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The Language Gene delusion

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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.

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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