The Language Tutor: Dispelling Myths, Stereotypes, and Misconceptions

Posted by Andrew Gray on 1/9/15 7:35 PM

CMS_1256582575785__Gardel_EsperameA Spanish serenade from the singer Carlos Gardel

So, you’re ready for the exhilarating journey of studying a new language, but unsure of which language to choose. Perhaps, floating in your head are all the common stereotypes and generalizations about this or that language. Perhaps you, like even the most intelligent students, are unwittingly afflicted with language prejudices—unfounded ideas about which languages are “simple” and which are impossible to learn, which are ugly and which are beautiful. Today, as your foreign language tutor (based in Boston and New York) I’m here to help you separate fact from fiction. Here are 5 things I tell my students about language learning:

  1. There is no such thing as a “pure” or “best” form of a language.

    In the Spanish-speaking world it’s frequently asserted that Colombian Spanish is especially “pure”; in Spain, people have various ideas about which region speaks the “best” Spanish. Recently I heard someone put forth a bizarre historical fantasy according to which the English spoken in California, brought there by a particular migratory group of English speakers, is the “purest” form of English.

    What’s wrong with these ideas? A basic fact of historical linguistics is that languages change and influence each other. Every regional dialect of every language is a temporary point in a process of historical development and bears the imprint of other languages. Consequently, students shouldn’t feel the need to adopt a specific regional form because of its supposed superiority over others. A Korean businesswoman working in India would have no reason not to speak Indian English, and a student who has studied in Argentina or Mexico shouldn’t hesitate to take on the distinctive pronunciation and vocabulary of the varieties of Spanish spoken there. A study-abroad opportunity in Chile shouldn’t be passed over in favor of one in Spain because Peninsular Spanish is “purer” or “better.”
  2. No language is difficult or easy in an absolute sense.

    A student once told me that advanced fluency in German could be acquired with a month or two of diligent study, while conversational Chinese was an impossible goal. I’ve been informed that, no matter how much I try, I will never be able to read a newspaper in Russian without a dictionary, but that, by knowing Spanish, I just need to alter my accent in order to speak Portuguese. These myths of difficulty and easiness deter students unnecessarily from studying some languages, while unscrupulous teachers and language schools lure clients in by convincing them that languages can be learned effortlessly and in little time.

    So what factors do make a difference? Linguistic proximity is key: Polish is challenging for English speakers, much less so for Czech speakers. Another important factor is the resources and opportunities for practice: for the average English-speaking American, Spanish is easier than Norwegian not because of any inherent property but because there are many more opportunities to hear and speak Spanish. 

    Students often assume that foreign alphabets imply a major challenge in learning languages like Greek, Arabic, or Hebrew. In fact, learning a new alphabet usually takes no more than a few weeks; learning the language – its grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and cultural cues – inevitably takes far longer. (Non-alphabetic scripts like that of Chinese do pose a special challenge.) The bottom line: even a supposedly easy language requires time, discipline, and mental effort, while none is so difficult that it can’t be learned by a student who is guided by a talented teacher and willing to put forth effort over an extended period of time. 
  3. You can't describe languages with an adjective or two.

    Italian is supposed to be romantic, German harsh; some languages are taken to be more logical or poetic or primitive than others. All of these adjectives could be applied to an individual speaking a language, but not to a language itself. These statements are no more than reworkings of the silly stereotypes according to which Italians are amorous, Germans are cold, and some groups more rational than others. Knowledge of any language will enable a student to interact with a full range of human types, and after acquiring even a basic familiarity with it, he or she will grasp this diversity and cease to perceive the language through the lens of a stereotype.
  4. You can’t generalize about the “complexity” or relative sizes of language vocabularies.

    First, a specific feature of a language – its verb system for instance – might be relatively straightforward, but every tongue is a world unto itself and will inevitably contain some form of complexity, whether in regional variation, pronunciation, subtle cultural norms determining usage, or other features. Second, the size of a vocabulary is contingent not only on cultural institutions that trace and record word use (the Spanish Royal Academy and the Oxford English Dictionary, for instance) but also the concept of what a word is. Languages form words differently. Do all the forms of a single verb in Spanish constitute separate words? Is paper-clip one word or two? In some languages, which linguists term “polysynthetic,” a single word may express what would require a whole sentence in English. (Wikipedia gives the example of the Mohawk “Washakotya'tawitsherahetkvhta'se,” meaning “He ruined her dress.”) These differences render arguments about the relative sizes of vocabularies problematic from the start.
  5. There is no such thing as a beautiful or an ugly language.

    Certainly, nobody finds their native language to be inherently melodious or grating. To the claim that English is beautiful, for example, one might respond that it depends on who is speaking or writing. Every language has its unique charms, and students shouldn’t be swayed one way or another by an impressionistic observation of sound. After listening in class to Carlos Gardel singing “Mi Buenos Aires querido” (you can listen to the song here), a student once remarked that it was the first time she realized how beautiful Spanish is. That’s certainly true, I responded, if Carlos Gardel is singing. But if I were to try to sing the same song, you might think otherwise.

For more reading, check out this blog post on why you should study Latin, and this post on how in-depth you want to progress in a language. If you need one-on-one guidance on language learning -- whether it's French, German, Chinese, or Spanish --feel free to reach out to Cambridge Coaching. We have foreign language tutors available in New York, Boston, and online who are eager to help. 

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Tags: language learning