“I’m not good at languages!”
How many times have you said or thought something like this?
If you’ve ever tried to learn a foreign language before, either by yourself or in school, you’ve probably had this thought quite a few times.
When we struggle to do something, we often try to let ourselves off the hook by saying that we’re “not good enough” or “not talented enough” to do the thing we want to do. It gives us an easy way to explain away our failures, as well as an excuse to stop trying.
We’ve all done this at some time or another, but the truth is that thinking about language learning in terms of “talent”, or simply “being good enough” can be quite dangerous.
Because what you’re doing is placing a hard limit on what you can achieve. In a worldview based on talent, everything is binary: you either have talent, or you don’t.
That’s it, no exceptions.
If you believe in talent, you run the risk of selling yourself short. Not just in languages, but in everything else, too. If you think you’re not talented enough, you won’t try. And if you don’t try, you’ll never achieve the things in life that are both incredibly worthwhile and incredibly challenging…
...like learning languages!
You know what else is weird about talent? Everyone talks about it, but no one can really tell you what it is. To most, talent is just “being naturally good at stuff”.
Today, I’d like to explain what I believe “talent” means for language learners, as well as discuss if you need talent to succeed with languages.
Let’s dive in!
What Makes a Language Learner Talented?
But what sets apart a talented language learner from an untalented one?
If talent is real, and certain language learners “have it”, then there must be a way to find it, measure it, and break it down into its component parts, right?
Well, In the 1950s and 60s, researchers on second language acquisition tried to do just that by delving into the cognitive abilities of language learners.
These researchers broke down the cognitive ability of the average language learner into the following four categories:
- 1Phonemic Coding, which is the capacity to distinguishing phonemes by using a phonetic script
- 2Grammatical sensitivity: the capacity of identifying the grammatical functions of words in a sentence
- 3Inductive Learning Ability: the capacity to generalize patterns from one sentence to another
- 4Rote-Learning Ability: the capacity to retain lists of words paired with translations
Based on these categories, they designed a test called the Modern Language Aptitude Test (or MLAT, for short). Unfortunately, this test is not available to individual language learners like you and I. That being said, if you are part of an agency or other organization that is interested in ordering the exam, you can click here to learn more about it.
Anyway, the MLAT is aimed at determining how quickly and effectively language learners can perform certain language-related tasks, given optimal instructions, conditions, and motivation.
As it turns out, test takers displayed a variety of skill sets: some were great at remembering words, but not good with phonetic scripts. Others at figuring out grammar functions in a sentence, but not at generalizing patterns.
Makes sense, right?
You may have noticed the same thing with your own language skills. Maybe, for example, you are great at remembering words, but you have trouble figuring out grammar patterns. Or you’re good at learning new scripts, but you’re terrible at distinguishing similar sounds.
Other researchers used the MLAT to further explore the concept of language aptitude, and found out that students who found success in language learning did so through following their natural inclinations and interests.
In other words, they were successful at languages because they learned languages in a way that suited them personally. In other words, even if you are not particularly strong in all the aspects of your “language aptitude” if your learning style reflects your cognitive strengths, you can still find success.
Do I Have an Innate Talent for Languages?
Now, in my experience as a polyglot, people have told me countless times that I have an innate talent for language—one that I was born with. Some have even theorized that my brain is somehow more suited to language learning than that of an average person.
This could be true, but I truly doubt it.
I honestly think that my success in acquiring multiple languages does not simply boil down to my innate cognitive abilities. In fact, my cognitive abilities are just one of the six main factors that make up success in language learning (which we’ll explore shortly).
I believe this because I know that cognitive abilities are not fixed. They can change over time, and even dramatically.
Back in the day, it was generally taken for granted that the brain’s structure does not change over the course of one’s life. Now, however, scientists know that the brain can change according to how it is used—a concept called neuroplasticity.
So even if you don’t “have the brain for language learning” right now, with practice and dedication, you could certainly develop it. You just need to start using your brain in a way that’s conducive to language learning, and do that as much as you can. That’s what I did, and after learning fourteen languages, I dare say it’s going pretty well for me.
The Six Keys to Language Learning Success
So, with the good—excellent I’d say—bit of news that anyone can become good at language learning even without a natural-born talent for it, there are other additional factors that can influence language ability. And the best part is that these factors are not at all related to the quality of your brain or the quality of your genes.
Including what we’ve already discussed, there are six factors that “make” a great language learner:
- 1Cognitive ability
- 5Time on Task
- 6Life Circumstances
1. Cognitive Abilities
Your cognitive abilities comprise everything we have been talking about so far. If you’re already good at learning, learning is something that you’ll want to do more often. When I was learning English or French, and I got complimented for my accent or my fluency, I got even more excited to achieve more with my skills.
This is normal. As people, we tend to do things we find relatively easy and for which we get social recognition. So, in my language learning path, my cognitive abilities have surely played a role, but, again, I don’t think that they are the main reason why I have learned so many languages so successfully.
The second factor is motivation. Without motivation, you are not going to achieve anything, no matter how talented you are. The world, in fact, is full of talented people who haven’t accomplished much with their skills.
In this way, your talent doesn’t define your success—your motivation does. Language learning is a long journey and the people who reach the end of it are those who know exactly why they strive to keep learning day in, and day out.
Personally, I have discovered that I learn languages to fluency because I don’t treat them like any of the other skills I have. Instead, I treat them as a fundamental part of my life and my development as a person. Once I start learning a foreign language, there is no turning back. Motivation is the fuel that makes language learning happen. Without it, you’ll go nowhere.
3. Emotional Intelligence
The third factor is your emotional intelligence. I learned about this concept from the book “Emotional Intelligence” (affiliate), written by Daniel Goleman.
In the book, Goleman distinguishes “rational intelligence”, the kind of intelligence that can be measured by an IQ test (where they mainly test your logical and mathematical skills), from “emotional intelligence”, which is something that can’t be measured by a simple test. This kind of intelligence has to do with the capacity to understand yourself, to control yourself and your emotions, and to be able to understand others.
All of these factors, coincidentally, play a huge role in learning a foreign language, which is why I believe emotional intelligence is a core factor in language learning success.
Emotional intelligence is also connected with your mindset. The good news is that you can work on your mindset AND your emotional intelligence; like your cognitive abilities, they are not fixed.
I myself have worked a lot over the years on both my emotional intelligence and my mindset. My mindset has completely changed when it comes to language learning and life in general, and this is due to experiences, my attitude, people I met on my path, and many other things.
All great language learners develop a positive mindset. They don’t speak languages to get praise, but rather they speak to communicate. When someone corrects them, they don’t take it as an insult, but as constructive feedback, When you develop a positive mindset, every moment of the language learning journey is a treasure—be they moments of success, or moments of failure.
4. Time on Task
The fourth factor is time on task. Malcolm Gladwell introduced the popular concept of the 10,000 hours rule in his book “Outliers” (affiliate). The main idea of this rule is that in order to get good at a skill, you have to spend thousands and thousands of hours learning and honing it.
If you think about the average amount of time a native speaker has put into learning their own native language, you’ll realize that, as a learner, you have a long road ahead of you. Your capacity to understand, speak, read, and even write a foreign language depends heavily on how much time you invest in each of these activities. But time is NOT the only factor at hand here. In fact, there are a lot of learners who spend a lot of time learning languages, but don’t get much value from it.
Honestly, I don’t think that the actual act of learning a language is hard per se.
What is hard is putting in the time, discipline, and effort to actually get learning done. You need to spend a lot of time, know HOW to spend the time in a smart way to stretch your boundaries, and develop the discipline you need to make it happen again and again over the long term.
5. Meta-Learning Awareness
The fifth factor is your Meta-Learning Awareness. Successful language learners spend an awful amount of time learning foreign languages, but on top of that, they know how to use their time, energy, and cognitive abilities efficiently.
They have gone through a long and difficult trial-and-error process, learning to discard what does not work and refine and work on what does. Great language learners are conscious of their own learning process, and work to control and guide its development.
The combination of quantity and quality of time makes them incredible language learning machines.
Great language learners continually ask themselves: “What am I good at in language learning? Does the way I am learning play to my strengths?”
Then, they use the answers to those questions to inform their strategies and progress. I have asked myself these questions (and more) time and time again over the course of the last 30 years, and I am proud to say I have started to think out of the box—THAT has given me the opportunity to learn as much as I have.
6. Life Circumstances
The sixth factor is your life circumstances. How you live counts, and counts a lot. The people you decide to spend time with, the experiences you have, the countries you visit, what you do in your free time.
In my life, I have chosen to live and breathe languages all day long, and that has led me to live a life that currently allows me to use at least 5-8 languages every day, and some for hours on end.
Without cultivating life circumstances which allow you to use and communicate in one or more languages on a highly-frequent basis, it will be exceedingly difficult for you to reach a high-level of language learning success.
The Six Keys Work Together to Create Success
A final, key question: Can you see how ALL these 6 factors are connected and how profoundly they can influence each other? Honestly, they are so entangled that it’s impossible to say that one is more important than any of the others.
Your cognitive abilities can give you motivation. Your mindset maintains that motivation. Life circumstances—meeting a potential new romantic partner, or making friends with someone who speaks your target language—can make a whole lot of difference. If you have a language partner, you can start using the language more and more without even having to dedicate deliberate time to it.
Here, I’d like to quote accomplished linguist Judith Kormos’s own words: “special talent or ‘knack’ for languages is really a conglomerate of abilities that interact dynamically with the situation in which learning takes place”.
If, by any chance, you are wondering if you will ever reach the heights of the most famous polyglots out there, or if you are wondering if you are currently as talented as them, here is my piece of advice for you: language learning is a personal journey. Every language learner walks a different and unique path. Though comparing journeys can sometimes be motivating, it can often be hurtful, and demotivating.
Making Talent Work for You
Here’s how to make language learning “talent” work for you: every time you see a polyglot strut their stuff and wow you with their skills, use that to give yourself some extra energy and motivation—transform that inspiration into the motivation you need to take action.
Work on yourself, on your goals, your skills. Your success, in the end, is not actually defined by talent—neither yours or anyone else’s. It is defined by your thoughts, the people you meet, how you act and react to failures and successes.
I truly believe that you can learn any language you set your mind to, and that you can do it faster and better than you think, by working on the six factors I’ve described in this article.
Though your genes may play a small part in your development as a language learner, all of the other factors are in your hands. You are ultimately responsible for your own language learning success.
So go for it! As they say, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.”
On a final note, I wanted to personally thank Dr. Gareth Popkins for his contribution to this discussion, both in the form of a great article he wrote on the topic, and a great talk he gave at the Polyglot Gathering in 2018. His ideas have proved an invaluable inspiration to me on this very important topic within the language learning world.