Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

September 29, 2009

Are some people better at learning languages than others?

I’m sure there is a lot of  scientific and linguistic research about this topic and this is not a scholarly post. It is something I have thought about often in the years that I have been teaching and learning languages and I simply wanted to share my thoughts with you. I hope that they strike a chord, tally with your opinion and/or experience and spur you on to improving and developing your own language skills.

Language is a skill

I firmly believe that a language is a skill – a life skill – akin to driving, cooking or managing money. We need it to get by everyday. This is not to deny that there is a scholarly or academic side to languages but I think the key thing is that all but a small minority have learnt a language – their own! I think, (am I naive?) this proves we can do it!

I hate it when people say ‘I’m no good at languages’ – it’s rubbish – the fact that they’re speaking proves that they’re wrong!! I also feel that, certainly in the UK, we often teach languages as a dry academic subject rather than a skill and have the emphasis all wrong. This makes learning languages boring, confusing and seemingly pointless! Learning languages isn’t boring, it’s amazing and it’s one of the most useful, incredible skills you can ever learn! Wake up education systems!!

(I wouldn’t include much of English as a foreign language here as it has largely been taught in more innovative ways – however of late, with emphasis on exams I’m not so sure!!)

This isn’t to say that learning languages is easy. It takes practice and some dedication, but the rewards are so satisfying, who wouldn’t want to do it! See my post on Speaking languages can be Powerful  for some examples of how speaking another language can empower.

How come some people seem to learn languages easily?

It does seem true that some people can pick up languages more easily than others (but it’s also true that some people are better at cooking, driving and managing money). People who have a ‘good ear’, those who already speak other languages, and some who just seem to take to languages well learn more easily. Does that mean that it’s a special talent? I don’t think so – I think with perseverance most of us can learn.

I remember employing a Chinese woman to help out when my children were very young – she cooked (exceptionally well) looked after the house etc. She had had very little education and could write a little Chinese but that was it. She spoke Cantonese, Mandarin, Hokkien and Tio Chu (another Chinese language) and Indonesian. Within a few months of being with us she was speaking some English! All of her language learning had been done ‘on the hoof’.

Another woman, the aunt of an Indonesian friend had no formal education at all. She was illiterate and lived in a small mountain village. In later life she began to travel, first to various cities in Indonesia visiting children and relatives and later across the world to several differnt countries. She went alone, an intrepid explorer! She managed through her great capacity to engage with people to use a mixture of her own language (fairly obscure) and words she learned along the way to become a true traveller, not hiding in her hotel or keeping herself to herself, but getting out and about meeting people and experiencing many different cultures.

The talent these two women had for language did not come from education but from a desire to connect with people and find out more.

Check out these language stories – where knowing another language really helped

Chinese thief encounters language barrier

Success for Polish student who struggled with English

Knowing how to speak another language helped me to have the most romantic adventure of my life!

So, it may not be the easiest thing, it won’t happen overnight and you’ll need to build your confidence but, as with any skill, the more you practise the better you become and learning a language or improving and developing one you already know a little can have very rich rewards indeed.

So on the subject of practice – have you?

  • checked all the words and phrases in this post you haven’t met before?
  • made sure you know their meaning?
  • made a mental note to use them as soon as possible
  • committed them to memory?

No? Well what are you waiting for?

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17 Comments »

  1. great article for taking some insights about learning learning..thanks Rliberni

    Comment by marmaraelt — October 15, 2009 @ 4:33 pm | Reply

    • Thanks for your comment marmaraelt. These are things I’ve observed and experienced and I hope they might be useful to language learners and potential language learners (especially in the UK!!)

      Comment by rliberni — October 15, 2009 @ 5:02 pm | Reply

  2. I really enjoyed this Berni… I believe in something called the Universal Language (not as in linguistic-speak as in Coehlo speak) – it’s something I experienced on my own travels and not really sure how to describe it, but whenever I needed something I could communicate my need.

    I even once had a long and indepth conversation with a man on a beach… and the details I recorded in my diary were rich – we did not talk in trivialities. Yet he spoke Indonesian and I English. We used the sand to describe our lives.

    Karenne

    Comment by kalinagoenglish — October 15, 2009 @ 8:38 pm | Reply

    • Hi Karenne, thank you for the comment. I believe it’s true that communication can transcend language – it’s tied up with EQ I think which I’m sure was the second woman’s gift. It’s like wherever I go people often stop and ask me the way – even overseas (it happened in Spain this summer) so wierd but fascinating!

      Comment by rliberni — October 15, 2009 @ 11:02 pm | Reply

  3. […] might like to see my post on whether some people learn languages more easily than others. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)DC Power System’s offers Solar TrainingOn […]

    Pingback by Advanced Students – Case study 3 « Rliberni's Blog – Radical language — February 1, 2010 @ 11:40 pm | Reply

  4. […] (see my post ‘Are some people better at learning languages than others?‘) […]

    Pingback by Preparing for language exams « Rliberni's Blog – Radical language — May 19, 2010 @ 11:04 am | Reply

  5. In fact,I think some people can learn languages better than the others because they have their own abilities,passion and maybe they have a chance to approach these languages from their parents when they were very young.

    Comment by ngoc — June 21, 2010 @ 3:32 pm | Reply

    • Thank you Ngoc for your comment. I agree with what you say but these are, in fact, external reasons for being good rather than pure ability.While all these factors certainly motivate people to learn, I still think the fact is that as we are all able to learn our native tongue we should also have the ability to learn another language. The reasons for success which you mention above are all very important in achieving it and without these things we may not even begin to study.

      Comment by rliberni — June 21, 2010 @ 3:39 pm | Reply

  6. […] Via @rliberni – A post about language propensity […]

    Pingback by What stops many adult learners from progressing beyond intermediate level? Is there a barrier? – Summary | #ELTchat — May 5, 2011 @ 3:00 pm | Reply

  7. […] Are some people better at learning languages than others? […]

    Pingback by English language learning tips – my Top 10 posts « Rliberni's Blog – Radical language — May 20, 2011 @ 5:42 pm | Reply

  8. What do u call a person who easily undastands languages

    Comment by Ejike ike — February 23, 2012 @ 10:36 pm | Reply

    • A linguist is good at languages or studies languages. A polyglot uses many languages so one assumes that they are good at languages. I’m not sure there is a word which describes someone who has great propensity for language i.e. they pick them up easily. Maybe someone else will know another word?

      Comment by rliberni — February 28, 2012 @ 11:24 am | Reply

  9. When I was fifteen i lived in Denmark as a foreign exchange student and while living there I learned to speak Danish fluently. After returning home, I was back visiting a year later; even though i hadn’t spoken or used Danish in that year I could still speak and read every bit as well as before I left Denmark. I studied Spanish in school and now can also speak it with few errors. I believe that anyone can learn a new language and that the best way is with immersion instead of books and verb conjugations. There is a word in Danish for someone with a propensity for languages in danish that translate to “language ears,” as in “She has language ears.”
    Anyone can do it, you just have to jump in.

    Comment by Deanna — June 27, 2012 @ 5:54 pm | Reply

    • Thank you Deanna for your comment. This is very true and I love the ‘language ears’ Scandanavians and Dutch certainly have these in spades!! My daughter learnt Chinese as a child but stopped speaking at 7. Now she is going to China for work and finds that it sounds familiar and that she can manage to pronounce it well and is learning again. Our brains are such mysterious things and I’m sure that much lies latent just to be prompted out again.

      Comment by rliberni — June 27, 2012 @ 6:26 pm | Reply

  10. […] Via @rliberni – A post about language propensity […]

    Pingback by #ELTchat » What stops many adult learners from progressing beyond intermediate level? Is there a barrier? – Summary — September 2, 2012 @ 1:34 pm | Reply

  11. It is so true. I’m learning english day by day now. In the beginning it was kind of hard to translate every new word and write it down together with translation. However, after about a half a year I saw a real improvement. I began to remember new words much faster than in the beginning. One thing I’ve learnt is that it’s actually much better to translate words rather than just to listen or read something without translation and just guessing what you heard.

    Comment by Trading Market Online — November 23, 2012 @ 2:58 am | Reply

    • Translation of vocabulary is a good way of learning but do make sure that you can use the word in context – if not you might misuse it. Often translations give one word when there may be several ways of translating an item.

      Comment by rliberni — January 21, 2013 @ 5:54 pm | Reply


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