“You must have a
‘gift’ for languages to successfully learn one as an adult, and/or be highly


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From the point of view of
a person who has only ever learned an L1 as an infant, it can seem almost
impossible, or at least very hard, to learn a second language without a
supposed ‘innate gift’ for language learning or any form of educational
brilliance in general, leaving people who feel they are not ‘academically
intelligent’ with little or no desire to learn new languages despite the obvious
benefits to one’s own mental wellbeing and the opportunities that are opened up
by being able to speak the native tongue of a foreign country. This is a much-discussed
area of Second Language Acquisition (otherwise known as SLA) and really
questions linguists perceived notions of aptitude and ‘talent’. While there is
certainly some truth to the notion of individuals performing better in certain
areas of education and learning, such as  acquiring another language, this is also a
very simplistic view that seemingly ignores other factors that may affect the
rate at which a person picks up information; ranging from factors as important
as personal ability, for example resources, motivation and many others, there
are a whole plethora of elements, both external and internal, to be taken in
account. This essay aims to collate numerous studies on these topics and discuss
whether or not personal aptitude actually does play a role in the acquisition
of another language, or whether it comes down to peripheral factors.

 There are very clear examples of personal
intelligence not playing a role in L2 language acquisition. Looking at the case
of Christopher, a brain damaged young boy, who was examined by Smith and
Tsimpli (1995) and had, as written by Lightbown and Spada (2013), had limited brain
functions, cognitive awareness and social skills. That being said, when tasked
with learning new languages he proved to be highly competent and picked up
whatever was taught to him, despite the irreversible damage to his brain. While
it may seem like Christopher was a wonder child, a poster boy of every human’s
ability to learn language, it is not entirely accurate as Smith (1999) argues
that he had limited functioning when learning and that he hadn’t been able to
pick up an entirely new language. There were severe deficiencies in his
morphological knowledge, something that he struggled with even in his L1, and
therefore couldn’t use the singular words he had learned so easily in
conjunction with syntactical rules. While Christopher’s case is certainly
miraculous, and he should be lauded for his success with such clear obstacles
in his way, it is obviously a very extreme example and, being based around one
person, could be considered a stand-alone instance. There have been many more
case studies proving that personal aptitude for languages does exist and that
one’s own individual intelligence does play a role in picking up an L2, often
with many more participants so as to offer a much larger test group of people.

For instance, to truly
gain an understanding of this topic, it is important to be aware of the Modern
Language Aptitude Test (MLAT) by Carroll and Sapon (1957). It was originally a
test based around 9 parts based around mimicry, sounds, accents and memory, although
this was revised in 1965 to just 4 components, which are still used now as the
basic test for language aptitude. These components are; phonetic coding
ability, the ability to code and remember sounds of a language, grammatical
sensitivity, to understand and recognise the use of words in a sentence or
phrase, inductive language learning ability, the skill to be able to study and
examine material, and rote learning activity for foreign language materials, connecting
native and target language words. Although this aptitude test is the most
widely used and generally agreed to be the go-to test, another was produced by
Pimsleur, an applied linguist, in 1966 called the Pimsleur Language Aptitude
Battery (PLAB). The test and its parts were built off Carroll’s work, however
Pimsleur placed a greater emphasis on auditory components than the MLAT, and
less on the memorisation of words and the process of repeating them, similar to
how a child learns. Through this, he was sure that he could highlight learning
difficulties in language learners. Sawyer and Ranta (2001) describe that,
through the validation and consolidation both the MLAT and the PLAB, there was
as clear link formed between a learner’s aptitude for learning L2 languages and
learning L2 languages in grammar-based, structural settings. This gives an
insight that, perhaps, aptitude does play a role in learning languages and that
it shouldn’t be discredited when one begins to think about learning another

There is adequate
evidence to prove that aptitude and aptitude tests shouldn’t be a concern for
serious L2 learners, as it may not always guarantee success. Robinson (2002) states
that the initial predictions of success for the MLAT was initially obtained
through connecting test results with success in classrooms based around an
audiolingual take on L2 learning. Also, he argues whether or not using the MLAT
in highly social settings can be seen as a positive, constructive thing or
whether it can actually be damaging to a learner’s confidence and thus the
success of their future language learning career. Hummel (2014) explains that,
through the use of Winke’s (2005) studies into learners of Mandarin as an L2
language, while the MLAT is a very useful resource in predicting success at the
beginning of an L2 learner’s learning process, it is certainly less so at
intermediate to advanced levels. In addition, Lightbown and Spada (2013)
describe that the studies were taken in an educational environment when
teaching was built around grammar translation and audiolingual methods. Thus, a
similar outcome could not be predicted in classrooms or other educational
settings where these same methods are not employed, especially in more modern,
technologically forward settings as these methods are seen as almost antiquated
or outdated.

Another wide area of
study within research into language aptitudes is the idea of having a strong or
good memory. In the area of second language acquisition, there are two concepts
known as Working Memory and Short-Term Memory (which is not included as part of
MLAT). Hummel (2014) describes how The Working Memory model is composed of
three parts; the most useful of which for language acquisition is phonological
memory, the part that holds information for a short time before it is
consolidated (or thusly gotten rid of). From this, Lightbown and Spada (2013)
state that the capacity of one’s Working Memory may be the biggest determiner
of one’s educational success, thus it is peculiar that it is not included in
the most famous of all the language aptitude tests. From this, it can be
assumed that the idea of aptitude can be based off the capacity of someone’s
Working Memory. However, this isn’t a reliable theory because testing someone’s
memory is based on assumptions and little past-research to back up any
statements. To support this, Skrzypek (2013) carried out an experiment on
mature Polish L2 learners to test their memories. This research revealed that,
early on in their studies, students with an efficient Working Memory had a
greater chance of being higher achievers in their language learning classes,
whereas that adverse was true for students with poor Working Memory. While it
may be tempting to say that yes, there is clearly a link between having a great
memory and being able to learn languages quickly and effectively, it should be
noted that there are large grey areas that researchers can’t prove true or
support with evidence, so this is a largely unreliable area of study.

To conclude, it is clear
there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding aptitude, in regard to what it
actually is and if it exists and the factors that may or may not affect a
learner’s ability to learn a language. Clearly, there is some evidence pointing
towards aptitude being a pseudo phenomenon that has little to no effect on the
outcome of a learner’s educational career, however the majority of research
does appear to point towards the conclusion that there is, in fact, evidence of
aptitude being real and affecting L2 learner’s success rates. Although, that
being said, it is not impossible for L2 learner’s to learn a language even if
they have no perceived aptitude; many theorised notions of aptitude simply
state that the learner can still learn a language without a certain innate
talent, it will only take them a little longer is all. In fact, Krashen (1981)
says that a learner may even be able to acquire a language if they want to. In
the end, there is a severe lack of research into this topic and what has been
researched is either outdated or, according to Skehan (2002), has been
neglected due to opinions on the topic being that it is seen as unproductive;
at the end of the day, whether or not aptitude exists is a null point as there
is nothing you can do to change it.

To take this study into
my own personal experience, I would have to say that I would agree that
aptitudes for learning and the benefits of having a great memory are real, but I
do not believe that it is essential to have these innate functions to be able
to learn a language to a fluency level. I think any person may be able to learn
a language to the deepest, most learned level with an adequate level of motivation
and the right amount of helpful, modern resources. I also firmly believe that
people who do not believe they ‘can’ learn a L2 language should be persuaded
and encouraged to pick one up, as the benefits

From my own experience I
believe it is obvious that language learning aptitude is very real and does
affect the way people learn. I believe this because I find myself to have a
certain level of aptitude for learning the L2s I have in my life. From an early
age, when we would study French in Primary School, I found it very easy to
memorise words that were taught to me, even if I had only told them once or
twice, and I could apply grammatical rules that I had been taught to sentences
I had never seen or heard before. This carried on through the rest of my
educational career, where I found that I could pick up languages a lot more
quickly than my same-aged peers, despite putting in the same amount of effort
into my studies as I perceived them to. Even now, as I learn Japanese at York
St. John, I pick up words very quickly as well as being able to understand
syntax almost innately, as if it were my own L1. 

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