Is there s.a. thing as a talent for learning languages?

Does the ‘language gene’ exist?

I get this question a lot. It always gives me a two-sided feeling:

-a semicolumn closing bracket feeling 🙂 because it feels nice to be good at something

-a semicolum opening bracket feeling 🙁 because my learning efforts seem unrewarded

Hence, my reasons to start writing this article were to:

  • reward myself for my efforts and that way get more credits than just ‘the talent that I speak other languages’
  • get some clarity on the topic
  • share my ideas and learning experiences with you as another interested language learner or aspiring polyglot
  • to motivate you from one desperate learner to the other and empower you with the needed self-confidence

And while writing it, I actually learned a lot about how I can better learn languages myself! Why? I’ll start with my conclusion: (Spoiler alert!) Practically everyone can learn other languages, once you got to know your ‘learning self’.

Now let’s dig into that question, shall we? We’ll pass by some characteristics and see if you’re born wiht it or something that everyone can develop.

It’s probably even more complicated than I’m outlining on this page, but as always: when trying to understand our world and ourselves you have got to start somewhere, simplify your analysis and findings.

As I started writing my own findings on how I have learned and am still learning languages, I noticed I had a huge lack of academic knowledge about the topic. So what do the scientists say? I did some research on the topic. These are some interesting videos on the human language gene:

Conclusion: There is a gene, called FOX-B2, in all humans, that enables us to use language.

Conclusion: phenotypes multiple genes together enable us to perform a complicated action, such as communication language.

My findings from dozens of years of learning dozens of languages

Without having time for time to run researches and feeling ethically limited to hijack an elementary school to isolate one group from the test group, I rather present to you my opinion as an amateur. And ‘amare’ means ‘to love’, so you’re reading the blog posts from a language enthusiast for life.

Personal characteristics that relate to one’s ability to learn language(s)

For purposes of clarity, I compiled this list of factors that I think have an impact on anyone’s skill to learn language. Disclaimer: it’s limited, ongoing and probably incomplete. Below the table, I’m analysing the influence and effect of each characteristic on someone’s language learning potential.

Risultato immagine per "born this way" GagaNature (born this way)Nurture (earl ch env/life-specifilater choices
Learning abilities
ability to remember
ability to focus
ability to motivate yourself
ability to structure
ability to choose objectives
ability to stick to goal
ability to see patterns of lettersXXX
ability to see patterns in shapesXXX
previous language learning > enthusiasm about langXX
w/ people speaking other languages > Xenophobia/XenophiliaXX
Other abilities/characteristics
Connectivity to other people (extra/introvert learner types)
Self-confidence, self-awareness (+ & -)
your native language(s)X
basic knowl about language patterns > trust in lang patterns
Exposure to other languages, sounds (within same and different lang group)
Parents’ interest in language(s)
language situation in your area
Time dedicated
Access to language learning
Internal drive/need/motivation
to understand systems
to connect to people
to understand the word/humanity/learn about other cultures
need to be good at something/show off

Analysis of above personal characteristics and its effects on anyone’s ability to learn languages

  1. Number of native languages learned
    To kick off with an (I consider) obvious point: the number of native languages (called L1) determines your ability to learn other languages (L2). Looking at my personal situation, I only got one native language along the way in and around my cradle: Dutch. (Happy with it and as most people about their native tongue: you feel familiarity, a strong connection.) I was already jealous at bilingual kids. Especially English speakers.

2a Ability to see patterns
There are patterns for lots of diff things, s.a. shapes, letters but also in actions, behaviour, colour, smell, etc.
In my perception seeing similarities between languages helps you learn them. And seeing patterns in letters is probably helpful.
I remember one time when a friend was surprised I took on learning Italian, while we had both just lived in Barcelona and had learned Spanish. When I noted him that Italian should be easy to learn knowing other Romance languages, showing him a word like ‘giove’ relating it to the Spanish ‘joven’, meaning ‘young’, he told me he really couldn’t see the resemblance.

2b Additionally, it might also be the trust in patterns and knowledge about the origin of (a common) language such as Latin. When I tell people about the patterns, I often here that the relation to other lang is so far that there is hardly a pattern. So a trusting in the relationship between languages from the same family might help me to see similarities, which makes my interest in a language grow. Having learnt Latin, French in high school, you’ll get a ‘one-more-effect’. it made me want to learn Spanish. And once I felt comfortable in that, Catalan. Next, Italian. Then Portuguese. And once I am ok in all those: Romanian and maybe other Romance languages. So trust in patterns helps me a lot to start a new language from the same group.
But also to start a whole new group. Because I know how Germanic and Romance languages relate to those in the same group, now I’m interested in Slavic languages. I want to know how much they relate, trusting that they do, all coming from Old Church Slavonic.

And I think that it’s related to a person’s degree to see patterns. I consider that a characteristic you’re born with. As humans all our brains are built to see patterns. When we see a person in a flash running by and are asked to provide a description after, we fill up the gaps from earlier experiences – {…} patterns.

  1. Time investment
    Clearly, most people who speak multiple languages have to spend a huge amount of time in learning and maintaining them.

Exception: the expat kid
The lucky few that are brought up with polyglot or parents who want to give their child the opportunities they never had, the linguist with a lab-rat at home 24/7/365 or the Ukrainian expat partnered with a Catalan together living in Chang Mai who put their child to international school and who raise it with their grandparents’ languages. I wish I got 5 native languages as a toddler that way. But many (most?) of us just get one or two in their early childhood life. This multilingual child might however develop the interest, confidence and base for other languages later though. Or they might hate it or just see multilingualism as a practical thing without any additional interest.

What do other monoglots and polyglots say on the language gene? Can anyone learn a new language?

I asked a few monoglots and biglots, tri- and polyglots or should I say single linguals, bilinguals and multilinguals? I’ll add my findings here later.

A polyglot view on if there is a language gene: If you can learn one language (your native), then you’re able to learn more. Of course, some other people at school were super talented at math, sports, creative skill, that doesn’t mean you didn’t learn basic math, right? So you can do it, even if it’s not your greatest talent. Maybe fluency is not that necessary.

Other characteristics that may impact language learning skills

There are also other characteristics that have an effect on language abilities, though not generic for all language learning.

Ability to switch

This might help you to switch between languages, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re good or bad at learning languages. The proof for that: When I met hyperpolyglot Richard Simcot (who speaks dozens of languages) I told him that earlier that day during the break I had asked five participants at the Polyglot Gathering to try out something fun: to switch turns and language after each word or two, collectively constructing a few sentences. Although the six of us had a lot of fun, Richard said that would be an impossible exercise for him. And he is the example for us there speaking 50 languages or so. So the ability to switch might help you to change languages within scenes of your life, but if you have trouble switching languages or activities, it doesn’t mean you can’t learn languages well.

In Dutch: Heb je gevoel voor taal?
Ja, dat denk ik wel. Vaak zie ik de dubbele betekenis van zaken. Heb je zelf een Talenknobbeltje? En moet je dat laten weghalen?