Geniuses, Hard Work, and Language Learning
Several weeks ago when different news stations started reporting on Timothy Doner, a 16-year-old New Yorker who speaks 23 languages, I came across an MSNBC interview where three journalists questioned him on his linguistic abilities and how he came to be acquainted with so many languages.
Tim seems to be a person who devotes countless hours to his learning and has actually made me realize that I need to do much more of the same. Even if I’m not able to study for 15 or more hours on any given weekend, I have started to feel inspired to work much harder now after witnessing the kind of progress he seems to make from spending such long hours to acquire his skills. My thinking is that I could even start to learn one more language as soon as later this year if I just put in some additional effort now, spending some more time on reading in French and Chinese and on seizing any additional opportunities to speak with people.
However, what I noticed from this interview in particular were the astonished reactions that Tim’s progress and ability seemed to generate in the interviewers, suggesting that taking on multiple languages was such an outrageous goal it would be best left to someone else. Now, I understand that this is television, and a sense of wonder, confoundment, and shock makes for a better “wow factor”. I doubt anyone would be as interested in the story if the interviewers shared it with an air of indifference, familiarity, and composure. But I think it is still misleading.
It seems that this is the type of reaction exhibited by many non-language learners (and really, many non-doers of anything) when they think about learning more languages than the one(s) that they already know. To increase one’s linguistic abilities is often considered to be such an onerous and burdensome task that it isn’t even given a second consideration.
I can understand if a person has no interest in foreign languages because there are many activities that, even though able to fascinate others, I myself would not have any interest in seriously pursuing. Also, as a rule, I know that there will always be someone somewhere who is better than me at at least something (and probably at most things). The difference, however, is that I probably wouldn’t consider any single individual to be some kind of genius or miracle-worker just because he or she is able to do something that I cannot do, or perhaps will never be able to do because I’m not willing to put the effort in that is required for such astounding progress to be made (as a side note, and before we go any further, let’s rule out people like savants who have certain abilities due to their individual brains — for our purposes, we are considering an average person with average life circumstances, probably someone just like you).
I think that this is a major problem with society at large. The general public puts more emphasis on the difficulty of a task than on the steps needed to obtain a similar and accomplished result. People accept the “magical” abilities of the person in question and then continue blindly on with daily life, never stopping to question how such a skill or accomplishment might be attainted for themselves, or at least in general. I think this is why we have heroes — without them, each person would have to shoulder the burden of accomplishing something worthwhile. There would be no need to exclusively look up to others and wish that you too had made such an impact on the world.
Of course, people have responsibilities and life comes at you from every which way. But if you want to accomplish something like language learning — I mean, if you really want to accomplish it (or anything else for that matter) — you’ll find the time and the drive to do it. You won’t make the excuses that you have work to do or a baby to feed. Sure, you might have to do these things, but if you really want to accomplish something additional, you’ll also find time to make your goals into reality (I’m sure you find time for TV everyday, right?).
This doesn’t mean that you would be shirking your other responsibilities, but it does mean that you would be taking care of yourself and your aspirations. You have to first simply realize that the accomplishment in question is not unattainable, and then you just have to go and get it. This second part might be difficult and it might take time, and you might have to do a lot of research into how to even get started. However, you will inevitably discover that there are a whole slew of people willing to help you accomplish what you want to do if you are simply willing to start (so if you’re thinking about starting to learn a new language, I would be more than happy to help if I can, even if that help is pointing you in the direction of someone who is more experienced in the specific language you are interested in learning).
In the end, no matter what your goal is, understanding that no one other than yourself has a better ability to accomplish what you want to accomplish is indeed a very empowering thing to know.