Learning with Steve: How important is talent in language learning?

language learning

Do some people just have that talent for language learning, while others don’t?

People often tell me that they don’t have the talent for language learning. I usually interpret this to mean that they are not sufficiently motivated.

So what does matter in language learning?

Language learning requires a high level of motivation, the confidence that we can succeed, a strong interest in the language, and a willingness to step outside our comfort zone. It also takes time, so we have to be patient and persevere. Compared to these qualities, talent is relatively unimportant.

Why do you think so many people say that they have no talent for languages?

I think the reason lies in the way languages are taught in schools. Many people have had a negative experience in attempting to learn a language at school. Because they were unable to learn a language at school, or in language classes, they conclude that they have no talent for languages. However, in school, and in the classroom, the learner is passive. The teacher is in charge. This is not the ideal situation for language acquisition.

Many people are conditioned to believe that they can only learn in the classroom, even though it was precisely in the classroom where they couldn’t learn. Successful learners take the initiative. They seek out language learning content of interest to them. They put themselves in situations where they can hear, read and speak in the language. The willingness to do these things, and not talent, is what make some learners successful and others not.

But surely some people are better at learning languages than others.

Yes, the more languages you learn, the better you get. The good language learners have developed a better ability to notice what is happening in the language, whether pronunciation or the patterns of the language. This ability to notice can be developed, and comes largely through lots of exposure. We have the example of countries like Sweden and Holland, where television programs are always presented in the original language. People in those countries are exposed to more English, and other foreign languages, and therefore become better at learning them.

If we provide more opportunities for people to be exposed to other languages, they will naturally develop better language learning skills, or, if you prefer, talent.

3 Replies to “Learning with Steve: How important is talent in language learning?”

  1. This is nonsense. I’ve been trying to learn Spanish for forty years, and I can do little more than ask where the bathroom is, and not necessarily understand the answer. I’m a native English speaker, so Spanish should be one of the easier languages for me to learn, but if I’d known it would be this hard, I never would have tried in the first place. I’m only continuing because I already started, and I have nothing better to do.

    1. Just get on LingQ. Focus on listening and reading. Just comprehension. Don’t worry about what you can’t understand or can’t say. Try to enjoy the language. Do it every day and then come back here in 3 months and tell me how you did. Cheers.

  2. A very interesting topic, i’m 18 years old , i speak arabic, english, understand
    russian, i’m also learning japanese, writing songs in japanese (hiragana)
    and learning turkish.
    I love grammar so much.
    Indeed i enjoy learning languages but my question is…
    isn’t the ability to learn languages a skill? or maybe a gift?
    or in other words, isn’t enjoying learning languages a gift?
    you say that this ability can be developed, i totally agree with you but
    don’t you agree with me that not all people have the endurance, patience and the grasp that you need to learn a foreign language? for example,
    we say that ”mathematicians are gifted or extraordinary”, why so?
    the same here, ordinary people, or even any person can develope his or her ability
    to learn maths even those who think they can’t or they aren’t capable of it at all
    then famous musicians, actors, writers don’t have any talent!
    any ordinary person can become a writer, singer or whatever!
    It’s all about interest, when you have interest in maths, writing, singing etc. then
    you probably have the ability to learn them and then you develope your interest
    and ability into skill and talent. So in my opinoin is that having interest in something is the ”talent” or the ”gift” itself.
    just the same as not everybody can understand maths or chemistry at the same level, not everybody can understand and learn languages with the same ability
    so i can say that people who learn different languages are talented, simply being
    interested in learning languages can be a talent, can be a cherished talent
    don’t you agree with me?

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