Continuum The magazine of The University of Utah

Five Language Myths Busted

Not everything you might believe about how speech works is true.

When Henry Higgins tells Eliza Doolittle that changing the way she speaks will infinitely elevate her social status, it makes perfect sense. Language is one of those things that sets us apart as intelligent or less so. Annoying or pleasant. Able to convince a crowd to see things our way, or not.

Many of the perceptions we have about language seem innate, like women talking more than men, or French truly being the langue de l’amour. But on closer examination, these “facts” don’t always hold true. Many of them are simply culturally accepted falsehoods.

In her book Women Talk More than Men… And Other Myths about Language Explained, University of Utah linguistics professor Abby Kaplan looks at some of the erroneous reports made by the media, accepted by the public, and touted as the way things really are. Kaplan measures these reports against scientific studies to determine the truth about language. Find five of the language myths she busts below.

Myth-icon-bilingualMYTH: Being bilingual makes you smarter (or dumber).

TRUTH: Bilingualism doesn’t make you any less intelligent. Conversely, it can be quite beneficial (at least sometimes). But to say it makes you smarter is an oversimplification.

The pendulum on this topic has swung both directions. Kaplan points out that popular wisdom used to hold that being bilingual made you less intelligent—and teaching your children two languages would put them at a disadvantage, creating confusion as their brain attempted to switch between languages. But those studies, she shows, were severely flawed.

Now the opinion has shifted, and many parents clamor to get their children in dual immersion programs to give them a leg up. And while learning a second language (be it as an adult or child) can have advantages, like allowing you to communicate with more people, explore new cultures, pursue new business opportunities, and so on, Kaplan still says it’s premature to declare that being bilingual actually makes you smarter.

“Bilingualism is extremely complex,” she explains. “It can look very different across individuals and across societies.” The fact is, there are few people who are truly balanced bilinguals. As Kaplan explains, a person might be more proficient in one language than the other. They might also use each language in totally different situations, like children who speak Vietnamese at home with their immigrant parents, but speak English at school.

Even in societies that are technically bilingual, a phenomenon called diglossia often occurs—where one language is associated with “high” functions and the other with “low.” For example, in Paraguay, where the majority of the population speaks two languages, Spanish is considered the high language, which means it’s used in formal contexts such as government and official business. Guaraní, the low language, is more intimate and informal, usually spoken in the home and between friends.

Being bilingual can, however, offer additional perks. Knowing more than one name for an object, according to a study analyzed by Kaplan, has the effect of increasing metalinguistic awareness— the ability to talk and think about language. Another study found that lifelong bilingualism has a significant benefit in old age.

Kaplan concludes that there are many positive reasons to learn a second language, even if it hasn’t been proven to increase or diminish intelligence. So, she often describes the “makes you smarter” assertion as “mostly true.”

Myth-icon-adultlanguageMYTH: Adults cannot learn a new language.

TRUTH: Many researchers claim there is a critical period for a human being to learn a language—when they are young. But studies in Kaplan’s book suggest this might be more of a fallacy than we think.

“If language can’t be learned after childhood, then it seems logical that language shouldn’t change later in life—in other words, the way you talk as a teenager is the way you will talk as a 90-year-old,” says Kaplan. But a person’s native language may evolve slightly over a lifetime, which means language may not be completely fixed during childhood after all. “It’s still malleable to at least some degree,” she adds.

Much of the research Kaplan shares on this topic is conducted with immigrant families and cites how easy it is for children to pick up the language of their new nation as proof of the critical period hypothesis. However, she refutes the idea that the adults are unable to learn the language based solely on their age, pointing out that many people do become competent and fluent speakers of a second language later in life. Age, it turns out, is only part of the equation. For example, the children of these immigrant families are often able to go to school for formal language training for many years while the adults are left with very little, if any, language education.

Researchers also argue that children’s behavior and environment makes them more willing to practice, experiment, learn—and fail—while adults tend to avoid embarrassment and stick with what they know well: their first language. Grownups have spent many years learning the proper way to speak and write their first language. It can be difficult for them to essentially unlearn everything from grammar to pronunciation in the process of learning a new one. Kaplan says that even forming certain letter sounds in other languages can be tricky for adults, since a first language trains the tongue so specifically.

Experts agree that it may be more difficult for adults to learn a new language— but that there is not a magic age where that ability drops off. So if you’ve been thinking about tackling another language, go ahead and order that Rosetta Stone!

Myth-icon-frenchMYTH: French is the most beautiful language.

TRUTH: In other cultures, different sounds are more or less appealing. French is not universally acknowledged as the most beautiful option for expressing yourself.

Language is far more than just communication. It represents heritage and history and cultural associations. As Kaplan asks in her book, “To what extent are our opinions on languages affected by our beliefs about the people who speak the language?”

When surveyed, Nevada natives and Tennessee dwellers gave their own states the “most pleasant” rating in terms of accents. Both groups, however, ranked Arkansas and Alabama as the most jarring accent in the U.S. When asked to describe accents in other parts of the country, participants in another study used words like “hillbilly,” “cowboy,” “surfer,” and “Ivy League”—none of which describe the actual sounds created by accents, but nicknames for the people making them.

Languages and accents that are harsh and guttural are sometimes thought to be “ugly.” Kaplan cites pop culture as a perfect example of how our opinions on language creep into the characterization of the people speaking. In Star Trek, Klingon has these “ugly” characteristics. In A Song of Ice and Fire, the savage Dothraki speak a version of this type of language. The Lord of the Rings villain Sauron uses a language so ugly, Gandalf tries to avoid it.

In the real world, German fits this bill for some. It not only has guttural sounds but is also still associated by many with Nazism, whereas French spent centuries as the language of science and art in Europe. Many still consider French highly prestigious, associating it with sophistication and romance. As Kaplan pointedly says, “People’s aesthetic judgments about particular languages are inextricably bound up with beliefs about the people who speak those languages.”

Myth-icon-textingMYTH: Text messaging makes you illiterate truth.

TRUTH: There is practically zero evidence that using abbreviations or texting in general harms literacy skills. Text away.

Abbreviations and codes associated with texting are not new forms of communication—they’ve been used in forms from hieroglyphics to telegrams. Though text-speak has caused significant alarm among some parents and English teachers, there is no reason to wring your hands over texting.

When the medium first came on the scene, texts were limited to 160 characters, and all cost money per message. To economize, users used acronyms and abbreviations to convey their thoughts and avoid those nasty overage charges. Now, though, several studies have indicated that things like TTYL and IDK are used so infrequently it is almost not worth noting.

Acronyms, Kaplan points out, are common even in formal writing. RSVP, MIT, UN. They don’t hinder the communication— as long as you know your audience. Texting a friend means you can get by with less-than-perfect grammar. Just don’t let it leak into your professional documents.

Myth-icon-womentalkMYTH: Women talk more than men.

TRUTH: Studies have measured rates of speech at home, in college classrooms, and in casual conversation. None of them conclude that females motormouth away while their male counterparts sit silent.

The media like to proclaim how studies show women are blabbermouths while men are stoically silent. But that claim simply doesn’t hold water, according to research. “The best studies show that men and women, on average, talk about the same,” says Kaplan.

She points to studies that refute the claim that women have a penchant for backchanneling—when you say things like “uh-huh” while someone is talking to indicate you’re listening. Men do that too. Oh, and tag questions? That thing that happens at the end of a sentence when you don’t want to be too forceful about your opinions—you know what I mean? To say nothing of vocal fry, upspeak, or “Valley Girl” talk—all of which have been explored in the media recently and almost always attributed to women.

If correctly interpreted (which Kaplan explains is often the problem in media reports—assumptions are made without careful reading of the actual results), studies have shown these speech habits are not exclusive to, nor are they primarily used by, any one gender.

Popular beliefs in Western culture suggest that women have more developed language skills and tend to speak more “correctly” than men, but still speak in a way that diminishes them. In other parts of the world, however, women are thought to be far more aggressive and impolite in their speech habits, Kaplan says.

The conclusion she reaches is that, in fact, men and women speak roughly the same way, definitely the same amount, and for similarly diversified purposes—gender notwithstanding.

2 Responses to Five Language Myths Busted

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson says:

    On the myth about adult language learning: A high percentage of University of Utah students have learned new languages as young adults, when they served as volunteer missionaries for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church fields about 40,000 new missionaries each year, a large number of whom undergo intensive language courses for up to two months before being immersed in those languages for two years. They are expected to reach a basic level of fluency in a short time, including the ability to discuss religious concepts with native speakers.

    When I was serving as a missionary in Japan, I encountered Americans who were missionaries for Protestant churches, who were expected to spend two years devoted solely to language learning before they engaged in active proselyting. They expressed surprise at the fluency that Mormon missionaries were able to develop in two years of active engagement with the natives.

    While relative fluency varies a great deal among those who have served in any given country, I have seen many examples of my peers who have gone on to actively use Japanese in their professions and later church service. A good example is Gary Stevenson, one of the newest Mormon apostles, who built a business involving Japanese products, and returned to Japan to serve as a mission president and regional Church leader. Another is Mike Young, former president of the U, who studied at the University of Tokyo and established the Japanese Law program at Columbia University Law School.

  • Stephanie Cannon says:

    Excellent article with research and facts to substantiate all.

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