Talent or discipline?


I will always remember two of my trainees.

Stefan was a creative guy who worked as a journalist. Language was to him a playground: tossing and spouting words like a blue whale, twisting and swirling sentences until their meaning got upside-down, making us and any audience listen excited or laugh to tears. His English – an upper-intermediate level – was alive, but jolting. He could use a subtle word here but had to take a simplifying shortcut in the next moment. He would create a vivid metaphor and next he would drop a dead verb with no tense. He had the rhetoric, but didn’t have the accuracy to make the best of it. And his great problem was that in his profession, and with his ability of juggling ideas like a brilliant illusionist, he always expected – and was expected – to wrap up his quality ideas in the quality language he was known for. He did several courses, could see through the syntax rules of how sentence blocks are to be combined, was the first to get the answers right and could apply the newly learned words right away. But after two years of courses he was still upper intermediate.

Marius was in logistics. He needed clear rules, if possible formulas. He had studied engineering and was slow to start. His other colleagues jumped directly into the group discussion; he had to be invited. In tests he had 4 or 5 pens and pencils, an eraser and a sharpener around his papers. He was the last to finish. For him words were entries in wordlists attached to lesson 1, 2, 3 etc. He asked me for grammar rules in the form of tables. After a while, his performance in class became visible; he still had to be invited to speak, but when he did, his sentences matched my grammar tables mathematically and at the end of written tasks his emails or reports were the most accurate and in the best business style. He started our course as a false beginner. After two years he was upper intermediate.

Stefan had been brilliant at communication subjects in school. For Marius these subjects had been his nightmare. What made their performance – and above all their progress – so different?

I think anyone can learn a language up to a point. It takes persistence and – very important – solid study habits, no matter if that means using pencils of different colours, visual materials, learning patterns or words by heart etc. You need a routine of studying.

And one more thing: it’s what you expect to do with the language. Stefan never improved significantly – against the yardstick of his profession. Marius learned relatively soon how to write an email, how to write a report or present a graph – things that are based on templates and clear rules. This much can be learned no matter how poor your talent for languages is.

So find another excuse for not being successful at learning English: it must be lying with your approach, your motivation, the method you have chosen to learn (books, private lessons, courses, CDs etc), your workload, or the overall stress in your life.