Saturday 23 July 2016

Nature, nurture, and linguistic giftedness

I met a Scandinavian couple the other day, who had visited Portugal countless times. They waxed lyrical about the country, its beauty, its history, its food, its people (I can, by the way, impartially confirm that their comments were spot on), and told me they would be moving there soon. Paperwork, housing and banking matters were all good to go, and they were delighted to have found a native who could answer their less bureaucratic questions.

“So when will you start learning Portuguese?”, I asked in turn. “Oh, no need for that!”, they waved me aside, “Everyone speaks English there”. They do?, I thought, wondering what everyone and English might mean, whenever anyone says what they’d just said. Okay, I went on thinking, so they’re aiming to make a home of Portugal’s beauty, history, food, and people in a language that is neither theirs nor the country’s. How will that work itself out?, I wanted to ask next but, before I could, they added: “Besides, we’re not good at languages.”

I must have mumbled something in response, and we probably went on talking about the marvels, the enrichment, etc. etc., afforded by travelling the world. I can’t remember. I’ve learned to switch to sociable autopilot after that line, one that I’ve heard countless times and as infinitely tried to counter, to null effect. The cumulative facts that I use more than the magical number of just two languages in my daily life and that I ‘work with languages’ apparently make me unsuitable to speak for the learning of new ones. “You’re gifted for languages”, people nod knowledgeably at me and, as far as they’re concerned, this compliment ends the argument.

Gift-wrapped language skills?
Image © Clipart Panda

The issue is, of course, that this is no compliment at all. It makes light of the tremendous amount of time, will, engagement, openness to input, readiness for practice that goes into learning any language, any time, whether we’re big or small. It tells me and other language learners that we’ve learned our languages because we were, literally, given something that we didn’t need to have merited to earn. It tells me and other believers in hard work that we should believe instead in easy handouts that we can’t help being awarded – or not awarded: the corollary of gift theories of learning is that some of us “are not good” at learning certain things, and can’t help it either. 

The issue is also that the gifted-for-languages reasoning is flawed. It says that in order to be able to learn languages we must be good at languages. So are we all gifted, since all of us are good at learning at least one language, or does linguistic giftedness apply only to multilinguals? In that case, the gift can only reveal itself after we’ve learned a couple of languages, since nobody is born using them. So was there a gift to start off with, or did we acquire language learning skills on the job? Are we talking nature or nurture?

Understand me right: I’m not denying giftedness. I’m saying that arguing that you can only learn to use new languages if you’re gifted for languages makes as much sense as arguing that you can only learn to use new smartphones if you’re gifted for smartphones. I can’t deny giftedness because the single most important thing I’ve learned from my 40+ years as a teacher is that we’re all gifted. The trick is to find where that gift lies, which is not necessarily where entitled education policy-makers keep telling us where to look. In order to be good at what we do, what we need to be given is the chance to develop what we’ve got. Francis Bacon dixit, in Novum Organon, 1: CXXI: “So again the seeds of things are of much latent virtue, and yet of no use except in their development”. Or, as Edward M. Hundert puts it in the last paragraph of his book Lessons from an Optical Illusion. On Nature and Nurture, Knowledge and Values, we must strive to “nurture that nature that has nurtured us”.

Let me leave you with two other nuggets of wisdom about learners and learning: Aristotle’s “Consuetudo est altera natura” (‘Habit is second nature’) and Quintilian’s “Consuetudo certissima est loquendi magistra” (‘Usage is the best language teacher’). Consuetudo is where we find the gift.

I’m sure that my new friends will enjoy living in Portugal – their way, with expat English among English-speaking Portuguese. They won’t notice, and I won’t tell them, what they’ll miss about Portugal’s consuetudines. Or about exploring unsuspected language learning skills, more on which next time.

© MCF 2016

Next post: Language learners and linguistic resourcefulness. Saturday 17th September 2016.

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