Don’t Call Me Genius

I recently had someone call me a ‘language genius’ when she found out that I speak several languages. I will admit to feeling flattered – quite frankly, that is probably the best compliment that anyone could give me. But the truth is, I am not a language genius.

Recently there has been a lot of talk about people who can speak 10 or 20 languages, especially after the book Babel No More came out. The book profiles some people who seem to be able to learn a language in weeks, and who speak dozens of languages. I can not do either of those things.

When people express amazement at my language abilities, I am the first to remind them that I have worked very hard to learn the languages that I know. I have spent countless hours in language classes, doing language exchanges, listening to podcasts and radio shows in foreign languages and just talking to people – and often making a fool out of myself.

The people profiled in Babel No More have also worked hard – harder than I have. One man seems to spend all day, every day learning languages and practicing them. I am not surprised that he has learned more languages than I have, because he certainly has put more work into learning.

I do think that I tend to learn languages faster than some others, but I that’s not really because I am talented. I am 29, and I’ve been studying languages for 16 years. I have learned how to learn, or at least how I learn best. I also understand what my usual weak points are. For example, I am a terrible speller, in English as well as other languages. I know to pay special attention to spelling when I am learning a language, because it will be difficult for me. I don’t write particularly well in any of the foreign languages that I speak. During one French tutoring session, I brought an essay I had written in French. My tutor was shocked at how many mistakes I had made, because I spoke French so well. So I know that writing is something I need to work on more.

There are people who are better at learning languages than I am, there are also people who are worse at it. There are people who are more motivated, more disciplined and more thorough, although I might be more motivated than average.

I don’t think it is a good idea to call me a language genius, just as most people shouldn’t be called geniuses, either. Labeling someone a genius doesn’t acknowledge all the hard work that he or she has put into mastering a skill. Even worse, it implies that he or she mastered the skill only because of some innate ability, which means that others without that ability already can’t learn. In most cases, and certainly when it comes to languages, that is not true.

Anyone who puts in the time can become a language genius. It takes hard work and time, not special inborn ability. There is undoubtably some variation in ‘talent,’ but I think the most important variation is in motivation. If you really are motivated to learn a language, you can – as long as you really are motivated, and regardless of what you think your inborn ability is.

So please don’t say I’m a language genius. I wasn’t born a polyglot – I’ve worked hard to become one. That means that you can also become a polyglot, or at least bilingual.

Photo: ell brown

What are your thoughts on the word ‘genius’? How do you feel when someone says you are talented?