Myths about learning foreign languages

Once upon a time, these facts contributed to the expansion of my personal ideas

  • One Moscow acquaintance grew up in New York in the 70s: her father was a Soviet specialist at the UN. One day they were watching a humorous program on American TV: she, a teenager, chuckled – her father did not understand anything, although he passed some unthinkable tests and spoke the language perfectly.

    Since then, her work has been somehow connected with English. At the translation agency where we met, she was an editor – she checked already made translations for errors. I knew that, among other things, she read English classics in the original, and I was sure that she spoke no worse than Russian. And then I accidentally heard her half-hour conversation with an Englishman and was shocked: her speech turned out to be extremely meager. Almost no set phrases or idioms – she simply conveyed the thought so that it was understood (in the article “On the development of speaking skills,” I call this the first level of speech development).

  • In the same bureau, a translator once received a severe reprimand from the editor-in-chief for incorrectly using the simplest verb for professionals, withdraw. Once upon a time, this translator thought that he understood the word from the context, but was too lazy to clarify it in the dictionary. So it arrived years later for a fundamental semantic error.

  • A quite intelligent Russian girl lived in England married to an Englishman for more than 10 years. An English-speaking child, he has a toy dinosaur. In front of me, she made 2 (two) mistakes in pronunciation of the word dinosaur. But the word is common and has figurative meanings.

  • A resident of Virginia, about 45 years old, without any special features (I specifically checked with his friends), did not know the well-known military term “intelligence” – reconnaissance. It turned out, however, that he knew the shortened colloquial version – recon.

    Adult speakers often do not know English words that are considered elementary among our professionals. And two American acquaintances of mine, 59 years old, former classmates, both did not know that the verb swim has a 3rd form, swum.

Incorrect spelling of words in the English-speaking world is the same problem as ours. And the use of words with incorrect meanings – obtuse instead of abstruse or resemble instead of resent – is a completely separate issue.

In all of the above examples, we are talking about people who speak English at a very high level, but in different ways. Which option do you like best?

Myth No. 1. If I find myself in a language environment, I will speak quickly and well

The myth somehow continues to be used for the relatively honest taking of money from the population, although professionals are already tired of telling how people live there for 10-20 years, but confidently speak only about simple everyday topics and work. It often seems to us that visiting workers and minibus drivers speak Russian quite well. Within the profession – yes. It is unlikely that it will be possible to fully discuss an abstract topic with them. For those who are planning to buy a course “in a language environment”, let them read here and here.

Myth No. 2. If a person knows a foreign language, he can speak it

Not always. In practice, “fluent English” often means mistakes on the level of “my go to the gym” and fluent speech only on everyday topics. An abstract topic is stupor.

Unusual topics are difficult even for native speakers. Ask someone to describe in words (over the phone, for example) the acrobatic cartwheel we all did in gym class. Don't forget to prepare the popcorn. When a layman speaks a foreign language, he goes through such agony all the time.

If an international master of sports in sprint running is locked in an apartment for a couple of months, he will lose his shape. Does this mean that he is no longer an international master of sports? No, it will regain its shape in a short time. Likewise, a good translator can partially lose his conversational skills, while continuing to have excellent knowledge of the language and translate in writing INTO a foreign language from his native language.

Conversing face to face with a native speaker of a foreign language is stressful, and in a stressful situation, only what is learned comes out to absolute automation. People with a level in boxing in a street fight sometimes forget about the skills they have acquired and hit like they did in their own yard. I remember myself 15 years ago, when I was already reading the English classics in the original with all my might, and in a conversation with a native speaker I forgot everything in the world and, God forbid, used 5% of my knowledge.

Myth No. 3. “Language barrier” that needs to be “broken”, “removed” or “overcome”

A “language barrier” is when the parties literally speak different languages.

For selfish purposes, by prior conspiracy, this expression was given another, mythical meaning. Often people who know a couple of thousand words and phrases, who have some idea of ​​grammar, usually of an associative nature, believe that they already know the language; it’s only this “language barrier” that gets in the way. And they are looking for somewhere to “remove” it.

A Russian person will never in his life say “the girl ran”: the grammar of the native language, as they say, is written down in the subcortex and all available brain resources are occupied only with searching for the right words. However, everyone has situations when it is difficult to find words even in Russian. I’ll tell you a terrible secret: choosing words in a foreign language is difficult even for professionals. There is always something on the tip of your tongue, but you have no time to remember and end up using something simpler.

The grammar of a foreign language is not written down “in the subcortex”. Therefore, when you speak it, you have two burdens at the same time: choosing words and checking grammar. Let’s add here the stress of fear of looking like an idiot – that’s the whole “language barrier”. Yes, and the reality is somewhat more complicated.

Myth No. 4. A foreign language must be taught by a native speaker

One of the most ridiculous myths. The native speaker DOES NOT UNDERSTAND how his Russian-speaking student thinks. Those points that seem obvious to the speaker, on which he does not even consider it necessary to focus attention, are never obvious to the student. People do not always understand the speech of their interlocutor, even if they are native speakers of the same language. And the carriers are different…

But this myth helps sell courses in England and the USA, and classes with native speakers in Russia. It goes well in tandem with a fairy tale about how “easy” little children begin to speak.

Any comparisons with how children learn language – advertising demagoguery from start to finish. They work perfectly for children other mechanisms of absorption. Teenagers cannot do this, adults even less so. And even these mechanisms will only work if you talk to the child several times (once again – some!) hours a day. Until the age of 5-6 years, a child constantly makes HUGE efforts, trying to understand the chaos around him: how to understand adults, how to speak correctly. And by 7 he completely forgets what he went through. If everything was as simple as in advertisements for language schools, there would be many people around us speaking five languages. By the way, the diasporas of English-speaking countries are full of young people who speak equally poorly both English and the language of their parents.

Myth No. 5. English is different

Business, conversational, for passing IELTS, TOEFL, Unified State Exam, etc. In reality, there is only one English that needs to be specially studied under the guidance of a teacher. All these “business” and “colloquial” ones are based on the same principles of constructing a phrase, even practically the same words are used!

If a person knows these words and principles, he will master “business” English for simple office work in a few days without any courses. And to successfully pass an international exam or Unified State Exam, a couple of weeks will be enough to study the requirements of this exam.

Differences in educational material are inevitable only with highly specialized training. Do you want to work as a lawyer in England? Yes, you will need a special program (and a teacher, ideally). But you will study not so much English as the peculiarities of British law: the complex legal language is based on exactly the same principles as the basis of everyday speech. A corporate account manager in an American IT company needs serious “business” English skills, but! He will need training not in the field of language, but in the field of IT. General English will be sufficient.

Myth #6 Now everything is on YouTube!

YouTube is full of bright videos on simple lexical and grammatical topics. There will be progress from watching such videos, but only quantitative progress, not qualitative.

You will pick up words and expressions, but it will not teach you the language – just as, for example, nothing can replace a live, intelligent teacher at the initial stage of studying quantum mechanics. You can watch popular science lectures on quantum mechanics as much as you like, but it will be very difficult to build a basis for working with such a huge array of complex information on your own, without a mentor. It’s the same with languages ​​- most people still need a teacher at the initial stage.

Myth No. 7 Waiting for “critical mass”

All of Moscow is constantly learning this English: they meet native speakers, go to speaking clubs, watch TV series without translation. And everyone is waiting for a qualitative breakthrough. They expect that at some point a critical mass will accumulate, quantity will turn into quality, something will click and they will finally “master” the language. Years go by, but such a moment still does not come.

Half of the people believe that grammar, the principles of constructing an English phrase, are something that will come on their own. The other half is sure that they already know grammar at a sufficient level, and everyone unanimously repeats the mantra: we need more practice! Then it turns out that practically no one knows real grammar, including many teachers. The real thing is when you not only know HOW, but also understand WHY it is so. Textbooks, by the way, almost never talk about this.

In that video I show with examples that the problem is not a lack of so-called practice, but that even people with an Upper Intermediate level sometimes do not fully understand the structure of even elementary English sentences, not to mention more complex ones.

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