If you’ve ever endeavored to learn a language as an adult, you’ve more than likely had to wade through your own personal process of disillusionment. Your early experience with language learning laid a critical foundation, but as you probably quickly found out, learning a language as an adult is pretty different from learning a language in school. Language myths abound in both popular culture and primary education, and sometimes, our teachers instill beliefs and tendencies in us all the way through university that we must later unlearn and unpack.
In this episode of Multilinguish, we tackle some of the most stubborn language myths and share personal anecdotes about the biggest lies our language teachers personally told us.
Multilinguish: Lies Your Language Teacher Told You
In the first part of the episode, I’m joined by fellow content team members Nasir Fleming and David Doochin for a critical takedown of popular language myths such as the critical period hypothesis, the learning styles myth, and certain assumptions people commonly make around fluency.
In the second part, we reconvene to share our own personal revelations around language learning that arose when we left the classroom and took things into our own hands. We discuss hot-button issues like when and whether it’s okay to use Google Translate, as well as whether non-native teachers have any business declaring what counts as “real speech” or not.
This episode was produced by Steph Koyfman and edited by Brian Rosado. Special thanks to Nasir Fleming and David Doochin for joining me in this discussion. Jen Jordan is our executive producer. Our logo was designed by Ally Zhao.
Critical Period Hypothesis Study | University of Jaén
Motivation And Long-Term Memory | Springer
Debunking The Learning Styles Myth | Babbel Magazine
How To Learn A Language In 15 Minutes Per Day | Babbel Magazine
Why Don’t Americans Know More Foreign Languages? | Babbel Magazine
Why Learning A Language Shouldn’t Be About Fluency | Babbel Magazine
Why Learning A Language As An Adult Is Different | Babbel Magazine
Is It Easier To Learn Languages As A Kid? | Babbel Magazine
Steph Koyfman: From the language app Babbel, this is Multilinguish. I’m Senior Producer Steph Koyfman.
I don’t think I’m going to shock anyone if I say that America is running a deficit when it comes to foreign language education. And by deficit I mean that it’s behind much of the rest of the world. The vast majority of America’s bilingualism is thanks to people who grow up speaking other languages at home, not thanks to our schools. Something like 20% to 26% of American adults consider themselves bilingual, depending on how you frame the question. But less than 1% are actually proficient in the language they studied in a U.S. classroom, even though 93% of U.S. high schools were offering foreign language courses as of 2008. If you are looking for a comparison point, 66% of the world’s overall population is proficient in more than one language.
There are absolutely arguments you can make about why language learning is less of a priority in the States, but there are certain universal truths about language classrooms that become compounded and magnified within a system that’s just not getting very good results. What we’re about to talk about is in no way limited to what happens in American classrooms. But for better or for worse, the American language classroom is what shaped me and my co-hosts for this episode. And we can personally speak from experience about the myths of early education that we later had to unlearn and unpack as adults. Your language teacher probably meant well. They also probably lied to you a little.
In this episode, I’ll be joined by Social Media Producer Nasir Fleming and Content Producer David Doochin for a rousing exposé on the biggest myths about language learning. Then, we’ll reconvene to talk about the biggest lies our language learning teachers personally told us. Before we get started, a reminder to rate and review Multilinguish wherever you listen and be sure you subscribe so you get new episodes as soon as they’re released.
Steph Koyfman: I’m here with Nasir and David. How are you guys today?
Nasir Fleming: Doing pretty well. How are you?
Steph Koyfman: I’m good. Are you ready to blow up some language learning myths with me?
David Doochin: Yeah, we’re language myth busters.
Nasir Fleming: That’s our official title.
Steph Koyfman: Yeah. Who has one they want to start with? I mean, I do if no one else does.
David Doochin: Yeah. I think you lead us off and we will chime in if anything kind of resonates with us.
Steph Koyfman: Okay. I think the first and the most prevalent one is the critical period hypothesis. Most people don’t know it by its formal bow tie name. Most people know it as “your only chance to really learn a bunch of languages is when you’re a kid. And if you waited too long then too bad, you’re never going to be fluent in another language because all kids have this magic sponge brain and adults just can’t learn languages as well as children can.”
This idea actually came from psycholinguist Eric Lenneberg and it’s based in some brain science because there is something that happens after puberty where the lateralization of your brain function finishes, and that’s when your language skills become fully localized in the left hemisphere. But a lot of modern researchers have pointed out that there’s a lack of evidence and a lot of recent studies have actually shown that adults might actually outperform children in terms of how quickly they can pick up new languages.
I mean, think about it, right? Like, how long does it take for a child to even be able to form a complete sentence? They spend a couple years just kind of like saying, “Goo, goo, gaga.” And just having these very simple sentences. And when you’re a grown-up, you already have this built-in understanding of grammar and how it works. And that is something that you can actually easily transfer to grammatically correct speech in other languages.
David Doochin: Right. I feel like this is a topic that comes up in linguistics all the time. And I studied linguistics, so I don’t want to make this more technical than it needs to be, but we know that in most cases, children who have a normal development, most of the kids in the world grow up without ever getting a formal training in language and they’re able to speak what we would consider flawlessly or grammatically. And it’s not like they’re running through a list of rules in their heads like we would learn in a Spanish classroom, for example, or from a textbook. So it sounds good to say, oh yeah, of course, you know there’s this window of time where you are optimized for language learning and your brain is like a sponge. I love thinking of it like that because it makes sense when we look at where children start, which is kind of this blank slate, some people would say. And then where they end up, which is being able to fully use language.
But then I think you’ve brought up some good points, Steph, that there’s a lot of nuance too. Like adults in some cases actually are really, really well equipped and better wired for doing a lot of things we know, and one of them could be language learning. And I’m sure it depends on the adults too. It’s not just a blanket, “Oh, all kids are better at picking up language because their brains work that way and then when you grow into adulthood and become older, your brain automatically stops functioning in the way that makes you good at learning languages.” I think there’s so much more complexity and nuance to this question.
All this to say, it’s just too complex to say, yes, kids are better at learning languages than adults are. And that kind of in me brings up what I was going to mention for one of the myths that I’ve heard a lot in my language learning studies, which is that … And stop me if you don’t want to talk about this now, but it’s about the way that a lot of language teachers and language programs will say, “The best way to learn a language is like a child.” That to me seems a little bit silly based on the experiences I’ve had learning languages. It’s like, “Okay, well, I am an adult. I have access to my native language fully, which is English, so why can’t I use that as a tool to help me learn a new language like Spanish or French?”
Steph Koyfman: Yeah.
David Doochin: My brain works in a way where I’ve been wired to see patterns in things and to draw logical conclusions from A to B, so why should I have to shut up all the other ways my brain works and the tools that it has given me to understand the world to learn a language? Why can’t I use my L1, my native language English to understand or talk through difficult concepts in Spanish or to ask questions? Instead of me just being thrown out into a world of immersion, where I have no tools at my disposal other than a few words I’ve picked up in Spanish here or there.
So yeah, I think that that kind of relates to childhood language learning. And that obviously it looks different from adult language learning, but to be an adult and learn a new language, I don’t think you necessarily have to go back to being like a child. Does that makes sense?
Steph Koyfman: Yeah, totally. Now, it’s like I’m kind of having these images in my mind of kind of like deciding that I want to learn Turkish and just starting out with a bunch of babbling.
David Doochin: No pun intended.
Steph Koyfman: Oh, I didn’t even mean to do that.
David Doochin: No branding intended. Yeah.
Nasir Fleming: Yeah, going off what David was saying. It’s absolutely complex. But oftentimes, I feel like having a grasp on a certain language can help you to improve your fluency in another language. For example, right now, I live in Mexico and although I’ve been studying Spanish since I was 13, knowing what I know in the English language now after university has helped me to elevate my skills in Spanish, whether it’s using bigger words in Spanish or whether it’s breaking down certain tenses. As a child maybe it is easier to pick up on things and to remember them, but usually we don’t understand how language works and functions until we’re older. So I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with being an adult and studying a language. And sometimes it could be super beneficial.
Steph Koyfman: Yeah, totally. I think it’s like, maybe that’s really where the difference is, is that if you’re a child, it just kind of happens without your input. You just learn the language. I guess technically if you’re an adult learning a language, it’s going to be work, but it doesn’t mean that you wasted a critical window.
I mean, there’s also the factor of you’re learning because you want to as an adult, and that actually makes a big difference. There was a study in the ‘60s that found that motivation actually had a measurable effect on long-term memory recall. So literally, if you’re more motivated to be learning the language, you’re going to remember it better.
David Doochin: Yeah, that makes perfect sense to me. It’s like learning any new skill. If you want to learn how to be really good at chess, some people would say, “Oh, you know, I’m just not wired for it. I’m not … My brain doesn’t work that way, I might as well not try.” And sure, there are some people who are naturally talented at chess or they’re naturally talented at learning languages, but if you really want to get better at something like chess or learning languages and you put in the hours and you see your work pay off and you build confidence and you have practice talking with native speakers or playing chess games, for example, you’re going to get better and you’re going to learn and adapt to your own styles of learning and you’ll figure out better how you process new information and work with that. So it seems to me a very individualized process. It doesn’t seem like you could say, “Oh, well, you’re an adult and you don’t seem naturally built or wired for language learning therefore, you missed your window. You might as well not try.”
Steph Koyfman: Yeah. And now that you mentioned that, that actually dovetails pretty neatly into my other myth that I was going to bring up, which is that you’re either fluent or you’re not. Also, that perfect fluency should be your goal because … I mean, what does that even mean first of all? This obsession with perfection is something that ends up hurting the learning process for a lot of people, because I guess it really depends on how you feel about making mistakes. Some people believe that mistakes are part of the learning process, other people believe that if you make a lot of mistakes, you’re just not talented and you shouldn’t really try. And that ends up kind of like shutting down the learning process that can happen. So yeah, so there’s this whole idea that if you’re learning a language, you should be doing it to be perfectly fluent.
And then that kind of calls into question like, how many native speakers are even perfectly fluent? Because if you look at the full range of vocabulary in a given language, most people don’t have that vocabulary set. And most people who are native speakers can make grammatical mistakes too. So again it’s like, does it really matter as long as communication is happening if you’re not perfect? And even if you’re not perfect, your brain is still getting all of the benefits of learning a new language.
David Doochin: Right. And if we think about intent too, not everyone learns a language to be able to go and move to a place that speaks the language and live there for the rest of their lives. If you did, which some people do, you’re probably going to want to be as fluent as possible. You’re going to want to know a whole bunch of vocab about a bunch of different topics and themes. You want to know how to form complex grammatical constructions and all that sort of stuff.
But if you’re just learning Spanish to take a month-long vacation to South America, you don’t need to be fluent. You obviously need to be able to get around, ask for directions, order at a restaurant, buy a hotel room or something like that. But we know that language learning is a process that takes a long, long time. And so if you need it for a specific purpose or maybe you just want to get to know your Spanish-speaking neighbor a little bit better, you don’t need to go zero to a hundred full fluency to do things like that. You just need to adopt the learning process to your own needs. Shorten it, of course. Don’t spend time.
If you don’t care about sports or business or medicine, then don’t learn vocabulary for sports or business or medicine, stuff like that and kind of fine-tune your learning process to what you need it to be. Don’t learn how to form the past perfect subjunctive in Spanish if you don’t anticipate you’re going to need to talk about things that happened in the past perfect subjunctive mood. And that might obviously be something you never come across if you’re just doing a rudimentary, a very basic kind of Spanish intro to get you ready for a trip. So it’s something you wouldn’t even have to worry about avoiding. But my point is fluency is a great goal to try to achieve, but it takes so long and it’s not necessary for everyone, of course.
Nasir Fleming: Absolutely. Also, going off of that. As long as we can effectively communicate with someone, I would say that we could potentially consider ourselves to be fluent. And oftentimes in the language space, I just feel like there is such a pretentious cloud when it comes to fluency.
And I’ve noticed that a lot on … Not so much in middle school and high school, but when I got to college, you have your hard core language majors who are doing the absolute most. And good for them. That’s really exciting for them. But at the same time, it’s really important to realize that like, what do we consider to be fluent? Because for example, if someone speaks fluently in Mexican slang, does that mean that they’re not fluent in Spanish? It just depends on the context, I would say, for the most part. And yeah, for all the language learners out there, as long as you can order coffee and as long as you can do what you intend to do, you’re doing great.
Steph Koyfman: That’s very true. I mean, how many conversations … I mean I feel like it’s happened both ways, right? Like I’ve had conversations with someone else who is using their broken English or like I was using my broken Spanish or Russian and they still understood what I was trying to say. So it kind of worked out.
Nasir Fleming: Absolutely.
David Doochin: Yeah.
Nasir Fleming: Oh, sorry, David.
David Doochin: No, I was just nodding along verbally, offering some affirmation. But, I’m sorry, go ahead, Nasir.
Nasir Fleming: Yeah, yeah, no worries. And in university, I studied French. And when I went to go study abroad in France, I realized that the idea of fluency is often just … It’s just like post-colonial talking essentially.
David Doochin: It’s a construct. It’s all a construct.
Nasir Fleming: Yeah, essentially. I just think that oftentimes we of course place importance on X, Y, and Z in certain languages so that we can keep certain people out of certain spaces.
Steph Koyfman: Mmm. Yeah.
Nasir Fleming: Yeah. It’s 2021, let’s keep it moving. Let’s evolve.
Steph Koyfman: Totally. So… raise your hand if you’ve ever been personally victimized by the learning styles myth.
David Doochin: My hand is raised.
Steph Koyfman: Yeah.
Nasir Fleming: My hand is half raised. Can you just explain what that is?
Steph Koyfman: Sure. So the learning styles myth is the one where it’s like, you’re either a visual, auditory, or tactical learner. Like everyone kind of fits into one category and you should kind of tailor everything that you do to suit your learning style.
Nasir Fleming: Okay. Yeah, going off of that. In most of my life, I’ve always been a kinetic learner. So when it comes to language, like what am I going to do? Go rub a rock and be like “Oh, piedra” in Spanish. Like, okay.
David Doochin: Have you actually tried that though? Maybe it would work.
Nasir Fleming: That is very, very true. But I will say, going off of that, in terms of I guess, I don’t know if this would make me more of a visual learner, but I am a lot stronger in Spanish and French when I’m actually reading a text compared to when I’m listening to someone speaking it. So I’m not sure.
David Doochin: Yeah. I think for language learning specifically, this learning styles myth really can’t hold a lot of water. Maybe for other disciplines or fields of study, sure. But language learning is about so many different elements of learning. It’s visual, so you have reading. It’s in writing, of course. It’s auditory, you have listening and speaking, which is productive. So when we talk about language learning within the confines of Babbel’s content strategy, we approach it from four different angles, which I think a lot of people would agree with language teachers and linguists: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. And you have to master all of those to be able to really be fluent in a language.
So sure some people are more visual learners and others or some people do better with audio learning and that’s great, but I don’t think that that necessarily has to apply to the way you learn languages. In fact, it could be a detriment to say you’re an audio focused learner so you should only really learn Spanish or French with audio materials. Because then you missed out on a whole swath of what it’s like to engage with a text visually or even watch a movie with subtitles. That’s a really helpful thing for me to be able to do because I can combine two different forms of learning at once. Listening to the dialogue, but also watching something engaging and being able to read the text on the screen.
Maybe this is just me kind of being more fluid. I don’t know that I am impartial to one learning style over another. And some people might say, “Oh, I’m so, so visual. And I know that about myself and therefore, I’m going to tailor my language learning process to be mostly visual” and that could actually work for them. But personally, I’m like, “No, I got to get a mix of everything.” Because I want to have a well-rounded approach to language learning. I want to be able to engage with a text that I’m reading, but also listen to a podcast or a song and understand what they’re saying too and then be able to have a conversation with a native speaker by producing language out loud and then be able to write a text to my friend in Spanish and practice that way too. So I’m very much in the camp that a mix of learning styles is the best way to go.
Steph Koyfman: Yeah. Well, you’re actually onto something because studies have shown that most people are kind of a mixed bag and that it’s not so much about like, “I am visual therefore everything I learn must be visual.” It’s actually best to tailor the learning style to the material. So it really depends on what you’re doing. It doesn’t depend on you so much as what you’re trying to study. And it’s more about figuring out the best way to present information to yourself and changing up your methods, like you said, to see what clicks depending on what it’s for.
Just kind of funny. There was actually … A few years ago, there were dozens of psychologists who signed a letter in The Guardian, pleading teachers to stop trying to teach learning styles in the classroom. There’s an open letter.
David Doochin: Really? It was kind of funny to me. I feel like teachers want to encourage students to learn the way that works best for them.
Steph Koyfman: Yeah.
David Doochin: But at the same time, I can see how if you don’t explore a lot of different options for learning for yourself, if you’re just stuck in one sort of framework and you say, “Oh, I’m a visual learner so I’m only going to focus on visual learning.” That might restrict you as well.
Steph Koyfman: Yeah, totally. Oh, sorry, go ahead.
Nasir Fleming: No worries. Yeah, absolutely. I was going to say that learning style is usually like personality types. No one’s 100% one personality type or 0%. Usually, it’s a nice mix of all. So I agree with you and David.
Steph Koyfman: Yeah, we’re all massed. We all contain multitudes.
Nasir Fleming: Mm-hmm.
David Doochin: In that moment, we are infinite.
Nasir Fleming: Oh my gosh.
Steph Koyfman: Well, on that note, I think let’s take a quick break and then when we get back, we’re going to talk about some of the personal lies that we’ve had to undo or unlearn.
David Doochin: Let’s do it.
Nasir Fleming: Ye hey!
Steph Koyfman: Okay.
Dylan Lyons: Hey, it’s Dylan. Multilinguish is brought to you by Babbel, the language app. Our marketing team wants you to know that Babbel teaches you 14 languages, including Spanish, French, Italian, Russian, and more. And the app’s created by real language teachers. You’ll learn how to have conversations in real life situations, like getting to know your neighbors or maybe telling them to put on their mask and stay six feet away from you. Either way, we’re offering Multilinguish listeners 50% off a three-month subscription. New customers can get this offer by visiting babbel.com/podcast. That’s babbel.com/podcast. Now, back to the show.
Steph Koyfman: Okay. And we are back. So do you guys have one personal story or myth that you’d like to lead with?
Nasir Fleming: Sure. So yeah, I’ve been taking language classes since I was maybe 12 or 13, since middle school and I was one of those language nerds who’s studying both Spanish and French. So I had a lot of different teaching styles that I’ve interacted with and also lots of myths. And one of them, specifically in Spanish, because I’m from Connecticut and the town I’m in, in Connecticut has a huge Spanish-speaking population. Oftentimes, in our courses, we would have first-generation students and they would use certain terms from their countries and our professor or teacher would usually say, “Oh, people don’t say that.” And as a child, I didn’t realize that that is so horribly offensive.
Steph Koyfman: I know.
Nasir Fleming: Yeah, it’s terrible.
Steph Koyfman: Like how would you know, first of all?
Nasir Fleming: Yeah. And for the most part, at least in my town in Connecticut, a lot of the Spanish teachers weren’t actual native speakers. They are like, “Let me just go study abroad and start my life.” Which is great, do you. But oftentimes, in these courses, I learned that for these teachers at least, there was only one way of speaking Spanish and they truly enforce that. And it wasn’t until I got into university and started to travel a bit more where I realize that, no. Even the English language if we look at like Connecticut compared to Vermont compared to Nebraska, we all speak differently. So for my language learners out there, there’s not only one type of way to speak a language, there are millions.
Steph Koyfman: Totally. I have one. This kind of goes into what you were saying before, David, about how you should try to learn like a baby. It reminds me a lot of my language learning experiences growing up because my teachers tended to have this rule where as soon as you enter the classroom, you weren’t allowed to speak English. I understand and appreciate why they did that. But I think that after I left the classroom setting and was more on my own, I found that sometimes it is useful to use English to understand a language better or to translate things into English or vice versa. Of course, you shouldn’t rely on that too much because the way that sentences or phrases are constructed are not going to follow the same syntax so it can end up sounding like something that came straight out of Google Translate if you do that too much.
But when I was studying abroad in Spain and I had an internship at a magazine and one of my tasks was to see if there was anything from the English editions that might be good for translating into the Spanish edition, one way that I did that was literally just kind of doing my best to sort of translate it into a rough Spanish version and then my boss would read it over and he’d kind of get the gist of it based on that. Of course, it wasn’t a perfect, clean copy, but it was enough to sort of get the job done. And when I was writing papers for my classes, I ended up kind of formulating my thoughts in English and doing my best to sort of translate them. And for the most part, as long as I sort of kept some of the basic grammar structures in mind, I found that it worked better for me to do that. So, yeah.
David Doochin: Yeah, those are all great points. And I think that feeds into what I was going to say, which kind of sums up a lot of what we’ve been talking about. But the myth that I’ve heard over and over that if you don’t communicate what you want to say in your target language exactly perfectly, according to all the grammatical rules that we’ve learned from the teachers or the text books, that you won’t be understood or that the person you’re speaking to will give you a puzzled look or they’ll start laughing because they can tell that you’re not a native speaker and that you’ve made a fool of yourself. And maybe this rhetoric is a little extreme and I didn’t hear it like this exactly from every teacher I’ve had, but the idea that when I’m learning Spanish which I’ve learned for years now that if you get the wrong verb conjugation or you put the wrong verb conjugation on a verb or you substitute one vocab word for another that’s actually the better choice or you forget to add the subject where the subject is necessary, for example, that a Spanish speaker will be completely lost, that they’ll never be able to understand you.
And that scared me for a bit. I was thinking, “Okay, well, I have to get it perfect every time I speak or every time I write something or else I’m not going to be understood.” And in my experience traveling through Spanish-speaking countries or talking with native speakers, I know that that’s not the case. I’ve, of course, had some issues and some trouble communicating when I can’t think of the right word to say or when I forget a grammar construction that I learned before. But I’ve, for the most part, been able to get my point across and have a productive conversation with somebody without too much trouble. And instead of me feeling anxious or panicky about not knowing the right word or how to form the right verb conjugation, for example, I just accept that it’s okay to make the mistake. And instead of stopping the conversation altogether because I’m afraid that I won’t be able to communicate, I just go for something, some alternative that works. And in some cases, that means using an English word or trying to explain around something in English, my native language, hoping to find some common ground with a Spanish speaker who might know a little English, for example.
But I also think of people who are learning English who haven’t reached full fluency yet and when they make mistakes in English and they’re speaking to me, I don’t stop the conversation and say, “Wait, I can’t understand you. What are you talking about?” I use context clues to kind of piece it together. If someone says you know, “He goed to the supermarket.” Then I know, okay that person meant to say, “He went to the supermarket.” But obviously went is a weird irregular past form of go, so how would that person be expected to know that. I know what that person was trying to say, so I’m meeting that person in the middle and we’re having a productive conversation anyways. It doesn’t have to be perfect on their end just like it doesn’t have to be perfect on my end when I’m speaking Spanish, or French, or Dutch, or whatever I’m learning.
So I want to dispel the myth that you have to speak perfectly, that you have to get it right 100% percent of the time because you really don’t. And speakers I think are really impressed when you even know how to speak a little bit of their language or maybe a little bit more. They’re happy that you’re engaging with them and willing to try in the first place.
Nasir Fleming: Absolutely. I’ve also learned that honestly, before 8:00 A.M., before that first cup of coffee, even native speakers are making mistakes in their native language. So yeah, don’t worry about it.
Steph Koyfman: Yeah, I know. It kind of reminds me, I forget where I read this, but someone was talking about how they went out to dinner with their friend and it was in a language that they were kind of just starting to learn and they understood the word for tea when the friend was speaking to the waiter and they were like, “Oh, just so you know, I don’t really want any tea.” And she was like, “Oh my god, you understood what I was saying.” And they were like, “No, I just understood one word, but like based on the context clues. I kind of figured it out.”
David Doochin: Yep, that’s how it works so often when you’re kind of just figuring it out along the way, which is most of the language learning process before you reach full fluency. It’s just like kind of piecemeal and picking up one word that you hear from this sentence and another that you hear from this sentence and constructing a message with limited data.
Nasir Fleming: Absolutely.
David Doochin: But that’s okay. That’s part of how you learn, so it’s all good.
Steph Koyfman: Yeah.
Nasir Fleming: Absolutely. And even going off of that, I just think back to my study abroad days when I wasn’t the best in French, but when someone in French would ask me if I wanted another shot, I didn’t know the “do you want another?” part. I just knew “shot” and I was like, “Oh, no, no more shots for me.” So it’s all about piecing together.
Steph Koyfman: Yeah. Language for real life.
Nasir Fleming: Exactly.
Steph Koyfman: Yeah. How about this one? There’s this whole kind of … I think most of us grew up with this notion that the best way to learn a language is just to sit there and memorize conjugation tables over and over again. And also the more you study per day, the better your results are going to be. So that’s how you learn a language, like you just open the textbook and you go over to conjugation tables and you cram it all into your head and that’s how you become proficient.
David Doochin: Yeah, that doesn’t sit right with me. But that’s not just about language learning, that’s with anything. I feel like a lot of people in their experiences as students would tell you that cramming is not the most effective way. I mean, it certainly can make you feel like you’re doing the most, that when you have an hour to study or let’s say a night to study before a big test and you spend every waking hour of your life before that test cramming and you’re like, “Okay, I’ve done the absolute maximum that I can do.” But then you’re also affecting how tired you are and how well your brain retains information because you try to overload it so much.
So language learning I think is a great example of how you got to kind of take it piece by piece and take it slow and make sure that you really fundamentally understand one concept before you move on to the next, or else it’s just all going to go in one ear and out the other or in your eyes and back out your eyes. I don’t know what the equivalent of … In one eye and out the other. But you know what I’m talking about. And it seems really, really self-evident that, to me at least in my experience, that cramming from a textbook, just flipping through pages and pages and spending hours on trying to learn a bunch of vocab isn’t going to be what helps it stick with you. It’s repeated exposure and repeated practice.
Steph Koyfman: Totally. Yeah. I think that was sort of … You know, not to be too salesy, but that was kind of the thing that stood out to me the most when I started working for Babbel, and getting to know the sort of thinking behind the way that the lessons are structured. That basically, you can spend 15 to 20 minutes a day studying a language, and that’s actually going to lead to good results because it’s like respecting the fact that your brain can’t absorb too much material at a single time and that it’s actually better to take a small chunk of things.
There’s a principle in psychology called chunking, where your brain can only absorb around seven new things at a time. So if you try to just limit it to like seven new things and you just keep repeating those things at a spaced interval, then that’s how you move it from your short-term memory into your long-term memory. It’s kind of nice to think that you don’t have to bludgeon your brain to learn a new language. And that sometimes … Obviously, it’s important to know how to conjugate verbs and all of that, but it’s certainly not the only thing that matters and it’s certainly not the only approach that’s going to work.
Nasir Fleming: That’s very, very true. And even when speaking oftentimes, it’s just … Even if we forget a word or something, just depending on your tone or what hand expressions you use, I can oftentimes get the point across. So yeah, I definitely wouldn’t stress out over knowing every single word in the language because that’s unfortunately, impossible.
Steph Koyfman: Totally. Well-
David Doochin: Okay, stop. I have one more that might be kind of controversial. One more learning myth.
Steph Koyfman: I love controversy. Okay.
David Doochin: This is a hot take. Get ready. But Google Translate can be your friend. I know, everyone gasp.
Steph Koyfman: That’s true.
David Doochin: A language teacher would slap me in the face for saying that, but it’s kind of like the whole “don’t use Wikipedia as a source when you’re writing a history paper,” for example, which is valid. But I think you have to unpack that and say why is this a myth. Could there be some truth to the idea that you should use Google Translate as your friend. And I’ll make it really quick, but I, of course, don’t think you should use Google Translate when you’re just learning the fundamentals of a language, when you’re writing a Spanish essay or doing your Spanish homework and you’re supposed to actually learn how to form sentences and use grammar. Google Translate is not going to teach you those lessons. It might give you what you’re looking for if you plug in one sentence and happen to get the best translation out of it, but that’s also a gamble and you’re not going to learn much that way. But I do use Google Translate when I think that I’ve mastered or am trying to really understand a concept and I want to kind of put it in to use.
One example that comes to mind is case marking in German. German has four cases: the nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive. For people who don’t know what case marking is, it sounds kind of scary, and it is kind of scary. But the way that I see it in action is by putting sentences into Google Translate and seeing what article comes up. So the word, in this case, the word “the” that comes before a noun, which article or form of the article is used when that noun is in certain positions in the sentence, which is kind of what case marking is all about.
So if I were to say, “The man eats.” (Der Mann isst.) And this is me citing some earlier writing that I did for Babbel. I don’t know German super well, but I remember using Google Translate for this exact example. So I type in Google Translate in English, “The man eats.” And it spits out, Der Mann isst in German. But if I say something like, “The lion eats the man.” Well then the man is in the object position of a sentence and it becomes den Mann. So it went from der Mann to den Mann.
And that helps me see a visual contrast, okay, the man in the sentence is either the subject in the first sentence or the object in the second sentence and I can visually map out how it … In a sentence that I came up, so I was able to kind of be creative about it. I can see the two ways that these articles look different. And maybe a different web page or a textbook could have shown me that too, but it allowed me to kind of play around in real time, typing stuff into Google Translate being like, “Okay, how does it change? How does this one word in this article change when I move it around in the sentence?” And I get to be the one moving it around instead of just kind of like reading something that’s been written for me.
So all this to say, Google Translate can be a really helpful tool as can other translation tools on the internet and don’t be afraid of using them if you have ways to kind of get creative and innovative that aren’t substituting for actual instruction and for actual understanding. If that makes sense.
Steph Koyfman: Totally, yeah. I find that generally the more simple the phrase … Like Google Translate can work if you’re just looking up a word. Of course, it’s not going to give you every single iteration of a word all the time, but generally, the more simple the word or the phrase it, the more likely you’re going to get an accurate translation.
I find that like … Like sometimes I’ll use the automatic translate feature if it’s just a web page and I just want to be able to kind of get the gist of what’s it saying. But it’s obviously not something you should rely on for getting your sentence set up correctly or anything like that.
Nasir Fleming: Yeah, absolutely. For syntax, probably not. But in terms of languages that are accent heavy, especially French, yeah, Google Translate was my best friend in college because I’m like, “Oh my god, am I using my accent aigu or accent grave?” Sometimes you just need that visual component as David said.
Steph Koyfman: Yeah. Cool. Well, thank you guys so much for joining me today. It was such a pleasure to speak with you.
David Doochin: Yeah. Thanks for having us, Steph. This was really fun.
Nasir Fleming: Yes. Thank you so much for having us. I can’t wait to send this to my middle school and high school Spanish and French teachers.
Steph Koyfman: No shade. All right. Bye.
Nasir Fleming: Bye.
David Doochin: Bye.
Steph Koyfman: Multilinguish is a production of the language app Babbel. This episode was produced by me, Steph Koyfman with guest appearances by Nasir Fleming and David Doochin. Editing and sound design is by Brian Rosado. You can read about today’s episode topic and more on Babbel Magazine. Just visit babbel.com/magazine. Say hi on social media by finding us @BabbelUSA. Finally, please rate and review this podcast. We really appreciate it.
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