July 29, 2023

Can anyone learn a foreign language?

Polyglot Conference Berlin 2015

A student writing his paper on "Learning a language as quickly and efficiently as possible" sent me an email and asked me these two questions:

1) Do you think being a polyglot is something you're born with or a skill you can develop with practice? And why?

2) What is, in your opinion, the most important tip, for learning a language quickly and efficiently?

I often get these questions asked actually and as my answers tend to be a bit non-conventional and longer, no matter how hard I try to simplify them, I decided to post them here on my blog for anyone interested.

I thought about both of these questions many times in my life and my opinion has evolved, so I might add or change something in the future again, but right now I think that:


If there is such a thing as talent for learning languages, something that people are born with and cannot be learned or acquired, it consist of:

a) inborn pattern recognition ability/general intelligence

b) time it takes for a concept (word, sentence structure, pattern, sound etc) to get stored in one's long term memory 

c) persistence

For instance, there are several techniques that can help you improve your memory, pronunciation, time management, motivation etc. that can be learned. There are also good materials that can explain language concepts very well, good grammar drills etc., but be it as it may a) and b) cannot be improved on by a lot, or takes a much longer time in my opinion, and therefore if there is such thing as talent, it's probably related to this.

Additionally c) I feel like is just a quality, that is necessary in general and maybe even more so when it comes to learning languages because this skill takes longer to show results in my opinion.


The one single most important tip probably would be to allow the mind to become organically and intrinsically very keen on learning the language you want to learn. The statement is a bit fuzzy, but simply put I would call this "sheer organic/intrinsic interest and the organic/intrinsic will to improve" or knowing the difference between the mind where it 'wants to learn (very much)' and where the mind 'has to be taught'.

For instance, force a child to learn the letters of the alphabet and it will take long. Give the same child an iPad and allow it to hang out with friends on some app and apart from learning all the letters, that child will probably even learn how to change settings on that iPad you had no idea existed.

The same works for adults in my opinion, although adults probably really do not learn as quickly as children do, even when accounted for the greater amount of knowledge and experience they have to make their task easier.

It seems to me the brain is naturally apt at absorbing information/concepts at great speeds, it just has to be incentivised correctly. Same with language learning. If you have your mind set correctly and have the correct incentives, I believe you can learn anything/any concept, like Mandarin Chinese, Quantum Mechanics, Calculus etc. and learn it quickly. Obviously it has to be a concept that someone has learned at least once before in history, proving that it can indeed be learned. Right now, as we stand, it seems impossible to learn every single language in the world to a C1 level for instance, or understand and learn some mathematical concept that hasn't been discovered yet.

When it comes to language learning, this incentivisation can be anything from moving to where the country is spoken, being in love with the script or the culture of the target language, having a romantic partner that only speaks that language etc. but it all usually boils down to honest, organic deep and persistent interest. Once you have your mind set right, you will learn much quicker, will not need any motivational tricks to keep you focused and will be keen on improving and improving your own learning methods.


  1. Nice to see that you are still disseminating your wisdom among language enthusiasts. Have you started learning a new language recently? I mean, since you stopped making YT videos? Zdravím z Čech. Honza

    1. Ahoj Honzo. Dik pekne za komentar. I was learning Greek sort of intensively for about 3 months in 2021 but currently I'm only trying to improve Persian. All the best.

  2. Hi there, why did you stop making videos on YouTube?

    1. Hi. I felt like making videos wasn't for me :) But, maybe I'll make some more in the future.