4 Reasons to Forget About Your Language Aptitude

I hear this a lot: “I’m not good with languages.”

I hate it when people say that, because most of the time, they’re using this as justification not to try.

I’m not here to tell you what to do. If you don’t like languages, you don’t like them. If you’d rather be doing something else, who am I to tell you how to spend your time?

BUT…if the main reason you’re stopping yourself from learning or committing to a new language is because you think you don’t have the ability, you need to get that out of your head.

Prizren, Kosovo. Image Source

Prizren, Kosovo. Image Source

Yes, different people have different aptitudes for learning languages. But there are plenty of good reasons why you shouldn’t care what your raw talent is. Here are four of them…

1. Aptitude is difficult to measure.

When I joined the Navy to become a translator a long time ago, I took a test called the DLAB. It supposedly measured my aptitude for learning foreign languages. I scored well on the test and did well in school. So the test was accurate, right?

Not necessarily. I had classmates who scored high on the DLAB and couldn’t last more than three months in an intensive language program.

This article at Nautilus sums up the DLAB pretty well: “The issue, says [language researcher Cathy] Doughty, was that the aptitude test could not predict who could progress past a certain point; many language professionals were getting “ ‘stuck’ at basic proficiency.”

Doughty and her team have developed a new test called the Hi-Lab, but it hasn’t broadly rolled out to the language learning community yet. Maybe their test is better.

But really, the issue seems like it’s testing in general. In many different areas, we’re starting to find out the limitations of aptitude testing in being able to predict success. The SAT isn’t the best predictor of performance in college, Myers-Briggs isn’t great at mapping your personality and predicting what kind of job you’d like, and IQ testing doesn’t fully measure a person’s intelligence.

It’s hard to test aptitude, and I’d say that it’s even harder to assess it on your own. If you think, “I’m bad with languages,” are you really? How would you even know? Don’t you think it’s more likely you’re selling yourself short, or maybe haven’t devoted enough effort to see progress?

2. Language learning requires diverse qualities.

I’ve got some things going for me in this language game. I pick up patterns pretty easily, I have a good ear for accents and sounds, and my long-term memory is excellent.

But my short-term memory isn’t so great, and I have pretty severe problems paying attention to verbal instructions. Whenever I’m new in class, teachers get irritated with me for not following instructions or not remembering what they just taught me. I’ve had more than one language teacher think I was a slacker at first, until I took the chapter exam and aced it.

So I don’t pick up concepts or vocab words all that quickly, but I eventually do get them, and once I get them, my brain holds on to them with a vise grip.

Maybe you’re the opposite. Or more likely, maybe your brain works completely differently. Whatever the case is, I’m sure there are things about the way your mind works that you can use to your advantage.

I’ve known guys who have picked up conversational German just by going down to the bars and practicing. These weren’t the types of guys who would do well with flashcards or grammar books, but they were conversing and making out just fine by taking advantage of what they were good at.

There’s no single path to language success, which means there’s no single set of qualities that determines your aptitude.

3. You don’t have to be a Kenyan to run a marathon.

Hundreds of thousands of people run a marathon every year. Only a handful of them win.

A lot of those marathon winners are from Kenya, because many Kenyans have ideal body compositions for marathon running, they train at altitude, they grew up active, and their culture prioritizes running. It’s hard to compete, right?

Well, even though the vast majority of non-Kenyan runners will never win the Boston Marathon, that doesn’t stop them from enjoying their sport, competing hard, and getting the health and social benefits from running.

It’s the same with language learning. Who cares if you’re not naturally the most gifted student? You can still make progress and get all the benefits of learning a new language: new friends; insight into another culture; opportunities for work, education, and travel; and a sense of accomplishment.

In fact, unlike with running, there’s no award in language learning for crossing the finish line first. No one cares how long it takes you to get to your destination. Like the proverbial tortoise, you’ll get to where you want to be if you just keep plugging forward, slow and steady.

4. Hard work trumps talent.

I saved this one for last, because I want you to take this to heart.

Learning a language requires persistent effort. It doesn’t matter if you’re the most talented student or the least. Either way, you have to put in a lot of time and work to get to your goals.

So let’s say that Heiko can learn a language twice as fast as Rolf can. They both start studying Portuguese at the same time. After three months, Heiko is pretty far ahead of Rolf, but he loses motivation and starts slacking off. Rolf is very motivated, so by six months, he’s caught up, and by a year, he’s well ahead of Heiko. By a year and a half, he’s reached his goal of being able to speak Portuguese comfortably and fluently, while Heiko hasn’t, despite his talent.

Talent, no talent, some talent–whatever. If you keep going forward, you’ll eventually get to where you want to be. But if you don’t, you’ll be stuck.

Wrapping Up

Don’t worry about what you don’t have. Focus on what you do have. Get out there and learn your language, and definitely don’t talk yourself out of success before you even get out of the gate.

  • http://incidentallanguagelearner.blogspot.co.uk/ Emma Sibley

    Hi Ron, loved reading this. I’m definitely in the slow lane, but despite some set backs and time off I’m still studying Russian! I hope your language studies are going well :) .

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hi Emma! Awesome to hear that you’re still studying Russian. I was having some set backs with my Tagalog project, but just recently started picking up the pace again. I had some pretty severe work-related burnout this summer, but now I’m feeling more normal again. Great to hear from you! :)

  • Tante Leonie

    Thanks for the great shot of motivation, Ron. I needed this today.

    “Hard work trumps talent” is going to be my new mantra.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Awesome! Glad it helps. :)

  • vern777er

    Hi Ron,
    I think I’m definitely in the slow learner class when it comes to languages. Although I do think one hour a day is always going to be a slow way to get really good at a language. I would love to go to a Spanish speaking country now for a couple of months and see how quickly I improved.
    Was wondering how the Tagolag was going? Is it a difficult language? I might be going there next year for a trip so might start to learn a little.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hi Vern! I think with your current knowledge under your belt, if you went to a Spanish speaking country, you’d see rapid improvement. Is spending some time abroad a possibility?

      Tagalog is going well. I had a period of slow progress for a while, but now I’m just coming back strong. I’m not meeting my deadline for my project (I’m only about halfway to my proficiency goal) but I’ve made decent progress nonetheless. Gonna keep on cranking forward.

      It’s not necessarily a *difficult* language, but it definitely took me a little while to wrap my head around some of its nuances. There’s a lot of Spanish influence, which you’d spot right away–time telling, numbers (but only sometimes), professions, foods. Modern Tagalog also has a ton of English influence. People will sometimes just bust out into complete English paragraphs in the middle of their speech. So if you’re watching the news, you can be completely lost, and then the journalist will drop a string of English like they’re speaking Tagalog.

      The hardest part is finding materials, but I’ve found enough to keep me busy, for sure.

  • http://fluenthistorian.com/ Natalie

    Yep, I definitely agree… I used to think I was bad at languages. It turned out I just hadn’t found the right one. Motivation and persistence play a BIG part in one’s success at language learning.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Absolutely. “Motivation and persistence play a BIG part in one’s success at language learning.” <—- Couldn't have said it more perfectly.

  • Sam A.

    You are absolutely right. I have failed at languages before, only because I quit, feeling I couldn’t get anywhere. But now that I know how to study, I’ve started again. And now I’m making leaps and bounds by setting small goals and being persistent every day. Thanks for your great article!

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      That’s awesome to hear, and awesome for others to hear, especially those who might be in the same boat you used to be in. Best of luck with your progress! (Which language?)

      • Sam A.

        I’ve studied Korean (for a few months about 15 years ago), Italian (6 years, recently), and Spanish (about 2 in high school, which was over 20 years ago). I started studying Spanish again 2 months ago and have been very consistent in my daily routine. In addition, I’ve been implementing language exchange sessions via Skype (through iTalki). This has helped me tremendously. Later I’ll do the same with the other languages and am looking forward to it.

        • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

          Very cool. Keep the momentum going! When I was studying Spanish, I did language exchange sessions on Skype as well, and I agree–very helpful.

          • Sam A.

            I will. I´m sure of it. Thanks!

  • Amit Kumar Datta

    Thanks Ron for this motivation. Your articles really help me a lot to bounce back whenever I quit due to lack of persistence. :)

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Absolutely! I think we all lose motivation. I never used to, but I did with my current project (which I’ll write about). It’s almost like learning how to bounce back is a skill itself.

  • http://allthetongues.hol.es/ Roman Shinkarenko

    I’ve also got some things going for me in this language game. I take the break from languages pretty easily, I have a good ear for slacking off, and my
    long-term procrastination is excellent.
    Sometimes, “I’m not good with languages” means “I’m not good with hard work”.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Right there with you. haha…the important thing is to get back on the horse, right?

  • dandiprat

    It’s definitely more about hard work than talent. I didn’t have more talent than my classmates in high school, but I’m better than them now because I just stuck with it even when there was no test to study for.