Language learner misconceptions

In Linguistics and Language Learning on April 5, 2008 at 2:21 pm


Stupid Opinions on Linguistics held by failed Language Learners

By Antonio Graceffo


There are a number of urban myths, commonly held misconceptions, about the way we learn and process language. Unfortunately, these wholly untrue beliefs are shared by the majority of language learners, as well as teachers, and are reflected in modern teaching methods. As an ex-pat, listening to other foreigners talk about the best way to learn a language, I realized that any of them that managed to learn their second language did so in spite of, rather than because of, their belief system.


Recently, I asked an American student about Thai linguistics, and he said, “Linguistics is such a hard thing to pin down. It’s different for everyone.”


Linguistics is not hard to pin down. The linguistics of a language are set. They are facts. They do not change from person to person. Linguists studying languages may revise earlier theories or modify their opinions, but the linguistics themselves do not change. Thai will remain tonal, no matter who chooses to learn it. There will be no verb conjugation or noun declination even if your Aunt Tutti, who lives alone with her cats, signed up for classes.


The linguistic features of a language are a constant.


The student went on to explain that “Different people learn differently.”


My answer was, “Different people do not learn differently.”


Saying that at a teacher’s conference won’t win me any friends. Actually all human beings process images faster than written words. So, a visual method of instruction will always be more effective for anyone who is not sight impaired.


Other silliness I have heard spouted even by language teachers is, “Men are more visual?” or “I need it written down, I use the left side of my brain.” Or “the right side.”


My answer, again, is no matter what your sex, you process images faster than you process written words.


 To prove that this is a load of horse manure, look at a photograph, write a detailed description of the photograph. Then, show the photo to a female friend for three seconds and show the description to a male friend for three seconds. Then, ask each friend to describe what they saw/read. Award a prize, something small, maybe a Kit Kat bar, to the one who comes closer. I will bet any amount of money that the one looking at the photograph will win. 


“The best way to learn a language is go to the place where the language is spoken.” This is usually accompanied by the phrase, “total immersion.”


If this statement were true, then all ex-pats livening in a foreign country for two or more years would be fluent. But they aren’t. Why?


Certainly, living in the culture and being exposed to the language is part of learning, but most people will never experience total immersion. If you are an English teacher in Japan, how many hours per day are you exposed to Japanese language? You are sleeping eight hours. So that leaves 16. You are working 8 hours. So, that leaves 8. You probably wake up in the morning, take a shower and eat breakfast, then commute to work for a period of at least one to two hours. Generally, unless you are living with a Japanese lover who talks non-stop, you won’t be experiencing meaningful contact with language before work in the morning. That leaves the six hours per day from when you finish school to when you sleep. During that time, do you shower and change clothes? Go to the gym? Watch English language TV, or listen to your I-Pod?


How many hours are you exposed to a foreign language as a typical ex-pat. Studies have shown that you get less than twenty minutes per day, unless you are intentionally creating a learning environment for yourself. Studies have also shown that you don’t remember everything that you learn. In fact, if you are only getting twenty minutes of exposure to the language you will forget at a faster rate than you are learning.


So, had you remained in Wisconsin, taking Japanese classes three times per week, you would be learning at a faster rate than someone living in Japan, who is “absorbing” the language.


With that said, obviously taking Japanese classes in Japan would be even better. So, the ex-pat who works, but then attends classes everyday, will learn the fastest. But fans of “total immersion” would call that cheating. They think that classroom study is not as valuable as “real” language.


Once again, there is a co-modicum of truth here.


All human beings remember things experienced more than things learned. You could sit in drivers-ed classes for years and never become an expert driver. You need the practical experience to remember. You would never forget what side your gas cap is on or where the on/off button is on your computer because these are examples of experience based learning.


I published an article a while back called “Boxing Till Fluency.” It told about me learning Thai by practicing Muay Thai (kickboxing). The first words I learned and remembered where the names of the kicks and the parts of the body that we hit with those kicks. And why will I never forget those lessons? Because they were learned through experience.


There is a linguistic theory called TPR, total physical response. This is a school of language education, whereby every lesson is taught through some form of exercise or movement. By moving, you are employing muscle memory as well as intellectual memory. A good sports coach will use muscle memory to teach. Again with my kick boxing example, it took days or even weeks for me to learn the roundhouse kick properly, but once I had it, and was executing all of the steps with proper form, my coach had me do it, correctly, one thousand times. My muscles burned like they were on fire. The next morning I could hardly stand. When we started practicing, I didn’t have to think about how to move or which pathways my muscles should take because I knew to go through those pathways that hurt the most. The parts that ached were the correct movements from the day before. That soreness stayed over the next several days, with me ending each session, kicking 500 – 1,000 times, correctly.


The practice became permanent and now I always do the kick with that form.


Learning a language is no different than learning any other skill. We learn first through visual means. The coach demonstrated the kick. He never handed me a printed sheet with a description of the movement. Next, we learn through experience. I did the kick myself. Watching someone else do it wouldn’t have taught me anything. Muscle memory creates indelible imprints on our intellectual memory.


Another misconception is “practice makes perfect.” Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent. If you practice something wrong, enough times, you will never be able to unlearn your mistake. Again, those misguided people who use the phrase “total immersion” as if it were a magic incantation, believe that when they live in the country, they can learn by speaking to people.


No one ever learned anything by speaking. Your mom probably told you that when you were a child, but you weren’t listening. Second, how can you “practice” speaking the language if you don’t already know how to speak the language? And, if you practice wrong, those mistakes will be permanent.


Total immersion, or let’s say immersion, or meaningful contact with native speakers is definitely useful once you have a strong enough linguistic base to work from.


When I went to live in the Shaolin Temple in China, I already spoke Chinese well. At the end of three months of living, sleeping, and eating with my Chinese training brothers, none of whom knew any English at all, my Chinese listening improved a thousand present and my speaking soared. I haven’t lived in a Chinese culture country for nearly five years and yet, just a few weeks ago I spent four days translating for a group of Taiwanese traveling in Chiang Mai. I wasn’t as sharp linguistically as I had been, but the point is, that experience, the combination of harsh physical training and the constant exposure to Chinese language left an indelible imprint on my brain.


So, total immersion worked.


When I learned Thai, on the other hand, I went to live in a temple, not knowing a word of Thai. By the time I left, I knew a lot of words. I could function, communicating with my training brothers. I knew what the Germans call Hauptworte, main words, verbs and nouns, which we needed around the temple and in our Muay Thai training. But I didn’t know any grammar and couldn’t construct a decent sentence. It also meant that when people were talking, I only understood 40% or less when they were talking about religion or boxing and 20% at best when they were talking about anything else. Studies have shown that if you only understand 50% of what someone is saying you are only extracting words, but not meaning. You are not actually speaking or communicating.


Here is an example “Blah, blah, blah, boxing ring, blah, blah, training brother, blah, kick, blah, blah, eat lunch?”


Would you know how to answer this question? I usually didn’t.


One of the reasons I left the temple was because I realized I was having the same interactions over and over, fifty times a day.

“Are you hungry?”

“Oh yes, very hungry.”

“Is training hard?”

 “Yes, it is very hard.”

“Does your training brother smell badly?”

“Yes, very badly.”

“You are a good fighter.”

“Thank you. Prah is a good teacher.”


Every villager who came to the wat for a blessing engaged in this dialogue with me, as did my training brothers and the monks. I estimated that if I stayed another thousand years I would never progress beyond this point. There was just too much I didn’t know and couldn’t figure out about the language.


Another stupid misconception is, being in the temple you would eventually just “pick it up, because you learn by listening.”


There is a linguistic theory called “Chinese radio.” Basically what the theory says is, if you were locked in a jail cell, with a radio, tuned to a Chinese station, twenty-four hours per day, for twenty years, you would never learn to speak Chinese. If you have no frame of reference how would you figure out the meanings of any of the words you were hearing?


Living in Germany I watched a lot of TV and it helped me learn the language, but I was already speaking fluidly. I learned new words and phrases through context. But to do that, I had to already have a context and understand all of the words surrounding the ones I was to learn.


“You find languages easy to learn.” This is the clincher that misguided language learners use when I tell them what they are doing wrong. This, again, is a complete falsehood. I don’t learn languages easily. In fact, I am severely dyslexic and my brain actually does not process images and information the same way other people’s do. My spelling and handwriting in my native tongue are atrocious, and impede me from learning foreign languages. I speak nine languages to varying degrees of fluency, but not because it is easy for me but because I work my ass off. Not many people would quit their job, fly to China and live in a monastery. But then they tell me, “Learning Chinese was easy for you.” There was nothing easy about living in the Shaolin Temple.


I spent years in sales and learned a lot of behavioral psychology which also plays a huge role in language learning. In sales we were taught a lot about Anthony Robbins, the motivational speaker. Anthony Robbins contacted tons of successful people, from all different fields, CEOs, sports figures, actors and actresses, and even Olympic shooting team members. He asked them, “Tell me what it is that you do that makes you successful.”


A typical answer was something like this.


“I get up at five thirty in the morning.”


So, to be successful we must get up five thirty? People who get up at another time, say five forty-five, won’t be successful.


“I run three miles.”


Not two and not five?


“I read Jack London.”


Not Hemingway?


The conclusion that Anthony Robbins came to was that successful people were able to tell you the things they did. They did not, however, know which of those things made them successful. Which, relating to language learning, people will tell me any of the stupid misconception above and swear that it is true because “I know this lady who married an American. She went to America and learned to speak English really well. And she told me.”


People who speak languages well don’t generally know why they speak them well. Linguists study how and why we learn language. In fact, some, if not all, of the top linguists I have ever worked with did not speak any foreign languages at all.


The statement that will send me through the roof, as if there were just one, is “My friend grew up speaking three languages, so he is really gifted with languages, and he said…”


Your friend who grew up speaking three languages knows absolutely nothing about learning languages. And, until he sets out to learn a fourth language we don’t know if he is a gifted learner or not. My experience has been that people who grew up multi-lingual had the same distribution of talented and not talented, with the biased being towards not talented since learning a language was a totally new skill for them.


We learn by listening. But listening has to be meaningful and we need a frame of reference. We learn from experience. A combination of classroom hours, TV, and real life experience will help you to learn the language. No one ever “just picked up a language.”


And most importantly, boxing is still the key to fluency.


See Antonio Graceffo’s article, boxing till fluency



Antonio Graceffo is the author of four books, available on He is also a professional martial artist who has appeared in magazines, television, and films. See his website, contact him at








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