“You must be imaginative, strong-hearted. You must try things that may not work, and you must not let anyone define your limits because of where you come from. Your only limit is your soul. What I say is true—anyone can cook… but only the fearless can be great.” – Auguste Gusteau, Imaginary Cartoon Chef from Ratatouille/My Life Coach
As a language coach, translator and someone who spends a lot of time talking about language, I often encounter two misunderstandings about language. Each view diametrically opposed to the other, but both equally flat-out wrong.
- Language is a trophy to be unlocked like a video game achievement.
- Language is a gift handed down from heaven or passed on by genetics to a fortunate few.
In reality, language is neither of those things and that’s good news! Let me explain why.
- There Is No Finish Line in Language Learning
- Language Is Not a Gift for the Blessed Few
- Language Is a Skill
- How to Get Language Skills
- Skills Can Be Honed Forever
There Is No Finish Line in Language Learning
A long time ago in a city far, far away, I enrolled in an Arabic-language class on Saturdays. It was an excellently structured class. Every Saturday we had 2 hours of class study, but never any one activity for more than 20 minutes at a time. It was very interactive, lots of speaking practice. Then we would break for lunch, and then we had unstructured conversation practice with native speakers for a couple of hours after lunch. It was a great environment for learning, but it was still only one day a week and lasted only 6 months. At orientation a student (great guy, super nice) raised his hand and asked the teacher, “So at what point can I expect to become fluent in Arabic?”
My classmate was a wonderful guy, and I really enjoyed getting to know him over those six months. But at that first class, he had a misconception about what language is. He thought that by studying Arabic once a week, somewhere in the course of six months somehow he would unlock the Arabic badge and have Arabic. That was near the beginning of my language learning journey, but I would continue to hear questions like his over and over again. “How long did it take you to learn Russian?” “How long does it take to learn Mandarin?” “How long does it take to get fluent in Japanese?”
Popular language learning apps and programs have in some cases contributed to this misconception. “Learn Portuguese in a week!” What do they even mean by that? Am I going to be able to simultaneously interpret for a U.N. summit meeting after taking their course for a week? More often than not, it’s just a catchy tag line to get people to buy their product, and what they mean is after a week you’ll do a pretty decent job as a tourist in Portuguese, which is a completely reasonable goal. But their tagline is not “Get pretty good at getting around as a tourist in Portuguese in a week!” It’s “Learn Portuguese in a week!”
Now before I start talking about Duolingo, let me just clarify that I love Duolingo. I use it a little bit every day along with my other language learning habits. It’s great for getting exposed to new vocabulary and for learning grammar a little at a time, in a way that isn’t overwhelming. Plus, the gamification that the company has worked hard to designed really helps keep you motivated to keep studying. But some people think of a language as that trophy at the bottom of their language tree that they’re working towards. “I just need to work for X amount of time and I will have that Spanish trophy. Then Spanish will be mine forever, because I will have gotten it. Spanish will take X amount of time, but Japanese will take Y amount of time, so I’m staying away from that language.” Years ago Duolingo use to send you messages periodically that said things like “You are now 52% fluent in Spanish!” I’m sure the intention was to keep people motivated, but they wisely discontinued those messages. Language is not an XP bar, or a badge, or a trophy that you can earn and then have forever. There is no finish line after which you cross over from “not fluent” to “fluent”.
But on the other hand…
Language Is Not a Gift for the Blessed Few
Now this misconception really breaks my heart, because usually if someone is telling you this, it’s to explain why they themselves could never learn a language. “I just don’t have the language gene.” “You must have a gift for language.” By repeating this misconception to themselves that they are not gifted enough to learn a language, people rob themselves of something good, by never giving it a shot in the first place. It makes me think of what Henry Ford said:
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”
It’s a universal truth that if we doubt we can accomplish something, we sabotage our enthusiasm for the endeavor. If we assume that we are not gifted enough or not smart enough, we’re not likely to give it 100% of our effort. If we don’t put the full effort in, we don’t reach our goals. And when we don’t reach our goals, we get discouraged and we stop trying.
So why do I not believe that some people are blessed with an ability to learn languages while other poor saps are left in the dust?
Exhibit A: Europe! Here is a small sampling of European countries and the percentage of people in them who speak English as a second language [source]:
- The Netherlands – 90.9%
- Norway – 90%
- Sweden – 89%
- Croatia – 87.8%
- Denmark – 86%
- Malta – 77.7%
- Austria – 73%
- Cyprus – 73%
- Finland – 70%
So were all of those millions of people born with the language gene? No. They were raised in cultures that place great emphasis on becoming proficient in English. And think of the billions of people living in Africa, India, and other parts of Asia. In those parts of the world it’s not uncommon for someone to know three or more languages, each used for a different social setting. Were all of these billions of people born with something that you weren’t? Did they suck up all the language learning genes so that by the time you got to the front of the line there were none left for you? No. They simply live in environments where they are expected to speak certain languages in certain settings.
So what IS language, really?
Language Is a Skill
In reality, language is a skill. It’s not a trophy that you eventually grab and put on a shelf to admire forever. It’s not an unattainable, divinely bestowed gift that you were passed over for. It’s a skill, just like any other skill, and that’s good news!
Let’s think of another common skill to illustrate the point; playing the piano. Learning to play the piano takes many hours of practice. If a piano student only gets practice playing the piano during their one hour class once a week, they will never progress. If on the other hand they really learn to enjoy playing and throw themselves into practicing the piano, they will make progress. And there is no upper limit to the progress they can make. Professional pianists never stop honing their skills, even though they’ve likely been playing since they were children.
I’ve never heard anyone ask, “How long does it take to learn to play the guitar?” And I think people understand that there is a whole spectrum of guitar playing skill. There are novices who can play Smoke on the Water and have a great time doing so. There are professionals who can bring tears to your eyes with how beautifully they play a classical composition. Both people have developed a skill. Both have put time and effort into it, and either one, if he ever stops practicing, will slowly lose what he’s learned.
But some people will still say, “Yes, but some people pick up a skill so fast! Some people have a real ear for music, a gift!” That may be the case. Some people honestly do seem to pick up certain skills more naturally than others. But that shouldn’t stop you from trying, for two reasons:
1. Hard work beats natural talent every time. When it comes to gymnastics, short athletes have a natural edge over tall ones. That’s because when you’re lifting your own bodyweight or throwing it through the air, every extra ounce means more work to lift and control. But if natural talent were the only deciding factor in a competition that would mean that at every Olympics, the shortest athlete would always win every time. Russia’s Alexei Nemov is 5’8″ (1.72 meters), and he won 12 Olympic medals before retiring after the 2004 Athens Olympics. Were all the shorter athletes sleeping when he competed? No, he won those metals by putting in years of hard work. And even if someone is arguably naturally talented, to say that natural talent is the primary reason why they’ve achieved is to diminish the years of grueling hard work that they’ve put into honing their skills.
2. Who cares if someone else is more talented than you? Just because Hussein Bolt runs faster than you, does that mean that you can’t enjoy a nice jog around the neighborhood? Just because Monet’s paintings are hanging in museums, does that mean you can’t enjoy an afternoon of painting on your back deck? Even if you have a harder time learning languages than others, if you learn to love the language, the people and the process, and you put in the work, you will make progress.
How to Get Language Skills
So what can you do to get language skills? Anyone who has learned to play a musical instrument or is into physical fitness knows that consistency is king. A little bit every day, is infinitely more effective than a whole lot every now and then. To develop language skills you need to send the message to your brain and to your muscles that control speech, “Hey guys. This is something we need to do every day. So we need to get good at it.” You brain and body are designed to pick up on those signals and start helping you out, whatever the skill is you’re trying to learn. But if too much time goes by between practice sessions, you send the message to your brain and muscles, “Ok guys. That wasn’t very important, so let’s delete those files and clear space for more important things.” So how can you get your brain and speech muscles to help you out?
Find something that you can consistently do every day. Incorporate it into your daily routine. Don’t think in terms of the right app, book, class, or program. Think in terms of building the right habits. When are you most alert during the day? Is it in the morning? The afternoon? The evening? Can you harness that extra brain power by carving out 15 minutes during that time to work on your language skills? What times during your average day is your brain not working that hard? When cleaning? When going for a jog? When waiting in line? When commuting to work? Could you take advantage of those times by listening to something in your target language, or opening up a flashcard app on your phone and chipping away at it? (If you are driving, audio methods only, please.) When we approach language as a skill, we can make it a part of our daily lives, and then we can start making real progress.
Now this point is very important for building languages skills: practice your language with real human beings. No one has ever learned to play the violin by reading a book on violin theory or playing an app. Books and apps can explain the language you’re learning. They can introduce you to new words and new grammar concepts. But they can’t hone your skill at speaking the language. Speaking is like picking up the violin and starting to scratch out a tune. At first it’s not pretty, but have a sense of humor about it and keep going. You’ll get better sooner than you may think. Just find native speakers of your target language, then take a deep breath and get started.
Skills Can Be Honed Forever
A cook never gets bored with cooking, no matter how many years they’ve been cooking. A musician never gets bored with music, no matter how many years they’ve been playing. No one will ever master all of the skills in the field they’ve chosen. In skill, there is always discovery. There is always the new and the unexplored. There is always excitement, wonder and enjoyment. Language is a skill, not a trophy, not a genetic gift, and this is good news. It means you can develop it as much or as little as you want. It means that the right genetics or resources are no match for your hard work. But most of all it means that if you look at language as a skill and focus on the satisfaction you get from improving it, seeing your progress, using it in new and interesting ways, then you will never get bored with it for as long as you live.