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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