I recently read a newspaper article about language learning, which claims that our ability to learn languages is genetic. The usual caveats against scientific journalism apply, but the article does raise an interesting question. If some individuals have exceptional language learning abilities, what exactly are these traits and how do they contribute to learning?
Which brings to mind an incident, a few years ago now: I was caffeinating at an academic conference, when someone introduced to one of the student assistants. “This is Kevin”, they told me. “He’s a hyperpolyglot: he can speak with everyone in this room in their native language!” Upon learning that I was Greek, Kevin looked down in embarrassment and said that he didn’t know much Greek – and then his face suddenly lit up, and he embarked on an animated chant: “Greek lover, Greek lover, me triha san pullover [your chest hair’s like a jumper]” He followed up with a stream of profanity, which he delivered with the eloquence and creativity of a drill instructor. Much merriment ensued. But when the laughter died down, the question remained: in a room full of linguists, who had invested considerable effort working with language, some of us were embarrassingly monolingual, others could speak a handful of languages, and very few – like Kevin – were off the charts. Why would that be the case?
The truth is that our level of understanding in genetics and neurolinguistics is just nascent, which means that we can’t answer this question with any degree of certainty. With this in mind, what I aim to do in this post is discuss what little we do know about language learning aptitude.
What is Language Learning Aptitude?
Language learning aptitude (LLA) is the ability to effortlessly learn languages, which can lead to high language learning outcomes. In the words of Peter Skehan (1989), it is a “pre-programmed autonomous language learning ability” (p. 33). The first thing to note about this definition is that aptitude and outcomes are distinct. That means that there are many individuals who possess high LLA, but have not had the opportunity or motivation to learn additional languages. Conversely, there are individuals whose impressive linguistic capabilities are the product of effort rather than predisposition. That said, however, LLA can predict learning outcomes to some extent.
Another important distinction to make is that LLA is not quite the same thing as general intelligence. A number of empirical studies have found that LLA has a low moderate correlation (0.4 to 0.45) with measures of intelligence. This means that the two constructs are related but not identical (Gardner & Lambert 1972, Skehan 1982). It also seems that most individuals with outstanding linguistic performance have above-average intelligence, but not outstandingly so (Skehan 1998). Moreover, there have been several reports in the literature about individuals who have mental retardation and yet are highly proficient in several languages (e.g., Smith & Tsimpli 1995).
Aptitude research was quite popular in the 1950s and 1960s. At the time a number of aptitude tests were developed, and the idea was to use them to inform language teaching. The best known of these tests is the Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT), which was developed by John Caroll and Stanley Sapon in 1959. This was originally used for screening applicants for the US Foreign Service Institute. Another version of the test, the MLAT-Elementary, was used for selecting and streaming children in language programmes in primary education. The Pimsleur Language Aptitude Battery, or PLAB, was another aptitude test used in secondary education settings. However, the decline of structural linguistics, on which these tests were based, and the arguably non-democratic ways in which LLA testing was being used, meant that aptitude testing fell into decline in more recent years.
Components of Language Learning Aptitude
So far I have discussed Language Learning Aptitude as a singular construct, and this makes sense in the interest of efficiency. However, LLA research has always viewed aptitude as a composite construct, which brings together several components. An influential model of language learning aptitude, by Peter Skehan (1998), distinguishes between three main components: phonemic coding ability, language analytic ability, and memory (Figure 1).
Phonemic Coding Ability
Perhaps counter-intuitively, different languages make different distinctions between sounds. For example, Russians do not distinguish between /f/ and /θ/, and to a Greek ear /i:/ (as in “sheep”) and /ı/ (as in “ship”) sound the same. Roughly speaking, the Phonemic Coding Ability refers to the ability to tell certain sounds apart, even if one’s mother language does not discriminate between them. It appears that individuals with a highly developed Phonemic Coding Ability strongly outperform their peers at the early stages of instruction. However, this advantage wears off in the higher levels of linguistic proficiency. In other words, a strong Phonemic Coding Ability may be necessary but not sufficient for exceptional linguistic outcomes.
Language Analytic Ability
The second component of LLA is Language Analytic Ability. Skehan defines this as “the capacity to infer rules of language and make linguistic generalizations or extrapolations” from linguistic input (1998: 204). As you can see in Figure 1, the Language Analytic Ability appears to have a linear and monotonic relation to linguistic proficiency. That is, the greater the Language Analytic Ability an individual possesses, the likelier it is that this individual will have a high linguistic proficiency. However, this relation is linear. This means that the Language Analytic Ability alone cannot adequately explain the outstanding linguistic proficiency of hyperpolyglots, unless additional factors are taken into account.
The missing factor is memory. At the lower levels of proficiency, it appears that the relation between memory and linguistic proficiency is linear. However, among individuals with high levels of linguistic proficiency, small differences in memory can create enormous advantages, i.e., its role increases disproportionately.
Implications of aptitude for language education
So far, in this post I’ve looked into what Language Learning Aptitude is, and into its components. Moving forward, I’d now like to ponder on some implications for ELT practice and research. Firstly, I think that there is enough empirical evidence to suggest that language learning aptitude correlates with learning outcomes. Furthering our understanding of the construct and its impact on learning, and raising teachers’ awareness of the topic both seem like useful goals – at least as useful as the study of other learner differences, like multiple intelligences, differentiated learning styles and others. In other words, we should not assume, on the basis of ideological assumptions, that all learners are identical and that aptitude can be disregarded.
It cannot and should not be assumed that there are individuals who are not capable of learning languages.Tweet
Equally, we should not assume, on the basis of our continuing research, that differences in language learning aptitude mean that some individuals are a better fit for language education programmes than their peers. In other words, while a high language learning aptitude may provide some students with an advantage in learning, it cannot and should not be assumed that there are individuals who are not capable of learning languages.
More to read
Two of the more accessible introductions to language learning aptitude are Peter Skehan’s Cognitive Approach to Language Learning (1998, Chapters 8 & 9), on which I have drawn extensively for this post, and the section on aptitude in Rod Ellis’s Study of Second Language Acquisition (1994, pp. 494-499). You may also want to consult the article by Richard Sparks and Leonore Ganschow (2001), which covers literature spanning from 1991 to 2001. There are also a couple of interesting articles by Peter Robinson and Peter Skehan in a volume edited by Robinson (2002). John Carroll’s (1993) Human Cognitive Abilities, by one of the pioneers of aptitude research, offers some additional information, which is perhaps dated, but still quite useful.
Another book, which came out some years after I had written this post, is Language Aptitude: Advancing Theory, Testing, Research and Practice, an edited volume by Wen and associates (2019). I am looking forward to reading the book, but have not managed to do so far. I will update this post when I that happens.
You might also be interested in the following case studies of individuals with exceptional LLA, some of whom were mentally challenged. Here’s a sampling:
- Curtiss, S. (1977). Genie: A psycholinguistic study of a modern day ‘wild child’. New York: Academic Press.
- Curtiss, S. (1988) ‘The special talent of grammar acquisition’. In L. Obler & D. Fein (Eds.). The exceptional brain: Neuropsychology of talent and special abilities. New York: Guilford Press.
- Smith, N. & Tsimpli, X. (1995). The mind of a savant: Language, learning and modularity. Oxford: Blackwell.
If you can get your hand on the original aptitude tests, they are actually quite fascinating (there is a copy of the MLAT at the University of Manchester library, complete with test papers, answer sheets, a cardboard marking mask and instructions). The references of the tests I’ve discussed in this post are below, in case you need to cite them:
- Carroll, J. B. & Sapon, S. M. (1959). Modern Language Aptitude Test. New York: Psychological Corporation.
- Pimsleur, P. (1966). Pimsleur Language Aptitude Battery (PLAB). New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
About this post: This post was originally written in June 2015. It was last updated in December 2020 (updated links, minor copyediting). The featured image is by Man vyi (Own work, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).