I hear this a lot: “I’m not good with languages.”
I hate it when people say that, because most of the time, they’re using this as justification not to try.
I’m not here to tell you what to do. If you don’t like languages, you don’t like them. If you’d rather be doing something else, who am I to tell you how to spend your time?
BUT…if the main reason you’re stopping yourself from learning or committing to a new language is because you think you don’t have the ability, you need to get that out of your head.
Yes, different people have different aptitudes for learning languages. But there are plenty of good reasons why you shouldn’t care what your raw talent is. Here are four of them…
1. Aptitude is difficult to measure.
When I joined the Navy to become a translator a long time ago, I took a test called the DLAB. It supposedly measured my aptitude for learning foreign languages. I scored well on the test and did well in school. So the test was accurate, right?
Not necessarily. I had classmates who scored high on the DLAB and couldn’t last more than three months in an intensive language program.
This article at Nautilus sums up the DLAB pretty well: “The issue, says [language researcher Cathy] Doughty, was that the aptitude test could not predict who could progress past a certain point; many language professionals were getting “ ‘stuck’ at basic proficiency.”
Doughty and her team have developed a new test called the Hi-Lab, but it hasn’t broadly rolled out to the language learning community yet. Maybe their test is better.
But really, the issue seems like it’s testing in general. In many different areas, we’re starting to find out the limitations of aptitude testing in being able to predict success. The SAT isn’t the best predictor of performance in college, Myers-Briggs isn’t great at mapping your personality and predicting what kind of job you’d like, and IQ testing doesn’t fully measure a person’s intelligence.
It’s hard to test aptitude, and I’d say that it’s even harder to assess it on your own. If you think, “I’m bad with languages,” are you really? How would you even know? Don’t you think it’s more likely you’re selling yourself short, or maybe haven’t devoted enough effort to see progress?
2. Language learning requires diverse qualities.
I’ve got some things going for me in this language game. I pick up patterns pretty easily, I have a good ear for accents and sounds, and my long-term memory is excellent.
But my short-term memory isn’t so great, and I have pretty severe problems paying attention to verbal instructions. Whenever I’m new in class, teachers get irritated with me for not following instructions or not remembering what they just taught me. I’ve had more than one language teacher think I was a slacker at first, until I took the chapter exam and aced it.
So I don’t pick up concepts or vocab words all that quickly, but I eventually do get them, and once I get them, my brain holds on to them with a vise grip.
Maybe you’re the opposite. Or more likely, maybe your brain works completely differently. Whatever the case is, I’m sure there are things about the way your mind works that you can use to your advantage.
I’ve known guys who have picked up conversational German just by going down to the bars and practicing. These weren’t the types of guys who would do well with flashcards or grammar books, but they were conversing and making out just fine by taking advantage of what they were good at.
There’s no single path to language success, which means there’s no single set of qualities that determines your aptitude.
3. You don’t have to be a Kenyan to run a marathon.
Hundreds of thousands of people run a marathon every year. Only a handful of them win.
A lot of those marathon winners are from Kenya, because many Kenyans have ideal body compositions for marathon running, they train at altitude, they grew up active, and their culture prioritizes running. It’s hard to compete, right?
Well, even though the vast majority of non-Kenyan runners will never win the Boston Marathon, that doesn’t stop them from enjoying their sport, competing hard, and getting the health and social benefits from running.
It’s the same with language learning. Who cares if you’re not naturally the most gifted student? You can still make progress and get all the benefits of learning a new language: new friends; insight into another culture; opportunities for work, education, and travel; and a sense of accomplishment.
In fact, unlike with running, there’s no award in language learning for crossing the finish line first. No one cares how long it takes you to get to your destination. Like the proverbial tortoise, you’ll get to where you want to be if you just keep plugging forward, slow and steady.
4. Hard work trumps talent.
I saved this one for last, because I want you to take this to heart.
Learning a language requires persistent effort. It doesn’t matter if you’re the most talented student or the least. Either way, you have to put in a lot of time and work to get to your goals.
So let’s say that Heiko can learn a language twice as fast as Rolf can. They both start studying Portuguese at the same time. After three months, Heiko is pretty far ahead of Rolf, but he loses motivation and starts slacking off. Rolf is very motivated, so by six months, he’s caught up, and by a year, he’s well ahead of Heiko. By a year and a half, he’s reached his goal of being able to speak Portuguese comfortably and fluently, while Heiko hasn’t, despite his talent.
Talent, no talent, some talent–whatever. If you keep going forward, you’ll eventually get to where you want to be. But if you don’t, you’ll be stuck.
Don’t worry about what you don’t have. Focus on what you do have. Get out there and learn your language, and definitely don’t talk yourself out of success before you even get out of the gate.