By Kathleen Murray
IF YOU’RE TRAVELING to a foreign country but feel intimidated by the idea of learning
a foreign language, take heart. Some linguists
believe our struggles with a new tongue have
less to do with geography and verb conjugations than the myths we use to psych ourselves out. Whether you want to learn for
vacation or are looking more long term, are
any of the following holding you back?
Myth 1: You can’t learn a language
when you’re older.
Children have an easier time with accents,
so if you take up a language after age 12, it’s
unlikely you’ll speak like a native. But older
learners have other advantages: increased
ability to focus, advanced processing skills
and motivation, notes Cathy Doughty, a spe-
cialist in second-language acquisition with
the University of Maryland’s Center for
Advanced Study of Language (CASL). “Despite
starting late,” she says, “quite a few people get
to be good.”
The biggest challenge for adults: knowing
their first language too well and continuing to
use it. This makes it
harder to process a new
one, says Paul Iverson, a
speech and language
researcher at University
College London. The
best way to retrain your
ear, he notes, is to use
the new language reg-
ularly with multiple
speakers and focus on practic-
ing certain sounds, such as those difficult-to-
pronounce French vowels.
Myth 2: You need a special gift to
learn a language.
No, you need persistence and a bit of
humility, says Benny Lewis, an Irish polyglot
language consultant at www.fluentin3months.
com. “Some people do learn more quickly than
others,” he says. “But when you’re looking for
some magic language gene, you don’t see all the
time these people put in, the 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.
CASL’s Doughty agrees that there’s no rea-
¡Sí!, se puede! (Yes, you can!)
WHETHER YOUR GOAL is to
learn Italian for a summer trip,
brush up on your business
Chinese or get the kids started
in Spanish, you’ll find no shortage of language resources. In
fact, your biggest challenge may
be sifting through them to find
what works best for you.
• Rosetta Stone,
tastone.com, offers an immersion
course that includes links to
teaching sessions with a native
• Rocket Languages, www.
rocketlanguages.com, taught in
English, is useful for travelers.
provides inexpensive monthly
features an English-speaking
• Living Language, www.
• Duolingo, www.duolingo.
com, a great free website developed by Carnegie Mellon
University, asks learners for help
• BBC Languages, www.
• Find a native speaker on
www.italki.com. For as little as
$3 an hour you can work one-on-
one via Skype with the instruc-
tor of your choice. You can also
find free language partners
through the site.
Some learners supplement
study by watching television
programs or their favorite movies in their target language.
There is also a growing body of
research that suggests less outgoing students can improve
their language skills through
gaming—playing World of
Warcraft, for example, in
German or Chinese.—KM
The Costco Connection
Costco members will find language software at select Costco locations, as well as
software games and movies with alternate
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