be acquired before puberty (about 12 years of age). After puberty, he claimed, neurological changes in the brain make it impossible to fully learn a language. To support his hypothesis, Lenneberg pointed to examples of children who were kept in isolation from others and had no contact with their first language until after puberty. Such children kept making basic grammar mistakes, no matter how long they tried to learn the language. But the fact is that grammar proficiency has more to do with how much input you get than how early you begin learning. The age factor is more relevant for pronunciation and listening skills.
Myth #7 Studying pronunciation is not important
Many language learners assume their pronunciation is good enough because their teacher doesn’t correct them too often or because other students can understand them. Those learners are often dead wrong — for two reasons:
Most teachers ignore all but the biggest pronunciation mistakes of their students. Normally, they just let their students speak and interrupt them only if they just said something completely unintelligible because their focus tend to be more in fluency rather than in accuracy. As a result, pronunciation is the most neglected subject in language learning. If you’re from Brazil and other students in your class are from Brazil, too, it will be easy for them to understand you, no matter how strong your Brazilian accent is.
What if you’re sure you can make yourself understood in a foreign language? Do you have any reason at all to study pronunciation? Yes, because your pronunciation may still be quite far from that of a native speaker. If this is the case, other people will have to make an effort to understand what you’re saying, and will not be comfortable with you. A related problem is that if your pronunciation is “unnative”, other people may unconsciously assume you’re slow and treat you in a condescending way — for example, talk to you more slowly and loudly, as if something were wrong with your comprehension. In conclusion, don’t think you can communicate in a foreign language until you’ve tested your skills on real native speakers (native speakers who are not your teachers). If you’re sure your accent is understandable, aim for native or near-native pronunciation, so that people you talk to can have a smooth experience interacting with you. In order to achieve these goals, there’s no doubt you will need to start thinking about pronunciation and spend time on it.