A few days ago someone asked whether I had a special talent for learning languages.
I don’t know. Do I?
I did grow up bilingual. I do now have five languages under my belt that I speak fluently (humble brag, I know). But was that due to talent? My upbringing? Or hard work? Or all of those?
I’m not the first person to ask how to measure talent. Or whether there’s such a thing as having a talent for languages. How’d you even go about measuring that? As my example shows, there are many different factors that come into play:
- Your upbringing and your environment in your childhood
- How much work you put in
- How well you can speak the languages
- Skills within the language itself such as pronunciation, being able to write well, communicating in different registers and many more
Those are only a few. Someone has probably already done a study on this, but the only way I could imagine doing proper research on this would be with a twin study. That would be as close to identical starting conditions as possible.
Personally, I subscribe to the point of view of a very smart man that goes as follows:
Talent doesn’t matter until you’re at the very top. First you need to put in a lot of hard work, so the talent even becomes visible. Only when you’re among the best, talent is a distinguishing factor, before that it’s all work.
I agree with that and my experience with learning and teaching shows that over a long enough period, anyone can learn any language. It’s hard to measure “the best” in language learning because there are no competitions. But clearly talent does exist to some degree. However, that raises the following questions:
- How much does talent influence our learning process?
- How do we measure talent?
Since measuring talent is damn near impossible, I thought the next-best thing would be to measure everything else except talent. So I came up with a formula to explain how to measure your rate of progress in language learning:
Rate of progress when learning a language = Talent x Experience x Method x (Time x Effort + Time)
In words: the rate of progress when learning a language equals your talent multiplied by your experience multiplied by your method multiplied by the sum of time and the product of time and effort.
No worries. By the end of this post, you’ll be able to define with great precision how difficult it will be for you to learn any language. Let’s start with explaining with the factors of this difficult-looking formula.
What is the rate of progress when learning a language?
This one is straightforward to explain. Your rate of progress is, well, how quickly you learn. If you get to A2 in Italian in 3 months and to A2 in Japanese in 12 months, your rate of progress in Italian is much higher. As we’ll see, this depends on a ton of different factors, of course. Naturally your rate of progress slows down the better you already speak a language. As a rule of thumb, you can take the time it takes you to progress from one level to the next. But keep in mind that you can compare only between languages, not between levels. The time needed t get from A1 to A2 is much shorter in all languages than the time needed to improve a B1 to a B2.
What is talent?
Well, that’s the one I can’t answer.
I can, however, relate to what Luca Lampariello considers talent in language learning (but he also copied it from someone else):
- Phonemic Coding, which is the capacity to distinguishing phonemes by using a phonetic script
- Grammatical sensitivity: the capacity of identifying the grammatical functions of words in a sentence
- Inductive Learning Ability: the capacity to generalize patterns from one sentence to another
- Rote-Learning Ability: the capacity to retain lists of words paired with translations
Essentially it means how well you listen, how well you understand the grammar, your pattern recognition and your ability to retain words through pure brainpower.
However, this still doesn’t fully answer a case like mine, for example. Is someone who grew up bilingually more talented or did this person just get more practice at a very early age? Maybe I had an innate talent for grammar and learned two languages in childhood because of that. Or maybe it was the other way round and learning those two languages implicitly improved my sense of grammar.
The second question is whether talent is fixed in this case? Because to me it doesn’t sound that way. Quite the opposite, your grammatical sensitivity and your ability to distinguish between different sounds would surely improve the more experience you get. That, in turn, would mean that talent can be improved and built, at least in part. So how does it differ from experience at all at that point?
As you can see, many different questions that I also don’t have an answer to. That’s what makes defining talent so difficult, not only in language learning but for any skill. Overall, we cannot define how big a role talent plays. But since it’s hard to put your finger on what talent even is, I don’t think it’s too important. I’ve yet to meet a person that just has the magic sauce for language learning.
What does experience mean in language learning?
Experience is luckily much easier to define:
- The amount of languages you speak
- The level you speak these languages at
- When and how you learned these languages: in school, before school, as an adult, implicitly or explicitly.
- How close or far your target is from your native language: Chinese will be easier to learn for a Japanese person than for an American.
You can see that someone who grew up bilingual has a big head start on a monolingual child. Knowing one or several languages from one language family (like Romance or Slavic) will make learning a related language much easier. If you start learning late, you’ll find it harder, too.
There are many different factors at play here and they’re difficult to compare among themselves as well. For example, is it better to speak two languages proficiently or just one and three more at a basic level? And what if these three are completely different from each other? Again, no easy answers here.
Overall, I think that experience counts for a lot in language learning. Without exception, all of the students that have had experience with learning a language have found it easier to learn another one compared to monolinguals. I know from my own experience that it gets easier with each language because you start learning meta-skills like knowing what to learn and what not, how to use your time efficiently and so on.
How important is your method when learning a language?
As method I’d specifically define the way you learn, i.e. whether you use an input or an output method, whether you self-study or in a group or with a teacher etc. Also your choice of source material factors in here, you can use coursebooks or another type of source material. However, I consider that almost irrelevant. Nowadays, coursebooks are almost always somewhere between decent and excellent and you’ll learn something regardless. Yes, you can waste time using the wrong type of material, but you’ll probably chuck it away after a while if you feel that way. Or, if you use a boring book in class for example, the class itself is also boring and it’s not only due to the book.
Your method also depends on your target language. Learning Spanish when your native language will be different from learning Chinese. You cannot use the same approach for both. Plus your experience plays a role again.
Therefore, I consider the method used for learning a language unimportant. I wouldn’t say it’s irrelevant but experience is much more of a factor, as are the next two.
The importance of time when learning a language
Time is the most important factor in our equation. It’s so important tht I actually included it twice. I’ll explain why:
Just time, not time multiplied by effort, is time spent having contact with the target language, whether learning it actively or not. Say you’re learning Russian and you’re standing in the Moscow metro and overhear bits and pieces of conversations or train announcements. That’s not actively trying to learn the language but it’s time spent with the language. Reading the menu in a restaurant is the same. So is writing girls on Tinder. Any time you use or consume the target language, you are spending time with it. That’s why the immersion method is so effective, albeit it’s hardly a method. It just means you spend more time being surrounded by the language and getting input and having to produce output.
Time multiplied by effort is what’s called deliberate practice. That’s time you spend practicing the language actively instead of just being around it. The more deliberate practice you have, the quicker you will learn. It’s a well-known fact that deliberate practice improves your skill at anything (also described in this book). This is the key factor in learning a language, or any other skill for that matter. Way ahead of experience, the method used or anything else.
Now the only question would be what effort really is?
Let’s say you want to learn to play the piano. You can spend time bashing the keys randomly or you can spend time learning to play it. The former would not be deliberate practice but the latter would be. Now whether you decide to use trial and error or follow the instructions of a book or have someone standing next to you and giving you immediate feedback is important but not key. Key is how much knowledge you’ll be able to retain every time you practice the piano. Essentially it comes down to how long you’re able to keep your focus to acquire new knowledge and practice already acquired knowledge. I would define effort as the ability to focus and ensure you are spending your practice time purposefully.
If you’re trying to learn a language for long enough, you will eventually learn it. Maybe not to perfection but you can reach fluency in literally any language, as long as you put in enough hours.
My take on this is as mentioned at the beginning of this post. Hard work beats talent, whatever talent may be. Hard work equals deliberate practice, i.e. quality time spent trying to learn. It’s a bit more complicated than that in real life, but that’s the 80-20 explanation for talent in language learning. Ask any polyglot and they will tell you that none of the languages they know just fell in their lap. Each and every one of them had to be earned the hard way.