Sixty percent of the world is fluent in at least two languages. But in the US, it’s less than 20%. Why is that the case?
In her 2014 bestseller The Culture Map, international business professor Erin Meyer famously said that in much of the world, language introduces us to the nuances of cultures. By contrast, US English is the lowest-context language in the world, meaning it requires little cultural context to understand (because to Americans, good communication is precise, simple and clear rather than nuanced).
Maybe it’s ignorance of this that leads many of us to wonder when traveling or doing business abroad: Why learn the language when I can muddle through with a phrasebook or Google Translate?
Here’s what we know for sure: this and the other limiting beliefs and myths we’re going to talk about today are in fact holding us back—from being more culturally empathetic and open to more career opportunities, from being smarter and more creative and from soaking up all the other cognitive benefits that come with learning a second language. (It also couldn’t hurt to be able to ask for directions in another country.)
It’s time to break free. Here’s what we need to stop telling ourselves.
I’m too old.
We’ve all heard this one before. The fancy name for it is “critical period hypothesis.” Popular opinion has long held that the critical period for language learning is before your teens, at the peak of brain plasticity—after that, you’ll never achieve native-like fluency. But while it was easier for us to absorb new information as children, that’s not the whole story.
For one thing, kids are more flexible to the new rules of different languages and much less concerned with looking stupid when they make mistakes. For another, age is only one of several factors that can influence language learning.
The point is, it’s never too late. The only difference between now and when you were young is that your learning speed is commensurate to how much time and energy you invest—and to your willingness to make mistakes, which inevitably, sooner or later, will happen.
I don’t have time.
If you really want to achieve something, you’ll make time. Even if only a few minutes a day. Babbel says 15 minutes of intentional study per day should do it. In theory, if you could dedicate four hours a day, you could learn a new language in just 90 days.
Using an app like Babbel can help. That means you can learn new languages in your own time, on the go. Consider all the sunk pockets of time throughout the day that could be better spent practicing: waiting in line, on your commute, while working out. Successful people also swear by blocking out time in their schedules for commitments they want to stick to.
But bear in mind that while a little every day is better than intensive study once or twice a week, you won’t achieve fluency through apps alone. The whole point of learning new languages is to communicate with real people. Which leads us to the next myth…
To become fluent, I need to immerse myself in the language.
One of the biggest misconceptions about learning new languages is that you can only get good once you’ve experienced it firsthand by living in the native-speaking country.
This is only half true. Real-world application does matter, and living abroad is one way to do it. But there are actually three more ways to get started learning a language:
- Vocabulary-focused: Start by learning the words.
- Grammar-focused: Start by learning the grammar rules.
- Communication-focused: Start with face-to-face practice.
When you do get around to having real conversations, you don’t have to travel. You can learn a lot from an online conversation exchange, online course (as long as it involves practical application), local groups of speakers or a private teacher you can converse with. Talk to any polyglot and they’ll tell you they seek out opportunities to interact with native speakers, just for their love of practicing different languages.
But yes, you do need to speak to native speakers one way or another. It not only boosts your conversational confidence, it also increases mental capacity to understand what you’re hearing. Even better if you can go abroad one day, because then you can advance to understanding the cultural context, too—and practice with everyone, everywhere you go.
Language learning is a gift. I don’t have it.
There is no such thing as a superhuman gift for language. You might have heard that multilingualism is a talent reserved for the select few—polyglots must have something in their DNA—but in fact, we all have the “gene” to learn languages. It’s what makes us human.
All it takes to nurture this innate ability is deliberate practice. If you’ve tried learning a language, didn’t succeed and assumed you lost the gene lottery, it’s time to evaluate your practice or approach.
Did you practice enough? Did you practice the right techniques? Do you have a goal in mind that can narrow the field? (For example, if you’re traveling for business, you could start by focusing on vocabulary only to do with work. Don’t waste mental bandwidth on words and phrases you’ll never use.)
Everybody speaks English. Why bother?
Sure, English is the universal language. According to Ethnologue, twenty percent of the world’s population speaks English, making it the largest language by number of speakers. And in many areas, such as scientific research, English is the language in which most, if not all, work is conducted. So, why bother learning how to communicate with folks in their language if they know how to communicate in ours?
Because you’re missing out on entire cultures, entire worlds that you cannot access because of your language barrier. And, human connections aside, it does matter in business.
In this connected, saturated, increasingly globalized world, the best way to reach and truly connect with others is by approaching them in the language they’re most comfortable with: their own. Sometimes it’s the only way to do business. At best, native speakers are more likely to buy in their own language; at worst, linguistic or cultural misunderstandings can make or break a deal.
Which is why global companies invest in services like global marketing and content localization to adjust their products and services for different markets. And it’s why we should invest in the next generation of leaders who, without language, won’t have the skills to thrive in the global marketplace.
You can’t learn multiple languages at once.
As we mentioned, age is one factor that affects language learning. So is what you already know.
Research shows that, because of something called meta-linguistic transfer (how the interaction of sounds and letters can transfer across languages that share morphemes and grammatical structures), knowing one language can help you learn another. In fact, the more languages you learn at once, the easier it is to learn subsequent languages—or to learn anything, for that matter, because it’s so good for your brain.
So why not dabble and learn a little of each language that interests you? If you’re going on a European tour, for example, why not pick up some vocabulary in German, Spanish and French?
Last but not least, the award for the worst myth of all goes to…
Can’t I save time by learning the language while I sleep?
Unfortunately, no. Stay away from products that claim you can learn a language from some audio recordings while you sleep—it’s junk science.
Studies have indeed connected language learning to sleep. For example, one experiment showed that subjects who listened to words while sleeping were more likely to recall them while awake. But studies have limitations: in this one, everyone in the study had already learned the words.
Sleep is important for memory consolidation, and memory consolidation is crucial for language learning. But it’s only one dimension of the learning process.
Anyone can take proactive steps to learn another language—and to encourage others to do the same. The global economy depends on it.
The first step is to debunk the language myths preventing you or others from getting started. Learning new languages isn’t easy, but we only make it harder by holding on to limiting beliefs that don’t serve us.