By Amy Lebkuecher
Learning a second language is just a matter of learning new labels for the same words that you already know in your native language, right? Not quite! There are some key differences between different languages in terms of grammar and the way that words are used. Research on language learning has debunked some common misconceptions about learning a second language as an adult. Knowing about findings from research in language science may help you become a more informed and efficient second language learner.
Myth: It is impossible to become fluent in a second language as an adult
Though it is likely that you won’t sound exactly like a native speaker, with a lot of practice (including conversations with experienced speakers) it is possible to become fluent enough to converse easily, read books and watch movies in your second language. Although research does suggest that learning a language is easier if you begin as a child, it is certainly not impossible to learn a second language if you begin as an adult . One study found that the main determining factor of a speaker’s second language proficiency (other than the age when they started learning) was how frequently they used their second language . The findings from this study suggest that the key to achieving native-like levels of proficiency in a second language is, unsurprisingly, using that second language.
Myth: Every word in your native language has an exact translation in other languages
While we are often taught that a word from a foreign language is an exact translation of a word in our native language (e.g., Hund is the German translation equivalent of dog in English), there can sometimes be subtle differences in the way that words are used in different languages. The Portuguese word saudade does not directly translate into English, but it means something akin to “the feeling of being away from the homeland” . You may think that these differences only exist for obscure words referring to complex ideas like saudade, but there are also variations in the way that different languages use words to describe ordinary objects. For example, the word for cup in Mandarin Chinese, 杯 (pronounced bei), refers to a wider range of items than the English word cup . Items that English speakers would separate into the categories cup, mug and glass would all be referred to using the same word, 杯, by Mandarin speakers.
Myth: Grammar in other languages is a lot like grammar in your native language
Similar to word meaning, grammars vary largely between different languages. In many foreign languages, words and phrases take on different forms depending on their role in a sentence. For example, in German the phrase “the dog” is translated to “der Hund” in the sentence “The dog chased the boy”. On the other hand, “the dog” is translated to “den Hund” in the sentence “The boy chased the dog”. This difference in translation occurs because the dog is playing a different grammatical role in each sentence: it’s either being chased (the object), or chasing someone (the subject). Differences like this suggest that people who switch back and forth between languages are actually doing quite a bit of mental juggling!
Overall, when learning a second language, it is important to gain experience in whatever way you can (e.g. by talking to native speakers, taking foreign language classes, reading books, watching movies, etc.). Given all the ways that word meanings and grammar rules can vary across languages, just the practice of trying to learn a new language can provide great exercise for your mind!
 Marinova‐Todd, S. H., Marshall, D. B., & Snow, C. E. (2000). Three misconceptions about age and L2 learning. TESOL quarterly, 34(1), 9-34.
 Major, C.A. (2014). The Effect of Age on Second Language Acquisition in Older Adults. All Theses and Dissertations. 3973. https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/etd/3973
 Priberam Informática, S.A. “Significado / definição de saudade no Dicionário Priberam da Língua Portuguesa”.
 Malt, B. C., & Lebkuecher, A. L. (2017). Representation and process in bilingual lexical interaction. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 20(5), 867-885.