A Discussion on “Language Talents”

Jamie (Xuan Zhao)

We always hear people talk about whether a person is “gifted at languages”, and we are dying to know if “language talents” really exist: is it true that someone was just born to be so lucky that they learn a second language in no time? Recently I read an interesting article about language talents. The author was inspired by a BBC documentary: Horizon Unveiling the Baby Myth, which talked about the process of babies’ language learning and its relationship with external environment.

According to it, one-month old babies have the ability of distinguishing language sequence and non-language sequence, while they can differentiate delicate nuances of speech sounds—which would even be hard for adults to tell. A dedicated neurolinguistics professor at University of Chicago has pointed out that, the number of babies’ cranial nerve synapses at the age of 8-12 months is 1.5 times of that of adults. This means that the capacity of transferring information of babies at that age would be 1.5 times higher than adults.

Babies around 1 year old would have stronger senses of language perception, however, the ability dramatically decreases after 1 year old. Why does this happen? Explanations in the documentary are that as the children adapt to their own environments, their brains retain the necessary synapses, while “clipping” the unnecessary ones. This is to better adapt to the environment.

That is to say, we were actually born with a COMPREHENSIVE drawing, instead of a blank paper, and it is our external environment that cuts out the redundant parts which we don’t need.

Then the author pointed out his prediction on language talents: that if the babies have stimulus in any language other than their mother tongues before 1 year old (especially 8-12 months old), they will show “special gifts” in those languages during their learning process in those languages.

I found this really interesting, because although it is just a hypothesis without systematically tests, it might give helpful suggestions on language learning. However, my own language learning experience provides an exception.

I have been exposed to English since the age of 5. Before that, English was something that never appeared in my life. The first a few years I really had a hard time dealing with this foreign language, although my parents tried various ways to get me interested. It was not until the age of 13 that I finally started to make huge progress in English learning: after memorizing the whole book of New Concept English II (a commonly used English textbook in China), everything in English world began to make sense to me. And it was since then that people started to call me “talented” in English. They never knew the stories of me struggling to learn the language…the struggle is real. Apparently that author’s hypothesis doesn’t work in my case; however, I wouldn’t totally deny the effects of the second language surroundings I was exposed to, as well as the efforts I made before 13 years old. What would you say about this issue?



Qing, G. 2014. Do ”Language Talents” exist? Retrieved from https://www.zhihu.com/question/26432181/answer/33876008


One thought on “A Discussion on “Language Talents””

  1. Shengwen Xu (comment #5)

    Hello, Jamie

    New Concept English II reminds me of my English learning experience! I learned English using this same collection of English materials. I think this classical collection has been used for more than two decades. Haha.
    Actually I share a similar opinion with you. I don’t deny something as “talent” may exist, but I think the investment in language learning and the time to begin the language learning play a more important role. When I taught English in China, sometimes I would heard the parents of my students complaining: “My child was gifted in language when he or she was a little child, but now his or her English scores at school are not satisfying.” Although what they said about gifted here is different from the “talent” mentioned in the article, I think there is not enough evidence to support this idea.


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