What is the truth about learning a new language?

What is the truth about learning a new language?

Allison Lee

BY Allison Lee

22nd Apr 2024 Life

4 min read

Learning a new language is perhaps more popular than ever, with the rise of language apps, but is it realistic to learn them quickly? Here are some creative ways to learn language
Teaching your tongue to contort itself into a new language is both exciting and intimidating. We are more interconnected than ever, and the allure of conversing effortlessly in multiple languages is undeniable. However, as this concept pollinates across the internet, so does the myth that fluency can be attained within weeks or months.
"It is essential to approach language learning with a dose of realism"
I have been privileged enough to receive formal lessons in three languages throughout my pre-university education and am currently finding my way around French alongside my degree. While the attractiveness of rapid fluency may be tempting, and I would love nothing more than to flawlessly order lunch at a Parisian restaurant, it is essential to approach language learning with a dose of realism.

The obsession with overnight fluency

Duolingo logo
These days, social media platforms are rife with individuals boasting about their mastering of a language in record time. While there are certainly polyglots blessed with the ability to pick up languages quickly, it is safe to assume that most of us don’t fall within that category.
So, where does this myth come from? The answer lies in our addiction to instant gratification. As society evolves to be increasingly fast-paced and efficiency is prized above all else, the idea of overnight fluency appeals to our desire for immediate results. Additionally, marketing strategies employed by language learning apps have caught onto this and capitalise on our impatience and thirst for success. Realistically, it is impossible to master a language through mere apps.
Learning a language is a complex process that requires time, dedication, and consistency, and the glorification of overnight fluency undermines the beauty of language learning. Not only does this pressure a new learner, but unrealistic expectations often lead to frustration and disappointment for many who "fall below the bar".

Limitations of language learning apps

There is no denying the benefit of language learning apps as a supplement to formal education, but it is unrealistic to expect mastery of a new tongue solely through their use. Firstly, though these apps tackle the building blocks of language, they offer a limited scope relative to the multifaceted nature of language use in real life, which includes nuances when it comes to pronunciation, social cues, and more.
"It is unrealistic to expect mastery of a new tongue solely through the use of language learning apps"
Secondly, language acquisition transcends mere memorisation of vocabulary and grammar rules. The key to immersing yourself in a language is engaging in authentic communication, and these apps typically fail to provide meaningful opportunities for real-time interaction and feedback.
Last but not least, context plays a vital role in language learning as it helps learners understand how words and phrases are used in different situations. In-app exercises are presented in isolation without clueing the learner in on necessary contexts or cultural backgrounds to facilitate comprehension and retention. For example, "it’s raining cats and dogs" will instantly confuse new English learners without further elaboration.

Creative language learning tips

Not everyone has access to proper language classes, but that doesn’t mean you have to be stuck with a half-baked tongue courtesy of language learning apps. Consistency is key to unlocking the door of mastery; no matter which approach you choose, it’s important to revisit the language you are learning every day, even if it’s just for 15 minutes.
That said, here are some creative ways to help you navigate the intricacies of a new language:

1. Be a child, watch cartoons

One of the most common advice for language learners is to consume films and shows in the language they are learning. When I began learning French, I was encouraged to watch Lupin, and to no avail. Though I had enabled French audio, my understanding of the show relied heavily on English subtitles and made for a strenuous experience.
A step down the ladder would be to watch children’s cartoons instead, which can be found on YouTube. These cartoons often consist of basic phrases and words that one would learn at an elementary level. Plus, cartoons usually come with clearer and slower pronunciation, which will help learners acclimate to understanding without subtitles.

2. Turn the volume up

If watching cartoons is not your cup of tea, fear not, for there is the alternative of listening to podcasts and songs in the language you are trying to master. Not only can you pick up colloquial phrases and idioms, but you can also explore various topics to expand your vocabulary and grasp nuances within various contexts.
"Being exposed to the rhythm and cadence of native speakers will facilitate your learning"
Being exposed to the rhythm and cadence of native speakers will also facilitate your learning, and you can achieve all of this while cultivating an appreciation for the culture.

3. Let the words flow

Two people at a cafe talking to a waiter
When practising speaking, one runs the risk of making mistakes or embarrassing oneself when attempting to practise in public or with a native speaker, so, instead, start small. Speak to your pet or an inanimate object around the house. Tell them about your day or describe how you feel.
The goal is to get used to sounding the letters, producing the accent, and getting the words out. As you grow more confident, work up to the wait staff at an authentic French restaurant (or whatever language you may be working on) or a native speaker.

4. A foreign stamp

An underrated method to put your writing skills to test is to keep a pen pal. Ideally, find someone who is not only fluent in the language you are learning, but who is also learning a language you are fluent in.
Through the exchange of letters, you not only get to practise your writing skills but can also provide feedback to each other. Plus, everyone gets a friend.
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