Misconceptions about Language Learning #2: There is a Language Gene, and I’ve Not Got it


No learner and in fact no human being will be unfamiliar with a low in confidence every now and then. We cast our eye over strange letters, 35 units in the Beginner’s textbook and a brand new dictionary. We look at native speakers and the way they use this complicated code so easily. How on earth do you get from one to the next? And that’s the moment. Watch out, you’re vulnerable. You might think that some people are just born to learn this, and you’re not one of them. Your memory is poor, you attention span is weak and you can’t even spell your own language. It’s clear that language learning is not in your DNA, so better not even embarrass yourself by trying. You’re more of a science kinda guy anyway.

Just like the belief that there is a magic cut-off age which excludes you from progressing to fluency, this belief in the magic race of linguists should be unveiled for what it is: a fake! Many experts of motivation and life coaching endorse the massive power of positive thinking. One of the education writers who really have opened up our understanding of how beliefs can prevent us from learning successfully is Paul Tough. His work on low-income areas and achievement does make me think of the similar invisible barrier in a lot of our heads when it comes to language learning. You don’t think it’s for you, and that makes it all the harder to try.

Beating That Nagging Voice

So remember this: Maybe you can get only half way to an ambitious goal if you try, but you’ll certainly get nowhere if you believe your endeavour is doomed from the start. Our big ambition is the mastery of a foreign language, but forget about the pressure and just have a bit of fun with it. Free yourself from a belief that language is not for you, because more than likely it really is. Once you get your motivation and method clearly laid out, you should know why you’re doing this and where it’s meant to take you.

Here is a quick exercise for putting affirmation power into your language learning:

Look yourself in the eye. (A mirror would help.) Say out loud: “I have a real talent for languages.” Better still, insert your chosen target language. If it feels ridiculous, try and examine why that might be. Break down all the reasons you can come up with. Is it the bit about talent that doesn’t feel like it’s very you? Or perhaps the language part? You need to address the words that don’t feel right, perhaps replace them with similar ones that work for yourself. It could be that you find that “talent” is not quite what you’re actually aiming for, so replace it with “dedication” or “passion” and then speak up for yourself!

Repeat the exercise until you start believing what you’re saying. Shouldn’t be long now, and I’ll see you in Japanese class!

Picture by National Human Genome Research Institute [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons