This post isn't just about language learning, but it applies to language learning. The is really a post about everything you do in your life. This is a post about what you are, and what you want to be. It's about why you're not there yet, and how you can get there.
Your body is what you do to it
Several years ago, I took an interest in weight training. I was skinny and I wanted to gain weight, but not by getting fat. I started lifting weights a few days per week, running every day, changing my diet, etc. And I did gain some strength and some muscle, but it wasn't what I wanted, it wasn't where I wanted it, and it wasn't how I wanted it.
I was getting frustrated because in spite of the fact that I actually was getting really strong, I was still pretty skinny. It didn't make sense, and was starting to lose interest, until one day I read the magic words: "your body is a machine built to do what you do."
I was eating light and running a lot. No matter how much my strength increased, my body was primarily a running machine, and to be an effective running machine it needed to be light. Once I changed my routine to involve much less running and much more lifting (especially squats), my body started to change itself into a machine for lifting heavy things. And that's when I started seeing the results I wanted.
Our bodies are the products of what we do to them. A runner's body is naturally lean. A weightlifter's body is more broad and solid. An office worker's body has a flat rear end and a paunch - designed for sitting. You get the idea.
You can look at someone and immediately recognize, by the shape of their body, what kind of person they are. Someone with great legs is probably on their feet all day. Someone with big fingers probably does a lot of manual labor. And so on.
Your mind is what you do
It turns out, the same is true of your mind. It is, after all, a part of your body. Your mind becomes a tool for performing the tasks you make it perform. And you can look at a person's mind (not physically, of course) and understand a lot about that person.
I have friends who love to play poker, and they do it all the time. When they tell stories to each other, they say things like "caught trips on the turn" and immediately know that means a 53% probability of winning their hand. It's amazing to me because I can't do that, but I know that if I played poker as often as they do, I would understand it all too.
A person who works on cars a lot, or who builds things, or repairs things, often has an impressive ability to look at a bolt and know which wrench size he needs. Those assistant shoppers in the fancy stores can look at a customer and know what size clothes they wear. A tech support guy can often surprise you by knowing what programs you have installed before you finish describing your problem.
And this principle, more than anything else, is the key to successfully learning a language.
A person who speaks Spanish a lot will be good at speaking Spanish, whereas a person who speaks rarely will be not as good, no matter how much that person has studied.
Someone who spends their time studying grammar will become, by virtue of having done it, better at grammar than someone who does not. Someone who memorizes characters (eg: Mandarin) will become more adept at learning characters than someone who does not.
This is why classrooms and lesson books all include exercises. This is why programs like Rosetta Stone use so much repetition. It's the same reason football players run the same plays over and over every day in practice: you become an instrument for the things you do.
If you want to be a better reader, spend more time reading. If you want to be a better writer, spend time writing. And if you want to speak and understand conversations, you need to be having them!
People who don't do conjugation are usually pretty bad at conjugating. People who never do declension are guilty of always choosing the wrong cases. People who don't practice accents and pronunciation sound painfully foreign.
You are what you do.
What about natural advantages?
So you're probably already squirming in your seat right now, with that question burning a hole in your mind: What about people who have a natural advantage?
Yes, there are natural advantages. But they're not worth much. My genes are 99.9999% the same as yours. And we're both the same in comparison to someone else. The things that make one person different from another don't add up to much.
Does Lance Armstrong have a natural advantage? Yes. But if he hadn't spent 10 hours a day on a bicycle, that advantage wouldn't have meant anything. Does Michael Phelps's body make him a better swimmer? Yes, but that wouldn't mean anything if he hadn't spend 5 hours every day in a swimming pool.
Right now there are millions of people out there with natural advantages bigger than those of anyone we've seen today, at any activity. But they're not doing the work, so those advantages will never be known.
Get to work!
If you want to be good at something, stop blaming nature. Stop blaming your genes or your parents or your body or your mind. 99% of success is doing the work. So get to work.
You are what you do. Your body becomes a machine for doing what you do. Your mind becomes a tool for the things you do. So take control of what you do.
If you want to remember how to form the subjunctive, start using the subjunctive. If you want to be fluent in Italian, speak Italian. If you want to be a polyglot, get to work learning languages.
Being good at something is easy. All you have to do is be that thing. Over time, being good at it will happen naturally.
Want to see my favorite language resources and courses?
I listed them here.