Do you think ‘language talent’ is an important factor in learning languages? I’ve been learning Mandarin for four years and when I speak to people who aren’t interested in studying languages they often say things like ‘you must have a talent for languages to be learning Chinese.’ In this post I explain why I don’t believe the concept of ‘language talent’ is a meaningful one and why everybody can learn Chinese: Why I Don’t Believe in Language Talent – I'm Learning Mandarin
I don’t think there’s a talent. It’s a combination of desire, persistence, focus, and PATIENCE (and I’m sure a few other things). You’ve touched on that in your article. Also the expectations, that you also mention, are key. The way things are marketed now it seems like you can learn a language a lot quicker than you actually can. Lots of ordinary people are able to learn a language. Many that aren’t particularly smart or seem like they would have some extraordinary talent…but they all had to have had a reason and a desire to learn the language and so they did. Whatever it took, however long it took.
People who aren’t interested in learning a language simply won’t. Or if they don’t have the patience or desire to make the effort they won’t either.
Some people may be better and remembering things. Also I think enjoying reading is immensely helpful. I think someone that does not like to read won’t learn anything to the same depth as someone that does.
If you’re a human species, you already are exactly that kind of animal, thas has this particular talent, that has been genetically determined by history of natural selection. But sometimes it seems, that somehow some of us have dodged the evolution
Any baby at all even on the left side of the “talent” bell curve can learn any language.
I think that in any given language group it’s “easy” to learn L2 languages that have substantial overlap with your L1 and “hard” to learn languages that don’t overlap.
But… for babies… every language has no overlap because they don’t have an L1. Every single one is alien to them.
So my theory is that learning an “alien” language is doable but it’s clouded by the fact that there are languages close to you in your own language “group”.
If, however, you never picked from a language near your own language group every single one would require a large amount of effort and the process (if not the details) would likely be almost exactly the same. e.g. for babies it’s babbling to get pronunciation of syllables right, then one or two word phrases, feedback from parents, build on it, rinse repeat until basic functionality achieved, go to school, learn reading/learn grammar.
So yeah I think we don’t see the wood for the trees.
2c. For what it’s worth.
I think you’re right. I also think that the nub of the issue is that there is some truth in the “learn a language in 3 months” schtick. I believe you can learn a language (close to English) in 3 months at least basic functionality. Purists will argue “you didn’t learn it to C2 level so you haven’t learned it”. I say "if you could survive in e.g. Mexico with your Spanish then you “know” Spanish.
Where it falls down is when guys like Benny Lewis say you can learn any language in 3 months. Doubt it.
That said, Steve Kaufman says if you put in adequate effort you can learn any language in a year.
I think he’s right. I personally am betting that I can learn my target not-close-to-English languages good enough to understand most youtubers in 6 months. I’m finding out if I’m right as we speak.
Good post. Liked it.
I concur with a lot of your observations. I also found French “easy” and probably for the same reason (I already spoke Spanish).
I didn’t, however, think I have any knack for language because I learned by brute force as an adult so I have no perception that it is anything other than brutal hard work of memorization, grit, practice and determination.
For me, I believe there are varying degrees of categories of effort you need to put in to different languages.
I didn’t make much effort to try to learn French pronunciation as an example.
With Russian I can barely pronounce some words. I’m aware that I need to do different tongue placement and aspirate etc. I have spent hours trying to do the two different “sh” sounds. I think I may be “lucky” rather than talented that I figured out that e.g. the “d” in Spanish isn’t the same “d” as in English so I have already clued in to the fact that it’s the tongue that makes a big chunk of the difference.
Also, with memorization, I found Spanish I got a big lift from all the English words that are already mispronounced Spanish or close enough. The fact that Spanish is consistent in pronunciation helped and even though I spoke Spanish with an English accent it didn’t make it unintelligible.
French was harder to memroize because the pronunciation is whacked compared to Spanish, but since the written form of the word is readable and also mostly close to Spanish I got a huge lift. In both Spanish and French there were some words (30%?) that didn’t sound or look anything like English so I found them very difficult to remember. But there weren’t enough of them to dent my enthusiasm.
With Russian it’s the opposite. Maybe 10% at most are similar to French with a handful only of English. It truly is alien and I get almost no help from my existing languages (except for the 10% from French which is not enough). It was a massive blow to my confidence that brute forcing just didn’t work. At all.
I was able to learn 10-20% as many words per day in Russian as I could in French/Spanish and I kept forgetting them over and over and over to the point I was only holding 1 in 20 words even after a couple of weeks of attempting to memorize them. So I had to develop techniques to assist. Now that I have figured out some techniques (partly) I’m able to hold about 1 in 3 words for up to 3 weeks in a cycle which is definitely progress. Pronunciation is also killer in Russian. They have clusters of consonants that just don’t go together to my eyes and are hard AF to pronounce at speed. Plus some of them are just freaking WRONG. Their 2nd ‘sh’ is just wierd. Their ‘d’ is wierd. The double “i” at the end I can’t figure out what sound it is and my mouth can’t make it. But that just means I need to figure out how to solve the “problem” of pronunciation.
Mandarin is next for me after Russian.
My guess is that grammar will be easy. I don’t care about reading so I won’t waste my time with it. On listening I suspect that I will have even more difficulty than with Russian.
But… it is my belief that I will have an easier time with listening than with pronunciation - even if I get it wrong I think my brain will condense two or more subtly different sounding words into the same sound and I will just think “oh they use the same word to mean different words” and I will need to figure it out from context. Doable even if it’s wrong.
With pronunciation it’s going to be MUCH worse than Russian. e.g. distinguishing between tones and even vowels/consonants I suspect that I will need to babble every single little sound like a baby for weeks or months on end in order to be able to pronounce anything at all correctly.
Anyhow yeah good post.
There is definitely language talent (in the same way that there is talent for everything) but I don’t think it’s as easy to define as we like to imagine, and I don’t think it’s a prerequisite in order to learn a language (which is what I think you’re referring to).
A person with language talent: Daniel Tammet. A person without language talent: me.
Of course there are varying degrees of talent and non-talent, but it just doesn’t really matter for any practical reason. If something takes me an extra 30% of time compared to someone else, why does it matter? Does my life depend on it? Hopefully not.
What is talent anyway? Are we comparing apples to apples? I think what really matters here is essentially “luck” and personality traits. Is that talent? I feel that I am lucky because I like languages. If I didn’t like languages, meaning that I wouldn’t enjoy the thousands of hours spent reading and learning, then I wouldn’t make progress. If someone has more talent than me but doesn’t like learning languages, then are they going to be more successful at learning and have the ability to grind away? Probably not.
Other ways that I am lucky:
- I like the unknown, confusion, and clearing up confusion piece by piece
- I like grinding away and sharpening a craft
- I like learning about other cultures
- I have awareness and can tell when I’m over-extended and need to scale back to build foundation
- I have realistic timelines from the beginning and don’t get intimated by long timelines
- I am patient and enjoy process more than result (people who need quick results to reach goals usually can’t grind day in and day out in order to reach those goals)
If someone didn’t have the above traits then they would have a much more difficult time than I do, but I don’t consider these differences talent vs non-talent.
(in the same way that there is talent for everything) but I don’t think it’s as easy to define as we like to imagine,
That is to say, since Talent was a coin we still can’t define this term when it comes to somewhat innate mental advantage in a particular field. But still we believe that it exists, ok.
So it’s safe to say that it’s sort of a religion, that shifts responsibility from a subject to the abstract elusive term beyond your influence. In practical terms, such an attitude gives you nothing.
But it is calming, at least, you can always blame the ancient coin when you can’t do or don’t have something
Speaking of Daniel and other geniuses, I can’t say much, but I certainly don’t want this kind of advantage based on other mental issues. Unless I’ll get pancakes with maple syrup.
Most of the Talent believers in my life so far were people with lack of following three:
- Genuine desire for a goal and the readiness to embrace a journey with all its ups and downs
- Fundamental self-confidence (that is always a consequence of abuse of some extent, imo)
- Opportunities or prerequisite (Complexity or even intricacy of one’s life conditions alone can undermine any advantage or talent before we discover such).
Your last three points gave me a thought. When you really look at people who have so-called “talent”. If you look closely. These people have put in a lot of work. It may not seem like it at times and for certain things there may be physical attributes that may contribute to some “extra” success, or a little less “work”, but most people described as talented are putting in a lot of time on their pursuit. The people that claim someone has a talent don’t see, or ignore the work that the “talented” person has put in.
I thought this post was interesting when I read it. Is it considered talent if one does something that is similar, but different like a pro cricket player who become a pro baseball player over in the states is that talent or is he just using his previous experience (or learning Spanish if one knows French like others mentioned)? Or are we talking about people who were born smarter (like you said these people did something that is often overlooked to become this way).
I think it’s a bit like golf vs basketball. Sure it’s obvious that someone who is 7 feet tall is going to find it easier to slam dunk than someone who is 5 feet tall.
But in golf? It’s practice, practice, practice.
I think language learning is similar to golf. It’s hard to say if Tiger Woods or any other golf player would be as awesome if they were without the 20,000 hours of practice they put in.
Likewise, if you practice a language for 10,000 (use it a lot every day for five years) I think it would be impossible not to have developed very good proficiency in it.
It’s when someone doesn’t put in enough effort and are surprised that they don’t succeed that is wierd to me.
Language learning is a time and effort game, definitely.
Very Well said.
Unless you’re putting in minimum of 3 hours per day into listening comprehension and reading 2000+ words per day at your current level of known words then I think you’ll be disappointed with your Russian comprehension in 6 months. If you had 15k known words now and spend 3+ hours per day then I think a 6 month target is fairly reasonable. Of course it also depends on what you consider as “good enough”. A way to compare your current reading level to the target goal of understanding spoken language is to see if you can read a text and listen to the audio simultaneously without pausing and being able to fully understand what you’re reading/hearing. If you can do this comfortably then taking off the training wheels (text) isn’t too far away. If you’re failing miserably then you are nowhere close to understanding spoken language at natural speed.
I believe we’re talking about people who were born smarter in a particular field.
What’s interesting about smartness is that we still don’t know what it is. Neurobiology, psychology, philosophy, none of them have a consistent definition of intellect, neither a model, that predicts some intellectual feats in the future. There are some observations, some hypotheses and a lot of speculation.
So we never know if an individual has an intellect. What if he doesn’t, how should we judge his intellect?
There was an interesting experiment called Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, Stanford marshmallow experiment - Wikipedia
And even with some follow-up studies, even out of context of kids and their performance in life, it’s clear, that not intellect, but the ability to delay gratification or more generally to complete long runs is crucial for most of the goals worth to mention. Because the most of such goals are large enough to reach in a single one titanic effort.
Even if you’re a sprinter, your overall way to become a champion would be a long run
It’s 2021, we create Neural Networks, but we still judge reliably our own intellect only by results.
So if you want to know 100 languages and do complex math in your head, maybe it’s perfectly possible, but are you willing to fully commit yourself to such an autistic goal?
For what it’s worth, I notice lots of ways that Russian is like English, in structure at least. And even though it’s highly inflected, that inflection comes from our common Indo-European heritage and remains in vestigial form in English. The similarities between Russian and English and the other IE languages are apparent by contrast when I watch LangFocus videos or read Wikipedia articles about all sorts of unimagined concepts and constructs in non-Indo-European languages. Hungarian, Euskara, Guarani, Navaho, et al., each seem wierder than the other. It will be interesting to hear your thoughts when you do tackle Mandarin.
So what you’re saying is that you believe that the use of lingQ as the primary method is the most efficient way. Fair enough: you might be right.
While I believe lingQ as the primary method works I haven’t tried using it as my primary method myself. I believe my own method is faster. It just makes logical sense to me that it would be.
I have learned two languages already (easy ones admittedly) essentially without using lingQ at all (in the case of French this isn’t exactly true because I discovered it somewhere between halfway through month4 and start of month 5) but by then I could already understand intermediate French.
So I’m not saying you’re wrong. You’re clearly right that it works for you. But I suspect that we’re not comparing exactly apples to apples.
Your experience is using lingQ as your primary tool, right? And it works for you under a certain timeline.
I’m not using lingQ as my primary tool and I know my method works for me. I’m not yet sure of the timeline for a non-western-european language but I am sure of the timeline for a western european language. My method is SRS listening and youtube videos listening plus some lingQ listening. Basically my method is essentially all listening.
So my expectation is this: I will be at at least B1 level of listening comprehension by the end of the six months. I am a betting man, though so I’m more than 50% sure that I’ll be at B2.
No way I’ll get to C1, but that’s not my goal.
Anyhow: Good debate. I like it.
It seems wierdly like a mix of a romance language and German to me. I made a half baked attempt to learn German about a decade ago so I have some inkling of it. The way it has conjugations reminds me kind of both Spanish/French and German. The way it has cases reminds me of German.
And yes, it’s familiar to an extent. The main wierd thing to me (other than the cyrllic - which I’m essentially ignoring because I’m mainly listening) is just the pronunciation and the number of words that have no cognate in English, French or Spanish.
Before I tried (and lost interest) in German I spent about a year trying to do Japanese (and failed). I failed (I believe) because I was trying to learn it from reading with no listening - it was impossible to get my hands on mp3s of the words at the time.
Japanese is truly alien. Everything about it except maybe the fact it does have present and past tenses (I can’t remember much else about it other than it’s wierdness). I expect when I get to Mandarin my mind will be blown.
I have a friend who is also interested in linguistics (aren’t we all to some extent) who says that there is a language where you are always aware of physical orientation when speaking.
My thought is that the number of ways concepts can be expressed is limitless.
Can you elaborate on SRS listening part?
Yeah. I spent some months recording mp3 of google translate one word at a time until I have 3,000 words. I imported them into anki along with the russian word in cyrillic and its translation. When my anki flashcard for each word opens it plays the mp3 so I hear the word instead of focusing on the cyrllic.
It’s a bit like when you click on a word in the mini stories - it plays a sound for the word.
So essentially I’m learning the spoken words not the written words.
Why? My theory is that the human brain is adapted to learn spoken languages whereas written language is un-natural.