4 TALENT MYTHS THAT ARE HARMFUL TO YOUR RUSSIAN
I was at my friend’s when her daughter Lisa told me:
“My English grades are poor because I’m just not talented at languages!”
I felt sad. She’s just 10 and has already given learning languages up as a lost cause. If only she knew what she’s gonna miss out on…
But no wonder, if even teachers think like that. I used to think in these terms too.
Sometimes learners of Russian feel they are not talented (enough).
It’s harmful because it makes people unhappy about themselves and their progress and they often quit.
Let me tell you 4 real life stories (including my story of learning English) and debunk the 4 dangerous talent myths. You’ll see that talent is irrelevant for success (and what is).
These 4 myths are interconnected – they are actually different sides of the main myth: “Talent = easy success”.
Myth 1: If you’re not talented, you can’t succeed at learning a language
A story of Masha, Lisa’s mom:
When Masha was about Lisa’s age, she was learning English and German at school. She would get average or poor grades. Her teachers thought she was not talented.
After 2 years, she suddenly fell in love with a band singing in English. She wanted to know what they were singing about.
This was before the Internet, so if there were no lyrics to go with the tape, she had to transcribe them and look the words up in the dictionary. Of course, she’d often get them wrong, but she didn’t give up.
Eventually, she translated and memorized all of their songs. She liked singing, too, so she would sing them often, copying the manner and pronunciation of the vocalist.
This led to a breakthrough in her English.
She started to pay more attention to what they were doing at the lessons. It started to make sense. She improved her grades dramatically. She also improved her view of herself as a language learner. Her teacher started to distinguish her. And not only the English teacher but the German teacher too – her language learning skills and interest transferred to German!
Was Masha talented? Were people mistaken? Maybe they didn’t see the hidden gem?
How do people tell if someone is talented? Usually using myth 2 and myth 3!
Myth 2: If you experience difficulties or failures, it means that you’re not talented
John was a bright fellow. He used to be number one at school and finished university with flying colours. He was super successful in his job. Russian was his first foreign language. And the first thing in his life related to learning that wasn’t super easy. In fact, he faced some real obstacles.
He imagined he would be conversational in about 4-6 months of 2 weekly lessons. Conversational meant for him being able to speak spontaneously and naturally in everyday situations, have conversations like he’s used to in his first language.
Russian learning wasn’t like learning physics at school. It was not enough to understand information. He needed to form skills. And the skills would not be formed immediately.
He’d learn a pattern, practice it and then he’d make occasional mistakes. He’d often get angry at himself that he wasn’t perfect.
He’d forget things from time to time and need to go back and revise (and sometimes relearn).
He didn’t know it was a normal thing. One day he said:
“I think I’m just not talented at languages.”
Ironically, his progress was fast and steady. Much better compared to many. But he judged himself according to his own standard (very far from realistic).
Of course, the idea that he wasn’t talented was extremely frustrating for him because he believed that “not talented” meant “not able to learn Russian”…
Luckily, he didn’t quit. The more he practised, the better he could speak. Now he’s a happy speaker of Russian, who is confident in everyday situations, feels the logic of Russian better than some of his teachers, uses complicated detailed vocabulary and makes correct sentences on the fly without thinking about grammar.
So is he talented or not?
Myth 3: If you have easy and automatic success, it means you’re talented
In high school, people around me used to admire my English skills and tell me: “Oh, you’re so talented at languages!”
They thought my success was due to genes or some gift from God. But learning English was neither always easy nor was it a straight way – they only saw the tip of the iceberg.
I was interested in languages since I remember myself. I was lucky to have teachers that gave me a good system and whose lessons I enjoyed. I was so motivated that I kept learning beyond my classroom and sought practice opportunities in the real world. I wanted to do more and more of it. And I did a lot. I liked it even more in the process.
Because of the extra experience, things got easier for me compared to my classmates.
People made me compliments that I spoke fluently in nice coherent sentences. They thought, only talented people can achieve this. But in fact:
- my teachers taught me that grammar matters, so I learned to pay attention,
- and we did a lot of grammar and speaking drills, so many English grammar patterns became automatic.
My success wasn’t always easy too. I had obstacles. It was tough to learn irregular verbs and revise vocabulary, hard to understand some tenses (and the articles! and the prepositions!) and some exercises were challenging. But it was thanks to the most challenging activities that I made progress in speaking.
Myth 4: If you’re talented, success is guaranteed
When I was at school, everybody thought I was talented at math. I liked math as a child. But as a teenager, my interests started to shift. It was too abstract and not related to my life. I had a great teacher. But as I wasn’t interested in logarithms and stuff, I paid less and less attention, worked less and less, my knowledge got worse and worse. And I didn’t want to fix it.
On the other hand, there were some guys in my class who were math geniuses. I thought so at the time. Now, looking back, I see – such great skills are the result of their interest, passion and commitment.
In her book “Mindset”, Carol Dweck tells some stories of talented people who end up not being successful compared to their “not talented” colleagues. Common reasons for that are not doing the hard work and/or quitting because of disappointment when they don’t get quick results.
What the heck is talent?
Is it something we are born with?
According to Google,
Isn’t there a contradiction?
What is a skill, then?
Skill is an ability and capacity acquired through deliberate, systematic, and sustained effort to smoothly and adaptively carryout complex activities or job functions involving ideas (cognitive skills), things (technical skills), and/or people (interpersonal skills).
So is talent something you were lucky to learn early in your childhood?
I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter, especially after you think about neuroplasticity:
Research in the latter half of the 20th century showed that many aspects of the brain can be altered even through adulthood. This notion is in contrast with the previous scientific consensus that the brain develops during a critical period in early childhood and then remains relatively unchanged.
What you do, think, feel, changes your brain.
“Your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience”.
So, whatever talent is, it definitely doesn’t help to predict success. After thinking about it, talent seems completely irrelevant!
So what does success depend on?
You might have noticed this pattern in the 4 stories:
Interest –> attention –> practice –> success!
- When Masha got interested in the English language, she started paying attention and practised a lot, which eventually led to her success.
- What John lacked, was enough practice. The more he practised, the better his speaking skills became. He didn’t quit and ended up a fluent and happy Russian speaker.
- My English learning was a combination of passion and hard work too.
- When I lost my interest in math, I stopped putting in enough effort. After some time, my skills and knowledge deteriorated.
Sometimes your way is a straight line. But if you don’t know the territory, you may have to take detours and you’ll get lost from time to time. It’s normal.
You can find someone to show you a couple of shortcuts. But you’ll still have to face some difficulties.
And it’s OK, as long as you take charge of your progress.
Your mindset makes all the difference.
If you treat difficulties as part of your journey and enjoy the way (instead of obsessing about getting to your final destination ASAP) and take a more playful approach, you won’t notice how you’ll get there.
If you keep at it, you’ll do it. It may take longer than you expected. You may change your methods on the way. But you will make it.
All the people who didn’t succeed at Russian are not “untalented”. They just quit too early.
But you can stand up and try again.
P.S. The photo was made in Moscow, Russia by Alexander Popov.