Recently a friend of mine was complaining to me how she had had enough of learning English, how it wasn’t meant to be for her because she didn’t have any talent. I had the chance to explain to her how talent – or more technically aptitude – is not what makes or breaks achieving language proficiency. Sadly, she isn’t the only one who attaches more importance to aptitude than it deserves. The result can be devastating, so let’s clear up the misconception.
Aptitude/talent is a prediction of how well you can learn a foreign language at a given time or how much time you need to reach a certain level of competence. It is always understood in relation to other students and under the same conditions. This is very important since individual conditions such as motivation and personality are very different even if the classroom environment, teacher, books, etc. are the same.
As you can see from the definition, aptitude has nothing to do with your achievement, only how fast that achievement comes. Also, other factors play more important roles, for example your motivation. If you are really motivated to learn a language with low aptitude, chances are you will surpass a student with high aptitude but low motivation.
I would also argue that thoughts like „I don’t have any talent for learning languages” are harmful because they can be debilitating as self-fulfilling prophecies: your ability to learn a language decreases just because you believe that you don’t have the ability to learn a foreign language. Of course the opposite can be true, believing you are talented is facilitating. There are tests that measure language aptitude but students usually arrive at such conclusions without taking one and if the verdict is unfavourable, they are in for a hard time. This often happens when they expect quick results and interpret the lack thereof as not having talent for language learning instead of realising that it takes a lot more effort than they originally thought.
Most of the time, therefore, it is useless to think about whether you are talented or not. If you are, great. If you aren’t, you either have no choice but to learn that language in which case thinking about how bad you are at languages will just make matters worse (see above). If you don’t have to learn the language but you would anyway, it means you have the motivation with which you compensate for your lack of aptitude. Whatever the scenario is, stop thinking and start learning!