Who can learn languages?

One of the most important roles of a language learning blog is myth-busting. Language learning unfortunately seems to be a subject eternally shrouded in the mists of rumour and unfounded generalisations. The news that someone can speak a language is greeted with great surprise, admiration and even envy by others, and this contributes to the idea that there is a certain type of person capable of learning them. These people are referred to as ‘polyglots’, and there is a quite clear distinction: you either are one or you’re not. In this post I would like to put to rest the idea of the “cult of the hyperpolyglot“, as the BBC so helpfully named it, and prove once and for all that anyone can learn a language.

Screen Shot 2013-03-27 at 15.18.26I don’t like the word ‘polyglot’ for the same reason that I don’t like the word ‘fluent‘. Both imply that the work is done, that people who are given these titles can then skip off happily into the open world of multilingualism, suddenly as comfortable in one language as in any. It’s worth reiterating that I have never met anybody who fits this misconceived idea of multilingualism. Language learning is an on-going, never ending process – there is always more to learn, and there will always be moments when you might make mistakes that expose yourself as a non-native speaker. The word ‘polyglot’ calls to mind the YouTube community, who are referred to or refer to themselves as such, and it seems that these are the people held up as language experts, to whom people turn for all sorts of advice for their own studies. But in reality, they are just humans, and just language learners too, and they should not be seen as any different to anyone else.

If you take a look at the YouTube community, it becomes clear that there seems to be a particular type of person who is a ‘polyglot’. Using Wolf Lilt’s compilation of 20 YouTube polyglots as a guide, we see that 16 are men, nearly all are from Europe or the United States, and nearly all are in the 20-35 age bracket. Does that mean that we can assume that your chances of being a polyglot are higher if you’re a 20-35 year old white male? No. It’s important to remember that these are simply other learners, who for whatever reason have videos on YouTube that actively encourage people to learn languages as well. They are by no means a representative group of people who learn languages worldwide, and equally they are in no way ‘super human’. For the few people with YouTube videos on the internet, I maintain that there are far more out there for whom multilingualism is not a claim to fame but a fact of life, which they get on with without realising that they too could be classified as ‘hyperpolyglots’.

Refugee children in South Africa schoolIt is frustrating when people uphold multilingualism as something extraordinary, equate ‘polyglots’ with hyperintelligence, or try to explain it by seeing links to gender, upbringing or even sexuality, declaring them contributing factors. These gross assumptions, however, are not imposed on societies where the ability to converse in 5+ languages is the norm for whole swathes of the population. In urban Johannesburg, for example, it is very common for people to grow up speaking one language at home, another on the street, another at the shops, and to complete their whole education in English. Yet where are the camera crews there? It’s important to stress that we’re not talking here about one or two ‘exceptional’ people that have this knowledge of languages but really about the majority of the population. Here the ‘exceptional’ causes that people cite in the rest of the world as to “how polyglots managed it” do not apply. This is because in every case the one common contributing factor to multilingualism is exposure to foreign languages. Anybody who has this will be able to learn them.

Exposure comes in different forms, and getting it is an altogether different task for someone growing up in a monolingual society. Unfortunately learning by osmosis is off the table, and you will have to try harder. But the first step is to enrol at a language school, buy a course or grammar book, and start giving yourself a chance. Complement your studies with films, music and books, put on an internet radio station every now and then and listen to how the language sounds. The difference between you and someone who has grown up in a multilingual society is that you don’t have to learn another language, but that does not mean at all that you can’t. If you want something, if you’re motivated and interested in it, then there’s no reason why you can’t start using learning capacities of the brain that everybody has, even if they’re rarely used.

If you don’t notice much progress then there are two conclusions to draw: you’re either being too hard on yourself and have set yourself unrealistic expectations such as achieving the same level of fluency in your adopted language as in your native one in a relatively short period of time, or if you’re really struggling then you should look again at the methods you’re using. Language learning is an intimate brain exercise – you’re learning how it works, how to use it, and how to use it the best. Courses, teachers and the like can only do so much, the rest is left to you to work out. If you don’t like verb tables then stop using them, and work out a way to understand grammar that makes the most logical sense to you. If writing out vocabulary lists in different colours seems silly then don’t do it. Think about things that you do remember well and found easy to learn. Try to apply those methods to language learning. You should be creative, you should customise your learning experience to suit you. Just because one method worked for one person doesn’t mean that it has to work for you.

The existence of a YouTube language learners’ community is fantastic. Just the sheer diversity of people’s stories of how they have got so far should be an inspiration everybody to have a go. But these individuals are by no means the be all and end all of global multilingualism. Spare a thought for the people in China who speak Mandarin and their own regional languages, the people in Barcelona who switch effortlessly between Spanish and Catalan every day, the Swiss in their quadrilingual paradise, and the vast number of people across the former Soviet Union who speak their country’s official language plus Russian plus in many cases ‘regional’ languages as well. These are the people who aren’t on YouTube and don’t keep blogs, because their language skills would never occur to them as out of the ordinary. These are the people who are living proof that language learning is for everyone.


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