Telling me I am naturally talented is an insult

8 Jul

I often get comments now about me being talented with languages or about me having some great skill. I don’t view it that way, and I honestly do not see these  as complements. I’ve worked hard to build this skill, and if people claim that my success with languages (or anything else) comes from natural skill, then they are ignoring all of the hard work that I’ve done. Ignoring all of that hard work and attributing my success to inborn natural ability is an affront to my effort.

It is no secret that skill is built over a long period due to intelligent practice and effort, but I think that people often forget this. Because we rarely see the many hours of practice involved in building a skill, we forget about it. Because we only see the final result, the performance, we naïvely assume that it exists in a vacuum. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this in Outliers, and the concept is prevalent elsewhere as well. Ask any olympic athlete or any chess grandmaster and they will tell you that they worked hard to achieve what they have. Lots of people have said variations on the phrase “It took me X years to become an overnight success.” Anyone who has achieved a high level of skill or success in their field will tell you that they worked hard for it. Despite this knowledge of the result of hard work and dedication, we still often forget.

People often associate my success with language with ‘natural skill.’ When I was in China, people would often tell me that I must have a knack for languages or that I must have some language gene. What those people saw was me speaking good Chinese for a few minutes. What those people didn’t see was me sitting at my desk, drilling flashcards, watching Chinese films, and generally spending time practicing, devoting my time to improving my skill. That is what gave me skill in Chinese, not my blood or my genes or any heavenly gift. Do anything for 4 hours a day in a class plus another 4 hours a day at home and you will get good at that. When people compliment my Spanish accent, it isn’t because I was born with it. It is because I spent many hours studying, practicing, consuming Spanish-language media, and immersing myself in the language. When people say that my Portuguese is good, it isn’t because I’m a language demigod. It is because I try to use a smart strategy to study, and I cram as much Portuguese into my brain as I can handle. Podcasts, music, films, flashcards, grammar books, language exchanges… That is where my language skill comes from: effort. Work. Dedication.

So please don’t tell me “You have a natural talent with languages.” If you want to make me feel good and pay me a compliment, tell me “I really respect how much effort and time you must have put into developing this skill.”

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