son anyone can’t learn a second language. “You
just have to find the teaching approach that
works for each individual,” she says.
Myth 3: You can master a new
language in a ridiculously short
There is no magic bullet when it comes to
learning a language. The brain needs time to
organize a new system.
How much time? The U.S. State Department
estimates an English speaker can learn fluent
Spanish in 600 class hours (typically, five to six
months of intensive study), while it would take
2,200 class hours (close to two years) to reach
the same level of fluency in Chinese.
For vacationers wanting to simply learn
enough to get by, linguists recommend strategies that provide the best return for time spent,
such as focusing on key words and phrases,
such as: where, yes/no, one, hello, goodbye,
please, thank you, me, “excuse me,” “I don’t
understand” and “do you speak English?”
Myth 4: The key to learning a new
language is memorizing vocabu-
lary and grammar.
Not so, says CASL’s Doughty. “The biggest
misconception is that language is a subject
matter, like history,” she says. “People think
that if you learn about the language that’s the
goal, when actually you have to learn how to
use the language.”
At Middlebury College’s well-known lan-
guage immersion program in Vermont, some
of the biggest gains in student comprehension
come during supposedly recreational activities,
such as Chinese cooking classes or Japanese
storytelling, says language schools vice presi-
dent Michael Geisler. “As we begin to figure out
why language schools work,” he says, “we think
that it is these informal learning situations that
are the secret.”
Myth 5: The only way to learn a
language is to move to a country
where it is spoken.
Not always, experts say. Languages aren’t
something you can simply absorb by being in a
country, 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 via Skype with an in-country teacher.
But whether you choose to go abroad or
take part in a community of people speaking
only the language you want to learn, as at the
Middlebury program, says Geisler, “At a certain point you have to immerse yourself.” C
Virginia-based Kathleen Murray learned to
speak Chinese at age 42.
TALKING THE TALK
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 37
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