Hindrances to language learning: ability

Posted on 08/12/2011


I’m not going to lie or sugar-coat it for you: yes, some people have more natural ability in language than others. Just like some people are naturals at viola playing or calligraphy or hockey. But anyone, really, can learn the basics of viola playing, calligraphy or hockey. And anyone can lean the basics of a language, even if they will never pass for a native, just like anyone can learn to play scales, even if they will never be a virtuoso.

So if “I’m not very good at languages” has been your excuse for not giving it a try, you might want to bear the following in mind.

1. Most people are not good at something when they start it. 

Remember the day you started learning to read? Probably you don’t, because reading is effortless now. But go and borrow a five-year-old for an afternoon, and you’ll see it’s hard work and painstaking at first. Some kids learn faster, yes. Others start slowly but then catch up. We all have different learning rhythms.

2. You don’t have to be good at something to enjoy it.

Have you ever had fun playing a game of rounders with some friends, even if you couldn’t hit the ball or get round the pitch?

I play the oboe; I started two years ago. Believe me, it did not sound good then. It was sometimes hard to distinguish what note I was aiming for. And yet, weirdly, I enjoyed it. (The same could probably not be said for my neighbours, but that’s beside the point.) And I carried on. Perhaps part of the enjoyment was in meeting the challenge: overcoming difficulty builds self-confidence and encourages you to keep going. That’s not just me, is it?

3. You don’t have to be a brilliant linguist to make yourself understood. 

If the reason you’re learning is a practical one – you’re moving to a foreign country, perhaps – it is not essential that you get every verb ending, every gender difference, every aspect of pronunciation perfect in order to communicate. You’d be surprised how little is actually needed to get a message across.

4. Putting the work in will go a long, long way.

To use the music analogy again, I got to Grade 8 at the flute at school. I am not a brilliant flautist; I do not have a whole lot of flair or natural talent; I can’t play by ear or hear the different notes in a chord. But I played my scales most days, repetitively, over and over; I practised pieces till I was sick of them. And I got there. There was satisfaction and pleasure and achievement in that; I don’t regret it a minute of it.

5. You can’t possibly be as bad as this.  


— for more hints and tips on language learning, buy Conquering Babel: A Practical Guide to Learning a Language here in the US and here in the UK.
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