No more Google Translate!

or “How machine translation may ruin your language learning experience”


I’ve recently read an article about how Google Translate is still a long way off replacing human translation. The author shows how limited the software is even when faced with basic ideas any human would readily understand. When it comes to translation, it reallytranslate looks like Google’s artificial intelligence is still quite dumb! The text got me thinking about the use of machine translation in foreign language learning and inspired me to write about how such tools do more harm than good when learners decide to use them instead of good dictionaries for learning vocabulary.

As an English language teacher, I’ve seen quite a few students (almost all of them, really) at some point making use of Google Translate either to get an equivalent in their mother tongue for an English word or to find out how to say something in English. While it’s undeniably fast and easy to grab your smartphone, type something into the translation app and get an apparently good-enough result, I cannot but raise against this practice, as to me it’s just one of the most counterproductive ways of trying to learn English. To show you how Google Translate spoils your vocabulary learning, let me give you two practical examples of each of the situations I mentioned above.

What does loaves mean?

So one of my students (who’s a native speaker of Portuguese) is reading the sentences from an exercise and comes across the following: “I bought five loaves of bread.” He’s unfamiliar with the word loaves and decides to look it up on Google Translate. This is what he gets:


That looks like a pretty satisfactory result. The word pães is a good Portuguese translation of loaves. The app even predicts the chunk loaves of bread. So what’s wrong? Well, as a basic learner, my student still relies on his first language for making sense of English (which, by the way, is just okay!). So when he mentally translates the sentence into Portuguese, what he gets is rather confusing: “Eu comprei cinco pães de pão.” The problem is that there are two most common English words for this kind of food: one is more general and uncountable (bread), while the other is used for referring to units of bread and is, therefore, countable (loaf). Portuguese, on its turn, has only one word (pão), which can be used to talk about both bread in general and loaves of it.

Just like any other machine translation software, all Google Translate can give you is one or a few possible translations based on statistical patterns. Because it doesn’t understand language, it has no idea about that most fundamental lack of conceptual equivalence between English and Portuguese when talking about bread. It won’t teach you about countable and uncountable nouns. It’ll have nothing to say about whatever differences there are between bread and loaves. Neither will it even tell you that the singular form of the word is loaf and not loave.

Let’s not underestimate the smartness of my imaginary student, though. In an attempt to get to grips with this word, he might well try running the whole sentence into the software. In that case, this is what he’d get:


Again, Google Translate seems to have succeeded. Well, in fact, it has. If all the student needed was to get an idea of what the word loaves means in that sentence, then everything went well. But if what he wanted was to learn the word (which means not only what it signifies, but also which forms it has and how it is used), then Google Translate was a failure. The student already knows what bread means, so everything he can do is assume that the software has either omitted the translation of one of the words or indicated that they are synonymous, just like it seems to have done before (loaves of bread = pães). The student may have understood what loaves means, but probably won’t be able to confidently and accurately use the word on his own.

How do you say “entregar” in English?

While doing a writing task, my student is telling a story about a crime and wants to say the following “A vizinha sabia que ele era o ladrão e o entregou para a polícia” (His neighbour knew he was the thief and turned him in.). He’s not sure about how to express entregar in English (turn somebody in, in this context). He types in the Portuguese verb and gets this as a result:


Based on Google’s suggestion, the learner completes his sentence: “…and delivered him to the police.”

As you can see, Google Translate has just misled my student. Not surprisingly, it used its statistical superpowers to suggest the most probable translation (according to whatever algorithm) but ignored the fact that the Portuguese verb entregar carries a number of different but related ideas that are conveyed by different verbs in English, including hand sth in, turn sb/sth in, hand sth to sb, deliver sth, give sth to sb, give sth out, hand sth out, and so on. Each of those options has its own specific context. For example, when talking about giving something to a person in authority, you should use hand in (e.g., I have to hand in my history essay by Friday.). If you’re talking about someone giving something to each person in a group or place, the best verb is hand out (e.g., Demonstrators handed out leaflets to passers-by.). In our target sentence above, the phrasal verb turn in is the best choice, as it means to tell the police about someone, or to take them to the police, because they have committed a crime.

The latest version of Google Translate does have a feature that allows you to see other alternatives for a particular word. All you need to do is click on the blue rightwards arrow next to the first suggested translation. I did that, and as expected, I got lots of options, but no information whatsoever about which option to use in which context.

Some of you might think that the software hasn’t been provided any context, and that’s why it failed to suggest an accurate translation. Shall we give Google Translate another chance? Ok, I typed in the whole original sentence in Portuguese. What I got in return was an even more confusing outcome:


Quite a lot went wrong this time. Precisely, the translation machine has failed thrice and, as a result, the English version of the sentence is not only confusing, but it actually goes in somewhat the opposite direction to the original one.

Firstly, the software’s decision to translate the definite article literally into English has created an ambiguity, as the reader may now think that the neighbour was the thief himself. This happens because, unlike Portuguese, English has no gender mark in nouns. In the Portuguese sentence, the word for thief is masculine while the word for neighbour is feminine. This makes it clear for any reader that we mean different people. A solution, in this case, would be to replace the definite article with a possessive adjective, therefore assuming that the thief lived next door and was eventually turned in by his neighbour.

Secondly, for mysterious reasons, Google Translate decided that the direct object of the verb entregar was neither the thief nor even a human being and, therefore, should be translated into “it”. This happened because the software wasn’t created to understand language, but to “decode” it. It was designed to see texts as strings of sentences, sentences as strings of words and words as strings of letters, and all of that being merely lifeless symbols to be decoded into another inert set of symbols. It doesn’t know words actually represent real-world things and abstract feelings and notions. It has no idea that the symbol ladrão represents a man who steals things and that pronouns usually refer to previously mentioned elements. Consequently, it makes no difference for the machine to translate the Portuguese unstressed object pronoun “-lo” as “it” or “him” or “her”, as the only thing it should (or was programmed to) know is that, from a statistical point of view, “it” is the most probable choice among those three, God only knows why!

Lastly, the previous error led the artificially (un)intelligent translation machine into a word-choice trap, as the selection of the verb hand seems to have been triggered by the assumption that the object of the verb was not a person, but a thing. The verb hand actually means to give something to someone by holding it in your hand and offering it to them, not to blow the whistle on someone. As a consequence, what Google translate offers the learner is quite a bit of nonsense, as the translated sentence means that the neighbour, who acknowledged himself as a thief, gave something – we don’t know what – to the police. Excuse me, what?!

Why shouldn’t I use Google Translate for learning vocabulary?

That is a most simple question to answer: it won’t teach you much; actually, it may even misteach you! The thing is, the goals of Google Translate don’t really match the needs of foreign language learners. While machine translation is quite useful as some sort of emergency resource for those who don’t speak (and aren’t learning) the target language, it will get in the way of those aiming at proficiency.

Good language learners don’t want to simply get the gist of a word and just guess how to use it. They want to acquire it, that is, to make it part of their own vocabulary and be able to use it appropriately whenever they like. It’s true that this deeper kind of knowledge of the lexicon comes with experience and contact with the language, but it’s just as true that instant translations given by a limited computer programme, which doesn’t even know what meaning is, will not be that helpful.

Google Translate will give us – language learners – options A, B or C, but it won’t tell us whether option B is better than option A, and it won’t explain to us why or when or how to use options A, B or C. It’s unable to give us exactly what we need the most for achieving a high level of proficiency.

There’s a better tool for learning vocabulary, and it’s been around for centuries. I’m going to talk about it in my next post.

How can I use Google Translate to learn a foreign language?

By now, you must be thinking that I’m some sort of anti-AI activist that wants translation machines to be banned. Not quite. In fact, I use Google Translate pretty often, both to teach and to learn languages. My whole point in this post is that using machine translation isn’t a very smart way to learn vocabulary. However, this kind of tools has some very interesting applications in foreign language learning and teaching.

One of the tasks I often have my intermediate and advanced students do is what I call Proofreading Google Translate. It consists of mistranslated sentences that the students have to correct. One way of doing that is to give them only the incorrect sentences. In such case, their task is to find all the possibilities of corrections and different senses the “author” might have intended. Another option is to give them both original and translated sentences and focus on how to correct the latter so that it both sounds natural in English and keeps the same meaning as the former. I don’t have such tasks in my classes on a regular basis, though. I usually use them as extra exercises for raising awareness of grammar and collocation patterns.

For more ideas on how to use mother tongue techniques (including translation and machine translation) in the foreign language classroom, I recommend checking out Philip Kerr’s handbook “Translation and Own-language Activities.”

If you liked this post, and if you’d like to read more about foreign language learning and teaching, multilingualism and linguistics in general, make sure to follow Multilingual Paths. In a future post, I’m going to tell you about the best alternative to machine translation you could possibly get.

See you then!

How (not) to choose an English language school – part 4 of 4

Over the last three weeks, I talked about some of the myths surrounding foreign language learning. I chose to talk about this because I believe my mission as a linguist and foreign language teacher goes beyond simply teaching verb forms to an intermediate class. It’s also part of my job to advise and inform those willing to take up a new language. If I’m able to prevent at least one single person from being lured by false promises of a money-making focused language school, I’ll already consider these posts to be successful in their purpose.

I’m well aware of the fact that the market is unlikely to change. There’ll always be tons of old and new companies trying to sell their own secret weapon for fast, best, effortless language learning. In a time when we’re constantly bombarded with all sorts of information from everywhere, it’s becoming more and more difficult to filter out the bad bits so we can take whatever is actually useful. That’s why I’ll keep writing about how languages are (not) taught or learnt, hoping that someone may get my message and make informed decisions about their own language education.

In the first post of this series, I tried to show that there’s no such thing as innovative, brand-new methodologies of foreign language learning. Virtually all of the schools make use of one or more methodological principles that have been around for decades already. So now you know what to tell that friend of yours when he comes up with a leaflet from a school and its revolutionary cutting-edge ninja-secret never-seen-before method that will make him fluent in 8 months.

In the following post, I brought up another widespread idea about language learning: the earlier you start studying another language, the better. I said there is some truth to it, but it doesn’t work the way most language schools try to convince you it will. For English learners in a foreign language learning environment such as Brazil, it makes very little difference whether they started learning at age 3 or 10. In the end, the most important thing to consider isn’t really the kid’s age, but his parents’ expectations.

The third post was about native speakers. And I must just once again restate I’ve got nothing against native speaker teachers. What I can’t stand is the unfair and distorted way some language schools advertise the fact that their teachers are native speakers of the language they’re teaching. In my text, I showed how having a native speaker teacher might be great, and how it might actually get in the way of your learning process. There are more important questions to be asked than whether the teacher comes from an English-speaking country.

So I’ve just spent three weeks debunking everything everyone thinks they know about foreign language learning, but offered no options?

Not quite. In the first of the four posts, I said that I had no intention to come up with the ultimate solution for effective language learning. Instead, I just wanted to clarify a few distorted ideas. Now, I’m going to give you a few simple hints about how to choose your English (or another foreign language) school.


There are several different methodologies and approaches to foreign language learning, and one is certainly the best. However, not for everyone. Each of those methodologies is the best for someone. While your girlfriend might love her listen-and-repeat classes, you might feel you yield your best results in immersive conversation lessons with no or little repetition. And there’s no reason to believe that your lessons would be the best for both you and your girlfriend. People learn in different ways.


You will not become a proficient speaker of English in 18 months. You just won’t. Accept this truth, as bitter as it may sound. Learning a language takes more time than money, and there aren’t any shortcuts. You’ve got to go through all the stages, and beat all the big bosses, and in the end, if you still have energy in your health bar, you’ll realise this game of foreign language learning has no end. It’s a loop. And this is awesome!


No matter for how many years you’ve studied English, no matter how many nice compliments about your English you’ve heard from Americans, you don’t and you’ll never speak like a native speaker. You may be one of the few (less than 1%, to be exact) that may be mistaken for a native speaker, but at some point in your speech or writing or behaviour, you will eventually be spotted as an alien. But don’t worry, as there doesn’t seem to be any bad consequences (in most cases). There’s no way you can turn off your mother tongue when learning or using a foreign language. Learning another language means putting two or more languages in contact in your mind and, believe me, there are very few better things you could do to your own brain. Just embrace this reality and take advantage of all your knowledge (including your mother tongue) to learn the new language.


  • Gather information about all your options of schools. Try to learn about how their methodology works, the materials they use, the background and qualifications of their teachers. This will take some of your time, but you’d rather take some days or weeks to make the right choice than spend years having classes in a place that will teach you little and drain your pocket.Which way to go?
  • Contact current and former students of the school you’re analysing. Their various opinions will give you the client’s point of view of the service the school advertises.
  • Whenever possible, take a trial lesson. This will give you a better idea of what it may be like to study in that school. Don’t forget to watch the other students, though, as their reactions and behaviour may also give you valuable information. For example, if your classmates, who have been studying there for a while already, look somewhat uneasy or confused during the lesson you’re attending, it could be an indication that the lesson might have been tarted up only because you are there.
  • Don’t go for prices (high or low) or promises. While lower-ranked schools with low prices may mean low-quality service, there may also be great places with honest and qualified professionals. And while high-profile expensive language school chains may give the impression that they’ve got the best of everything for you, most of them work like slot machines and will try to keep you studying there forever. As for the promises, run away from “be fluent in 18 months” and “guaranteed results” ads. When it comes to language learning, no one can guarantee anything, and if sh*t happens and you don’t become fluent with them, they’ll try to convince you that it was because you didn’t work hard enough.
  • Consider tutoring. Private language teachers have the autonomy to shape courses and lessons to your own personal needs and will be able to monitor your development more closely. Be careful, though. Make sure the private teacher you chose has good qualifications and try to contact his former or current students. If you would never sit on a dentist’s chair to get your teeth cleaned by someone who’s learnt to do this by himself, there’s no reason why you would have English language lessons with an Economy undergraduate whose the greatest teaching qualification is to have lived in the U.S. for a couple of months. Well, I know teeth are usually more important than language proficiency, but I’m sure you got my point. Find a tutor (at least) with a teaching degree from a university and an advanced level of fluency certified by a recognised international institution such as Cambridge ESOL.

I hope this series of posts was useful for you. Although many of the things I said are based on scientific knowledge, there are also some bits that reflect my own personal opinion as a foreign language teacher and linguist. Feel free to express your own views in the comments, whether you agree with me or not.

See you next time.

How (not) to choose an English language school – part 3 of 4

If you’ve been following this series of posts about how not to be deceived by appealing offers and promises of fast, better language learning, welcome back. If you haven’t, be my guest and, if you like, also check out the previous posts, where I talked about two common myths about foreign language learning (just click on the titles):

MYTH 1: Our cutting-edge methodology will make you fluent in English in 18 months.

MYTH 2: The earlier you start learning English, the faster you’ll acquire it and the better you’ll speak it.

Today I’m talking about another argument often used by language schools to lure customers:


What is behind this myth is the idea that the best teachers anyone can have are those who are native speakers of the language they’re teaching. Well, it seems to make sense. What could be better than learning English with someone who comes from an English-speaking country? This person will provide you with the best vocabulary and pronunciation and an in-depth knowledge about the culture. No Brazilian teacher can beat an American when it comes to knowledge about the English language, right?


Almost everything’s wrong with these ideas. Let’s see why and how.

Who’s the native speaker?like a native

Imagine we have a Portuguese language school and need to hire native speakers of Portuguese to work as teachers. On the day of interviews, we have four candidates: (1) a girl from the megacity of São Paulo, with a degree in International Relations and lots of travel experiences; (2) an Engineering undergraduate from a town in the south of Brazil; (3) a man who didn’t finish elementary school and (4) a teenager from Rio.

What do they all have in common? They’re all Brazilian and native speakers of Portuguese. What don’t they have in common? The language they speak, funnily enough.

This is because “Portuguese language” is basically a general term used to refer to several varieties of the Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) community. It’s not only about the different accents these people have. There are lots of differences in vocabulary and grammar as well. And the same thing happens in English. Someone from Yorkshire, UK speaks a variety quite different from someone from Austin, USA. And even within the UK, you’ll find loads of differences in the way people use the language.

The thing is that some native speakers have more prestige than others. If you decide to study in a school that has native speaker teachers, what you expect to find is a very sophisticated person from a cosmopolitan centre such as New York, London or Sydney, not native speakers of English coming from Thurso, Scotland or Oudtshoorn, South Africa.

Everything I said about native speakers so far is interesting and relevant, but there’s only one reason why our candidates above wouldn’t make good language teachers: they have no training on foreign language teaching.

In order to illustrate how this important, just try to answer this question: what would a ‘Portuguese As a Foreign Language’ lesson given by that uncle of yours who is a physician be like? What sort of skills would he teach? What techniques would he make use of? How would he choose the best assessment approach?

The truth is that foreign language teaching is a complex activity that requires not only a high level of fluency but also great knowledge about the structure of the language, the methodologies, the different techniques for teaching grammar, vocabulary, listening, reading, writing, speaking, collocations, pronunciation etc. Just like practically all of the professions, it requires qualification. Being a native speaker of a language doesn’t qualify you to teach it.

Native vs non-native teachers

Ok, let’s suppose we have two candidates for a teaching position in an English language school in Brazil. Both of them have had language teaching training and have taught English for a least 5 years. One of them is an American, born and raised in the USA, but now living in Brazil for about 2 years. The other is Brazilian and learned English in Brazil. In this sort of more balanced competition, what would be the advantages and disadvantages of having a native or non-native English language teacher?

Non-native speakers of the language they teach can be great examples for their students, as they’ve gone through pretty much the same learning process. They know which aspects of the language will pose greater difficulties and they can easily switch to the native language they share with the students in order to explain or give instructions. The communication between teacher and students is genuinely bilingual.

On the other hand, non-native speakers will probably not be as good models of natural language usage and pronunciation as the native speakers. And the latter will have cultural information to share as someone ‘from inside’ the linguistic and cultural context. However, native speakers might not be good models of International English, depending on the variety of English they speak, and this is an important issue because most people learn English to communicate with the world, not with the guy from countryside Texas.

The fact is that it’s not really important to know whether your English language teacher will be a native or non-native speaker of English. Professor Jeremy Harmer, a leading scholar and researcher of ELT, says that the two most important questions to be answered are:

  • Does the teacher speak English that is good enough?

  • Does the teacher know how to teach?

How (not) to choose an English language course – part 2 of 4

Last week I started a series of posts about how language schools use confusion marketing and common myths on language learning to sell their courses. In the first part of the series, I talked about the myth of “new” and “innovative” methodology that some companies advertise as the unique feature that will make people fluent in English in no time. Today we’re having a look at another widespread idea about language learning:


This idea is used in two different ways: by some language schools, which want you to enrol your baby as early as possible in their courses; and by adult learners, as an excuse for their not so good performance in class and homework. Before I tell you what’s wrong with this myth, though, let’s see what actually happens.

The age factor in language learning

While there’s some truth in the claim that young children learn language faster and better, it’s not as simple as many people believe. The first problem seems to be that there’s a tendency to mix up how the acquisition of our first language (or our mother tongue) works, and how the learning of a subsequent, non-native language (i.e. second or foreign or additional language) does. Science is fairly certain that those are two very different processes. We don’t get to speak our first language by taking lessons and doing homework. When we first go to school, we are already fluent in our mother tongue. It’s still sort of a mysterious process, which starts even before we’re born, when our hearing is turned on.

There are various views on how child development and first language acquisition happen, but a key idea here is the so-called critical period hypothesis, which says that there’s a period of growth in which people are able to develop full native competence in a language. That period would span from birth to the early teenage years, and any attempt to learn a language after that would result in a non-native competence and, therefore, not a mother tongue, but a second language.

Of course, my explanations are far too oversimplified, but I’m making an effort not to go too technical. If you’re interested in this topic, google terms and names such as “neuroplasticity”, “Penfield”, “Lenneberg”, “Chomsky”, and “universal grammar”. While there seems to be some truth in the claims of the critical period hypothesis, particularly in that children (very young children) appear to be able to acquire skills more easily than full-grown adults, there’s still a lot to be explained. And while the scientific questions are not resolved, companies take advantage of some of the most appealing claims and use them to persuade potential clients.

Start studying English at age 3 and become fluent before turning 10? Nope.

If it’s true that young children’s brain is fresh enough to absorb languages in a way that they can become native speakers, then you should hurry and enrol your baby in the nearest English language school as soon as possible and spare her the trouble of years and years of different language schools when she’s older. Get your baby to learn English at age 3, and by the time she’s 10, she’ll be as native in it as she is in her parents’ language. Right?Baby-Suit

WRONG! If only it was that simple!

The age factor is just one among a variety of factors influencing language learning, all of which acting at the same time. What kind of learning environment is your kid going to be exposed to? Remember what I said earlier: we don’t acquire our first language by having lessons. It’s a much more subtle process, and also a great deal deeper. Maybe the setting most likely to yield good results would be the immersion one, but it’s almost impossible to provide kids with a verisimilar immersion setting where the target language isn’t really spoken outside the school and/or if parents don’t speak it well enough or don’t demand their children to use it when talking to them. It’s just too complicated to replicate a scenario that would feel natural enough for the second language to be acquired as a native language by the children.

And there are a lot more factors, such as motivation (why bother to learn and use a language if everyone I need to communicate with understands my native Portuguese?), amount of exposure (are 4 hours a week of school instrution + my favourite English-language cartoon really enough to make me pick up English like a native?), cognitive issues (what if I’m terrific at maths but can’t get my head round grammar?), affective issues (what if I don’t like it when they make me speak that language that isn’t from home) etc.

What many language schools do is reinforce a belief very common among adults, especially those who haven’t studied a second language. It goes more or less like this: “I was told it takes about 6 years to learn English, so if I enrol my kid when he’s 4, he’ll be fluent by the time he turns 10, right?”


The level of fluency parents expect when they think about this is something like the native speakers in the TV series they watch in the evening. I’m sorry, it’s not going to happen. It turns out that in foreign language learning environments, such as English language learning in Brazil, the critical period vanishes really, really early. Whether your kid starts going to language school when he’s 4 or 10 is going to make very little difference in his overall language proficiency, simply because adult-like fluency is developed in adulthood. In other words, when you’re learning a foreign language, you can only get to a high level of fluency if you’re able to think and reason about language, that is, if you’re able to go abstract. Kids aren’t good at this.

I won’t learn English because I’m too old

“Poor me, I’m an unfortunate adult that can’t learn English properly. I’ve tried several times, gone to different schools, tried lots of apps, but I can’t make sense of the language. I should’ve started learning when I was 5. Now it’s too late!”

My piece of advice to you: cut the bloody bullsh*t!

In the great majority of the cases, adults find themselves stuck in situations like the one above not because some kind of developmental blockade or a closed door in the elusive critical period, but simply because they fail to work harder on their aims. The only critical thing here is their laziness or demotivation. But since this topic is too much fun, I’ll save it for a future post.

Not everything’s lost, though

I don’t mean to discourage you to enrol your young child in a foreign language school. On the contrary, I actually think you should definitely do it. My intention with this post was just to help you adjust your expectations. Learning English between ages 3 and 11 should be primarily about having fun and getting familiar with the language. It should be a period to create a good impression about how fun and interesting it can be to speak another language. Don’t try your kid by asking him to translate things or say certain phrases if you’re not sure he’s able to do it. Don’t take him to Disney World and expect him to be your interpreter. Don’t expect that he’ll be a prodigy learner and become fluent in English before finishing elementary school. Your main investment in this phase of your kid’s life is in the improvement and maintenance of his motivation. If you understand this, perhaps your child may even surprise you after a couple of years of language study.

Next week,  in the third part of this series of posts about learning English as a foreign language, we’re going to discuss the third and last myth I chose to clarify: the native-speaker teacher as the best option.

See you then.

How (not) to choose an English language course – part 1 of 4


Learning languages is all about advantages. It can improve your memory by making your brain work in ways it normally doesn’t. It can broaden your horizons and take your understanding of other cultures to a whole new level. It can be that asset that will land you that higher-paying position in the company. And while being bilingual or multilingual is actually the normal thing for the majority of the population (I may talk about how and why humans are mostly bilingual in a future post), there’s still some prestige in it, depending on which languages you know. This is because some languages are politically more “interesting” than others.

That English is the most important language in the world is surely beyond dispute. It was spread round the globe during the apex of the British Empire in the late 19th century. During World War I, it started standing out as an international language, and by the late 1950’s it had already established itself as the lingua franca of the world. It all happened quite fast, in the speed of the industrial revolution, and because of the overwhelming political, military and financial influence of the United Kingdom and the United States. But although their influence is still great to this day, the scenario is a lot different, at least from a linguistic point of view.

It seems that the English language, which had traveled the world riding on the coat-tails of the UK and the USA for over a century, has finally become independent. Today, it’s the official language in other 51 countries and it’s the language of international commerce, science and foreign affairs. Brazilian tourists visiting Russia will probably use English to buy their theatre tickets. In the business dinner of a trade fair in Sweden, it’s very likely that the Arabian businessmen will communicate with their South Korean counterparts in English. And in a world in which knowledge (in particular, skills and professional qualifications) is a true and highly profitable asset or product, it’s no wonder that English has inherited from its original owners a great potential to be capitalised, monetised.


And here we finally get to the point. While language is the property of those who claim it – whatever historical, cultural or political reasons they may have for that – language teaching and learning isn’t so much so. In other words, anyone can teach any language and there’s hardly any regulation of if or how this should be done. Because of the status of English in the world, teaching it as a second or foreign language has become a highly profitable business. And in this extremely competitive market, where giant corporations duel over market dominance round whole countries and where all sorts of medium-size and small companies elbow each other to surface in the ocean of local language schools, it’s no wonder that we’re bombarded with all sorts of bizarre adverts and miraculous offers about how well (or fast, or effortlessly, or enjoyably) we can learn English. Advertising done this way, in a fashion very much likely to be referred to as confusion marketing by the experts, often misleads those trying to choose a language course.

Don’t take that bait!

Quite obviously, if you’re reading this post, it means either that you’ve somehow survived that process or that English is your native language. Anyway, please help me spread the ideas and hints in this text to those who will go through the trouble of formal foreign language instruction. Note, however, that I don’t intend to bring up the solutions to language learning problems. This is but a reflection on a few facts which I think everyone willing to take up language lessons should be aware of. In this series of four posts, I’m going to talk about common (mistaken) ideas about foreign language learning and go through a few strategies or hints that will hopefully help your friends make informed decisions about where to study English.


From a myriad of widespread myths about how English language is best learnt, I’ve selected just three of them, which I find specially interesting as they’re usually sold to people as truth. The first one is discussed below.

MYTH 1: Our cutting-edge methodology will make you fluent in English in 18 months

Come on, folks, let’s face it: there’s no such thing as cutting-edge methodology. Every English language school has its procedures and coursebooks guided by (or, at least, based on) one or more of the following methodological approaches:

  1. Learning by using only English, in order to simulate a real-life immersion into a far-fetched scenario in which the natives have no knowledge of any language other than their own (aka ESL – English as a Second Language);
  2. Learning through repetition and drilling, often triggered by pictures or short dialogues (aka audio-lingual method); or
  3. Learning by trying to solve problems or complete tasks that involve and require exchanging information in English with other learners (i.e. communicating with them) (aka CLT – Communicative Language Teaching).

None of those methodologies are new. The ESL approach is basically another name for the Direct Method, in vogue in the 1970’s, but whose ideas and practices can be tracked back to the second half of the 1800’s. On its turn, the audio-lingual method derived from the language courses developed in the 1960’s by the US goverment to train their military and are heavily based on behaviourist principles put forward in the late 1950’s. Finally, the CLT (or Communicative Approach, as it’s also commonly referred to) is not really a methodology, but a set of strategies and practices aiming to help create a genuine communicative setting for the target language to be used, and it was suggested in the late 1980’s.

And what about the time issue? Can anyone become fluent in English in 18 months? The answer is yes and no. First, we need to define whatever it’s meant by fluent. If they mean you’ll be able to say who you are, where you come from and what you do, and maybe to buy your own train tickets and order food from a simple menu, then yes, you may well be “fluent” after 18 months of study. Bear in mind, however, that for most institutions (and even for most people), if you have only these basic communicative skills, you’re quite far from being fluent. You will probably need at least a couple of years of frequent classes and contact with the language in order to be able to discuss misunderstandings, solve problems, persuade and get across your opinion on climate change. This is, among other things, what a fluent English speaker is usually expected to be able to do.

There are several other old methods and approaches that are still used to this day and there are also schools that shape their ways of doing things by frankensteining what they consider to be the best bits of each of the earlier methods in what has been called a post-method or post-CLT approach. At the end of the day, all you need to tell that friend of yours who’s thinking about taking up English is that he shouldn’t trust the advertising.

Follow me. In my next post, I’m going to talk about why you’re not a loser if you only started learning a foreign language at 35 years old. (That 3-year-old niece of yours isn’t going to be fluent by the time she’s 6.)

Which is the hardest language?

or “An Introduction to Language Distance”

I have been teaching English for about 10 years, and not rarely do I hear from my Portuguese-speaking Brazilian students comments like “learning English is harder than learning Spanish, right?”, “I was told Portuguese is the most difficult language in the world” or “American English is easier than British English, right?”. What we are talking about here is language distance and, more specifically, people’s perception of language distance. Although the space of a blog post is not in the least enough to address such a complex subject, I will try to be brief, straight to the point and only talk about a few main ideas.languages

When we are learning a new language, there is absolutely no way we can turn off the languages we already know. Like it or not, they are going to influence how we make sense of new language features and how we use them. This is called cross-linguistic influence, a phenomenon present in virtually every language learner’s speech and writing. There are several factors determining if, when and how this influence happens, but most researchers agree that the most important of them is cross-linguistic similarities or language distance.

Let’s not get too technical. To put it simply, language learners create hypotheses, both consciously and unconsciously, about how their first language works and what connections there may be between the languages they know and the one they are learning (the target language). If learners perceive (or assume) that a certain feature of one language is also present in the language being learnt, they may be led to transfer this feature, and the outcome may be positive (when the feature actually exists in the target language) or negative (when it does not exist or is not used the same way).

For example, a German-speaking learner of English may read the sentence “I am 29 years old” in a coursebook and notice that both languages use the verb BE to talk about age in sort of the same structure:

ENGLISH: I am 29 years old.
GERMAN: Ich bin 29 Jahre alt.

He may then assume that this pattern should work as some kind of general rule and start producing other sentences, such as “She is 15 years old” and “Mr. Kent is 40 years old”, all of which correct. On the other hand, a Portuguese-speaking learner of English that does not speak German may want to transfer his first language’s pattern into his English and say:

 I have 29 years.     Or even: I have 29 years of age.
PORTUGUESE: Eu tenho 29 anos (de idade).

In his first attempt, his assumption of cross-linguistic similarity will have led him to make a mistake in English, but what about his second attempt? It would be grammatically right, but certainly not the natural choice of a native speaker of English.

In the function above (talking about age) German bears closer similarity with English than Portuguese, and this is actually what is going to happen in almost every other case. This is because German and English are in the same linguistic branch, the Germanic languages, while Portuguese belongs to another branch, the Romance languages. Actually, both branches developed from the same ancentral language, the highly unknown, mostly theorised Proto-Indo-European, and that is partly why there are also some similarities between Germanic and Romance languages. Of course, the whole dynamics of how languages develop and come to influence one another in history and in the language learner’s mind is a lot more complex and, as I said, I cannot fully explain it here. But I hope you are following my brief considerations.

Now back to the comments which I said I often hear from people. It is impossible to say which language is the most difficult, or which variety of English is easier. The answer depends on who is asking. If you are learning a language that is more closely related to the languages you know, especially your first language, you are more likely to find it easier to understand and learn. On the other hand, if your target language is a language that is not related to any of those you know, it will probably feel harder to get to grips with. For example, speakers of English will find Norwegian way easier to learn than Finnish, because the latter is a totally unrelated language which, by the way, has no relative within the Indo-European languages (a group that represents +90% of the languages in Europe). If you are a speaker of Spanish, you will find Portuguese, Italian, French and Romanian much easier than Hungarian (and even if you are not, just check out the table below for the sentence “I drink wine” in those languages and draw your own conclusions).

Spanish Yo bebo vino.
Portuguese Eu bebo vinho.
Italian Io bevo vino.
Romanian Eu beau vin.
French Je bois du vin.
Hungarian Iszom bort.

Don’t be scared of learning distant languages, though. Learning a language which is not closely related to yours is like getting a special key into secret chambers where dozens of other languages hide. If you learn Russian, you will be amazed to see how short a step you are from Ukrainian. If you learn Modern Standard Arabic, you will be able to communicate with people from 22 countries and easily learn any of the dozens of local varieties of the language, even though most of them are not mutually intelligible. As for myself, I am currently a learner of Russian. When I achieve an advanced level in it, I intend to venture on Belarussian or Ukrainian, but not before I pick up at least one more Romance language, perhaps Italian.

How about you? Which language are you going to learn next?

SUGGESTION: A History of Languages: an introduction by Tore Janson is a very nice, easy-to-read book about how languages are born, develop and die. It is filled with examples and maps and the author gives lots of suggestions of further reading on different topics.