Busted! Myths and Misconceptions About Language Learning
Not Everybody Speaks English
Let’s start with the fact that 75 percent of the world’s population does not speak English. Moreover, while English is inarguably the most dominant global language, the hard truth is that low levels of English proficiency are widespread around the world and the norm in the global workforce.
One large-scale global index measuring English proficiency among non-native English-speaking knowledge workers revealed one-third had only beginner-level proficiency, while the average worker fared only a bit better with “basic” English skills—unable to understand most business presentations or lead business discussions.1 Only 7 percent have an advanced proficiency level.
Language Skills Are No Longer Just A “Nice to Have”
Contrary to popular belief, the demand for language skills is on an upward trend. Not only are languages ranked eighth among the most in-demand skills across all occupations, but research shows job postings directed at bilinguals more than doubled between 2010 and 2015.2 With companies of all sizes increasingly reliant on foreign markets to be competitive, as well as selling to and serving millions of non-native English-speaking people in the United States, languages are an essential skill in today’s increasingly interconnected world. Businesses, NGOs, and local, state, and federal government agencies are all seeking employees proficient in other languages. Whatever one’s career interests, knowing another language can provide a huge competitive advantage.
We Need More Than Google Translate!
Translation tools can be very useful for basic translations and even serve as effective supplemental learning tools for language learners, but they are nowhere near close to mimicking a human’s interpretation or understanding of a language and its cultural cues necessary for effective communication. For this reason, computer translations often produce varying and unreliable results—from the downright absurd to the awkward or mismatched in tone.
Even Microsoft responds to the question “Can I replace a human translator with Microsoft Translator?” with an unequivocal “No”—explaining that machine translation has its place, where factors such as budget and speed are in play, but quality levels cannot meet the level of human translation.3
Language Classes Are Anything but Dull
While language classes in the past may have been primarily characterized by grammar, dictation, and drills, today’s classrooms are dynamic centers for interaction. Educators are placing greater emphasis on authentic, student-centered learning—focusing less on rote memorization of rules and more on creating real-life scenarios that serve practical applications. Common activities include role playing how to order in a restaurant, navigate an airport, visit a doctor’s office, or make purchases in shops. Advanced language classes for medical and business students, among others, bring this practical approach to an even more specific career focus, giving learners the exact tools they will need to succeed in their sector.
Today’s educators are also harnessing the power of the Internet and other educational technologies—from apps and interactive online resources to video conferencing—to open the walls of their classrooms to the world. Students have the opportunity to create blogs and video projects, compete in games, track their improvement, and interact in real time with native-speaker peers from other countries. One thing is for certain: this is no longer your grandmother’s language classroom.
Learning Two Languages Won’t Confuse Children or Impair Their Cognitive Ability
In many parts of the world, children grow up learning two, three, and sometimes more languages without any hindrance to their development, and in fact, reap the benefits of strengthened cognitive skills and improved academic performance. Here in the United States, the capacity to learn more than one language has particular significance for students who live in homes where a language other than English is spoken. Learning English while retaining and developing their home language is not only possible, but enormously advantageous to them.
C++ Is Not the Only Language You Need
This distinction does not by any means make them mutually exclusive or an either/or decision. Offering highly complementary skill sets, students benefit widely from learning coding and spoken languages in tandem.
Code.org founder Hadi Partovi points to the fact that coding represents only a fraction of the broader study of computer science and encourages educators to integrate coding into traditional language lessons so that students learn to write code in a language other than English, asserting, “While Code.org can’t tell states what to do, we vigorously oppose the idea that computer science is a foreign language.”5 As one incisive report put it: “Students will need to be ‘trilingual’ by the time they graduate from high school—English, a foreign language, and computer language.”6
It’s Never Too Late to Learn a Language
Where there is some truth to the theory that it is harder to learn a language once you move into and beyond your teenage years, this is by no means an absolute. In fact, language learning among adults is a huge growth business as many discover they need language skills to advance their careers or simply want to learn for personal growth and enrichment. People can learn a language and become proficient at any age, and with a level of ease and success—depending on factors such as effort, exposure, and learning approach. So, go for it!
Farsi, Korean, Punjabi? You Bet!
When considering a language, many students think it’s a no-brainer—they should study one of the more commonly taught languages such as Spanish or French. Not so fast. Less Commonly Taught Languages are exceedingly rare to find on resumes and highly prized among employers for that reason. In today’s competitive marketplace, having a proficiency in Turkish, Indonesian, Punjabi, Korean, or any other language designated a Critical Needs Language or Less Commonly Taught Language, will make you stand out, and not just with companies doing business in overseas markets.
The U.S. federal government, for one, has a particularly strong need for Critical Needs Languages among its military, intelligence, and diplomatic communities—with some agencies providing scholarships for students who pursue studies in these languages. Moreover, thousands of U.S. companies, state and local government agencies, and nonprofits cater to the many millions of non-native English-speaking communities right here in the United States.