Why I Don’t Believe in Language Talent

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I used to think there was such a thing as language talent. I used to think I had language talent. At school, teachers would tell me I was good at French. I seemed to make progress more easily than other kids, my accent was better and I would get decent grades without putting in any work. Since we all received the same instruction there was only one possible conclusion: I was naturally good at languages.

I never really questioned this self-perception and carried it with me into studying Chinese. When I first started learning Mandarin I felt I was good at imitating the sounds teachers demanded us to repeat. It appeared to take me less time than average to stop pronouncing the pinyin “shi” as “shee” and “quan” as “kwan” – as new learners are prone to doing. Before long I was able to utter sentences natives could understand. Once again, the answer was obvious: I’m just pretty damn good at languages.

But my experience of pursuing Mandarin over the past four years has come with a slow, humbling realisation that I don’t have a talent for languages after all. Actually, I no longer even think language talent is a meaningful concept.

First, let me address an obvious straw man. There is no doubt that, under apparently similar conditions, some people pick up languages more quickly than others. But the reasons for this are complex and often have nothing to do with talent. Take the example above of my experience with French. The real reason I was able to do well with little effort was because I was brought up speaking Spanish at home which made learning new French grammar and vocabulary a breeze compared with my monolingual English classmates. Nevertheless, those who didn’t know about my background assumed I had a ‘language gift’ – a label my teenage ego was glad to accept.

As for my later experience with Mandarin, a knack of quickly picking up new sounds may be an advantage when learning a new language. But there are two problems with branding my perceived ability to do this well a “language talent.”

The first is that new language learners who believe they possess a “good ear” often base that judgment on self perception. And self perception is a lousy yardstick. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve heard learners of Spanish or Chinese boast they have no difficulty with pronunciation before going on to completely botch a particular sound or word. The fact that a student can discern no difference between their pronunciation and that of a native is clearly not a sign that they have a good ear, let alone that they’re talented at languages.

My own belief that I had a naturally strong ear for Mandarin actually led me to neglect my pronunciation for a long time. When I eventually got around to properly focusing on it, I discovered there were many things I wasn’t hearing properly at all. In particular, as I’ve written elsewhere, it became apparent that certain tone differences which initially appeared incredibly subtle and unimportant to me turned out to be glaring mistakes to the native ear. Conversely, more humble friends who didn’t perceive themselves to have a good ear addressed these issues earlier and improved their pronunciation faster.

The second more important objection is that assuming a learner really is naturally talented at quickly learning to imitate new sounds this is merely one aspect among many required to master a language. Acquiring languages also involves internalising grammar structures, listening comprehension, reading fluency and, in the case of Mandarin, memorising thousands upon thousands of characters. All these skills are interrelated so that as we develop one we strengthen the rest. But they are also sufficiently distinct to make it practically inevitable that inexperienced learners will initially feel more confident in some aspects than others.

Many beginner classrooms place pressure on new learners to reproduce new sounds before they have acquired any familiarity with the language through listening input. Some students, like me, will walk away from this experience feeling rewarded. But a sizeable proportion of learners who initially lack confidence at that particular skill conclude they are useless at languages and give up. This is exactly what happened to a friend who I attended my first Mandarin course with.

After just three classes my friend decided he’d had enough and was nowhere to be seen for lesson four. The following day when I asked him why he hadn’t turned up he sheepishly cited the fact that he clearly lacked any talent at learning new languages as he was unable to reproduce the sounds we had been tasked with repeating. Meanwhile I completed the course of eight classes and left brimming with confidence, utterly determined to become fluent in the language.

For a while that confidence served as a source of motivation to continue studying. It’s nice to feel you’re pursuing something you’re naturally good at. But the further I progressed the more I discovered that while my early confidence in speaking Chinese may have earned the approval of my friends and teachers it didn’t confer many advantages when it came to other aspects of Mandarin. Sure, I could repeat phrases I’d learned and be understood by my Chinese language partners but that party trick got old pretty quickly, especially since their replies always sounded like noise to me.

In addition to listening comprehension problems, for a long time characters just wouldn’t seem to stick in my memory. Even when I could recall the characters the counterintuitive word order meant it always took me ages to decode the meaning behind each sentence. It turned out I had no natural advantage when it came to most, if not all, of the tasks involved in learning Mandarin. There would be no magic shortcut to fluency and I had no choice but to resort to many hours, weeks, months and years of hard toil just like everybody else.

Fortunately, by the time I realised this I had already made enough progress to remain motivated and committed to studying long term. By then it had also become obvious from reading other learners‘ stories that confidence, experience, hard work and time spent with the language are more reliable predictors of success (and speed of success) than innate ability. When these other factors are considered, the advantage of possessing certain superficially impressive traits – such as having a naturally ‘good ear’ – is marginal at best. I know lots of monolingual people who possess an incredible ear for closely imitating different accents or doing uncanny impersonations and even more multilingual people who are useless at both.

Unrealistic expectations about how long it takes to acquire a language like Mandarin are a huge source of frustration for many new learners. Typically, students conclude they lack talent because, despite studying for what seems like ages, they’re not yet fluent. But there have yet to emerge any documented cases of super talented learners who became proficient in Chinese without spending many hundreds – more likely thousands – of hours meaningfully engaging with the language. I have also yet to meet anyone who truly put in those hours and didn’t reach a high level.

There is a reason few people who master East Asian languages consider themselves to be naturally talented. It’s not modesty; learning Chinese is a genuinely humbling experience and those who’ve succeeded all know how much effort and time it took. All the best language learners I know are people who made peace with the huge amount of work they knew would be necessary to achieve their goals and got on with the job.

As the Japanese to English translator, Daniel Burke, recently Tweeted (he’s talking about Japanese but his point is equally applicable to Mandarin):

“If you feel like you can’t read native material, ask yourself, how many hours have you really spent reading native material? Can’t listen to native material? How many hours have you really spent listening to native material?…If the answer isn’t somewhere in the thousands, there’s a simple answer to your problem. You just haven’t done it enough,”

Daniel Burke, Japanese to English Translator

As I reflect on my journey I feel quite fortunate. By chance, my first class happened to be based around a particular aspect of language learning I enjoy. That gave me the confidence to feel I was a capable student and that acquiring Mandarin was possible. Yet it strikes me that if I had been born a few decades earlier things might have turned out differently. For most of the post-war era the major focus in language classrooms was on achieving accuracy in writing over pronunciation and speaking.

If we’d been studying Chinese in the 1970s, perhaps it would have been me, rather than my friend, who left the classroom convinced I was a naturally lousy language learner. Perhaps my friend might have gone on to become an interpreter for the UN or a writer documenting his journey of striving towards Mandarin fluency and pontificating about the role of talent in language learning.

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