Ever wished for the super power of learning languages?

As well as being generally ‘super’, Superman could fly. Superwoman sort of whirled around some, as I recall.

Spiderman could swing from tall building to tall building, which saved a lot of time spent in elevators.

The Incredible Hulk couldn’t fly or climb walls, but was very strong when roused, which could come in handy when dealing with Italian bureaucracy… Issue my visa now, or I’ll turn green and smash up your consulate!

And let’s not forget Harry Potter, who had an invisibility coat and could do magic. I’m sure you can see the potential there.

So wouldn’t it be great to have super-human powers?

Personally, I’d have liked to have been good at languages. Years of not learning much French at school convinced me that I’d never be able to hold a conversation in any foreign tongue.

Then (this was back in 1990), a girlfriend convinced me to quit my well-paid government job and take to the hippy trail with her, destination India!

Actually, we just bought the cheapest flight we could find, which was with Ariana airlines, the Afghan flag carrier.

Departing from London, the plane touched down briefly in Prague, Moscow and Kabul. And after eighteen hours of rubbish curry and warm beer, we finally arrived in New Delhi!

On the bus from the airport into the Indian capital, I saw an elephant, and dreamed of learning Hindi…

But, no doubt due to my lack of the relevant super power, during the subsequent months spent bumming around the subcontinent, I was never able to manage more than a few basic expressions and menu items. Aaloo (potato) is the only word I can still remember.

Neither did I see any other elephants.

Back at home, a white-collar jobs crisis had hit London. I spent the next eight months on unemployment benefit, wondering what to do with my life. Finally, my mother convinced me to train as a language teacher (the irony).

Which is how I ended up teaching English in Turkey, then to Japanese kids in a residential school in Britain, then in Poland, and then back in London, where I met my Italian wife.

During those years I came to realize that it wasn’t just me that lacked language-learning super powers.

In fact it became increasingly obvious that no one else was that great at picking up languages either. Which was fortunate, as it was keeping me gainfully employed.

It was apparent that people weren’t ‘good at languages’ in some magical way – it was just that the successful ones kept at it, taking course after course, until they eventually achieved their goals.

While I was busy earning a living helping people learn English, I somehow got to be fairly fluent in Turkish (girlfriends, bars), able to score a table tennis match in Japanese, and good enough at Polish to be able to order a meal and tell the taxi driver where to go (Polish is hard!)

And after many years of trying, I’ve even reached an advanced level in Italian. I run a business here in Bologna and so have to read contracts, deal with accountants, and so on. And here’s a funny thing – the more I have to work in Italian, the easier it gets.

Back to the point, then.

Perhaps anyone who got angry enough could smash their way through a door, like the Hulk?

Maybe spending time hanging from tall buildings on a rope made from a spiders’ webs would make you more agile and strong enough to climb up walls?

I suppose I finally acquired the super power of being ‘good at languages’ by putting myself in situations in which learning at least something was necessary. And by allowing myself plenty of time before expecting magical results.

So if you’d like to speak and understand Italian, forget the kryptonite.

Instead, try getting yourself to Italy, where you’ll be able to interact with others in Italian and use the language on a daily basis.

Or maybe I’m wrong, and learning languages IS a super power that only other people possess.

But you won’t really know unless you try, will you?

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