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Why my destiny was to never speak Spanish and how I did it anyway

| 28 comments | Category: positive mentality

It’s easy to look at someone who already speaks a second language and just think that it comes naturally to them.

Perhaps if you see something like the video of me sharing my salsa learning experience in pretty good Spanish, you might think that speaking Spanish was just my destiny. I’m “naturally talented” with languages and the pieces of the puzzle just always fit together to make sure that my life would go in this direction.

BULLSHIT.

In fact my “destiny” was to never speak Spanish. The universe told me in very clear ways, many times, that it just was not my path. My stars were aligned, my luck was forged and the fates had decided that I’d be good at Mathematics and computers, but not languages.

If you think I’m exaggerating, please read on.

The destiny excuse comes in many forms; “it’s just not meant to be”, “it’s genetic”, “no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be able to do it”. Today I want to share with you some of the “signs” that the universe was giving me for many many years. You know the story has a happy ending, but until today you don’t know the full story.

It’s important to share this because I know many of you have your own struggles and it can actually be demotivating to think that some people “have it easy”. Trust me, I did not have it easy.

Not the best start: Speech therapy

One reason that I don’t smoke, eat healthily and don’t drink is because I spent the first years of my life very sick and was admitted to hospital for some time. Now that I’m in good health I don’t want to squander it. One unfortunate consequence of that time however was that I developed a difficulty speaking.

It was so bad that I needed speech therapy – I had particular problems with my R (not the rolling one, just the standard English one). My brother still teases me that my favourite TV show was “Stah twek”.

The consequences of this still linger somewhat – since I learned to speak a little slower and had to get private lessons to do it (which were obviously tailored towards speaking as correctly as possible), my English was not as natural as it was for others around me so I don’t have a very strong accent of where I’m from. People never guess that I’m from the part of Ireland I am from (Cavan), and foreigners tell me that I have a very understandable English.

Having a delay in starting to speak English well was not a good prerequisite for speaking other languages!! I still have to think a bit more than most people would when I talk and it still doesn’t feel that natural. So no, I’m not talented with languages.

Interest in Spanish piqued, but no encouragement to practise

Even though my interest in languages really took off in the last decade, I was actually genuinely curious about speaking Spanish in my teens! A group of students from the Canary Islands would come and spend July in my town several years in a row and I got really friendly with them. They loved me – my English was the easiest to understand in town without me even trying!

But, as many people do when abroad with those from their homeland, they spoke a lot of their mother tongue with one another. I tried to ask what something meant, and even printed out the “La Macarena” lyrics to speak it aloud to them. But they were having none of it! They had travelled a long way and their parents had paid quite a lot to have them immersed in English, so they’d at least do that with the locals all the time. My purpose among them socially was made clear and any attempt to learn a word or two of Spanish was met with “don’t be silly” retorts.

Obviously I gave up trying – what’s the point in learning a language if my feeble attempts are just going to annoy them? I spent four or five summers with them, but never learned more than “hola” and wouldn’t even dare try saying that to them.

The academic conspiracy; if at first you don’t succeed, fail, fail and fail again

In Ireland (at least while I was in school) you have to have studied a third language (the first two being English and Irish) to get into university. Making a choice was easy in my school – it’s not like they were offering the exotic characters of Chinese, or the musicality of Italian to you – it was French or German. Like it or lump it.

I actually went out of my way to ask if I could possibly take Spanish? Not a hope – we didn’t have a Spanish teacher in my school. German it was. 5 years of barely caring, getting a C and then not even being able to ask directions (the one thing we HAD done repetitively over and over again) when I first went to Germany.

My abysmal results in German just reinforced the idea that this whole languages thing really wasn’t for me

But I had another chance! We don’t have “majors” and “minors” in Irish universities, but mine was offering free evening classes in languages, and Spanish was available!!

Every year I went to the cultural talk that tried to encourage people to take on this optional extra class, and I was the first to hand in my application every time. I didn’t need convincing, but that was where you had to apply.

And every year, they didn’t accept me. The class filled up too quickly and there were no slots left. The first time I got turned down I was just annoyed and accepted it. By my third year I was determined and despite getting turned down again, I actually went to that first class and begged the teacher to let me in. I could see an empty seat!

But rules are rules and I wasn’t on the list. I presumed the random way they selected people just happened to not be in my favour at all, but when I went to the person who ran the cultural talk and asked them why I get turned down every time their answer was something that changed my view of “fair” forever: they simply took the first 15 (or whatever number it was) people in the stack of paper. Since I handed mine in first I was at the bottom of the stack.

#ironyoverload

My enthusiasm was actually the reason I wasn’t getting into the classes!

Lesson learned: stop being enthusiastic and give up. Universe 1, Benny 0.

Finally in Spain! But don’t think it’s going to be that easy!

I didn’t give up entirely though – I just waited until the end of my studies and applied for an internship for the summer after graduation. I had been working so hard to pass one of Ireland’s most demanding university courses (with an incredibly high failure rate) that I felt I deserved a nice fun summer, so going to sunny Spain for the first time seemed like the logical choice.

I flicked through a Spanish course convinced that a few days preparation would have me at least muttering the basics when I arrived, but of course I wasn’t expecting the expat bubble to be so strong!

An English-speaking Spaniard greeted me in the airport and brought me to an apartment with an English speaking Brazilian and German. Our work exchange program (IAESTE) had people from all over the world and they were my social group. English was the language spoken where I worked and when I went out.

I was starting to get the impression that nobody in the world ever speaks any language but English. All I could see and hear was English – sure the signs and products and TV were in Spanish, and strangers passing by spoke Spanish, but all my friends spoke English, that’s all that matters really!

This is a trap that so many expats fall into it makes me sad. But it’s actually bound to happen – why learn another language if it was just not meant to be? You were born language-stupid, just accept it! That’s what I was tempted to think.

I considered taking on Spanish a few times over the months though – I signed up for a pretty expensive course for a few classes – throwing money at the problem was bound to solve it!

But I was the worst in the class. I felt worse after each hour as the other students answered whatever noise the teacher was making. All I could offer were blank faces when asked ¿Blah blah blah blah blah? After several attempts I was getting nowhere, and everyone else laughing and enjoying the class was just making me jealous and frustrated. It was time to give up… again.

SIX months living in Spain and I still couldn’t muster together a basic sentence.

Destiny is all in your head

At 21 years old, with this background, how clear do you think “the message” was that it was just not meant to be? At this stage I could offer you many reasons why I would never speak Spanish. It was so tempting that I kept believing it for a time and my mind would be fixed on that idea.

But I had one trick up my sleeve that “bad genes”, speaking problems, unhelpful schools, discouraging natives, endless “signs” from the universe and frustrating irony could not knock:

I don’t believe in destiny.

I don’t buy that crap for one second. Destiny may sound pretty and romantic when talked about how couples were meant to be together, but its other forms (the modern one being an arseways understanding of genetics) are bullshit excuses and unverified self-fulfilling prophecies.

If you believe strongly that you are crap in languages, then that will be true. It doesn’t matter which excuse you have randomly plucked out of the air – your commitment to it will make the claim true. Most of my work in trying to get through to people on this site doesn’t involve giving amazing language learning “tricks”, but to break that commitment.

I don’t care who you are – there is nothing stopping you from taking on the language learning challenge and succeeding. Yes, you may have to go through hard times, struggles and incredible resistance, as I did, but with persistence you will find a way that works for you. It doesn’t have to be my way of course.

Nothing I have said in this post “proves” that my destiny was to not speak Spanish. It just shows that whatever I was doing at the time was getting me there. So I tried something else. I didn’t want it enough at first, so I waited several years between attempts, but when I got serious about it, things changed dramatically.

This story continues with me really looking at what was holding me back and getting over it to finally be “good” at languages.

Persistence wins over destiny

Experimentation will yield results, both positive and negative. You can give up after experiment #1 turns out negative, or you can come out on top after experiment #37.

All you really know from success stories is what the victor decides to tell you. People who achieve hard things do it from being positive rather than whining constantly about their task. Because of that you got a filtered version of stories that leaves out the worst parts. Why include those details? They weren’t relevant to success.

So stop complaining about how easy everyone else has it! I assure you, if you really ask people who seem to sail through life and stumble upon goals you’d kill for, you may just see that they have had setbacks much bigger than anything you could have dreamed up.

Sometimes success is actually due to being stubborn enough to ignore all the “signs” from the universe and to make your own destiny.

What do you think?

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  • http://languagefixation.wordpress.com/ doviende

    Thanks Benny, an inspiring article!

    Sometimes when explaining this sort of idea to people, I make an analogy to juggling. Pretty much everyone who doesn’t already juggle well seems to consider themselves “not very coordinated”, and that’s exactly what I thought until I applied determination and long hours of practice. Perhaps because juggling seems more trivial than language learning, more people tend to actually believe that I started out as a total failure at juggling, whereas people are usually doubtful that I was a total failure at languages. They just find it hard to accept that I don’t have “the language gene”.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I actually thought the same about juggling, but tried it at JES this year. When the steps behind what’s involved were broken down to me, it suddenly didn’t seem that bad! I don’t think it’s necessarily about many hours of practice as much as trying, failing a few times and then getting the hang of it, as with languages.

  • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy the Yearlyglot

    I think the people who are most successful are those who have to get over difficulties right from the start. Giving up seems to be easier for those for whom everything has always been easy.

    • http://www.google.com/profiles/medviten Victor Berrjod

      I experienced that in high school. I’d always done well in school without even trying, so when I was met with problems that I needed to make an effort to solve, I’d simply give up. The lesson of not giving up was probably the most important thing I learned in high school.

  • http://twitter.com/lexieminett Lexie Minett

    Thanks for a great article!

    I’ve always felt like a languages failure (my French teacher at A level used to mock my accent in front of the class and claimed that no-one would ever understand me) and this self-belief has held me back.

    I’m going to Turkey for the first time this year and now I’m determined to learn more than ‘hello, goodbye, please and thank you’ before I go.

    Teşekkür ederim!

    Lexie

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Best of luck!!

  • http://twitter.com/zeldazador Liv Zelda Zádor

    I love “listening to the Universe” but I think sometimes people blame the Universe for things that are actually the fault of other people trying to block us. What I mean is, the Universe clearly kept sending you potential opportunities to explore Spanish (man, that Universe knew you and Spanish were meant for each other), but it was other people who kept getting in the way. It seems like it was when you finally decided to go for it, despite everyone around you acting as obstacles, that you got what you wanted (the ability to speak Spanish) and a new confidence and understanding of your own power.

    I’ve recently quit listening to people who tell me I can’t do something or that “this is the way things are done, follow the pattern…or else.” Or else what? Or else I’ll realize the power of my own will and achieve amazing things because of it.

    I don’t really believe in destiny, but I do perk up my ears when the Universe speaks. But I guess that’s just quibbling over semantics. : )

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I don’t buy this “universe was trying to help me” fairytale. As I said in this post, I don’t believe in destiny, and I think people twisting facts to fit some grand plan don’t understand how simple cause and effect work.

      I could be wrong of course, but that’s my opinion. For people not too passionate about mother earth being their guardian angel, I suppose it is simple semantics.

      Rather than listen to the universe, you should listen to yourself and what you want and then try your best to achieve your goals. Obstacles will always be there, you just have to plough through them. ;)

  • http://orangeeasy.blogspot.com/ Chris

    Thanks Benny for your honesty. You’ve touched on having difficulties when you first tried to learn Spanish before but I haven’t realized that you had so many false starts.

    I’ve found your story very encouraging because I’ve felt very frustrated with learning Chinese including losing my temper but I’ve persevered to get it to an ok conversational level. Now, hearing your story, I’m sure I can get it up to a fluent conversational level too. Thanks

    Funny, you said that you had speech therapy as a kid. I had an abscess in my right ear and had to wear an hearing aid. I remember having a lot of training on ‘th’ sound. Anyway, my mate from Yorkshire says this is one of his favourite stories. I told him that this is the reason why I don’t have a Welsh accent. I think he thinks the story is just an excuse and an apology for sounding ‘posh.’

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Glad to hear it! I wrote this article with that goal in mind of trying to encourage people by showing them they are certainly not alone with all the “false starts”.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Yep – if someone with as many excuses as me can do it, then you’ve got no reason not to ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Of course.

  • http://tlllanguagecoach.blogspot.com/ Aaron G Myers

    Great post. Thanks for the kick in the butt and the complete destruction of all pretense for excuses. If the majority of the world has learned a second and third language – we native English speakers can too. Destiny schmestiny!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      “Destiny schmestiny” – another great alternative title for this post :)
      Thanks!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Great to see you manage that now. Too many people give up after a certain number of years – it takes much more strength to conquer deamons when they have been established so long! Kudos :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    I spent a weekend in Montevideo with a good friend of mine. I actually found it to be an amazing city with fantastic people. There are many parts of it I preferred to life in Argentina!

    Also, I hung out with a lot of Uruguayans in BsAs – my tango teacher was from there! :)

    Great job and best of luck with your 5 language plan!!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Aww thanks Aksana :)
    Best of luck with your 3 dreams!

  • http://www.goldenbooktraveler.com Jason Boehle

    Awesome blog post. Love the motivational reminders.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Imagine how I felt after 3 years of that and finding out what the problem was…

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    Imagine how I felt after 3 years of that and finding out what the problem was…

  • Annette

    Wow! Amazing post! I think this is your most inspiring one yet. I’m actually quite surprised that you didn’t share your story with us earlier! I would never have guessed that you had difficulties at first with your native language! Thank you for the inspiration. I generally don’t have problems being motivated and believing in myself when it comes to languages, but the general principles apply to other areas that I do struggle with. I want to overcome the adversities that I face in order to achieve my dreams. I love stories like this because it shows it can be done. We just have to believe and never give up!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      I have lots of stories I have yet to share ;)
      I actually quite dislike simple “believe in yourself” mottos, so I’m happier to actually provide a concrete example to help people.

  • Anonymous

    Felicidades! My 6th grade teacher signed a document stating that I wasn’t ready for foreign languages in the 7th grade (age 11). My parents were adamant that I start a foreign language and photocopied the form the teacher signed, changed her response, recopied it and sent it to my new school so that I could start French the following school year. She was totally wrong and she was supposed to know best what my academic potential was. Seven languages later, guess who’s laughing?

    Fighting the hurdles in life is part of the journey of any successful person. Natural talent (in music or other domains) only goes so far. It’s all about persistence, passion and being unstoppable. It’s beyond admirable that you didn’t take “no” for an answer and just kept going. We need more people like you.

    Keep the encouraging posts coming!

    -Your fellow polyglot enthusiast (Susanna Zaraysky, “Language is Music”, http://www.createyourworldbook.com)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Thanks Susanna ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

    I’m just a traveller like many other people, lots of whom blog. But to really get to know people in different countries you have to speak to them in a way they’ll understand and not rely on the rich elite that speak English. The fact that not a lot of travellers do this will never cease to boggle my mind.

  • http://youcangetfit.wordpress.com/ Brooke

    OK, I’m late to the party on this one, but I’m running behind and finally read this post. I love the applications to real life–persistence winning over destiny. I gotta say, I write a fitness blog, and you just gave me my theme for tomorrow. (No worries, you’ll get the well-earned credit!) :)

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the Irish polyglot

      Thanks for any link love ;)

  • Livonor

    The funny thing is that the solution is so much simpler. Instead of chasing expensive courses and unhelpful people if you had just sat on your chair in front of your PC and looked for some basic pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar stuff and went through them in your pace things would be way less stressful