things they’re doing that others don’t.”
Lewis ought to know. After struggling with
German in college, he now speaks it fluently,
along with 11 other languages, ranging from
Spanish to Arabic. His secret? Functioning as
much as possible in each new language for an
extended period of time.
Other linguists agree. Because adults know
their own language so well, they often continue
to use it, says Paul Iverson, a speech and language researcher at University College London.
That makes it harder to process a new one. The
best way to retrain your ear, he notes, is to use
the target language frequently with multiple
speakers and focus on practicing certain
sounds, such as those difficult-to-pronounce
Myth 3: You can master a new
language in a ridiculously short
There is no magic bullet when it comes to
language fluency. The brain needs time to
organize a new system.
How much time? An English speaker
might be able to function in French after six
months of intensive study, says Nikolay
Slavkov, an assistant professor at the University
of Ottawa’s Official Languages and Bilingualism
Institute (OLBI). A more complex language—
For vacationers who want to learn enough
to simply get by, linguists recommend strate-
gies that provide the best return for time spent.
Focus on key words and phrases such as
“where,” “yes/no,” “hello,” “goodbye,” “please,”
“Thank you,” “Excuse me,” “I don’t under-
stand” and “Do you speak English?”
Myth 4: The key to learning a new
language is memorizing vocabu-
lary and grammar.
Not so, says Rehner. You need to learn
both vocabulary and grammar for fluency, but
in context. “Otherwise, you’ll probably have
pretty good sentences, but they’ll be socially
The key to learning a new language, lin-
guists note, is using it, not in drills, but in actual
conversations with native speakers about
something that matters to you. That’s one rea-
son immersion programs, which were pio-
neered in Canada to support bilingualism,
became so popular. In immersion classes, stu-
dents are taught another subject, such as sci-
ence, math or psychology, in the language they
are trying to learn. Research has consistently
shown that students learn a language better
while studying another subject.
And the subject needn’t be academic. At
Middlebury College’s well-known language
immersion program in Vermont, for example,
some of the biggest gains in student comprehension occur during supposedly recreational
activities like a Chinese cooking class or
“The focus on another subject takes some
of the pressure off,” says Rehner.
Myth 5: The only way to learn a
language is to move to a country
where it is spoken.
Not always, experts say. A language isn’t
something you absorb simply by living in a foreign place, as countless expats have learned.
You’ve got to do the work, and increasingly,
thanks to technology, much more of it can be
done close to home. You can go online to converse with native speakers, for example, or take
lessons with an in-country speaker via Skype.
Nowadays, says OLBI’s Slavkov, “it is certainly possible for people to create their own
immersion experiences.” C
Virginia-based Kathleen Murray learned to
speak Chinese at age 42.
Sporting goods buyer
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