How much is talent, how much is interest?

You often hear (polyglot) people saying they do not have a particular talent for learning languages and that you can do exactly the same etc.
I was just wondering what others think. I think talent does come into it. Maybe talent comes first and then you get interested because it is easy for you. Some people find it incredibly hard to learn languages, however much they are interested and I find it unfair to say to these people you can do exactly the same as I can.

I think that it’s too complicated thing to simply say it’s either talent or interest. There are many other factors too.

I think, most important for the aquisition of any skill, is motivation. True motivation.
Sometimes you think, you should do something and you convince yourself that this should be a goal of yours. Still, you’re not really motivated. The desire doesn’t come naturally.
Although I never considered decorating a hobby or interest of mine, I can’t live in a room or apartment which isn’t aesthetically appealing to me. I kind of “have to” rearrange books or get rid of useless things. It’s an inner urge. I couldn’t live without doing that.
Same goes for going outside in the sunlight. Or eating (and therefore cooking) nice, tasteful food. I couldn’t stay inside with shutters closed in front of my computer and eating nothing but cheese on toast. There are many people who can do that, but I can’t.
On the other hand, going for a walk isn’t hard for me to do. It’s something which I do anyway, 'cause if I don’t go out during the day, I can’t sleep at night.
Similarly, some people have an “inner urge” to write books, to make music or to learn languages. And if you don’t feel that urge, if you don’t have that inner motivation, you will never be as fast and as good as them - just because you lack interest and don’t devote as much time and attentiveness to that activity as them.

To speak for myself, I am interested in conversating with others. And I feel the motivation to reach a level that allows me to communicate and to talk about anything that comes to my mind. However, I lack the “true” motivation to refine my skills and reach a really high level, for example by really studying grammar or vocabulary. But I keep listening and communicating and hope, one day, I will have reached a high enough level anyway.

I think, like most things, it’s a combination of talent, interest, and other factors. I reject the idea that there is no talent involved in language learning. I don’t see why that would be the case, as talent is involved in pretty much everything humans do. Language learning is such a multifaceted activity that there are all sorts of talents that may play a role. People who have a good natural ear may excel at picking up the rhythm and intonation of a language. People who have a good memory may remember vocabulary quickly and well. People who are gifted at pattern recognition may be able to deduce/absorb grammatical patterns better than others. And so on.

However, on the other hand, I think that most people can get pretty good at most things, provided they put in the time and use their time effectively. But I’ve definitely met people who are just hopeless at language learning. I know someone who’s been here 10 years, but can’t remember simple things beyond “hello” and “thank you”. I know someone else who studied regularly (albeit with Rosetta Stone) for 3 years, but still could barely get out a “thank you” in Japanese.

As for myself, I never felt like I had a talent for foreign language learning, and I didn’t really have much interest until I moved to Japan. I did well in French in school largely because I had a good memory and could remember vocabulary lists and grammar rules well. I just crammed the night before exams and did well on the tests.

But, once I learned Japanese reasonably well, I found that people around me started saying that I had a “talent” for languages :slight_smile: They just ignored the several years I spent in the beginning reviewing vocabulary and grammatical patterns, the numerous evenings I spent out with friends just listening and half-understanding what everyone was talking about, hundreds of hours of watching television dramas - some of them over and over again 4 or 5 times per episode, reading graded reading material, forcing myself to speak when it was difficult, uncomfortable, and embarrassing, avoiding English-only environments, and so on. I was able to learn Japanese because I had a “talent” rather than because I had 8 years of moderate, but reasonably continual, in-country study and practice. And even then, I think my Japanese is only at a low-advanced level, so it’s not a stunning achievement for 8 years in the country.

So, while I’m skeptical of polyglot claims that they don’t have any special talent, I do know from my own experience that there’s a tendency to ascribe language learning success to talent.

Hard work and dedication are always necessary. However I believe that there IS such a thing as language talent too.

You only need to look at Steve Kaufmann. In the late 1960s he became fluent in Chinese within the space of just 9 months - passing high level diplomatic exams to prove the point. And as we know, he has more recently learned 20,000 Czech words within just a few months.

Now of course, Steve already knew a lot of words in Russian, making his task with Czech easier than it otherwise would have been. And as a student of Chinese he was working 24/7 with excellent tutors. But even so, he has clearly achieved things which most people could never achieve - even with the best will and motivation in the world.

This is what I would call genuine golden talent - an ability to do things which others could simply never do, no matter what. Steve very clearly has this talent for languages. And it may be that other hyperglots (like Richard and Luca et al) have it too?

Whatever it is, I wish I had it. :slight_smile:

I think some people are certainly faster at learning languages than others regardless of motivation or time put in. Surely you could find two equally motivated people who put in equal time using the same methodology and have different results. Of course, there could also be a strong argument made that such talent can be developed. I am sure I am a more talented language learner now than nine years ago when I first started out to seriously learn a foreign language. Problems arise whenever we talk about this because we often fail to clearly define what we mean when we use words like talent, motivation, attitude, etc.

By no means am I against the existence of such threads here, and I don’t mean to dismiss the legitimacy of the discussion, but for me the more important follow up question though is:

Who cares?

OK, sounds a bit snarky, but I have read enough online arguments concerning language difficulty and talent to be thoroughly bored of the whole issue. Here is what I think matters. Regardless of age, you can learn a foreign language to a high level. Nothing can be stated with certainly, except that it will take a substantial amount of time, and that with the right attitude and methods this time can generally be spent quite enjoyably. Stressing about your progress or your ‘ability’ is one surefire way to turn what should be a fun part of life into something stressful. Learning a language to high proficiency in a short time is an admirable feat. For some people at some times in their lives it may make sense to fully devote yourself to such a goal. For other people it is not realistic to expect to get far without a few years of steady work.

We should not be too quick to dismiss the idea that some people are simply better at doing some things than others and always will be. However there are very few of us who can’t expect to reach amazingly high levels of performance given enough (a lot) of time. Recently I was called a ‘linguistic genius’ by a french-Japanese bilingual when he found out that I had only been living in Japan for less than two years. I quite like the idea myself, but if he had personally witnessed the thousands and thousands of hours of practice I had put in I doubt he would have made the suggestion. When I first started out I struggled in class for years to move forward while others seemed to learn almost effortlessly. In the long run though, with enough practice, most of us can expect to get somewhere so high that nobody would even have even a glimmer of a clue as to how we might have struggled at the beginning, and we appear to them as though we were ‘born’ doing it.

if it were just about “talent” life would be harder than it is…

how much is talent,
how much is motivation,
how much is time,
how much is materials,
how much is exposure,
how much is environment,
how much is habits,
how much is memory,
how much is mental association,
how much is confidence,
how much is simple plain effort,
how much is “luck”,

I’m confused in that learning. Maybe I’m to fool but how to explain that fact that when I read I’m able to understand about 80% when I try to say something I can’t remember words and I’m unable to say correctly. What I do wrong that it happen for me?

@lollypopsas that’s pretty normal… that reminds me of:

"Are you pleased with the result of your work?. Obviously, you do not know by heart every word and every expression we have seen: that would be too perfect. Learning a foreign language is a matter of patience, regular daily repetition -and optimism.

Somebody once said that English (edit: X language :P) was like Mount Everest: because access is easy, but the summit is impossible to reach. We think this is wrong because nobody speaks his own language perfectly.

You must try, by regular practice, to climb as high as you want, until you feel comfortable. But be careful! In order not to fall, you must practise as often as possible.

You will learn new words and expressions and forget them, and learn them again and forget them once more. But you are making progress. Compare what you know now with what you knew three months ago."

Lollypopsas - It is the difference between passive and active vocabulary. When reading you are able to recall what you know passively but when you speak you have to use your active vocabulary plus you have more time when you are reading.

Lollypopsas, Marianne10 is exactly right (as is 2tmp011007). This happens to us all. There is a good explanation given here: United States Archives - Huliganov.TV , in the first article, “The stubborn ear of the first-time linguist,” especially the paragraph that begins, “In reading, we provide in our heads our own ‘voice’ . . . .”

hey that’s a really useful link, thank you Ernie

I think that there is talent and it help people learn foreign language, but it isn’t more important thing. If a person has “inner urge” (like said Fingerhut), it can all! If a person hasn’t motivation, It do nothing!

I think when I started out I wasted a lot of time in my learning, or put another way my technique was bad. I’m 29 now and I started learning Swedish at 28. First, it was very on-off. Sometimes I would do a word a day. Other times I would do nothing for a couple of weeks, others I would do 5 hours in a day. It’s also the first new language I’ve learnt other than sleeping through Spanish class in high school some 13 years ago. No offence to anyone with Spanish as their first language. I just wasn’t bothered at the time and I was kind of a clown in school. How I wish now I’d payed attention now.

Anyway, I think the biggest mistake I made was almost exclusively sticking with single words. Of course like most people I learnt the basic ‘Hello, how are you?’ starter phrases. Then after that I pretty much stuck with single words or cycling the same introductory videos on youtube. I think at the time I read a blog about some guy living in Sweden sticky posting a ‘word of the day’ on his fridge. Which, might be a good idea in conjunction with other methods (e.g. he might only be consciously doing that but he’s still exposed) but doing so alone doesn’t really give those words a context. Plus, to make it worse I didn’t learn whether those words were neuter or common gender. In fact, I wasn’t even aware that other languages used different genders or forms for articles. Rather embarrassing to admit now, but there it is!

A few weeks ago I decided to be more serious. It wasn’t an epithany or anything like that. I just watched a few videos and saw people people speaking fluently in different languages after only a few months. Maybe they exaggerated. Still, it basically made me ask myself ‘Come on…what are you doing man?’ Get serious kind of thing. So I searched around and thought more actively about what I should be doing, strategy. I looked for general information about language learning, not just Swedish lessons. I watched all of the videos of the people I was subscribed to (not just their lessons) and got some general tips. One thing I noticed straight off was to listen much, much more and listen to harder stuff, as it’s spoken colloquially. You can’t listen to slow repeated English, Swedish, whatever forever otherwise you’re going to end up frustrated when you try/need to listen to a proper conversation and you can’t understand most of it because it’s too fast or all of the letter drops in speach.

I also started reading transcripts or transcribing subtitles and listening again when I could and writing out sentences and I realised I basically don’t understand the grammar; the syntax, inflections/why words switch around. I probably know a good few hundred words now but I can’t put then into sentences, which is slightly frustrating. I think relaxing and getting a feel for it is good and a lot of understanding a language does come like that. However if you just aren’t getting it and it’s still a huge block then after a while it might be a good idea to purchase a good grammar book or talk to someone who knows, which is what I did and I’m hoping this will give me what I need.

I realise I basically told a story there and likely you probably know those things. My point is: I think regardless of ability, utilising a good technique is what’s most important and central to language learning. A good technique is not ‘this is a good technique’, following it, not understanding it and hating it. A good technique is what works for you and incorperating parts of different methods to suite your own. ‘Know thyself’ is a good golden rule. Reavaluating your strategies every so often and tapering them accordingly. I would have taken forever continueing how I started.

There’s too much things involved in the process of learning anything, it depends of student, it depends of teacher, it depends of motivation…

But, of course that there’s talent persons, that can do too much in a very little space of time… but it can’t be a dismotivator fator… everyone can learn anything, is just dedication and train every day