Let me ask you a very important question…
Would you take business advice from someone who’s stinking rich?
You would? Ok good.
Now, what if I told you that that person got rich by playing the lottery?
That business advice from that person suddenly doesn’t sound quite so tempting anymore, does it?
You just realised that the person you thought held all the secrets… actually just got lucky and doesn’t know the first thing about business!
So, when it comes to language learning… what are you doing taking language learning advice from native speakers?
I should probably explain myself…
The Kind Of Advice Native Speakers Normally Give You
Look, I remember when I first started learning Cantonese.
In case you don’t know, Cantonese is the language of Hong Kong, but I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t know that, because… well, no-one learns Cantonese!
So, I was pretty much in the dark about how to go about learning that language…
All the books and courses were rubbish…
And I would get all my Cantonese-learning wisdom from native speakers.
It was always hilarious the things I was advised to do.
In fact, the first thing I was told to do was not to bother learning Cantonese, and learn Mandarin instead!
Which, might actually have been good advice.
But just as often, I’d hear:
“Oh, you’re learning Cantonese!
You should just watch loads of Cantonese movies! You’ll learn how real Cantonese people talk!
We have lots of funny idioms in Cantonese!”
Have you ever been given the “watch lots of movies” advice before?
(Leave a comment at the end of the article and let me know if you have.)
At first, I looked up to these native speakers as bastions of authority, whose advice I should heed — after all, they speak the language perfectly!
But quickly, I learned that I could quite safely ignore most language learning advice coming my way from native speakers.
Well, there are a few big problems…
- Yes, native speakers are well-intentioned.
- Yes, native speakers speak the language much better than you!
- Yes, native speakers often know a lot about the language.
But they have no idea what it’s like to be learning the language.
Or often what it’s like to learn any foreign language, for that matter.
They have no idea about how their language looks, feels or sounds to someone who hasn’t grown up with it.
They have no idea about how confusing the grammar feels, how weird the pronunciation sounds, how their vocabulary all sounds the same to you…
So, at what point did you think they’re qualified to give you advice about how to learn their language?
The Difference Between Knowing A Language & Learning A Language
If you had a friend who just won the lottery, you wouldn’t turn to them for business advice, despite them being much richer than you!
You know your really skinny friend who can eat cake all day long without putting on a pound of fat?
You wouldn’t ask them how to lose weight, even though they’re super thin!
And the same goes for language learning.
The process of learning a language is fundamentally different from knowing or speaking a language.
Successfully learning a foreign language as an adult has as much to do with things like:
- Time management
…as learning the words or the grammar of the language.
That’s why people like me spend comparatively little time talking about the mechanics of languages, and much more time talking about the mechanics of yourself, and how you work.
“Learning how to learn” as Barbara Oakley would put it.
Someone who hasn’t gone through the language learning process themselves, as an adult, simply cannot understand what goes into it…
And, no matter how well-intentioned they are, they’re really not in any position to give you advice.
So, don’t pay any attention to language learning advice from native speakers, ladies and gentlemen…
Unless, of course…
That person actually has some meaningful language learning experience!
In which case you can probably just forget about everything I’ve just said.
Most Native Speakers Don't Have Meaningful Language Learning Experience
It’s just that, in reality, most people don’t, in fact, have any meaningful language learning experience as an adult.
Take the case of your teacher, for example…
(This is where it starts to get really interesting 🙂 )
Your teacher is likely to be a native speaker…
So does that mean you should or shouldn’t take language learning advice from them?
When I taught English, way back in the day, it was once in a blue moon that I’d meet an English teacher who had learned another language to a good level.
They might be able to explain grammar to you, but are they really qualified to advise you on successful language learning?
And does that mean that there are potentially thousands of English teachers out there who really shouldn’t be dishing out language learning advice?
Does it mean that?
Well, I’ll leave you to ponder that one.
Of course, you may be lucky enough to have a native speaker teacher who has also learned other languages themselves as an adult… and been successful at it!
Giving them not only language expertise, but also language learning expertise…
And all I can say is: If you have a teacher like that, hold onto them!
But until that day…
Next time you meet a native speaker at a party, and you sense the advice coming on…
And take their advice with a very large pinch of salt.
Unless, of course, you think I’m wrong about all this, in which case I’d love to hear about it in a comment below.
But if you ask me, don’t take language learning advice from native speakers.