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The Language Gene delusion

| 34 comments | Category: positive mentality

When you understand “language genes” to be something that some people have and you don’t, then you’re being ridiculous. I’ve seen this in many iterations: language talent, gene, skill, knack etc., and today I’m going to tell you why I think it’s all nonsense.

The part of your genetic makeup that helps you deconstruct and understand languages is clearly already there as you can understand what you are reading right now. So congratulations, you have “the language gene“… just like every single other person on the planet (who doesn’t have a real communicative disability).

To discuss it beyond geneticists pinpointing genes things that we all have for biological research purposes is madness.

So, getting more to the point – is the ability to be able to speak a second (or third) language something you are either born with or or not?

A multilingual planet; we’re ALL born with the “gene”

Look, most of the planet speaks multiple languages. Many places in the west have a huge amount of speakers of two languages, like Quebec, Catalonia, Switzerland etc., where the place itself has two (or more) recognized official languages. Then in many countries in northern Europe it’s quite typical to speak English very fluently as well as one or two foreign languages, and that’s on top of your native one.

Here in China, everybody in the country learns Mandarin, but at home they tend to speak a “dialect” (which, many would argue should be called distinct languages, as unintelligibility can be quite frequent between dialects). I’ve already met several people who can converse in twodialects”, as well as Mandarin.

In India, it’s quite common to come across people who can converse in five languages, which are as distinct from one another as European languages are.

If you happen to be an American, then don’t forget that your heritage comes from countries that have plenty of people who speak multiple languages, so pulling out the “genetics” card is as weak an excuse as they come.

To suggest that some people can not be born with the inherent potential to become a polyglot (or definitely fluent in at least one other language) is pure insanity! If you, with exactly the same genetic makeup, were born in Brussels to a European diplomat father and a different nationality mother, the only way you could possibly be monolingual would be if they went out of their way to shield you from all but one language.

The fact that a monolingual culture breeds monolinguals doesn’t say jack about your true inherent potential.

In the nature vs nurture debate, to me there is no room for doubt: Your environment, genuine need, attitude, time invested, exposure and other such things (many of which are totally in your control as an adult) are what decides it.

In a country of monolinguals, any average intelligence visitor looks like a genius

The only reason such ridiculous concepts as “language talent” are entertained, are when it is done by a monolingual country that is not used to the phenomenon. But things can change.

I’m reminded of when I was in my early teens, and known in my town as a “computer genius”. One of my first jobs was in the local computer shop, where I would be driven around town to solve people’s computer issues. They stood back in awe as I glanced at the issue and in the blink of an eye solved all of their Windows 95 woes with just a few casual clicks.

However, the truth is that the only difference between me and them is that I had put a lot of time into sitting in front of computer screens, playing around with settings, reading some manuals later on to understand it better, and I wasn’t intimidated by the technology, but embraced it as an inevitable part of the future. Really, all I was actually doing in these awe-inspiring computer-wizz-kid sessions was putting in a floppy disk and clicking the .exe file to install a driver, clicking “settings” to undo some simple alteration the user had done, adjusting the monitor’s contrast settings with the buttons on the front, and once I actually “solved” a problem by plugging in the damn printer.

The fact of the matter is that I’m not a computer genius. Absolutely everything that I did back then, pretty much any one of you reading this now would be well able to handle because you’ve been using a computer for at least a few years. I wasn’t hacking into the FBI or reprogramming operating systems, I was just clicking stuff. From an outside perspective, when a computer is this untamable beast, it looks like an incredible feat. But once everyone can do it, you see how run-of-the-mill it really is.

No matter how impressed people in my town were, clearly elsewhere in the world lots of others could do the same, and a few years later pretty much anyone can. So clearly, I wasn’t born with something as ridiculous as a “computer genius gene”.

This situation is precisely how I see the current awe awarded to successful language learners by monolingual countries. Those of us who have learned one or more foreign languages are not necessarily any smarter than you. We are the like the people who knew how to use a mouse and were confident enough to press “Next” in the early 90s, which is now totally the norm.

When someone looks at me in awe that I can speak a few languages, I roll my eyes exactly the same way I do when an elderly relative looks at me in awe because I can digitally remove red-eyes from a photograph.

Ah, but what about supercalifragilisticespialiadicioushyperpolyglots?

There is no black and white, have-it-or-not elusive “language genius”. I’ve seen a few TV spots and even noticed an entire book that tries to put very successful language learners on a podium, to be wondered at as glitches in the matrix, whose brains absolutely must be scanned, or whose genes must be spliced to find proof that the rest of us can be lazy because they were blessed from birth.

The way I see it, it’s very simple: Some people fail to learn a foreign language because the way they did it was inefficient, or some other reason in their environment made it trickier.

Some people on the other hand found a way that was efficient for their goals and situation, or conquered that barrier when others would have given up upon reaching it. Because of this, they successfully learned a foreign language. No inherent genes, just finding a way that worked for them. A champion of spirits, not a champion of brains.

A smaller number of people did exactly the same thing a couple of times, each successive time slightly easier than the previous one. Impressive? Maybe, but it’s just repeating the same process over again, improving and getting a little faster with more experience.

And a smaller number of people still, devote a considerable amount of time, effort, blood, sweat and tears, to repeat the process over and over so they speak a bigger number. In my opinion, they aren’t “geniuses”, but they should be congratulated for their dedication.

I see this title “hyperpolyglot” floating around and I just see it as another way to needlessly put people on pedestals above the rest of us mortals. Firstly, it’s silly – isn’t that a redundant double “many” prefix? What’s next – hyperpolygamy for when your orgies are more than a baker’s dozen? Hyperpolyunsaturated fat for I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-50%-fat-butter?

Commitment, not talent, is the deal breaker

It’s time to stop making excuses.

People do impressive things because they work hard at them.

If they don’t seem to work as hard then there is probably a good reason behind it. If someone can learn vocabulary quickly, then maybe they have a well structured system for remembering it, which pretty much anyone could adapt themselves too.

The only “talent” someone has is that they have the patience to sit down and study longer than most others, or to get over their fears to speak the language earlier., or to put up with painful experiences to get over annoying plateaus, or find ways to make the experience more enjoyable, or whatever it may be that gives them their edge. The “edge” is perhaps inherent to them; they are determined, focused and passionate. But these are indirect to language learning, which is a non-gene and a non-talent issue.

Passion can be nurtured, determination can be inspired and focus can be reached. None of this is placed upon your DNA helix on conception.

The tributary contributing factors can be learned, and you can even try to emulate a part of their success if you decide to devote yourself enough to it. Most people don’t have the level of devotion of those at the very top, and this is a psychological and strategic failure, not a genetic one.

It’s simply not fair to dismiss these people as geniuses with talent and who “pick up” languages, as if they casually find a pretty penny when out for a stroll in the park. They are as human as you, but worked harder. The lesson shouldn’t be “stand back in awe as they work their magic”, but “get inspired to try to work maybe even half as hard, and you could achieve something half as good”.

Half as good as amazing, is still pretty damn amazing.

Stop using genetics as an excuse holding you back. If it has held you back thus far, well, self-fulfilling prophecies are pretty good in doing that.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Laura-Hamilton/37109244 Laura Hamilton

    I think the reason people think there is a language gene is that some people seem to effortlessly learn a language. But this is just because they aren’t burdening themselves with the fear of failure and they know inherently, or have already learnt, that you need to use a language to learn it.

  • Allen Redding

    I still remember growing up being told that I can be and do anything I wanted if I set my mind to it, I believe that my attitude in life is will always be in direct proportion to my altitude. It is unfortunate that most people believe that you are destined to live the life you are dealt, and have very little control over the outcome.

  • MidlifeSinglemum

    Well said – although I think it does come more easily to some than others, just a s some people are better at maths ot have an ear for music.

  • SusannaZaraysky

     Well said. I often have to brush off the “language gene” claims when people meet me. It’s precisely as you say: finding a method that works for you and following it.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Thanks by the way for referring those people to the likes of me who started as adults! They really have to think hard to stretch their weak excuses that it’s genetic when others their own age have started and succeeded.

  • jinxlerai

    This is one issue where I 100% agree with you.  I just saw that Canadian TV spot (as I assume you did too), and basically liked it, but I was annoyed with the moderator’s tendency to mysticize and glamorize “the wondrous polyglot” as if it were part of the pantheon with unicorns and fairies.  Thanks for writing this piece.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      That TV spot is just one of many that bring this up. Journalists should watch out with me though, I am a lot less passive and accepting than most would be in letting a moderator decide in which direction an interview should go ;) When I was on the radio a few weeks back I took control of the “wow, amazing language learner” angle and turned it into a quick how-to segment that would actually HELP listeners.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Good for you!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    I hope you’re right. I’m half way through it, and so far all I saw was the first 20% of the book was abuot Mezzofanti and basically nitpicking whether he spoke 40 or 70 (or whatever) languages, which I really don’t care about.

    And since then it’s all been about an annoying obsession to scan hyperpolyglots’ brains, and directly ignore the words of those (like Arguelles) encouraging people, since his situation “must” be about his neurology…

    Hopefully the second half reflects more of what you imply.

    I like superpolyglot, but only because it means I can wear a red cape, not because it’s a word to take seriously. Hyperpolyglot sounds like a “normal” polyglot after finding Sonic the Hedgehog’s 7 emeralds.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Those are my Language Learning Genes!! [pun]

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    What an excellent attitude! :) Turning an embarrassing story into an opportunity to get more practice. Congrats on getting over your previous hang-ups and keep up the excellent work!!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Mind over matter! Neo, there is no rock!! ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Memory techniques CAN be learned. I have a crap memory, but use image association to initially learn a word and spaced repetition to retain it. Some people have other systems, even if they can’t verbalise it.

    In my opinion, anyone with an “impressive” memory, is actually applying some structured system of some sort, even if it’s unconscious.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Erwin-Moreno/100002334445126 Erwin Moreno

    hahaha so eloquent Benny. I love it :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/F-Michael-Skipper/521659564 F Michael Skipper

    Yea the Wordplay piece brings up the sideshow aspect of communicating in a second(or third) language.  I would love to see a less edited version of that show. It seems to target some of the anxiety that beginners feel.  “Oh it must be a gift” simply because they have not yet come to a place of “Dear language,  You are stuck with me and I am not going home…”  This post addressed an issue that many of us feel after spending time with a language.  Thanks Benny.

  • Clay Telecom

    Very well written!
    I really like your point of view. It is always better to know a bit about the local language so that we don’t face much of a problem in the visited place.

  • http://musingopiningandcriticising.blogspot.com/ SamB

     ‘Passing the class’ and that attitude is definitely a problem, and one that affected me a lot when I was younger. I think a lot of the problem there is in the teaching too – if you’re taught ‘these are a bunch of words that will come up in the exam’ or ‘these are the stock phrases that you’ll need’, that’s the attitude that will prevail.

    Added to that is the aspect of language classes that gets you talking about topics that  are admirable, but completely irrelevant for everyday communication.

  • http://twitter.com/Junesun Sprachprofi

    I agree 100% with this article. Way to go, Benny! 

    The most amazing language learners I know (Alexander Arguelles with >40 languages and 16-year-old Tim alias PolyglotPal) both spend upwards of 6 hours every day studying languages and they are to be commended for their dedication. Saying that their success is due to genes is insulting them. I think being intelligent helps – you understand and learn anything faster, not just languages – but the biggest factor by far is the time you’re ready to spend on your target language(s).

    • http://www.mezzoguild.com/ Donovan – The Mezzofanti Guild

      How do you explain case studies in SLA research of people with equal levels of commitment and hard work where one succeeds brilliantly and the other fails, even learning one language (e.g. the Kaplan vs. Watson case in Ortega (2009))?

      Benny, as Michael Erard said in this discussion with Judith and some of the participants from 16×9 the other day – http://bit.ly/IBpBnN – you’re not able to self-assess how “normal” your own brain is.

      It’s very easy for you to say “I’m not good at languages” but how do you know that? You cannot step outside your brain and make an objective assessment of your own capacity.

      • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

        I agree with everything Judith said in those comments. SLA research is crap if it doesn’t take a particular person’s real situation into account. Sometimes those people who fail just need the right encouragement, more time investment, better teachers, better material etc.

        All those “case studies” tell you is that this particular environment yields better results for some and not for others. When I talk to an individual I can usually see if there is some avenue for improvement in his learning strategy. This is why these faceless statistics that treat everyone exactly the same, testing them on ONE particular learning approach are absolutely bogus.

        I don’t care how normal or abnormal my brain is. I learned Chinese to the level I did because I sacrificed 3 months of my life, not because I was blessed by an angel or the stars aligned the right way or one component of my DNA strand was an A instead of a G.

        It IS very easy for me to say that I’m not good at languages because I barely passed German in school, I had to go to speech therapy when I was growing up because of problems learning English, and I lived in Spain with plenty of exposure for 6 months but didn’t “pick up” the language as a supposedly natural learner would have.

        All of your arguments are excellent ways of discouraging learners that they are not as good as the elite. Enough of that nonsense. No amount of crappy studies that test some people in conditions that work for them can disprove this.

        Look at INDIVIDUALS and see what is really holding them back, and in pretty much all cases it’s not their intelligence, but their lack of drive, lack of time, lack of interest, lack of a better learning approach etc. many of which can be changed without DNA splicing or a brain transplant.

  • Annette

    I completely agree with you.  The other day there was a program on TV about ‘hyper-polyglots’ and the emphasis was on how amazing their brains were and what traits they shared in common, etc.  At the same time, though, they interviewed some of them and the pattern was that they worked really, really hard on learning and maintaining their languages!  One guy worked at a translation agency (worked with languages all day long) then got home and spent another 8 – 10 hours studying various languages!  To me it’s really obvious that if you devote every waking hour to something, you are going to cultivate that skill more than the general population.  There’s nothing magical about it.  In the past I didn’t realize this and I put people like that on a pedestal, like this show did, but since I’ve put a lot of work into it and have already surpassed my language learning dreams, I know that if I put in the hours and effort, and had an efficient system, I could too could do what these people do (though I don’t necessarily feel the need to go as far with it as they have).

    Good post!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Precisely! ;)

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    Wow I love this post so much!  I linked to it and wrote about it on my blog: 
    http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/2012/05/language-gene-delusion-this-so-much.html  Benny, your blog is great!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Thanks! :)

  • Jeff

    If I had a penny everytime I heard someone say I (or someone else) was “talented”… Those who say this have never worked hard enough (if they’ve even tried!) learning a new language, musical instrument, sport etc.

    I know what I’m good at. My memory and general aptitude for learning new stuff (noticing “patterns”) relatively fast has helped me in the beginning stages, but hardly anybody I know has devoted anywhere near the same number of hours on practicing music.

  • http://exaequali.blogspot.com/ Dan

    Just to defend the word “hyperpolyglot” real quick, I believe the original meaning of “hyper” (Greek  ὕπερ) is “above” or “beyond”, so to prefix it onto “polyglot” indicates something more beyond just polyglossalia – hyperpolyglossalia!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Fair enough. I still don’t like it though :P

  • http://twitter.com/Junesun Sprachprofi

    You may have the same issue I had: 
    http://temp.learnlangs.com/personal/too_many_interests  (the author also talks about cycles)

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    Sure, agreed, but also: yeah, there are genetic variations that make certain people better at certain things, but how is going all “woe is me I didn’t get the magic genes” going to help you? I mean, if it really made a HUGE difference I could see that, but it doesn’t, genetic variance generally makes minor differences in ability (mental and physical), not major ones.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  • http://www.facebook.com/ariana.serrano.9 Ariana Serrano

    I really like your posts, I’ve been reading them for a year and a half. Thank you Benny you do a lot of good with them for everybody, and for me as well. They always give me courage and motivate me to help others to learn another language. Gracias Benny desde Bucaramanga Colombia.

  • Linde Van Ishoven, Belgium

    I learn languages easily, from an early age on. My brother and I used to imitate people’s accents (and made everybody laugh). I learned myself to read braille and when I got to know the Russian
    alphabet, I wrote Dutch in Russian alphabet just for fun. In my early twenties I learned Spanish in about 3 weeks, while I hardly studied. Then, at 22, I went to Thailand and immediately took up language lessons, expecting it to be a piece of cake. I’m a language teacher, so I’m not unaware of didactics etc. However, it became the worst language learning experience in my life, to a point where I had to acknowledge that I was insulting people rather than trying to communicate. (It didn’t help that beautiful is the same word as ugly, but in a different tone.) I stayed there for 5 months and had extensive exposure, but I couldn’t even get past the first barrier of recognizing the sounds of this tonal language – although I never experienced this with European languages. I have an ear for accents: I automatically take over accents so easily that I find it difficult to develop “my own voice/constant language”. Now it appears that there are different genes for tonal and European languages (Microcephalin and ASPM). It might explain my “tin ear” for Thai.. If I had known this in advance, specific training (“nurture”) might have helped me to take that first (“nature”) barrier and then benefit from the “nurture” or exposure like I do with European languages. I believe they reinforce one another – for the better or for the worse. It takes precise diagnosis and the right training to reverse a negative trend.

  • Zofia Galova

    Benny, I would like to know how much do you know about genetics. Stating that language learning is non-gene issue without having any idea how genes affects any processes in the human body, including brain processes, is negligence.

  • Madhu Chitgopker

    I dont think it’s a case of language gene – it’s more that some people are a better than others. So that doesn’t really matter – if you’re just a bit slower, it will take you a bit longer. You’ll still get there.

    Not to mention from my experience people tend to exaggerate their language abilities.

  • Megan

    I totally know how you feel, for example when I was younger I liked drawing and my friends always said they couldn’t and I just had natural talent. Let’s just say I didn’t have “talent” I just had determination or as you said “patience”. I actually took the time to try. When I messed up I kept going, even after the 100th time on the same drawing.(it really did look like a mess after that, but practice makes progress, not perfect for nobody is “perfect”)