Talent and Language Learning

“Desire is the starting point of all achievement, not a hope, not a wish, but a keen pulsating desire which transcends everything.”
by ~Napoleon Hill~


There is an undercurrent of opinion that there are talented language learners and then there are the rest, who struggle to get to proficiency. So the question, “Is talent needed for language learning?” is one that many language learners think about and I daresay want answered! Or is it just a convenient belief to fall back on when the language learning/teaching seems to get tough and progress seems to be slow.

One thing to start with is that we all demonstrated talent when we learnt our first language, as the vast majority of infants learn their spoken mother tongue to the level of their peers. So the theory needs to be adjusted some already – maybe to that the talent we all amply demonstrated in our early years disappears for one reason or the other as we get older. Is this really the case? Can we actually lose talent? Or is it the case that it becomes covered up with ways of thinking, beliefs, attitudes and strategies that lead us away from our talent.

There are many tacks we could take here to explore this. The one that I would like to explore here for now is looking at people in diverse fields who many would say have great talent in their own fields. The interesting issue being, are they born with talent or do they somehow gain it.  The case of language learning is a bit different because we all had it… However I think that the discussion here will help shed a few onion layers!

Creative geniuses we could say are geniuses because they know “how” to think, instead of “what” to think. Sociologist Harriet Zuckerman published an interesting study of the Nobel Prize winners in the science area who were living in the United States in 1977. She discovered that:

  • six of Enrico Fermi’s students won the prize.
  • Ernst Lawrence and Niels Bohr each had four students who won prizes.
  • J. J. Thompson and Ernest Rutherford between them trained seventeen Nobel laureates.

Is it possible that the people with the necessary genes or talent all happened to be taught by the same people and that there were no talented people elsewhere? Well, we all know the answer to that! Looking in another field, sport, similar observations can also be made.

  • In table tennis, for example, in the era of a UK Olympic table tennis Champion, Mathew Syed, one street, where he happened to live, produced more top players than the rest of the UK combined.
  • Or that a poor tennis club in Moscow, Spartak, for a period produced more great female tennis players than the whole of the US.
  • Or in the case of a Hungarian father, László Polgár, who set out to coach, successfully,  his 2 daughters to Grand Master level, going against what previously was thought women were capable of.

Geniuses are made

The argument that talent or genes is a key factor in learning is an over rated reason separating the ones that can from the ones that struggle.  There is no reason to suggest that it is not a factor. However from the myriad of examples that one can find about the people who did excel in any field, there are many other factors that appear to be far more important.

We have discussed in previous posts that the quality  and the amount of “practice” that successful people devote to their craft is critical. There are certainly other elements to what successful people do to become standout examples in their fields. It is more helpful to look at those and wonder why, than to think ” I am not as talented” as that person and hence close the door, in one way or the other, on working towards improvement

So a conclusion we can reach from all this is that the way we learn something is critically important. It is not to do with how flash the tools appears to be, not to do with the adverting hype around it, not to do with how much you pay for it. Pure and simply it’s is to do with how you learn. The more attention you pay to the how and the factors which impact that, the better off you will be in the long run.

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  • That’s a great question Aicha. In classes there always seem to be people who seem “gifted”. One clue I have found to be able to work with them is to stretch them and expect more from them than the others. I expect a higher standard from them, so their work is more native like and has more feeling in what they produce.
    Mind you, when I teach classes, I seldom drill but may work with one student in front of all the others. That way they can all learn from my in-depth work with one student, rather than they all getting a generalised version.
    Hope that helps some.

  • Aicha

    Thanks so much for the email which you have sent me. I do appreciate a
    lot your idea, but I may have a personal remark concerning this
    interesting theme. I do think that teaching or rather teachers do not
    create talent but just explore and improve it. Talented learners are
    already there mixed with non talented ones; the fact that embarasses
    them a lot and makes them feel they are wasting their time there. So
    when we discover them, what should we do as teachers to make them move
    forward and get benefit of their genius brain?

  • Thanks for the feedback Larbi. Please feel free to use it along with the usual referencing.

  • larbi

    This is an excellent passage that will be helping this school-year while dealing the Unit 5 “gifted youth” in our hand book… Of course, with your permission Dear Andrew !