“Linguistic discrimination”, also known as “linguicism”, is one of the darkest corners of sociolinguistics, but also one of the most fascinating. Though it’s a complex and highly controversial topic, in simple terms, linguicism is defined as: The unfair treatment of an individual based on their native language, dialect, accent, vocabulary, word choice, syntax, etc. Sadly, this form of discrimination can be found in every corner of the globe. As I’ve traveled the world—and even different pockets of my home country—I have witnessed countless cases of people being treated better or worse based on their native tongue or regional dialect.
As a teacher, blogger, and coach in language learning, I’ve heard just about every excuse there is for why one can’t learn a foreign language. Here are the most common, limiting, and ultimately untrue beliefs: 1) “Learning languages is really difficult, especially non-Romance languages like Japanese.” 2) “I don’t have enough time, money, or language ability to learn a language.” 3) “I don’t live where the language is spoken.” 4) “I’m too old to learn a language.” While learning to speak a new tongue might be easier or more convenient for some people (e.g. those who have hours of free time available each day, deep financial resources, the freedom to travel frequently or move abroad, etc.), it is imperative to understand that anyone can learn a language well if they: 1) Prioritize language learning in their lives. 2) Do the right things consistently (heaps of listening and reading input and heaps of active speaking and writing output). 3) Change their beliefs about language learning.
In the world of language learning, there are actually two main kinds of memory, not just one: declarative and procedural. Both play a role but it’s important to understand the difference between the two and get a balanced “language diet” of both.
One of the most frustrating challenges I have encountered throughout my diverse career in language, linguistics, education, government, startups, consulting, and nutrition is the widespread use of clunky, confusing language. In many ways, learning the ins and outs of Academese, Bureaucratese, Corporatese, Legalese, and Medicalese have proven much more challenging than Japanese and Chinese! And it turns out I am not alone in my frustration with overly complex, stilted language. In this great talk by cognitive psycholinguist Steven Pinker, an academic who refreshingly avoids most Academese himself, he argues that w e should simplify written communication using “Classic Style” (a clear, conversational writing style that places the writer and reader as equals so that the latter can see the world through the former’s eyes) as opposed to the Postmodern Style (a cumbersome, bloated style that prioritizes communicating the intelligence of the writer).
Repetition is a fundamental part of successful language learning. Until you hear or read the same vocabulary or structures again and again enough times within meaningful contexts, they just won’t commit to long-term, procedural memory no matter how much you may want to remember. A love for repetition is perhaps one of the biggest advantages children have when learning their first language. I am simply amazed how my nephews can watch the same Sesame Street video or read the same Dr. Seuss book a zillion times without getting bored. We adults aren’t quite so patient. We tend to view such repetition as punishment, not pleasure. Fortunately, there are two ways to eat our “repetition cake” without having to eat the “boredom broccoli”. Read on to see what they are.
I made just about every possible mistake when starting out in languages. I used terribly inefficient methods, slogged through boring materials I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy, and almost gave up more than a few times. But this is good news for you: struggling so much in the beginning and later correcting course makes me a much better language coach. You never want to learn from a “natural” who picks up new skills easily. As Tim Ferriss points out in the The 4-Hour Chef: “The top 1% often succeed despite how they train, not because of it. Superior genetics, or a luxurious full-time schedule, make up for a lot. Career specialists can’t externalize what they’ve internalized. Second nature is hard to teach.”