In medieval times, people believed that earth was flat. Therefore, they barely explored the world for the fear of falling off the edge of the planet if they ventured too far. But once they realized that earth was round, they started exploring. As a result, trade routes were established. Science and new ideas spread. And the world progressed much faster.
A fallacy stopped people from exploring the world.
A fallacy stops people from making whole-hearted effort to learn a language.
After years of futile effort, many think that they’re just not made to be a fluent speaker. They think that only intelligent, talented persons can reach the exalted levels. Or maybe those who’re blessed with the right genes. (In reality, people get stuck at an ordinary level in their English language skills because they don’t try hard enough, don’t use the right approach. It has nothing to do with any inborn ability.)
And because they reconcile to this fallacy, they don’t even make concerted effort to improve, thereby making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why would they if they believe that efforts aren’t going to bring in results?
However, this belief that only few blessed can make it is far from reality.
To unravel this, let’s first briefly understand how human beings – and even animals – learn a new skill.
How we acquire skills?
Human brain has around a billion neurons, and each is connected to around 1,000 other neurons, totaling around one trillion neural connections (or pathways). Our experiences in the physical world continuously arrange and rearrange these neural connections. This theory is widely believed to be first propounded by Eric Kandel, who shared Nobel Prize for this research in 2000.
Watch this YouTube video to understand how this rearrangement happens (duration: 2:03 minutes):
For example, if you start playing tennis, some of the neurons in your brain will rearrange to form new neural connections to encode ‘tennis skill’ you’re picking. To quote John Medina, a leading authority on brain study and founding director of two brain research institutes, from his book Brain Rules:
As you practice more and more and expand your repertoire of shots, your neural connections change accordingly.
When you want to hit a tennis forehand, electric signals flow through the neural connections pertaining to hitting forehand, and in a split second your hand gets directed to move a certain way to complete the shot. As you improve your forehand, the concerning neural connections start getting insulated with a substance called myelin, which prevents the electric signal from leaking. (Imagine, plastic insulation on electric wires preventing current from leaking.) The thicker the myelin grows, the more proficient the forehand becomes.
(In the image above, a neuron insulated with myelin is shown. The four cross-sectional images of the neuron depict progressive buildup of myelin.)
Can you, a tennis newbie, pick a 125 miles per hour tennis serve? No. But a professional tennis player would on most occasions. Why?
The professional, over years, has built relevant neural connections and insulated them with enough myelin to react to such a fast serve. You or I can’t because we haven’t developed those neural connections and insulated them with myelin.
To give another example, you, as a toddler, once struggled to even stand up. And then in a matter of few months you could walk, then trot, and then gallop. This transformation from crawl to gallop is the result of a similar building of neural connections, this time a different set of connections (remember, there are nearly trillion connections).
That’s why Michael Jordan, ESPN’s greatest athlete of the 20th century and unarguably the greatest basketball player of all time, failed miserably when he decided to quit the game and played baseball in 1994. In the solitary full season he played, he posted a 0.202 batting average and committed 11 errors in the outfield, the league’s worst. His brain was wired differently…wired for basketball. Not baseball.
I hope these examples were able to explain how we pick skills.
At the most fundamental level, we – even animals – pick skills through building appropriate neural connections and then insulating them.
You may also watch this short TED video to understand what I explained in this point (duration: 4:49 minutes):
Now, let’s come back to English.
English language too is a skill, which you acquire like any other skill
I’ll speak out through the work of Dr. Paul Sulzberger, a researcher at Victoria University, New Zealand. In his 2009 findings on language learning, he said:
When we are trying to learn new foreign words we are faced with sounds for which we may have absolutely no neural representation. A student trying to learn a foreign language may have few pre-existing neural structures to build on in order to remember the words.
At the most fundamental level, any skill, including English language, is picked by building relevant neural pathways and insulating them with myelin. The more you work at your skills in English and the more you improve (that’s key), the stronger your relevant neural connections will become through thickening of myelin.
There is no starting difference between yours and a fluent speaker’s neurons. Lack of intelligence or inborn ability or being from an average background is not the reason for poor spoken English. You’re no way disadvantaged in terms of fundamental attributes required to learn English.
Watch what Matyáš Pilin, who speaks multiple languages fluently, says on talent for languages (duration: 43 seconds):
You got to push.