Is Learning a Language Talent or Skill?
When you’re feeling down, it’s easy to start playing the talent excuse game with yourself in order to explain why you aren’t winning. I’ve done it to myself on numerous occasions. Beyond mandatory language learning in school (which often produces minimal results), there is no way in knowing whether you’re geared to learn a language. You’ve never tried it before on your own until now.
But now you’ve put in the time. You have the experience. You watch your ability. You watch others. You compare yourself to others. And when you seem to be stuck, while everyone else is moving forward, you come to a conclusion:
Learning a language is a talent. Maybe I don’t have that talent.
You’re saddened by your discovery. Because while skill can be acquired and developed, talent is what comes natural to you. No matter how much you work, you’ll never be able to gain talent. Gameover. Either accept hard work for mediocrity, or choose another hobby. Maybe you’ll be better at origami.
This is a dangerous line of thinking. It’s the major cause of people who never start learning a foreign language, and who quit it before they get good.
Is your worst fear true? Is language a talent?
Language learning is first and foremost based on skill; a skill you must devote a portion of your life to develop. But using the word skill is not so straightforward. It’s not as much a “language” skill as it is a “learn a language” skill.
Many small factors determine your success:
- Time management
- Memory management
- Positive attitude
- Facing fears of embarrassment/criticism
- Dealing with failure
- Overcoming difficult challenges
- Making sacrifices
These are all general skills that will influence where you’ll end up.
Some people appear to do the above 9 more naturally than others, without having to put in any effort. However, all of the above are mostly developed skills.
Where is talent then?
Some people are able to remember things faster. Or deal with the words in their head in a more coherent fashion to create better spoken sentences. Or are able to more clearly comprehend and process what they hear. Other people are slower or even have disadvantages.
Think of this as the start of a game. The characters with a talent edge may get some extra boosts to their stats that makes things easier in the beginning. Maybe they were given a ring of memory or a staff of spoken prowess. It’s a boost. But it isn’t everything. It isn’t even close.
Learning a language comes down to skill, developing your skill, and managing who you are so you can develop that skill in the smoothest way possible. Whether you have a talent boost or not is irrelevant. Talent won’t define your success. Even if you have an extra boost in the beginning, it doesn’t guarantee anything will happen. You still have to put in nearly the same amount of work.
Learning a language isn’t hard.
This statement is deceiving. The actual language isn’t hard. Putting in the mountain of time, effort, and discipline required to learn the language is what is hard. Very hard. This is why so many people fail. Not because of talent.
Do you have talent?
Do you feel like you have some natural language learning talent? Or do you feel like you lack it? Has it mattered?
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.
I used to feel depressed and jealous of people who managed to speak Japanese better than me. That, as well as the people who excel in other skills (i.e. computer programming) made me feel as if I lack some sort of talent. But after a while, I came to the realization that even the most talented people had to put in a lot of hard work and effort to succeed.
I recently took my driver’s test in Japan recently. The first time I took it, I failed it completely which made me feel down for a while, because I realized that I only put a minimal amount of work into my study time. Determined to pass it on the second try, I had to devote an entire week of studying (in between long work hours) which was pretty painful. Thankfully all of that hard work paid off, even though I’m only half way through the course.
If anything, this experience has taught me that whether or not you’re talented at something just doesn’t matter to me anymore. Rather, it’s more about how much time and effort your putting into language learning (or any skill in general.)
What happens it that no one sees all the hard work and effort that go into making someone look great. So it is easy to just assume they are talented. But I knew that jealous feeling all too well.
And good luck with your driver’s test course!
While as you said, some people do have talents that make them able to have better memories or have an easier time grasping gramatical concepts.
But talent holds no candle to discapline and determination.
Talent does not help you do your anki reps 100 days in a row. Or get you hooked on an anime. Or makes you listen to your immersionpod.
Some people like to brag about their intellect or talents, especially online. But who you almost never here from are the ones who are quietly working, with no recognition, chipping away at their language abilities. Because they’d rather put their time and effort into doing something they love rather than brag about it.
Very well said. Those who are trying to accomplish something great won’t waste the time bragging about it when they could be spending that time doing it.
And yes, talent plays such a minor part. Time, effort and discipline always reign supreme over that.
Some people might have an initial advantage when they begin their language studies, but I believe that advantage was developed over time. It wasn’t until I started living overseas that I was finally able to remove those mental barriers I created in my own mind about what I was able and not able to do. Removing those mental barriers has not only helped me in my studies, but also in my career.
I’ve seen smart people stunt their own growth simply because they didn’t believe they could do something, and because of that belief they didn’t even put in the effort. It’s also possible, that some people need to change their belief system and even personality before they even attempt something like learning another language. I mean, we’re talking long hours of study, over a huge amount of time. This requires a belief that you can do it and a very good work ethic. However, that has nothing to do with talent, it’s just the way a person views the world.
All these things can be learned just from studying a language. So even if a person doesn’t have the initial advantage of belief and work ethic, that doesn’t mean they can’t develop it over time.
Very good points. That’s why learning a language goes beyond just learning the language. It really develops all kinds of skills inside of you that help the rest of the way you live your life.
On the question of talents. I am good with patterns which has always helped me grasp grammar rules quite quickly. However talents is not only an advantage. Because I’m great at grammar it has also lead me to situations where I spend a lot of time on something I cannot quite get a hold of. Where somebody less talented would probably have an easier time being satisfied with understanding the overall meaning of a sentence despite not getting the grammar 100%.
Maybe it’s just a coincidence that along with my talent also came a disadvantage, but I believe they are connected.
Whenever I talk to someone about learning a language (typically in relation to them getting to know I study Japanese) I really try to emphasize the talent vs skill debate. And try to encourage whoever I’m talking to that they can learn a language too if they want. Question is if it really is what they want, or if they want something else :)
Interesting about talent working against you sometimes. I guess it is connected to perfectionism, and without that talent you can avoid the perfectionist trap.
And yes, if you really want it, it’s not worth thinking about whether you are talented enough to get it.
I found very interesting and helpful all the comments.
In answer to your question: yes, there is such a thing as talent.
It is said that it takes 1,000 hours to learn a foreign language.
If you don’t have talent, maybe it will take you 2,000 hours instead. Or 3,000.
You can still do it, but at some point you might start to wonder if there’s a better way to spend 2-3,000 hours of your life.