Language in Bloom

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Click, not knack

Contrary to what some might assume, I was never a natural at languages. In fact, I think that even though the idea of some innate “knack of languages” is so rarely true, it is such a pervasive belief that it can be a real detriment to people setting out to learn a new language or picking up where they left off.  I know many, many people who struggled in the beginning stages of learning a language but have since progressed to fluency, and I was one of those people.

Like so many other people from my area, I started studying Spanish in the 8th grade because we were required to take a language and for some reason I did not want to take French. I don’t remember much about my Spanish 1 teacher except that she was Italian, and I don’t recall the content of the class at all, or how far we got in our textbook.

In high school, I took Spanish every year, progressing from level to level, and then I took AP Spanish Language in my junior year and campaigned with a friend to establish a brand-new Spanish 5 class my senior year. You might be thinking at this point that I must have been good at Spanish if I progressed according to the established schedule and if I was that involved in the curriculum at my school. And you would be partially correct – I wasn’t terrible. However, I did not excel in Spanish like I did in some of my other classes, and for many years (maybe even every year? Again, I can’t remember) it was the only class in which I did not get an A. I can send you a snapshot of my report card(s) if you want proof.

Obviously, a B+ is still a good grade. I’m not that traumatized from high school to realize that I was still a good student and that a B+ is an excellent mark. But, it did not come to me as easily as my other subjects. I still loved my Spanish classes, though, mostly because my teachers were exceptional and class was enjoyable, even if my exams weren’t stellar.

At my summer orientation session before starting classes at the University of Virginia, I was assigned a professor from the Spanish department as my temporary advisor to help me choose my first semester of classes. When I told him of my plan to ditch Spanish entirely since I had placed out of the 200 level classes, to focus on other languages like Italian and Portuguese, he convinced me to try out at least one Spanish class at the 300 level. So I took the class that was next in the Spanish series, Grammar Review. Not only did I enjoy the class and learned a great deal, I got an A. I was taking Italian at the same time, and learning Italian came easily after having worked so hard in Spanish. That was it – that was the “click” I needed.

Let’s just say I was hooked on languages at that point. The next semester I declared my major as Spanish and I signed up to study abroad my entire second year in Spain. That was the beginning of my career in languages, and I’ll be forever grateful for those teachers in high school that taught me to have fun with language even if I wasn’t a natural, and to those professors at UVA who encouraged me to continue even when it hadn’t “clicked” for me yet.

I’m not saying that the knack for languages doesn’t exist for anyone. However, I do believe that the idea that only those people with that knack can learn another language is patently false. It was a myth for me, and it is a myth for the many, many individuals I have known personally who have achieved their goals despite struggling at some point in their journey. It’s not about an inherent knack; it’s about the click that happens when you finally realize that the work and practice you put into studying a language are paying off. It’s different for everyone, and it can happen at any point, and even at multiple times over the course of your lifetime. So if you’re one of those people that have said to yourself or even out loud “I just don’t have that knack for languages,” say to yourself instead, “It just hasn’t clicked for me YET.”


Written by

Tammy Bjelland
Language lover, teacher & coach.

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