When I’m Told “I Wish I was Good with Languages like You”

Ever been told this by someone, with the best of intentions, in an attempt to compliment you? Ever cringed so much upon hearing this, that it took all the power you had to to squeeze out a superficial thank you?

I Wish I Was Good With Languages Like You 1

A myth was developed at some time in language education that the reason you have been able to learn a language is because you were born with some magical talent that has granted you the ability to just casually stroll your way to success. A fluent-elevator has been made accessible to you while everyone else has to take the spiral staircase.

This “compliment” needs to be put to rest, immediately.

I hate it for 2 reasons

1. It takes the ridiculous amount of work, blood, sweat, and tears that you put into learning Japanese over several years, and turns it into “you were lucky to be given a gift.”

2. It’s an excuse why that person decides that he can’t do it himself.

Unfortunately (fortunately?), there is usually no malicious intent, and the speaker genuinely is trying to make you feel better. This makes it harder to respond in a negative way, and you often are left with no choice but to give the most awkward of “umm… thanks” smiles. And don’t you dare try to argue with the speaker, and say “well it really was a lot of work,” as this will just result probably in the second worst compliment, “oh I wish I had the time to study like you.”

I Wish I Was Good With Languages Like You 2

What do you think?

Ever been given the “talent” comment? How do you feel about it? Have any other misguided compliments that rank up with it? And yes, I know it should be “I wish I were…”

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Founder of Jalup. Spends most of his time absorbing and spreading thrilling information about learning Japanese.


When I’m Told “I Wish I was Good with Languages like You” — 23 Comments

  1. The way I deal with it is that I force the person to join me. Like, I ask him, “Do you wanna know my secret?” or “Do you wanna do the same thing?” etc. There are 2 common responses:
    a. “Oh, I cannot do it even if I tried, you go ahead and have fun”.Means that either they are not interested OR they don’t want me to guide them (a bit of an ego problem, like when you tell a person to watch a movie/play a game, they go out of their way to do everything except that). I then tell them that If they wanted to do this, they could do it anytime too!
    b.”Really? How do I get started?”. I provide them with every tool I used and wish him best of luck.

    Only 2% of the people make it to the level I am i.e. 98% people (who used the same resources as I did) failed i.e quit. Now I know that their are dozens of factors that influence their decisions and I feel sad about them, but I can’t help feel a bit proud of myself for sticking till the very end.

  2. I don’t get that for languages but I get that for other things (programmer). I think it’s kinda sad. I’m a firm believer that anyone can do anything, and I hate to see people build walls around themselves and set artificial limits on what they can do.

    • Programmer here too and I know what you mean. -_-”

      Though I’ve gotten pretty good at explaining stuff with metaphors so non-tech people get it. xD

  3. My favourite way to counter “I could never learn a language.” is to point out that my dad now speaks fluent Dutch. And he’s a English guy, who’d never learned another language before, didn’t start till he was 34, took next to no formal classes because he was working full time and is dyslectic to boot. Basically if my dad managed with all those disadvantages (he also started in 1991, before the internet etc), then you probably can too.

    It’s at this point that my conversation partner usually starts to squirm, because they just realised they were hiding behind a worthless excuse. And they always end up admitting they just don’t feel like putting in the effort. xD

      • Heh, I emigrated to this country when I was 3 so I’m fluent in it, without having ever consciously learned it. :P

        And like all native speakers, I have no idea whatsoever how many tenses Dutch has. I can only speak it, not analyse it. ;)

  4. I sometimes fall into the trap of using phrases like that for creative things like drawing and designing… I guess what I actually mean is I would love to be good at this thing, but my interest isn’t strong enough to do the hard work to become good.

    As Casandra says it is possible to do things even with great disadvantages. For each disadvantage however, you will need more motivation, interest, will-power or something else that affect your task in a positive way. Without disadvantages you need to put in less effort, but if you put in no effort at all you won’t get it either way.

    I too strongly believe that everybody can do whatever they want. Question is, do you want it enough to put in the effort needed.

    • You are right that it often does come down to how bad people want something. Japanese is massive, and to get it your want also has to be massive.

  5. I’m glad you wrote about this, because I get these types of comments at least 1-2 times per week. I’ve always wondered how others handled this situation.

    At this point I’ve done the awkward “thanks” or “its a lot harder than it looks” responses but ultimately I realized this always led to the “I wish I was like you” part of the conversation. Which doesn’t bother me as much (although it’s very awkward), but it gets really repetitive.

    So nowadays, I straight up tell people that I have no innate ability, that I study almost every single day, and that I am nowhere near as fluent as I would like to be. I also point out statistics or personal stories to get people thinking of what a monumental task it really is.

    This usually leads to people broadening their perspective of it, and we can have great conversations on how learning Japanese is a lifelong commitment (as the language is always changing) and just how time consuming it can be.

    So far, this method seems to work for me pretty well. Not everyone will respond the same, but at least I’m not having the same conversation multiple times. :)

    • I like your positive approach to the situation. I think the few people you do get through to will make a difference in their lives. You definitely have more patience than me!

  6. When I am studying Japanese, people just say that I am crazy, and that I am too smart… Yes, all the time. I’ve realized that not so many people want to learn Japanese in my country, but I had that problem mentioned here with English.

    They always say that I have some talent to learn English, that they wish they were good at it as me, and that even if they try hard, they won’t be able to reach any good level.

    My answer to strange people is the same, “hmm, thanks”.
    But for my friends, I just say: I am sorry dude, but I think you just haven’t tried at all. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here complaining, you would be studying in some way instead”. I always mention JALUP to my friends who wants to learn any language. The method is simple, useful, and of course, it does need effort to learn any language, hehe.
    But, in the end of the day, they agree with me, and add “but just a litte of special talent is needed to learn it”. :(

    • The forum has been taken down. It was an experiment that just didn’t work out, so it is now no longer accessible.

      As for your second comment, thank you very much for pointing out the problem with the page redirecting. I just noticed this now, and found this was an issue with a recent update in the website software. I just added the fix, so it should work normally now.

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