Language Learning Tips that DO NOT Work

There are a lot of blogs out there instructing you on how to best learn, speak and understand a language. I’m here to tell you that a lot of these blogs are wrong!

Below are a few language learning myths that are floating around out there. For each one, I explain why these tips or simply myths that are not conducive to language fluency.

“Focus on literal translation.”

We often think that in order to learn something completely, we have to focus on 100% accuracy. This makes sense in subjects like math where one number off can mean the difference between right and wrong. This isn’t true in language.

Literal translations are often jagged and don’t translate well. Fluency is about understanding what the context of the words mean, not their literal translation.

“Go at your own pace.”

It’s often said that learning is something we shouldn’t force on ourselves — that we should go at our own pace for our own benefit. Again, this doesn’t apply to learning languages.

When you go at your own pace, you run the risk of losing the language and eventually forgetting it entirely. You HAVE to be able to commit to daily learning time and immersive language methods.

“Language technicality is the most important part.”

In line with literal translations, language technicality isn’t nearly as important as language fluency. While it’s good to know the technical aspects of a language, they don’t mean much if you can’t converse fluidly. Many language students can rattle off what Spanish words mean and great French phrases, but this is about rote memorization — not actual conversational understanding.

“Stick to long-term goals.”

I often hear people say “I plan to learn Russian by the end of the year!” or some other variant with a different language. This isn’t how learning a language works. It’s important that you try your best, but it’s not conducive to education to stick to rigid goals.

Work every day and check where your fluency is at in regular intervals. Sometimes it takes longer than a year. And even if you FEEL fluent at the end of a year, that doesn’t mean you need to stop learning. Languages can be lost if you don’t use them: “Use it or lose it!”

“Focus on your weak spots.”

This tip may be great in other areas of learning, but it does not make sense in the context of linguistics. If you want to REALLY learn a language, you can’t treat it like you’re trying to get a good grade on an exam. If you focus too heavily on your weaker areas, you run the risk of ignoring other areas, leading to a collapse in fluency.

“You have to live and breathe the language!”

Is immersion good for learning languages? Of course. Do you have to become obsessed and run yourself ragged in order to become fluent? No.

Just like any other hobby, going overboard means you’re more likely to give up. You have to find the right balance between committing to daily memorization and exercises while also not pushing so yourself to the limit. Learning a language fast also usually means you have a good ability for memorization, NOT for actual fluency.

These are only a few of the tips I’ve found that I don’t agree with. Are there any language learning tips that you’ve found which are totally bogus?

Flouncy kevlar decoupage: Words Known Mostly By Men or Women

GolemBlogDo you know what a dreadnought is? A golem? A scimitar? You’re probably a man.

How about mascarpone, taupe, or progesterone? Chances are you have two x chromosomes.

It may sound like a cliche, but as it turns out, some stereotypes appear to have their source in reality: according to the first 500,000 results of Ghent University’s online vocabulary test, men are more likely to know words related to science and the military (such as biped, claymore, or codec), while women say they recognize many more words about fashion and flowers (peony, bodice, wisteria).

We can’t say we’re exactly surprised by these results, but they led to an interesting discussion on reddit nonetheless, where users wondered about the socioeconomic context and the true meaning of “decoupage.”

Here at BeTranslated, we think a few more female video gamers or male interior decorators should take the test and even the score…

The Global Round-Ball Game: Why Americans Call Soccer “Soccer”

world-cup-2014Now that the 2014 FIFA World Cup is underway, one persistent language question rears its ugly head yet again: what is the proper English word for that “global round-ball game” being played by teams from 32 countries in Brazil until July 13? Is it “football” or “soccer”?

The Atlantic reports that according to sports economist Stefan Syzmanski of the University of Michigan, the term “soccer” is not an American invention. Rather, it has its origin in England and was imported to the US.

According to Syzmanski, the history of the word begins in 1863, when young men met in an English pub to standardize the rules for the sport. Two divergent variants of the game were developed, one known as “Rugby Football” or “‘rugger”, the other as “Association Football”, or “‘soccer” for short.

By 1905, the word had made its way into American English, as a letter to the editor of the New York Times shows. “In the first place, there is no such word [as socker],” the angry letter from one Francis Tabor states, “and in the second place, it is an exceedingly ugly and undignified one.”

The curious thing: the more popular “soccer” became in the U.S., the less the English wanted to use it. As a map at The Atlantic shows, the word is now generally used in countries that have another sport called “football.”

We’ll leave you with John Cleese,  who explains it in the most basic terms: “It is a game played with a ball that is struck with the foot. Hence: foot-ball. Are you following this, America? The clue is in the title. It is not that difficult.”

America’s Greatest Word

okIt’s one of the most frequently used words in the world: OK, often spelled okay, originated in the United States but is now recognized and used by speakers the world over.

How the two-letter agreement become so popular in less than 200 years is the topic of Allan Matcalf’s book America’s Greatest Word, and he explains some of its appeal and popularity in this article for BBC News: ” What OK provided that the others did not was neutrality, a way to affirm or to express agreement without having to offer an opinion… OK allows us to view a situation in simplest terms, just OK or not.”

Now presidents and other heads of state use it frequently, and in the multilingual workplaces of today’s globalized economy, we can always rely on OK: no matter which language we’re trying to communicate in, it’s one word for which we won’t need a translation.


Explained: Holland or the Netherlands?


Quick: what’s the country with the tulips and windmills called again? Is it the Netherlands or Holland? If the language is called Dutch, why are the Pennsylvania Dutch actually German? What about the Dutch Caribbean — and how do Zealand and New Amsterdam fit in?

Fret no more: the good people at termcoord (Terminology Coordination of the European Parliament) point to a video by CGP Grey, who explains all this and much more in four highly entertaining and informative minutes. Sterk aanbevolen!

The OED Birthday Word Generator

OED birthday words cartoonOne of the things that makes translation such an exciting field is the ever-shifting nature of language. Words and terms change as frequently as the culture itself. Something that was a hip or clever way to express an idea yesterday suddenly sounds stilted or out-of-fashion today.

On the flip side, new words and terminology enter the language constantly, and any translator worth her salt will make it their business to keep a close eye on the latest ways to talk about current concepts, trends, and technology. For more than 150 years, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has been doing just that: recording the changing nature of English as new words enter the language and others fall by the wayside. Now the OED has launched a “birthday word generator“, a fun way of clicking through the last century to see which terms were first used when you were born.

Fun fact: the BeTranslated translation network was founded in 2002, the year parkour was first recorded by the OED: “the discipline or activity of moving rapidly and freely over or around the obstacles presented by an (esp. urban) environment by running, jumping, climbing, etc.” (You can watch Jame Bond in a parkour-style chase here.)

What’s your OED birthday word?

[via language log]