learning with steve: how important is talent in language learning?
Do some people just have that talent for language learning, while others don’t?
People often tell me that they don’t have the talent for language learning. I usually interpret this to mean that they are not sufficiently motivated.
So what does matter in language learning?
Language learning requires a high level of motivation, the confidence that we can succeed, a strong interest in the language, and a willingness to step outside our comfort zone. It also takes time, so we have to be patient and persevere. Compared to these qualities, talent is relatively unimportant.
Why do you think so many people say that they have no talent for languages?
I think the reason lies in the way languages are taught in schools. Many people have had a negative experience in attempting to learn a language at school. Because they were unable to learn a language at school, or in language classes, they conclude that they have no talent for languages. However, in school, and in the classroom, the learner is passive. The teacher is in charge. This is not the ideal situation for language acquisition.
Many people are conditioned to believe that they can only learn in the classroom, even though it was precisely in the classroom where they couldn’t learn. Successful learners take the initiative. They seek out language learning content of interest to them. They put themselves in situations where they can hear, read and speak in the language. The willingness to do these things, and not talent, is what make some learners successful and others not.
But surely some people are better at learning languages than others.
Yes, the more languages you learn, the better you get. The good language learners have developed a better ability to notice what is happening in the language, whether pronunciation or the patterns of the language. This ability to notice can be developed, and comes largely through lots of exposure. We have the example of countries like Sweden and Holland, where television programs are always presented in the original language. People in those countries are exposed to more English, and other foreign languages, and therefore become better at learning them.
If we provide more opportunities for people to be exposed to other languages, they will naturally develop better language learning skills, or, if you prefer, talent.