I recently learned a neat new word in Chinese: 语感, literally “language feeling”. In English, a more common translation might be “language intuition”, a mysterious ability that some seem to possess and others do not.
When I tell people that I speak three languages, I often hear in response, “oh, you must have an innate ability”. I’m never sure how to reply because I’m not sure how much innate ability has to do with language acquisition. If anything, the circumstances in my life have had a far greater influence on my linguistic skills than anything else: a year in Italy led to speaking Italian, and three and a half years in China have enabled me to learn Chinese. Had I stayed in California, I’m quite certain I’d have remained firmly in the monolingual camp (like most Americans). Fortunately, I’ll never know.
I’ve found that language intuition, or the lack of it, functions well as an excuse for one’s inability to learn Chinese. After all, no one wants to admit that he doesn’t speak Chinese because he doesn’t study it or have any non-English speaking Chinese friends. The intuition dodge allows one to say, “well, I gave it my best shot but nature can’t be overcome- I’m just no good at languages.”
Then again, certain people do have an easier time than others in learning languages such as Chinese. I’m sure we’ve all met people who arrived in China with nary a ni hao and left a year later quoting Mencius. We’ve also met, to be sure, people who just can’t seem to get the knack for Chinese tones or vowel sounds. I once knew a determined Canadian woman in her fifties who simply couldn’t hear the difference between any of the four tones. Obviously, she found studying Chinese frustrating and eventually gave up.
I would argue, though, that the vast majority of laowai could speak Chinese well given enough time and effort. In terms of innate characteristics, I would argue that personality plays a far larger role than the vague 语感. Extremely shy and introverted people might find language acquisition slow-going if only because they feel less comfortable throwing themselves into Chinese-speaking situations. Then again, introverts have little problem with their native languages so perhaps personality isn’t particularly deterministic either.
So, I would say that if you find yourself wondering if you lack the genes to learn Chinese, 算了. Really, anyone can, even if you never attain 大山 levels of fluency (and who really wants to be that guy, anyway?)