An Interview with Linguist Bruce Alan Johnson: How to Unlock Your Language-Learning Potential

I recently sat down with linguist Bruce Alan Johnson, an author and linguist who speaks seven languages. In our two-part series, he shared insights into language learning by touching upon questions frequently asked by those trying their hand at language learning. These included

  • Can anyone learn a new language?
  • What’s the best way to learn another language?
  • What’s wrong with the traditional grammar-translation method?

Read a transcript of some of our conversation below, and click on the audio file to hear the first part of the interview:

man with headphones on airplane

Getty Images/Rubberball

Announcer: On this edition [of Think Global. Speak Local., the Rosetta Stone podcast], we join Bruce Alan Johnson, a linguist and author of the book Carry a Chicken in Your Lap: Or Whatever It Takes to Globalize Your Business, and Jenn Frazier, Rosetta Stone’s director of Customer Reference Programs, as they dispel myths about the difficulty of learning new languages, and discuss the most effective methods for learning how to think and speak in a foreign language.

Jenn: So, how many languages do you speak and how did you learn them?

Bruce: Not including Greek and Latin, which I started studying very young, I speak seven, and I started learning German with my grandmother at probably age six or seven.

Jenn: You know, Bruce, some people say they aren’t good at learning languages, and you surely are good at learning languages! What would you say to people who say that they don’t have the language gene?

Bruce: Well, do they have the breathing gene? It really is a very poor excuse! One of things that I’ve observed in Europe a great deal—I spent a lot of time in Switzerland over many years, and of course that’s a trilingual country officially—it’s actually quadrilingual if you add Romansh, spoken by about two percent of the population . . . . But what I watch is little children—one, two, three years old—who are speaking often in three languages at once, and the general Swiss approach has been: respond to the child in the dominant language, and what do you know, by the time they’re three and a half, they’re speaking perfectly in two or three of those languages without thinking about it. It’s not that they’re any more intelligent that we are . . . . They’re the same as Americans. It’s attitude. It’s how you view it . . . . We choose how we view something. And if we choose a foreign language as an enemy. If we choose it as something that’s like learning Calculus III, well then we’re going to fear it. And when we fear something, Jenn, as you know, we’re never good in it. So that first thing we have to tackle is that false belief, and that’s all it is, that we’re not good at language.”

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