Learning from Genius: Seven lessons that language students can learn from the greats

1. Toni Morrison – self-motivation

Toni Morrison
















The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison grew up poor. Her grandparents had escaped from the American South with little more than the clothes on their backs and a violin, and her parents labored in menial jobs. Morrison’s youth was spent getting evicted from numerous family homes by white landlords. As an adult she was a single mother working a full-time job. “All of my life [was] doing something for somebody else,” she told New York Magazine in 2012. She would wake up at 4:00 a.m. to write, before making breakfast for her two sons, packing them off to school and heading to work. After years of writing, she wasn’t published until close to her fortieth birthday. The glory and the prizes came later.


Morrison overcame huge obstacles to succeed as a black woman in what was largely a white, male world. There’s the brilliance of her work, and then there’s the perseverance and self-motivation that have marked her life, two traits that all learners need.



2. Charles Darwin – curiosity

Charles Darwin

There’s a story about Charles Darwin, told in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity: As a child, Darwin collected beetles. One day, while strolling in the woods, he saw a beetle disappearing into a tree. He pulled back the bark, grabbed the creature, and noticed two other types of beetle he didn’t already own. He picked one up and then realized his hands weren’t big enough for all three. Fighting off his squeamishness, he put the third beetle in his mouth and ran all the way home.


Kids are curious by nature, but curiosity in adults – wanting to know for no other reason than you want to know – is a sign of an engaged mind, essential for a good language learner.



3. Don Bradman – repetition

Donald Bradman

The cricketer Sir Donald Bradman is statistically the greatest sportsman ever. His batting average was forty per cent better than anyone else who has ever played the game. Forget Michael Jordan, Pele, Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth. Bradman is on a different planet. And part of it is down to how he spent his youth. Growing up in a rural bush town that had little more than a gas station, a bar and a few kangaroos bouncing in the distance, Bradman, a loner, spent much of his childhood in his back yard hitting a golf ball with a thin wooden stump against the curved base of a water tank. He did this for hours on end, thus honing his ball-tracking skills.


Repetition aids muscle memory. It allows you to do certain things in a state of automaticity, a prerequisite for speaking a foreign language fluently.



4. Alexander Fleming – seizing opportunity

Alexander Fleming











It’s a well-known tale of the happy accident: In 1928, Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming came across a moldy Petri dish in his lab and noticed that the mold killed bacteria. His observations led to the discovery of penicillin, although it wasn’t until 1940 that the wonder drug was put to practical use.


Seizing opportunities is a strategy that all good language learners use. They seek out chances to use the language and interact with its speakers. If an English-speaking tourist visits their town, they get into conversation. A podcast in English? They’re listening. A presentation by a Brit? They’re in the front row, asking questions.



5. Albert Einstein – from visualization to actualization

Albert Einstein








The genius’s genius was famously scatterbrained. His desk was a mess (he once said, “if a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what then, is an empty desk?”). And legend has it that he couldn’t make change for the bus fare (the bus drivers would sort out his pennies for him). But he had a visionary mind. As a teenager he ‘saw’ himself riding a beam of light, and this visualization later helped him to construct the Theory of Relativity.


Visualization is receiving more and more recognition as a motivational strategy (see Dornyei and Hadfield, 2013). Learners can ‘see’ their ‘future selves’ conversing in a foreign language, prospering in foreign environments, and this motivates them to keep pushing for their goal.



6. William Shakespeare – love of language

William Shakespeare

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt is a beautiful book. An extended thought-experiment that examines the mystery of Shakespeare’s life, it asks how a youth from a provincial town, a man who had no university education or family connections, went – in little more than a decade – from being a nobody to being the greatest playwright in history. Greenblatt imagines dozens of scenarios, for example Shakespeare as an infant hearing a nursery rhyme which he later uses in ‘King Lear’. One thing we do know is that Shakespeare loved language and experimented constantly, inventing, by David Crystal’s estimate, 1700 words that are still used today.


Not everyone loves language. But learners can experiment with it, play with it, and take risks. In fact, our students need to remake the language again and again for their own purposes every time they communicate.



7. Noam Chomsky – mastery

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky is a linguist, a cognitive scientist, a philosopher, an activist, a polymath. He teaches whatever he wants at MIT because he knows everything. He reads prodigiously and retains ridiculous amounts of detail. That’s because he’s engaged in the world’s greatest struggles and its greatest questions. He regularly skewers the foreign policy of the USA and many other countries, and routs prevailing wisdom simply by knowing more than everyone else. His secret – and it’s an odd thing to say about such a clinical academic – is passion. Passion for the world around him and for the people who live in it.


Students need to read. And read some more. And when they’re tired of reading, they should pick up another book and read some more. And then act. Engagement with the world is engagement with language.

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