Last week I wrote about what I see as the #1 reason why many people don’t learn languages. They start off with the best of intentions, but don’t actually make consistent use of the tools they acquire.
This IS a huge reason why many people don’t end up being the bodacious bilinguals they want to be. But there is a sadder reason why others don’t achieve it.
They don’t think they can.
I have met so many people who tell me they just don’t have what it takes to learn a language. Their reasons often include:
– I’m not smart enough.
– My memory sucks.
– I just don’t have a “knack” for languages.
– I’m too old. (Often spoken by people under 40.)
This saddens me folks, because scientifically speaking you absolutely DO have a knack for languages. Your brain is hard-wired to process it- it’s been doing so since you were born. If you competently speak your first language, then you ARE capable of speaking a second or even a third or more languages.
(To those worried about not possessing an innate ability or talent for languages, I’d like to mention that linguists are actually in hot debate over whether or not such a thing actually exists. The two primary professors of my graduate program in TESOL studies differed greatly. My advisor did NOT believe there was such a thing as “innate talent for languages” while my other professor did think some people had more of a knack for it than others. I’ll debate this topic at some point with a few polyglot friends of mine but for now take comfort in the fact that there have been NO conclusive studies to show that certain people have any more talent for languages than others. You CAN do this.)
Intelligence and memory do help. I’d be lying if I told you otherwise. BUT intelligence is multi-faceted and where it seems inadequate in one area, it often more than makes up for it in another. Memory can be improved and there are a plethora of ways to do so. (Some will be discussed here.) But also realize this- you really only need about 500 words to start reading and speaking at a basic level in any language. That sounds like a lot until you realize the average language has 250,000 words. That means you only need to learn 0.2% of the vocabulary available in order to really get started. I promise once you get started, vocabulary will generally add itself naturally to your mental inbox, just like it does in English.
(Sidenote- English, last I checked, has more than 1 million words still listed as in effective use. You speak this language without knowing all of them- you can do it for another.)
Finally, to my favorite MYTH to crush. “Young people learn languages faster… you’ll never be bilingual if you didn’t learn as a child… I’m too old.” This is one misconception that I’d love to annihilate from the planet because it is absolutely, completely, 100% FALSE. That’s right, folks. Your age does NOT impair your ability to learn language.
In fact, studies have shown that adults are capable of learning languages much FASTER than their kid student counterparts. Why? You have all this awesome background knowledge to help you! You know by this point how to study (though we could all use a few pointers in a new subject area), you know a first language solidly and can make connections across languages, and you even have a wide array of mental images and memories that you can attach new information to, helping your brain access it faster and more efficiently.
The ONLY aspect of language where children excel beyond adults is in pronunciation. As we age, the cilia in our ears decrease. That’s why you can’t hear as high of frequencies with age. This also means your ability to discern nuances between sounds (specific phonemes) also decreases. However, you are still more than capable of speaking the language within the “range of acceptability”- i.e. in a manner that native speakers can
The big difference between kid and adult learners is kids don’t consciously realize they are learning a language and they often feel they HAVE to learn the language in order to get what they want. If Mom only speaks Spanish (at least to them), then if they want milk, by golly they’ve got to learn that word leche. We learn what we have to in order to satisfy our own needs and desires. I am certain at some point in your career you have been tasked with something you were uncertain how to do. (If you haven’t, *SPOILER ALERT*, you will be.) Your choice was learn how to do the task or find another job. I’m guessing most chose the former.
Okay, I’ve rambled enough. What’s my point?
My point is this- if you look in the mirror everyday and the person you see is someone incapable of learning a new language, then my friend you’ve lost before you’ve even begun. As Henry Ford once said:
“Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re probably right.”
Most of us life-long learners like to make goals and that is fantastic. What’s important is to remember there are three kinds of goals: appearance, performance, and identity. (Please see this blog for a way more thorough and much better explanation than I’m about to give.)
Appearance goals are the ultimate achievements. Your appearance goal as a polyglot is likely a visual image of yourself conversing easily with natives of your target language. This is great- but ultimately you don’t have a lot of control over this BIG goal. The control you do have comes from achieving a series of smaller goals that all contribute to it.
These are called Performance goals. This could be to learn twenty words a week, or spend ten minutes a day listening to the news your L2, or even read the newspaper in your new language once a month. These are tangible, actionable pieces that are invaluable to you achieving your ultimate, appearance goals. But before you start creating these, there is one more set of goals you HAVE to address.
Identity goals are, in my humble opinion, the KEY to achieving the rest of this puzzle. This is about how you see yourself. Are you someone who is incapable or incompetent at learning languages? Or do you see yourself as a future polyglot? Do you look in the mirror and see an explorer ready to tack a new set of words and syntax, a voyager into the lands of verbs unknown? If you start seeing the potential in yourself, the rest of the goals are going to be MUCH easier to achieve.
NOTE- I said easier and not easy. You still have to do the work and there will be days you don’t want to. But if you see yourself as capable of mastering your L2, if you stop seeing your brain as an obstacle and rather as a fantastic tool, you CAN become the polyglot of your own dreams.
Now, for a bit of tough love before I sign off. Many people use the “I can’t learn a language” phrase to mask this reality: “I’d like to be able to speak another language but I don’t want to put in the work. To these people let me say this:
It is perfectly OK if you do not feel you have the time, energy, or motivation to devote to learning a new language. What is NOT okay is perpetuating the idea that some people are incapable of doing so.
Every time you say that about yourself, others hear it and absorb that message. Particularly young ears. They become convinced that the ability to pick up a new language is something “you’ve either got or don’t.” And far too early students convince themselves they don’t got it. That’s the sad part.
Be honest with yourself. Do you really WANT to learn a new language, to the point that you are willing to make the relationship sacrifices I discussed last week? If not, fine. Just admit that to yourself and others.
But if you are, do NOT let anyone, especially your inner demons convince you that you can’t. You are more than capable, and with the right set of tools, you are unstoppable.
Original Article Posting can be found here. Originally posted 03/17/14.