Myth about Automatic Language Growth

Just Talking To Native Speakers Is The Worst Way To Learn A Language
Foreign Policy Journal
by Antonio Graceffo
June 1, 2010

[Note. Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. He is the author of the book, “The Monk from Brooklyn” and the host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts Odyssey,” which traces his ongoing journey through Asia, learning martial arts in various countries. His books are available on See all of Antonio’s videos on his YouTube channel, "brooklynmonk1". Follow "Brooklynmonk" on Twitter. Visit his website to sign up for his mailing list. Contact him at: Read more articles by Antonio Graceffo.]

[...]The fact that the Malaysians speak English and Malay, and then Chinese Malaysians also speak two or three dialects, doesn’t mean they are good language learners. These are multiple mother tongues. They don’t count. You don’t learn your mother tongue. You acquire it. To measure the ability of Malaysians to learn a language, you would need to observe them in a French class or Japanese class. And if you did, you would find that they don’t learn any faster than Americans.

There is a commonly held myth in America that Europeans are great languages learners. Just last week I heard an American tourist in a cafĂ© saying, “It’s not uncommon to find people in Europe who speak four or even five languages.” I went to school in Europe for four years, and I will tell you, it is extremely uncommon to find Europeans who speak four or five languages. Nearly everyone in Europe learns English at school. The Germanic countries take English seriously and young Germans, Dutch, and Scandinavians generally speak it well. In Italy and Spain, however, the level is extremely low. Apart from English, however, most second language teaching in Europe has dropped off. Yes, some Germans speak French well, but it isn’t that common. And certainly, Germans who speak Japanese will be as infrequent as Americans who speak Japanese.

In countries which have more than one official language, you will find that only a small percentage of the population is fully bi-lingual. Estimates show that 55% of bilingual Canadians are Quebecers. Generally, in bilingual countries you find only the speakers of the minority language are bilingual. In Malaysia, for example, nearly 100% of Chinese speak Malay, but very few Malays speak Chinese. Spain has four official languages, but native-speakers of Castilian don’t generally speak any of the other three. Switzerland has four languages, German, French, Italian and Rhaeto-Romansch – but 22 of the 26 cantons are officially monolingual.

I have written nearly two hundred articles on second language acquisition, but they all lead to the same sobering and dreary point. Learning a language is hard work. There are no secrets and no shortcuts. You can’t learn by “just talking to us.” You have to study. You need to go to school, hire a teacher, buy books, videos, DVDs, audio, whatever materials you can find, five hours per day for up to 800 hours. Then, as soon as possible, wean yourself with language learning materials and move into the use of real language materials such as novels, newspapers, movies, and attending lectures and classes taught IN but not ABOUT the language.