7 Language Learning Myths Holding Us Back

Found an interesting article on Forbes debunking the myths of language learning holding us back in the social, economic and political marketplace. Although the writer is American, it’s still relevant in a Kiwi context. Essentially the author provides a great response to the commonly held belief: Why learn a foreign language, if everyone else is learning English?

Myth 1: Everybody already speaks English (or they’re learning it).

Yes, about one quarter of the world population speaks English to some degree. What about the remaining 5.4 billion people sharing our planet?

Myth 2: Spanish, French and German are the most spoken languages in the world (besides English, of course).

At last count, about 77 percent of American college students in language courses were studying Spanish, French or German. Those languages and English are spoken natively by less than 13 percent of the global population. To put that into context, Javanese and Bengali claim more native speakers than German and French, but they are scarcely studied by American students.  If we exclusively learn European languages, we will continue to leave billions of people out of the global conversation.

Myth 3: China speaks Chinese. India speaks Hindi. America speaks English.

You may rush to learn Mandarin Chinese because you will be working in China, only to find that you should have studied Cantonese. You may find yourself in a region of Paraguay where Guaraní is more helpful than Spanish, or in an Indian state where Tamil is spoken more widely than Hindi.

Our world is not two-dimensional—state lines do not determine cultural practices or mediums of communication. As language learners, we need to do our research on which communities we are hoping to connect with, and what we can do to best facilitate exchange.

Myth 4: It is impossible to learn a language after my sixteenth birthday.

Yes, learning a language becomes less natural as we grow older, but it is absolutely possible regardless of age. In fact, most language software is built with adult or college-aged learners in mind. It is never too late.
Myth 5: It is too expensive to learn anything other than Spanish.

Resources are more available in some languages than in others. More universities offer Italian than Vietnamese— that is the reality. Even so there are so many affordable or free resources online. Many libraries, for example, partner with Mango Languages, thereby offering seventy different languages to patrons for free! A few Google searches may uncover the wealth of opportunities to learn languages online or in-person near you.

Myth 6: Urdu won’t help me get a job. Turkish is useless. I will never find a place to use Vietnamese.

In a rapidly globalizing world, it is tough to make a resume stand out.  Sometimes “out-of-the-ordinary” is just what you need. Some federal departments, for example, are giving scholarships to students to learn Azerbaijani, Indonesian, Punjabi, and more. Furthermore, many of these underrepresented languages are spoken in major emerging markets. To do work in these up-and-coming economies, we might be better off learning Hungarian, Polish or Thai.

Myth 7: Language learning is unnecessary with modern translation technologies.

Think about the last time you misinterpreted sarcasm or could not connect a cultural reference. In her recently released book, Erin Meyer asserts that the English spoken in the United States is the lowest context language in the world, meaning it requires minimal cultural context in order to understand. In other parts of the world, communication is not as simple. Language instruction introduces us to the nuances of cultures, allowing us to build productive personal and professional relationships with people from unfamiliar cultures.

[Check out my article on language learning technologies for Kiwis].

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Weiji: Crisis = Danger + Opportunity?

In the context of the current economic situation we’re in, I often hear it mentioned that the Chinese word for “crisis” (wēijī) consists of two syllables that are written with two separate characters, wēi and jī. The idea behind this is that whenever there’s a crisis, there’s an element of danger, but also an element of opportunity.

Sounds good in theory, but like many other urban myths, there’s little truth in it.  Victor H. Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote a detailed article explaining the flaws in this line of reasoning, but I’ll just summarise this for you.

Chinese character wei 危
Chinese character ji1 in simplified form 机
Chinese character ji1 – in traditional form 機

Prof Mair’s contention is that the definition of as “opportunity” is flawed. While it is true that wēijī does indeed mean “crisis” and that the wēi syllable of wēijī does convey the notion of “danger,” the syllable of wēijī most definitely does not signify “opportunity.” According to Prof Mair:

The jī of wēijī, in fact, means something like “incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes).” Thus, a wēijī is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry. A wēijī indicates a perilous situation when one should be especially wary. It is not a juncture when one goes looking for advantages and benefits.

Those who purvey the doctrine that the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of elements meaning “danger” and “opportunity” are engaging in a type of muddled thinking that is a danger to society, for it lulls people into welcoming crises as unstable situations from which they can benefit.

Adopting a feel-good attitude toward adversity may not be the most rational, realistic approach to its solution.

In such perilous times, we must confront the brutal truth, but at the same time not give up hope. If Warren Buffett is buying now, surely we have to stand up and take note.

I’m a firm believer in the idea of buying when others are selling, and capturing opportunities in times of crisis. Unfortunately we can’t use the Chinese word for “crisis” (wēijī) to support this line of reasoning.

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