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Do you need to have a special talent for languages?

Does it even matter if you are good or bad at languages?

Most of our new students say something about themselves like: “I am quite good/bad at languages”. Probably you yourself also have a mini-theory about how well you do at language learning. The interesting question to me as a teacher is not whether this assumption or prediction about yourself is true or not, but rather how you came to believe this and how that influences your learning process. If you think you are ‘good’ at languages, is that a helpful thought? Or will it only make you feel more frustrated when it doesn’t work out the way you expect? And what if you think you are bad at languages? Do you perceive each setback as proof of your incapacity for language learning?

Studying for the test

When someone decides to learn another language later in life, they often look at language learning through a high school lens: they think they need to study the new language as they were taught in school, memorizing list of words, preparing for the test, listening and repeating pre-recorded dialogues, and filling out grammar exercises on paper. The result is usually that we end up with a lot of passive knowledge, but no real tools and skills to survive in real life. Or we fail to make any significant progress at all, and we come to the erroneous conclusion that we are not equipped for language learning.

There is no 'test' in real life, only opportunities to learn

It is an important first step in effective language learning to realize that school is NOT where we actually learn a language. Children that start primary school usually already speak at least one language pretty well. They learn this language without any formal teaching, without studying vocabulary, workbook exercises or formal testing. They learn by listening, copying, repeating, asking, interacting, processing feedback, doing, playing, enjoying, connecting; the first language you learn in life you learn through a highly interactive process of trial-and-error. The relevance of school is to teach you formal (language) skills like reading and writing, to deepen knowledge and to create a common denominator within a community, nation or state, to make sure we all speak the same language. In school, children learn how to communicate more effectively.

The eagerness to interact

Children who at home don’t speak the official language of the country they live in, tend to pick up on the new language amazingly fast. The main chunk of their second language learning, though, does not actually take place within the formal structures of school, but rather in the informal interactions there: by listening to, observing and interacting (playing) with teachers and other children. It’s not so much the formal instruction of the teacher as much as their friend inviting them to play hide-and-seek during lunch break that does the trick.

Maybe you also went to a high school where you could or had to learn a second language. Were you a student with straight A's? This mostly says something about your talent for memorizing big amounts of information. That’s a gift not everybody has! If you were the student struggling with languages in high school, this most likely means you weren't great at memorizing rules and lists of words, or it probably means you had other interests at that time. But comfort yourself with the thought that how well you did in high school has NOTHING to do with how well you will do learning a new language in your new country. It is in no way a predictor of how well you will do learning a second language later in life.

Caged tiger

It doesn’t really matter whether you were good or bad at learning languages at high school. The skills you need for learning ‘in real life’ are very different from the ones you need in school. Making an estimation of your success at learning the language of your new country based on how well you did at languages in high school is like making an estimation of a tiger’s hunting skills in the wild based on how well she catches the dead meat that is thrown in front of her in the zoo cage.

So... what do I need to become an effective learner?

What you need for effective learning is the eagerness to connect with others, the willingness to expose yourself to uncomfortable situations and moments of feeling vulnerable, knowledge of the basics of grammar to enhance learning, a bag full of tricks and tools to make your learning more efficient, some sense of humour and a bit of chutzpah.

So I searched for an image of a caged tiger to go with the text, but then I saw all these photos of tigers in the zoo and I felt so sad for them that I eventually went with this super beautiful ginger cat. Just in case you wonder what this cat has to do with anything.


Rubio Dutch Blog

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