I’m happy to share the first episode of a brand new language learning mini series Im putting together with David Mansaray, for those of you subscribed to my newsletter. In this episode David and I talk about talent, and the part it plays in successful language learning. The first episode is available for everyone to everyone, but if you want to hear the next episode you’ll have to make sure you put your name and e-mail in the box below:
(TRANSCRIPT) (audio at the bottom of the page)
David: hello all and welcome to this mini-series designed to help you kick-start your language learning. My name is David Mansaray and I am today here with Luca Lampariello. What we are going to be doing is speaking about a very important topic, and that is..talent. We all know the discussion that has gone on for a long long time, with one side of the argument saying that you absolutely need talent to perform at the higher level of performance and the other side of the argument dictates or says that talent isn’t something that is necessary and all about hard work, so Luca and I are going to explore this topic today and hopefully we can help you move forward with your language learning more efficiently, more smartly….and with more confidence. Ok so we are are going to jump right into it and the first topic of discussion is talent. What is talent exactly Luca in your opinion?
Luca: talent is not just one thing, it is a combination of factors. Now, we are focusing on language learning but this is something general. By “combination of factors” I mean that it is not just the mere capacity of acquiring knowledge – some people do it faster, some do it slower – but it involves so many areas in life. In language learning, especially in language learning, it involves not only as I said before the capacity of acquiring new words, pronunciation, intonation, grammar patterns etc, but it is also the capacity of creating your own environment and creating possibilities in life. That makes a huge difference, especially when we talk about language learning, and hyperpolyglotism where a person has to speak and maintain a lot of languages. So the general attitude towards life, discipline, the capacity of creating opportunities in life, that makes a huge difference in the long run. And I consider that to be a part of talent as well.
David: So let’s break this down into its components. When we are talking about talent and what it is exactly, what really trying to get at is the nature of talent. Is it something that gives you a competitive edge, is it something that makes everything easier, is it both, is it any of these things? What do you think Luca?
Luca: This is going to be a discussion so..David do you remember when you told me that you wanted to speak Spanish very well? And then you told me “I might not have talent for languages”, but then I know – cause I saw it first-hand – you ended up speaking Spanish well. Other people who are are maybe more talented, they might have more talent for acquiring accents or grammar patterns and rules but they speak worse than you. People tend to think that talent is something innate, something you were born with, but it is not necessarily true. Everybody was born in a certain way, but we were born to be made as well, you know? You were not born a polyglot, you become a polyglot. You become and artist. It takes time. Everybody has a path in front of their eyes and it is up to them to decide what to do out of their lives, and talent to me also consists of making the right decisions and looking inside yourself . And telling yourself “”I know I can do this”, because as human beings we have enormous potential. To do anything we set our minds to.
David: Fantastic. You know, Luca, the way I define talent or refer to talent is as a “natural disposition of being good at something”. I like taking sports as an example. Recently I have been doing a lot of running, and at an elite level there is a certain “body physique” which is common to those who perform at the very best level. Very slim, they have little muscle, which makes them lighter when they are moving, and faster. And then you have sprinters. The infamous Hussein Bolt, you know. It has been said that you have to have certain things in place to be able to compete at that really high level. So I think that talent is something that does exist. I do believe that some people have something that allows them to do some some things easier. However, let’s move on to the next topic. Does talent really matter that much? The example of me with Spanish – I don’t think I have talent at all but being able to achieve what I have achieved what I have achieved with little to no talent for language learning. The next question would be “does talent really matter in that case”?
Luca : Well, you first have to define your goals. Running like Hussein Bolt might not be easy for most people, but the real question that you have to ask yourself is: does talent matter to do what? Do you really want to run like Hussein Bolt, or do you really want to speak a language “perfectly”? Do you really want to do something at the elite level? What are your objectives? Speaking a language is to communicate with people. As simple as that. You do it to have a better life. So, if you define a precise goal and you tell yourself that that goal is to speak a language well, does talent matter? Not at all. You David speak your language as a native, I speak my own Italian as a native, and if you can speak your own native language well – no matter what language – anybody can learn as many languages as they want. So in this regard, talent doesn’t matter at all. Proof of that is that even people who consider themselves not to be very talented learn a language well if they put their head to it. Everybody can learn a language well. So in language learning, does having talent matter? No, it doesn’t matter. Talent is a small part of the whole process. If you have talent you might reach certain levels. You might be able to speak, say, 10,20 languages with a great accent, but it is not strictly necessary. So, first of all, the question should be: what do I want to accomplish? And secondly, “do I have talent”? It doesn’t matter, because if you think “oh I have or don’t have talent and other people speak better” , if they speak better, so what? So the real question should be “do I really want to do this? What do you want to accomplish? And talent in every field does play a role either when you are competing with other people. But in language learning there is really no point in competing with people because everybody is different, everybody has a different life, and everybody has different opportunities. So to answer your question “does talent matter?” I’d say “not that much”.
David: Absolutely. And there is a quote that I want to share which is “hard work beats talent, when talent doesn’t work”, and that really leads me to the next thing I want to talk about which is “can one develop talent?” And this is a tricky, sort of direction to go in because it is known that talent is something you are born with, a natural disposition to be good at certain things. However – and we have discussed it many times – as a language lover you know you have improved your process for learning languages over time and so I wanted to share with us, you told me how mathematics and physics has improved the way you process information and that has carried over to your language learning. So the reason I want to talk about this is that learning one thing or developing a skill in one area can then transfer to others and it can be difficult to identify whether it is really talent or hard work that you put over a long period of time that has actually contributed to your success, so could you maybe talk a little bit about mathematics, physics and what that has to your language learning?
Luca: That’s an interesting question. Well, mathematics and physics..first of all when I went to university one of the very fist things that happened to me is..general physics was one of the first exams. So what happened was that I had just gotten out of “Liceo scientifico”, scientific High School, where you tend to study math more in depth and Latin as well. So I thought that since the first exams were about Mathematics I thought that I wouldn’t have a problem with that but in the second semester was General Physics. Now the huge difference is that for the first time nobody in High School had told to tackle certain problems. In General Physics – that specific exam – you had to learn how to tackle certain problems. Now what I did is that I thought that by simply studying a lot, doing a lot of exercises in a mechanical way I would have passed the exam without a problem. Now when I went to the first exam I miserably failed. I came back home and I asked myself “what is wrong?” I had spent so many hours, did so many exercises. So I told myself that maybe I was not that talented for mathematics physics, and I was a little bit down. But then my father – when I came back home I showed him one of the problems that I had to tackle during the exam – he looked at me and said “think with your head”. That helped me a lot because when I came back home and after my father told me that, I realized that instead of just doing a lot of exercises I had to acquire an ability. I had to do just a few exercises to understand the general picture. So I started putting quality time on just a few exercises. I tried to “rack my brains” on these exercises, try to understand them, even spend an
hour on a problem if I couldn’t solve it, and by doing so I just developed the capacity of tackling ANY problem, because being an engineer or getting a degree in Engineering is not just remembering mathematical formulas or acquiring general knowledge, it is about developing the capacity of tackling and solving problems, and this relates to language learning, because I understood that one of the best things that can happen to you is to develop – you know, “neuroplasticity” implies that working on a given set of a few problems allows you to generalize and tackle and grasp a lot of other elements. The language core is something like that; it is a capacity we acquire of understanding and tackling the general picture, to get a general framework. In Mathematics or physics, by doing a few exercises, by racking your brain on them allows you to develop the capacity of understanding and generalizing. I understood that at university. It is a way of “studying”, a way of “learning”, and I applied it to language learning, and that has changed a lot. So going back to the matter of talent, I think I was not born with that talent, but I was open enough to understand my limits and I developed that. You have to be open, when people point out your mistakes and you learn from that, that is a talent in itself, and it is part of the general picture. So, by studying Mathematics and Physics I learned a way of tackling things that helped me enormously in language learning as well.
David: Absolutely. So what has happened here is that you struggled to learn certain concepts and processes in Mathematics and by going through this process of struggle sort of got you used to it and because you got used to this process of struggle to achieve your goals you embraced this, “the” learning process. So if we take 2 language learners, an experienced language learner and a not so experienced language learner it is very easy to look at the other and say “hey he is doing it so easily, so effortlessly” and it is easy to forget that this person has been working at this task for such a long time, has picked up a lot of tricks, has acquired a “language learning fitness” so to say, along the way.
Luca: exactly. And if somebody asks me “I want to learn a language”, I say “don’t waste time”. Start NOW, because language learning is a trial-and-error process, and the sooner you start, the sooner you will understand, you will face some problems and then you will solve them. And once you figure out how to face a problem, you will learn how to tackle other problems. And you will develop. You know, when it comes to talent, I think that in part you were born with it, but in part you develop it. I strongly believe in this, so the sooner you start, the better.
David: I also think it is important to acknowledge that talent comes in in different shapes and sizes, and it can be easy to confuse talent with something that has been developed. So what is the line? It is really blurry and not clear to me at least. If you develop a skill and work at it for 5 years, is it then talent if you didn’t have it before? I am not sure. But one thing that I do want to say is that you know there are certain things that we can develop, we can make habits, and those in turn can jump-start the rest of our learning process. For example, I think something that is extremely useful for people is to develop the ability to recognize their weaknesses. When one is able to recognize their weakness, they are able to tackle the areas which they are really able to bring them to the next level, because I find that – you can tell me what you think about this Luca – I find that often when people struggle to go from one stage to another, it is not because they are not smart enough or strong enough, any of these things. It is because there is something that they haven’t mastered yet, it is a weakness. It is difficult to go from intermediate to advanced if you are still struggling with basic things and being able to recognize what these things are and really target them to improve is a big skill you can say one has to develop to help them move forward. The last thing I will say on this particular point is that it takes a lot of courage and it is humbling, the learning process, when one says “you know what, I am not good at this, I really need to work at this”, when I am intermediate and I have been studying for 2 or 3 years, I need to go back and practice this, this particular aspect of the language perhaps, that is for beginners but if I want to move to the advanced stage I need to conquer that. And I think that one could say that it is a real gift, a real virtue to have this personality
trait, which is something we can all develop to take us to the next level. What do you think about that Luca?
Luca: Yes, exactly. It is a personality trait that one can develop. What I always say is that the psychological factor plays a huge role in language learning and I believe that if you learn how to know yourself and accept your limits and sum up the courage to change, it will help very much. In language learning there are mainly 3 phases, meaning, beginner, intermediate and advanced. Now, how do you understand when you find yourself in one or the other? How do you move on? Well, you have to look inside yourself. This is something that I did very many times. Now I understand the general learning process, I have a picture, so I more or less know what happens when I hit a plateau and get stuck for example. I don’t know what we can call this, having talent, but it is more like a personality trait that you can develop. You have to think about – imagine a beautiful mountain, with snow on the top, and you have to reach the top. Now, the limit, or your objective, is actually the blue sky, meaning that everybody wants to speak a language fluently, everybody wants to reach a level where we can talk to people. Don’t focus too much on the peak, just take it one step at a time. When we talk about talent and reaching our objectives in life, we have to know that one of the most important things that make people great – when you take a look at the great personalities in the history of human kind – is that I am pretty sure that these people – more than other people – are able to look into their own soul and understand their limits as well as their potential. When I say that everybody can speak a language I believe in it 100%. Everybody can speak a language well and talent doesn’t matter, but the reason why a lot of people fail is that they don’t believe in themselves. They think they do, but they don’t. So, it is not so much about developing strategies, but it is more personal work on yourself that makes your soul I would say “flourish, thrive”, and that is also part of talent, but it is an external part of talent, it is something that you can develop in the course of life. So you have to embrace all the possibilities that life gives you and it does make a difference. When people say “well I am not intelligent enough”, well, intelligence has nothing to do with that. Everybody’s got more or less – we are all intelligent enough to learn a language because we have learned our own. Our brain is a machine, which was conceived also to learn a language, so if when people fail it is a psychological factor; it is not a lack of talent. I am positive that the psychological is the most important factor in language learning, so when people tend to be convinced that they have no talent, this destroys their capacity to learn because our brain becomes resistant, it “resists” the language, resists the opportunities. So, to summarize, there is a part of talent, some people speak languages better for some reason, like other people do sports better, or they run faster, but that is not the point. The point is that you have to develop the capacity of understanding your limits and understanding your potential. And once you understand that, nothing can stop you and you can reach incredible results.
David: Fantastic, very motivational. I have one last question for you and I think that everybody listening would kill me if I didn’t ask you is: Luca, do you think that you have talent?
Luca: I was sure you would ask me that, you were saving it for later! Well..I am Italian. In our culture when somebody asks you that, it is a very direct question and it is not always easy to answer. One can always find solutions or other ways to tackle this, to address your question. I would say that I do have talent for language learning, meaning I think I have a knack for accents and I pick up grammar patterns, but that is not what made me a polyglot. What really made me the person I am now is the personality trait that I have developed. I started believing in myself more and more. I thought, “I can do this”. If I hadn’t developed this personality trait, whatever you want to call it, I don’t think I would have reached this level. I do remember that when I was 20, I thought that I was very good at languages but then now I understand that my ..I can use my limits as weapons in this “war”, in this “battle”. So I believe that if I look at myself now, I would say that 85% of what I have comes from the opportunities that I myself created in life and a general attitude that I have and the fact I really started believing in me as a person, I figured out my “human potential”. So to answer your question whether I have talent for language learning or not, I think it would be crazy to say no, because I think I have some talent. If you look at the general picture there are quite a few people who speak a lot of languages, and I personally believe that in some regards I have something more than the average, but this doesn’t make me any better, I am not proud of that. What I am proud of is that – I don’t do it for the others, I do it for myself, I seek a better life – I know myself better. Languages helped me figure out my potential as a human being, and I am proud of that, you know? I do believe however that talent helped me foster this learning process because when something comes easier at the beginning – for example accents – this is one of the things that helped me the most, because when you talk to people after learning a language for 3,4 months and you just utter some sentences and people say “wow, you have a very good accent”, then you go back home and you hit the books because you want to learn more. So in part it helped, but it is a very tiny part compared to the whole.
David: it is a loop of motivation. You know one thing I really want to say before we close this conversation today is that Luca has said today that talent has helped him, and I know that many people that are going to be listening to this and they are going to say “oh, man, there is no hope for me” and forget about everything that we have said before. So I just want to reiterate what we have said before, and that is that talent is a natural disposition for being good at something, whatever it may be, but talent comes in many shapes and forms. There are also ways in which we can approach different challenges and tasks that can help us develop skills which can be mistaken as talen,t or that some may call “talent”. There is no way of knowing when you meet a person if they really developed the skill or if they are just like that. So I really want to make sure is that what people take away from this discussion today is that it is one line “talent doesn’t matter”.
Luca: Exactly. And one more thing. We are like pianos. Look at yourself; think that everybody, each and each one of us is like a piano. You have to touch the right notes. I touched my note of accents, which motivated me, but I am sure that other people have amazing talents in other things, so when you try to learn a language you have to find something that really motivates you, you have to touch the “right notes”. Maybe you are very good at interacting with people, you go to university and you stumble upon a Chinese – let’s suppose that you are learning Mandarin Chinese – and you touch one of your “notes” – you start “playing the piano” with that person, you touch the right note, and it motivates you. You are maybe passionate about Chinese history, or Chinese characters. Whatever makes you “glow”. That is an important thing. It doesn’t have to be accents, it can be something else. It can be maybe that you are good at remembering things, Chinese quotes, you can use “chengyu”, 4 Chinese characters that you can use to surprise Chinese people. Now this is a very specific example, but in general think about what makes you “happy”, something that you do and makes you want to go home and hit the books. Has it ever happened that you did something that really motivated you? So for me it is accents because I love talking to people on the street. When I get this very positive feedback I can’t wait to go back home and hit the books as I always say. This is something I have but once again other people have other amazing things and you have to find it. When you have a clear objective in mind – and in language learning it is almost always speaking a language fluently – it has to be channeled. What makes you tick, what makes you happy? What is it that you get so much satisfaction out of it? If you discover that, you are entering into a very positive loop of motivation that is going to help you incredibly because you don’t even think about it anymore, you just want to spend time with that, you just want to do it. Motivation is a very complex thing happening in the brain, but if you get inside the loop then, bingo! You have won the war
David: Mmh, you have won the war. We’ll leave it there, find your motivation, keep going and you will win the war. Thanks a lot Luca
Luca: Thank you David.