She has rented an apartment in St. Petersburg, Russia; set up shop in Frankfurt, Germany; fallen in love in Nice, France; and spent years speaking Creole with her relatives in New Orleans, Louisiana. To top it off, although I’ve studied Spanish longer than she has, she can run circles around me in several different dialects.
You might know someone like that. Maybe it’s the kid in your German class who gets perfect scores without studying. Maybe it’s the coworker who speaks every single Romance language and has even resurrected Latin. Even if you don’t know anyone personally, you’ve probably stumbled upon videos like Teen Speaks Over 20 Languages and Polyglot Speaking in 12 Languages.
If you’re like me, language geniuses make you want to drop your head into your hands and give up. Some people are just naturally good at learning languages, and the rest of us don’t stand a chance.
At least, that’s how it feels. But it’s not true. Myth: Some people are geniuses when it comes to languages. The rest of us should us give up. Reality: “Language geniuses” are just ordinary people too stubborn and determined to give up.
They aren’t geniuses, and they weren’t born knowing six languages. At one point, they only knew one, just like you. And then they learned another. And then another. And then most of them started a YouTube channel and learned a few more.
Thomas Edison once said, “Genius is ninety-nine percent perspiration and one percent inspiration.” That applies tenfold to learning languages.
People who seem naturally good at languages are people who work hard behind the scenes in order to become good at languages. They know what methods work for them, and they utilize specific strategies for maximum efficiency. They work hard—not just when undertaking a new language and everything is fresh and new, but also when they’ve been slogging through the same language and the same tricky grammar rules for months.
They reach plateaus, just like everyone else. They forget easy words. They struggle with pronunciation. The roofs of their memory palaces lose a few shingles, and they forget to check in with their HelloTalk partner.
But they don’t give up. That’s what makes people good at languages—not a natural ability, but the stubborn determination to persist even when the language seems to be pushing against them. Myth: Some people are born loving languages. If I’m not a language aficionado by now, I never will be. Reality: You can fall in love with languages at any time.
It’s never too late to start learning. Just because you weren’t the star pupil in your sixth-grade Italian class doesn’t mean that you can’t fall in love with the language twenty years later. Or thirty. Or forty. Contrary to what many people believe, the adult brain is still extremely capable of learning languages, and most resources are geared toward older learners.
You never know what may spark a newfound passion. Maybe you’ll stumble upon Ulrich Siedl and suddenly develop a taste for Austrian cinema. Maybe a business trip to Beijing will leave you curious about Mandarin. Maybe your next blind date will be with a woman from São Paula. Leave yourself open to new experiences and let inspiration strike. Myth: Even if I manage to pick up one language, I’ll never be smart enough to pick up any more than that. Reality: People who speak many languages have learned one important secret. Are you ready? Lean closer.
The more languages you know, the easier it is to learn more languages.
That’s because when you learn a language, you’re also learning how to learn a language. You figure out which strategies work best and which just waste your time. You connect with motivational friends and tutors. You find your favorite apps, podcasts and translation tools. Most importantly, you learn how to pick yourself up and work through plateaus, so that the second time a setback happens—and the third, and the fourth, and the fifth—you don’t stop. You just keep going.
Learning a language isn’t a talent. It’s a skill. And the more you exercise it, the better you’ll become. Myth: People who know a lot of languages must have taken dozens of classes. Reality: People who know many languages know to look outside of the classroom.
Learning in a classroom can be phenomenal. It can give you access to consistent conversation partners, engaged teachers, intensive lessons and hands-on practice.
But you can also find that just about anywhere else.
While classroom learning works for some people, dynamic language learners know how to build their own classroom settings, tailored to their needs.
Instead of slogging through timed conversations with students who may not be as engaged as they are, they find native speakers by using tools like iTalki and Tandem.
Instead of fighting twenty other students for a teacher’s attention, they develop relationships with tutors.
Instead of turning in endless vocabulary lists and drills, they explore experimental and creative new ways to absorb a language.
And instead of letting a classroom dictate their practice, they take the initiative. Myth: I’ve never been good at learning languages, no matter how hard I try. If I’m not good now, I’ll never be good at it. Reality: Everyone can be good at learning languages. If you’re working hard with very few results, you’re probably not taking advantage of your learning style.
Your learning style is whatever method of learning clicks for you best. You may be a tactile, auditory or visual learner.
Personally, I could listen to one hundred French podcasts and never absorb a single word. But if I make a stack of flashcards, then I can learn thirty vocabulary words in about ten minutes. That’s because I’m a tactile learner—I need to create, touch and experience something in order to learn it. I learn especially well through immersing myself in video games.
Some tactile learners are kinesthetic, meaning they need to experience something to understand it, while some are reading/writing learners, meaning they need to get hands-on with material by writing it, often on flashcards or in detailed notes.
Meanwhile, auditory learners prefer to listen and speak. For example, they may pick up more Romanian from humming along to a three-minute Razvan Fodor song than from three hours with textbooks. They practice by speaking, and they learn by hearing. They process language as if it were music, leaning into its rhythm, flows and tones.
Finally, visual learners have to see something in order to remember it. You’ll find their notebooks crammed with pictures, diagrams and arrows. Their notes are often color-coded, and they may even have Pinterest boards dedicated to bold charts, lists and graphs.
Figure out your language-learning style. Then look at ways to use this style to your advantage. Learning a language isn’t about natural ability. It’s about practice. Your European penpal who speaks six languages, the YouTube celebrities who speak twelve and even the kid who gets the best grades in your Arabic class aren’t geniuses—they’re people who work hard, work efficiently and refuse to give up.
And you can be just like them! No, it’s not easy, but it’s worth it. Figure out the language-learning style that works for you, and then let’s get started.
Post by guest blogger Jamie McGhee: Jamie McGhee is a novelist, playwright and aspiring polyglot currently making her way through East Africa with a backpack.