I Don't Have A Gift For Languages (Nobody Does)

A common excuse I hear from people is "I'm just not good at languages like you", or "sure, it's easy for you, you have a gift for languages". But the truth is, I don't. I'm not even sure such a thing exists... but if it does, I certainly don't have it.

That's not to say that I don't have an easier time than many others — I probably do, but it's not because I have any gift. It's nothing more than the natural result of spending a great deal of time studying!

Strength comes from repetition

The sheer fact of doing something a lot will naturally increase a person's ability to do it. If you've messed up a few dozen omelets, you'll eventually figure out how to get 'em to flip... and if you've conjugated enough verbs or deconstructed enough compound words, eventually you develop a pretty solid skill for doing those things.

The only natural characteristic that I have, which some others perhaps might not, is a natural curiosity... an utter fascination with the way languages work. You might say that this is the thing that causes me to like grammar when other people hate it. For me, it's not a bunch of painful rules, it's a fascinating puzzle that I want to understand.

I'm sure we can all relate to this on some level, even if it's not language for everyone. Maybe it's a magic trick, or maybe it's the internal combustion engine, or maybe it's a 3-on-2 fast break hockey play, but whatever the case, I'm sure we can all relate to some utterly fascinating thing... something which you won't be able to sleep until you understand how it works. For me, that's language.

So I spend a lot of time studying languages. And I'm spending all of this time with a positive mood and full of curiosity — rather than grudgingly slogging through something I hate to do — so that makes my time much more productive!

I only hope that energy is contagious

My one true desire for this web site, above and beyond anything else, is that I can somehow find a way to convey even the tiniest portion of my enthusiasm. My greatest pleasure is when I can help someone to get over the slump of hard, tedious work, and start enjoying whatever language they are learning.

When you're having fun it's easy to put in a little extra time studying. When you're curious, you have to be forcefully pried away from the book or CD or web site. When you're solving a mystery, you daydream about it and pause in the middle of the day to scribble notes about it.

So for a little change of pace today, leave me a comment and tell me something really exciting, curious, or fascinating about the language you're studying, or about languages in general. Let's all spread the fun!


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Author: Yearlyglot
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  • Oh, there's so many wonderful things about language! Hard to pick one thing. Well, in Hindi "I have" is "mera/i pas" and "nearby" is "ke pas," so the word for having is really the word for something being near to you. I didn't even notice that until it was pointed out in the book Dreaming in Hindi!The thing I love most about languages is seeing how many different ways our brains can organize the same information/material.

  • The same things exists in Russian! They say у меня, which is literally "near me". Interesting to learn that this isn't an isolated phenomenon!

  • I like when at first you look at page written in foreign language and it doesn't say anything to you. But with time, you start noticing, that there's lots of meaning behind those really unfamiliar words, or even better, unfamiliar letters.

  • Speaking for myself, perhaps the most fascinating thing about foreign languages will always be the fact that they exist at all. For some strange reason, even in spite of the fact that I speak (in varying degrees of proficiency) as many as eight or more languages, there is still something in my brain that just can't grasp the fact that we are all human and all so similar, yet we communicate so differently.There's still a mental disconnect in my mind which makes me perceive foreign languages with the detachment and distance with which I would view a "secret code"... and this includes the same experience of excitement when I "break the code". After my first real conversation in a new language, I always walk around with a dopey grin on my face! :)

  • Definitely! It reminds me of how "big and scary" Russian was for me as a kid (thanks to the cold war propaganda, no doubt) and now so much of that is lost because instead of a big scary building with Russian writing on it, now I just see the word "pharmacy". Hahahaha

  • I am learning American Sign Language, and have been struck in particular by directional verbs, which allow one to clearly communicate the subject and the object of transitive verbs in a single, fluid motion, omitting any sort of pronoun. This is because of the fact, obviously, that there is a spatial dimension to signed languages, rather than tone, prosody and other features of verbal speech.This video gives several demonstrations of directionality: https://www.youtube.com/watc...

  • Wow, yes! That spacial dimension introduces lots of interesting possibilities.

  • Due to a change in my life recently, I've put my relearning (refreshing, rehashing, reforgetting) of German on hold to go back to French. I slogged through five years of high school French. I started grade eight French really excited about learning a language and within weeks, my French teacher had crushed any love I had for that language. I've returned to it over the years because, as a Canadian, I feel like I should at least be passable in our second national language but as soon as I started going through the process, negative feeling after negative feeling would start so I'd put the books back on the shelf and forget anything I had learned. Five months ago, I started doing West African Dance through a local school (I lived in East Africa but there's no East African Dance schools, so...) and immediately loved it. The incredibly small (read=all three of them) Guinea community in my city are all members of the school (some are teachers/drummers, others are friends of the owner) and they were working on bringing an award-winning Guinean Dance troupe to BC for a month-long tour this summer. I'm so in love with the dancing that I volunteered to help organize the tour but that means being able to converse with the dancers/drummers at least enough to make small talk and understand their directions during the dance workshops. All of a sudden, French is fun. There is a reward at the end of my studying which takes all the negative feelings left over from high school away from the actual act of studying. I will not only be able to learn about their culture/dance/lives, but I will be able to show them mine. I know I can learn a language, I've done it before (German and Swahili), but it was that mental block of French being a chore, being something I didn't want to but had to do that always stopped me from actually enjoying it. I'm so happy that I came across this opportunity because without it, I honestly don't know if I would have ever actually bothered to learn French and some of the countries I most want to visit are French speaking.Now... if I could just find an online course for the Susu language of coastal Guinea, I'd be all set!

  • Randy,I think there are people who have a gift for learning the guitar, they learn it real fast, I have seen it. And there are people, I believe, who have a gift for learning languages and who learn real fast and speak extremely well. I am not one of those. When I learn a language, I give it my best shot, but I don't know at the outset whether I will succeed. This goes back to what you said at Benny's site on the "impossible" thread, where you said you can pretty much decide to successfully learn a language. There are a few absolutes and there are things which are "almost impossible" like for example becoming US president. The more difficult a task, the more people will not reach that goal. A few will, but that is no proof that most of us can. Winning the lottery is not impossible strictly speaking, but I wouldn't build my life on the sole hope of winning the lottery.I am very critical of this "everything is possible" mentality. I think that overly focusing on positive thinking is actually dangerous. All these Wallstreet managers were fed this mindset and it made them underestimate risks. A healthy sense of realism is more important I think. Have you ever tried to learn Chinese? I can tell you it is very hard and I still don't know if I will reach a level that I am satisfied with when I leave here in less than a year. I can tell you that I enjoy learning and studying it so much, so I have definitely a positive attitude, but success is not only dependent on positive thinking and an active decision on your part to be successful.

  • To use your guitar analogy...There are those who are born with long, thin fingers, perfect for making complicated chords on a fretboard... and when learning guitar these people will have a natural advantage over those with short, fat fingers.There are those who have natural music inside of them -- whether it's creating something of their own, or just playing back something they've heard, they have a song inside that wants out. These people will likely have a greater motivation when learning the guitar.And there are those who have a naturally mathematical mind... who can calculate a 7th minor in a flash, and find it on a fretboard in one shot. They, too, may have an advantage when learning the guitar.But then there are those who just keep picking up that damn guitar and practicing every day. Playing practice scales and progressions, improving physical dexterity and accuracy, and forming good habits over a long period of time... and I promise you, it's this group of people who you will pay to see in concert. Natural advantages (talents) are nothing compared to skill, and skill only comes from practice.A naturally talented person has, perhaps, a greater overall potential to excel, but it's meaningless until he does all those things that anyone can do.Everything is possible.If a black kid from a broken home can grow up to be President of the United States, anyone can. Yes, there are very few people who become President, so the amount of work required to succeed at it is astronomically greater... but it is possible. I'm actually surprised to see someone use "US President" as an example of "impossible" in the Barack Obama era!In comparison to a measure of success with a history of only 44 members (the Presidency), fluency in a foreign language is a very non-exclusive club. There have already been billions throughout history. If anyone thinks they're not as good as the billions who have done it before them, they have a power of pessimism that I hope to never encounter.Getting rich? It's been done before, by hundreds of millions of people. It can't be that hard.Marrying a model? It's been done by millions of people. It can't be that hard.Having your book / photos / art / whatever published? That, too, has been done by countless people.Sure, I believe positivity (tempered with a little common sense) can help people to accomplish unheard of dreams... but we're really not talking about unheard of things, now, are we? Man has already walked on the moon, climbed Mt Everest, trekked across the north pole. History is full of things that have been done... not things that are impossible.I think the idea of so-called "realists" insisting that it's okay to forego positivity and to dub things as impossible is completely ignorant of an overwhelming avalanche of data showing that nothing is impossible.

  • There's really nothing quite like using a language to make learning it so much more fun! :)

  • You make good points here. Still, I think in language learning it is important to divide the task into small attainable goals. If we aim for for too ambitious milestones we're setting ourselves up for disappointment. Initially I had hoped to be fluent in Chinese much quicker but then I had to adjust my goals, otherwise I would have constantly been frustrated over the perceived lack of progress.This "realism debate" is so important in a much wider context. Mankind faces enormous challenges regarding our natural resources and in particular energy. Is is important to be positive about the future but we also need to be realistic. There is no technology on the horizon that will replace fossil fuels in the next 20+ years so we need start improving energy efficiency and trim energy use. Now that is not too popular of a message in the US, where republicans still maintain we can drill ourselves out of this ditch. Again, realism. What are the real challenges and what is the progress we can expect as a function of the resources we throw at the problem. (Why the American public still isn't ready for an energy change after the gulf desaster eludes me but that is a diferent debate...)Regarding talent vs. dedication, well I have seen it in music (I am a guitarist myself) and in sports where I have met people who were so much more gifted than me, that compensating that natural edge they had would be, well almost impossible.In sports it is actually very much about genetic disposition, for example oxygen uptake capacity, vital for many disciplines which cannot be enhanced significantly through training. There is no way I could have become a marathon world champion with the body I was dealt with.But you know what, I still like to play the guitar on my level and I loved to swim competitively at the time. And I love to hear those players from another planet and are thankful that such great music exists. Acknowledging one's limitations is part of maturing as a person, I think, nothing wrong about it at all.Friedemann

  • While I think you and I probably agree on the topic, I am going to ask that we keep politics out of the discussion here, since it's so easy to get off-topic.But regarding natural talent, I still do buy the argument that you can't be successful without it. For instance, this: https://sivers.org/15-yearsYes, no swimmer in the olympics was going to beat Michael Phelps's natural physical advantage, but he didn't get to the olympic on size -- he got there by swimming for 5 hours every day. And while his body is genetically superior for swimming, all those other competitors still got there without the advantage of massive arms and torso.

  • I live in Poland and I'm learning Polish. The most fascinating part for me is how you can say so much more in Polish using much shorter sentences than you would in English. e.g. Perfective/Imperfective verbs, frequency, and of course the 7 cases. My girlfriend is constantly correcting me saying "You should be saying it in this order because it sounds better" :-). I also love the way it sounds.Another big hit for me is when you are watching TV or listening to people talk and you understand without having to think about it (i.e. It feels natural, as if you are listening to English). It makes it all worthwhile.

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