No Talent for Multilingualism?

by Alice · 8 comments

By Alice Lapuerta
Photo Credit: Mykl Roventine

I don’t like numbers. I have no talent for Math and computation. I just don’t have that numbers gene. Never had, never will.

But that’s fine with me! Languages and words are a lot more fun anyway and I collect them like pebbles on the beach. I guess I must have a talent for multilingualism.  It was with this conviction that I had walked happily through life.

Until I became a mother.

This is when the craziness started. All of a sudden we began juggling three languages simultaneously in our household. Things didn’t go as smoothly as I thought they would, at first. And I began to question certain things that I had hitherto taken for granted.

Also the issue of: are we really born with a talent for languages? Do we really have a numbers gene versus a language gene? Or isn’t it really me who determines that? Why is it either/or? And is it nature or nurture?

What triggered the whole debate for me was that several people within a short time frame, completely independent of each other, mentioned that “some kids have an easier time acquiring two or more languages because they have more talent.”

Since one of those people was a professional, a Speech Therapist, who went as far as hinting, rather obviously, that my daughter might not be a member of that prestigious group, I spent a considerable amount of very serious thinking on the topic of aptitude, talent and multilingualism.

In retrospect, this seems a highly absurd statement to make with reference to my daughter, if one considers that she now speaks three languages fluently, and is starting to show an interest in a fourth! But back then, worried and paranoid parent of a first-born child that I was, I admit that I actually thought about whether there might be some truth to that statement.


{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 soultravelers3 September 18, 2010 at 12:21 pm

“children are language talents because they were raised to be so”

I wholeheartedly agree! 😉 I am a monolingual raising a tri-lingual and it is really all about commitment ( and hard work) on the parents part.

I can’t say we needed it to live, but we thought it important enough to do whatever it takes, including traveling the world non-stop for the last 5 years. 😉

Some cultures like the Scandinavians and Dutch value languages as very important and thus they raise multi-lingual kids! 😉


2 Oliver September 18, 2010 at 11:22 pm

A few years ago I heard a very interesting comment by an educational expert in TV. He said that if you ask Korean and Japanese students why they are so good in math, compared to the rest of the world, they will often respond with the words “We had to study a lot”. If you ask students of the Western world why they are not so good in math, then they’ll respond with “I’m not talented”. They attribute it to their “genes”, something they can not change. Therefore there is no point in trying.

It’s generally very risky to adopt a “I’m simply not talented enough” attitude, or to attribute a lack of talent to a child. This “I’m simply not talented enough” attitude as a great excuse not to foster the education of a child, or even one’s own education. I’m not saying that an inherited form of talent does not exist. I simply want to point out that many people (and students that I know) found a convenient excuse not to try harder. Ultimately it becomes something like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On the more funny side, I also once heard the following anecdote: Some parents tell their children before they leave to school: “Do not forget your lunch pack!”. Other parents tell their kids: “Do not forget your books!”.

What I want to say here: It’s not only talent, it’s not only allocated study time. It’s also a question of attitude towards education in general, both in the home and also in society at large.



3 sonja September 20, 2010 at 7:46 am

I was laughing reading your comment about the example of Korean and Japanese! I tell you why: I’m a witness of it. One of my daughter’s schoolmates, Korean, started having piano lessons and his mother suggested me to let my daughter attend lessons with him. I was excited to let her try. They were 7 years old.
After 6 months, my daugher was still practising first notes with one hand, the Korean boy played Chopin! Everybody said he is really talented, however his mother explained me she forced him to practise at least one hour everyday. I believed there should be a special talent anyway in this boy, till a Japanese girl arrived in the school. Very soon she too reached the same level of the Korean, while my daughter and the other Western kids, were still at the first steps.
The same efforts and hard work Asian parents deeply want for their children in all the other subjects. And the difference is really tangible.


4 Clare September 19, 2010 at 8:48 pm

The last 5 years I’ve come down to one conclusion over STs; it’s easier to suggest someone is weak than suggesting ways for them to maximise their abilities..that takes work, knowledge, experience, training and skills..and most of all time and brain work. It’s like positive dog training, very few people understand the value of it, most people/trainers would rather just pull the lead.

I’ve seen autistic children that use cards to communicate, yet if there’s a second language in their environment they pick it up whether you like it or not. How can you not learn what’s right in front of you?


5 Cathy September 20, 2010 at 1:17 am

Funny that you should mention that…I believe that one becomes talented in languages BECAUSE one is raised multi-lingually, not the other way around. People were astounded by the fact that I learned German so quickly, and I attribute that to my multi-lingualism. People who were raised monolingually usually are the ones who say that they aren’t talented, because they set such high standards for themselves (they should speak akzentfreies Englisch, blah blah).

As with my disastrous math skills, I blame my third grade math teacher.


6 Marjan September 20, 2010 at 4:42 am

When I was in school I dropped all languages as soon I was able to. I just hated to learn words by heart as I was not strong in it. And I loved Maths and Science.
But I also loved to travel, so I found an apprenticeship in Germany and learned German. I later worked in Guatemala were I had to learn Spanish. After that experience I promised myself never to go to a country of which I would not speak the language as I hated the first few months in which you were talking like a child and how other people sometimes treated you as being stupid, just because I could not express myself.
But life decided diferent and I went to Sudan and had to learn Arabic.
Because I worked in so many diferent countries I had to learn the languages. But if you ask me if I am good in languages I would say no, as I only manage to reach a certain level in each language. I have dificulties with applying the right tenses and still find it hard to memorize all the words. Beside of that I am not a talkative person. I have seen that talkative persons in a native language also end up being talkative persons in a foreign language.


7 Elizabeth September 20, 2010 at 8:58 am

Thanks for writing this! You bring up good points, but my favorite point that you brought up was to challenge the opinion of an expert. It is a good reminder for all of us to use a little instinct instead of expert advice when raising our children with more than one language.


8 Gemma February 19, 2012 at 9:11 pm

Languanges, maths, musical instruments or anything else: there’s not such a thing as talent.
Prove: I’ve always been considered to be talented for languages (I grew up monolingual) by anyone who knows me or anyone I’ve met since I started to study my first foreign language at the age of 11, which was French. For the first 3 yrs of study I was the best in class with maximum marks. As soon as I changed school and teacher, my French never passed the tests. But during the same period of time, my new foreign language, English, was excellent.

It’s all a matter of interest, passion, motivation and dedication. There’s no such a thing as talent. It’s not nature, but nurture.


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