What Talent Has to Teach Us

Unexpected connections between language study and the arts.


When I began studying Arabic, I only wanted to study with native speakers. I barely knew any words, but I was already worried about my accent.

Actually, it had everything to do with childhood ballet classes. Giddy with the joy of movement, I’d had little patience for the precision that the fundamentals require. Years later, I felt I had only myself to blame for my resulting poor foundation in dance technique.

This time, I thought as I looked around for Arabic classes, I’m not going to make the same mistake.

Yet more years later, I have a good Arabic accent, in part because I studied with a lot of native speakers (whether in person or on CD).

But I spent the most significant year of my language studies under the inspired tutelage of a non-native speaker, David Wilmsen, a professor of Arabic language and linguistics at the American University of Beirut. From David, I also learned a lot about creativity, perspective, and the boundless depths of understanding.

Coming to an Understanding

I only grasped the personal significance of my studies with David (and other non-native speakers) when I heard a fellow student at Middlebury’s summer Arabic college speak.

He told our collective that he wanted to someday teach Arabic because students needed to see that they too could gain the proficiency necessary to do so. At the time, I still thought of myself as the eternal student.

In part because learning another language in a formal, educational setting so little resembles the way we learn our native languages, my classmate’s words formed an important reminder: These studies were something more than exercise or a rehearsal.

The process was the practice. My engagement with Arabic could even be a model for a more alive approach to my own native tongue.

Back in the Classroom

I’ve since taught Arabic to adults. And I’ve enjoyed telling my students that they too only need to do the work in order to make Arabic their own. They don’t have to take my word for it: like David, I live that truth.

The more I teach, the more I believe that the symbolic, and the situation that holds it in place, matter more than anything we say.

In Meditation in Action, the Tibetan master Chögyam Trungpa writes:

One wishes it were possible, by saying only a few words, to enlighten someone, but even great teachers like Christ or Buddha were unable to perform such a miracle. They had always to find the right opportunity and create the right situation.

That’s not to say that language doesn’t have its own place. Perhaps the words are the dance, and the situation is the force that moves the dancer.

A Talent for Beginning

My experience studying Arabic forced me to think more deeply about talent. It’s easy to come across someone who speaks three or four languages and call them talented, but language learning itself is clearly a talent we each possess. If the situation requires that we learn a language, even later in life, we will learn it.

In the strictest sense, then, language learning isn’t really a talent at all. It’s an essential skill that manifests itself in response to urgency or necessity.

Achievement in any discipline, however, is rarely so neat. Often we need to simulate that urgency or necessity, at least until that point when it becomes a reality — and that is an inevitability, if we can only push on long enough. Structure helps. So do supporters and allies. I’ve sometimes had to fall back on stubborness.

You might say that there are “native speakers” in every discipline, those “born with talent” in athletics, music, or dance. They’ve arrived, whether through genetics, karma, or chance, without making that conscious, uncertain journey to a peak.

They can still choose to develop their talent, if they’re willing to undergo risk and the possibility of failure. My best “native speaker” teachers have clearly done so, and they have the greater perspective to show for it.

But what about us non-native speakers, those of us who started with something less than the natural reinforcement that comes with attracting the world’s early notice?

No one needed me to learn Arabic (or necessarily believed that I could at 25) until I already spoke it. No one needed my father and I to create a writing guide, until they had it in their hands to read. And if I’m honest with myself, I know that no one, right now, truly needs my current project or my next one. But — apart from this acknowledgement — I’m not going to think about it.

The talent for seeing through the truth of today to the potential truth of tomorrow? That’s the one I need.