Letter to the Editor | Dispelling language learning myths

Mark Matthews, Guest Columnist

Mark Matthews is currently a graduate student in the Department of Modern Languages and Classics at The University of Alabama.

With the new curriculum changes at The University of Alabama, there has been a lot of talk about foreign languages. Many language learning “myths” have resurfaced, and in this op-ed I want to dispel some of these myths.

These myths are around for a good reason: like all myths, they seem true! There are too many to go through, and there have been books written about them. In this opinion I will focus on three; the “critical period,” the goal of classes, and the need for language in the U.S.


Myth No. 1: If you start learning a language as an adult, you’re screwed.

The good news is that, for any reader over the age of 18, this is not true! This comes from the idea of a “critical period,” when children can pick up a language with ease. 

What we now know is that this period is more like a sensitive period, where children are able to pick up the sounds of a language better, but not necessarily the grammar/vocabulary. A great example of this is bilingual comedian Paul Taylor, who speaks with a perfect French accent (because he lived in France as a child) but makes grammatical mistakes.

Children’s ability to speak and learn is truly amazing, but you need only to think about the last conversation you had with a 6-year-old to know that this is not the pinnacle of language learning.

This conversation was probably filled with many “I see bird yesterday” or “I wented doctor.” These are transitional forms, not unlike what adult language learners start with. Children will learn how to say “I went to the doctor’s office” just like adult language learners will.

Even better news is that adult language learners seem to have an initial advantage in learning language compared to children because they can read and already speak at least one language.

For example, if I showed you the French sentence “Le professeur est insidieux,” you would probably be able to guess its meaning “The professor is insidious.” This is because you already have a basis for language, unlike children. 


Myth No. 2: The goal of foreign language classes is to become fluent in the language.

While it would be nice for this to be true, the unfortunate reality is that upon completion of a 101 and a 102 language course, you will most likely not be fluent in the language any more than you’d be a computer programmer by the time you complete an introductory computer science course. So what is the point then? 

Well, if you do decide to continue, there is a good chance of becoming proficient, and if you do not, you get the chance to be exposed to a lot of new information, new cultures and generally new ways of doing things. 

It is not often in our adult lives that we get to feel the inability to perform basic tasks or ask for help, but a foreign language class simulates these feelings. While that may sound bad, it boosts your creativity and adaptability. These two skills are vital in any workplace.

In addition, learning a bit of a foreign language helps your meta-linguistic knowledge and vocabulary in English/native-Language. Meta-linguistic knowledge means knowing what the language is about; like knowing what a noun, verb, tense or prefix means and what role it plays in the sentence. 

Because of this, people who study foreign languages tend to perform better on verbal sections of standardized tests like the SAT, GRE or GMAT. These benefits increase with fluency in a foreign language, but you certainly do not need to be fluent to get them. 


Myth No. 3: If you live in the U.S., you don’t need a foreign language. 

Sure, maybe you don’t need one for work or traveling to other parts of the U.S., but that is a weird way to approach life. Should I not learn history or literature because I don’t need them for my job? 

The United States is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world, and you almost certainly know someone who speaks a different native language than English. Being able to communicate, even just a little, in these languages can deepen your connection with an infinite number of people. 

I have rarely been anywhere in my entire life where I haven’t ran into another French speaker (seriously, like Duncan, South Carolina to Delhi, India), or even a speaker of the West African Wolof (Greensboro, North Carolina to Rome, Italy). 

English does serve as the world language, but this just makes it all the more rewarding when an English speaker takes time to attempt to learn a language they do not need. Ask anyone who has traveled abroad, especially outside of Western Europe, and they will confirm this. 

I will not list every benefit of studying (even briefly) a foreign language as there is plenty of information online, but the key is that it connects you with more of the world, and in the age of globalization and information, that will only increase in importance.