Persisting myths: three techniques that WON’T help you learn a language

Although we’re living blessed times for language learners of all types and natures, things weren’t always this good. At least in regards to the language learning industry, results didn’t always have priority over sales and companies didn’t have the communication channels with their users that they have now. What’s worse, anybody could claim to have developed the end-all method to learn a language, but actually finding out whether it was any good was pretty hard because you had no one else’s experience to compare yours to!

We’ve passed these times and the companies that have survived into our times are working hard to create products that fit our modern needs, but there are some stubbornly persisting myths born of the dark times where a language learner could be so desperate to learn quickly that they’d believe pretty much anything. Nowadays we’re much more careful with who we trust to teach us a language, but there’s always a first time for everything! I believe that to learn a language you need to know the good AND the bad, so I’m out to dispel these baddies today.

1. You can learn a language while sleeping.

This myth stems from the idea that a sleeping brain is much more receptive to passive listening than, say, the brain of somebody doing the dishes, but although studies have been made on memory retention somewhat improving when recently learnt material is replayed to the sleeping person, there’s just no way to learn new information if you’re asleep. I can’t say much for the neuroscience behind this persisting rumor, but the truth is that your brain is busy doing MUCH more than just resting.

2. You can learn new vocabulary by listening to international versions of the same song.

I discussed this with a friend who was dragged by her six year old daughter to see Frozen 11 times (no, I am not kidding). I mentioned offhandedly to her that I actually liked the lyrics of the Italian and French versions better than the English one; she proceeded to shock me mute by saying she loved the prospect of her daughter (a native Spanish speaker) learning not only English, but a multitude of other languages through the Multilingual video of Let It Go. She apparently thought EVERY version said the exact same thing as the Spanish version.

As a language learner who’s been involved in dubbing before, I am actually somewhat alarmed by how many people believe this to be a valid way of learning a language. Read this with attention: not one international version of your beloved song says the exact same things as the original (in this case, the English version). Translators work hard to make the translated lyrics fit into the cultural context of the target language within the given span of the original song, and the end result can have anything from slight to significant changes in meaning. This means that you cannot just look at an English word and then the foreign word that happens to be in the same place, and expect one to be the dictionary meaning of the other. It just doesn’t work that way for a large variety of reasons.

This is not actually a reason why you shouldn’t use songs in your learning process. In fact, this is very much the reason why I like to go on Youtube to find international versions of songs I like: because I know they’ll be different from the original and will force me to investigate just how different they are. If you use songs as the lazy shortcut to language learning, though, you’ll find this method only provokes complete confusion.

3. You can’t learn a language without living in that country.

No, no, and no. If the experiences of so many language bloggers (yours truly included) count for anything, then this myth should be considered complete bull.

I spoke Japanese for five years before stepping foot in Japan for the first time, and I know for a fact I’m not the only one to have done this. It happens on a daily basis. Great learning sites like Italki are based on the very prospect of learning a foreign language without having to go to that country.

Granted, it takes a lot more effort to become fluent when you don’t have a valuable resource like natural immersion to use the language in, but it doesn’t mean you cannot A) create an artificial immersive environment for yourself where you can use the language, and B) find natives of that language through either the internet or your city’s expat communities (if it’s big enough).


Everyone that has been involved in language learning for some time has crashed and burned at some point. What are the techniques or tricks that didn’t work for you? Go ahead and share them in the comments!

  • Cristóbal ,

    One thing that was discussed over and over in my class in Hungary was about translations in literature and how hard they were. Some translators in poetry would pay attention to rhythm, others to the meanings and so on…
    In fact, they ended up creating new poems out of an original one.
    Great post Sis!

    • Siskia Lagomarsino ,

      Oh, don’t get me started on poetry. I attended a few classes on literary translation and it was pretty much universally agreed that there’s no such thing as accurate translation of poetry. 😛

      Thanks, Cris!

    • Ingrid ,

      • Siskia Lagomarsino ,

        Haha, I’ve read that one before. The brain works in mysterious ways regarding dormant languages and trauma, and Ben McMahon’s case is not only one I’ve read of a language ‘making sense’ after an accident. It’s bad reporting more than a weird case: the guy already knew Mandarin before the accident and had been to China before, but he didn’t consider himself fluent.

        But yeah, I definitely wouldn’t try it voluntarily. :p