Do you wish you had more of a talent for languages? Or is talent overrated in language learning? What do we even mean when we say that somebody has the aptitude to learn a language. What if you suspect that you “don’t have the language gene”? Can you become more talented? Is success more dependent on other variables like motivation, good methods and consistent application and how can you game the system?
Now, I, for one, don’t want to believe in talent.
I want to believe that in the right conditions, I can do anything.
As the saying goes, “If you believe you can you can, if you believe you can’t you can’t”.
It was Malcolm Gladwell who popularlised the idea that you can become world class at a skill with “10,000 hours” of “deliberate practice”.
I think that soundbite gained such gained such traction because many people share my hope: “Forget about a talent for languages!”
Mozart played 10k hrs to become Mozart and we could do, if we put in the time.
Get the mindset right….clock up the hours…and well… book me a gig on the concert piano at the Albert Hall for five years time!
Now, it turns out (as he himself subsequently pointed out) Gladwell was never saying that all you need to do is put in your 10K.
No, it’s not just doing.
You need “deliberate practice”. That involves adjusting your activity in the light of good corrective feedback. [It’s not enough just to do. You need constant feedback and practice that then focusses down on your weaknesses. Plus, the effectiveness seems to vary across the skill domains.
Of course, though, time certainly is important in developing all skills, including learning a language.
The Foreign Services Institute estimates that it takes between 600 to 2200+ hours for somebody to get really good at a foreign language (depending on how close to English it is).
Of course, if you just want a good working knowledge, less time is required.
Innate language learning advantages?
And yet….and yet…is it JUST about doing the right things for long enough?
We all know those for whom some abilities just seem to come easier. In language learning these abilities include being a good mimic (or an “ear” for accents), being a good speller, having a great memory…
Don’t some just require less time, thanks to their innate talent?
That’s my suspicion.
What exactly is the role of talent…and what even is it?
Early research on language learning aptitude
In the 1950s and 60s researchers started to focus on the cognitive abilities of language learners (on their language learning “aptitude” or what we might call “brain power”).
To study aptitude J. Carroll and S. Sapon tried to break the concept down into four parts:
- Phonemic coding: using phonetic script to distinguish phonemes.
- Grammatical sensitivity: picking out grammatical functions in a sentence.
- Inductive learning ability: generalising patterns from one sentence to another.
- Rote-learning ability: remembering lists of words paired with translations.
On this basis, the two researchers developed a Modern Language Aptitude Test (1959), which is still going today from the Language Learning and Testing Federation (though does not appear to be available to the general public).
The MLAT and other such tests aim to determine how quickly students could learn language tasks given optimal instruction, conditions and motivation.
Refining our understanding of “aptitude”
Carroll’s model certainly provoked debate. Some pointed out that it characterised people as of “high” or “low” aptitude in aggregate.
What, though if learners are strong in some of the four abilities but not in others? Let’s call it a lopsided talent for languages.
It could be that the importance of the different dimensions of “aptitude” depends on the type of learning that’s going on?
Phonological abilities may be more important in “implicit” learning and language (working things out, learning by doing), for example.
Analytical abilities may count for more in “explicit” learning (instruction from a teacher or course book, language learning exercises).
Marjorie Wesche (1981) used MLAT and other tests to group students as more suited to an explicit analytical or a more implicit audio visual approach. Those who were then put in classes using methods that were better suited to them did better as a result.
Peter Skehan (1986) looked at aptitude test results and found that both with strong analytical ability and others who were stronger in memory/chunking were able to learn languages successfully.
So, you may not be equally strong in all aspects of “aptitude” but, if how you learn reflects your natural cognitive strengths, you’ll still do well.
Aptitude and different stages in the learning process
So far, so static. What about how the importance of the sub-divisions of “aptitude” at different stages of language learning?
Peter Skehan developed a slightly different set of “aptitude” factors out of MLAT: phonemic coding ability/language analytic ability/memory and tried to look at the role they played during the whole process:
- Phonemic coding ability: speed of processing input to get to more complex areas of processing more easily (important at noticing stage).
- Language analytic ability: working out the “rules” and building up using them (important for patterning).
- Memory: storage and retrieval of aspects of language (working memory important for noticing and patterning).
Cognitive ability is complex – different elements/ important at different stages/you may not need to be strong in them all.
He argued that there are four “macro” stages in acquisition and that the relevance of different aspects of aptitude (subdivided further to “micro abilities”) depends on the stage:
- Noticing (a new feature of L2)
- Patterning (trying to apply and integrate it into system)
- Controlling (using with increasing ease)
- Lexicalising (uses without having to think (chunking)).
Can “aptitude” develop over time?
The aptitude matrix gets more complex still.
Carroll’s model of aptitude was largely stable. Yet could aptitude (or some aspects) develop with experience learning languages and/or can it be trained?
That would be potential good news.
Researchers now stress “neuroplasticity”, the brain’s ability to rewiring itself into old age to learn new skills.
It could be that at least some aspects of aptitude do develop, it’s one aspect of neuroplasticiy (the ability of the brain to rewire itself for new skills even into old age).
This is a difficult field to study because when you’re looking at a learner’s abilities over time it could be that they’re not getting more “talented” at a particular cognitive function (such as ability to distinguish sounds or a better working memory).
Instead, maybe they are simply are developing “learning strategies” (e.g. decisions to focus on something, better at inferences or at using teachers/native speakers for help).
Or is it a combination of rewiring and conscious strategies?
Keeping aptitude in its place
Where does that leave you and me?
Cognitive ability is multi-faceted. There’s not one, simple “talent for languages” You don’t have to be strong in all cognitive aspects to succeed and some are more important than others at different stages in language learning. Some may be enhanced by practice.
All that is good news, even if we may still be stuck with certain weaknesses in aptitude that we can’t do anything about.
Here’s even better news: it’s the combination of cognitive ability (whether innate or developed) plus other factors that make the outstanding learner.
The good news is that we certainly can influence some of those other factors. So, let’s look at what and how.
Motivation and attitude
Even in the days of the early MLAT-type studies it was clear that motivation was as important as aptitude in determining language learner achievement. (Ellis, 40).
Liked to motivation is the idea of “attitude”
Stephen Krashen accepted that “aptitude” important for the sort of formal (classroom) learning situations that often tend to be the focus of aptitude studies, but shifted the focus to “attitude” for real-world learning situations.
Motivation and attitude? These are things we certainly can effectively work on!
How? We can get clear on why we want to learn (need, interest…Do we really want it or just vaguely fancy the idea?). We can set realistic intermediate goals to help us take effective action. We can have materials that interest us and are relevant to our current learning level and need so that we don’t get bored or overwhelmed.
Meta learning and brain savvy methods.
From day one, we can all take a step back and learn about the language learning process. In other words, we can become “meta aware” language learners.
An important aspect of knowing how to the language learning game is played realism on the time it takes.
Yes, you may need more hours than talented polyglots x, y or z. but even they are probably putting in much more than the newbie- or non-language learner thinks.
As the famous Italian polyglot Mario Pie said of language learning:
“…we may as well resign ourselves to the fact that the road will be long and difficult, it will take many years of intensive work, of different varieties…”(“How to learn languages and what languages to learn” (1966 p. 15)).
Hungarian Polyglot Kató Lamb came up with an equation:
Time invested x interestedness) divided by inhibition = result(“Polyglot: How I learn Languages” (2011 ed. p. 176)).
Once we know this, we’re less likely to get a hit to motivation when we find that misleading claims of quick results and rapid language learning don’t work for us.
We’re also less likely to lose motivation if we accept that we have to put ourselves in harm’s way to get lots of input and output. We know that a lot of this will be frustrating and involve making mistakes. It won’t all be smooth, unalloyed “fun”.
We also understand that even with a winning attitude, we’ll sometimes slump. So we can have have some lower-stakes downtime leisure exposure (films, books…) for when we’re down, tired or just need more fun.
When it comes to focussed study, we can make sure what we’re doing is in-tune with what the cognitive psychologists tell us we need.
These “brain-savvy” methods include “elaboration” (making the material our own by retelling, relating it to our own life in our imagination, telling ourselves stories about it, manipulating it in some way, for example by making up questions about it). They include spaced recall. They include testing ourselves.
The power of a language habit
We can also create a language habit.
We’ve sorted our motivation but we know that it waxes and wanes. Nevertheless, we also know that we have to keep going over the long haul.
So, we’ll be sure to create a language habit which makes our exposure and learning less of a conscious decision and more of a routine.
The language habit might include a regular study slot and pre-booking online one-to-ones with a teacher or language exchange partner. It might mean keeping a book by our bed, having flashcards in our pocket or on the phone to use when waiting in line or on the bus or keeping audio recordings in the car for when we’re stuck in a jam.
Crushing it with community
We can also harness the power of a supportive community.
This might involve joining a class, attending a learner meetup or getting involved with speakers of our target language who live near us (or finding them online, perhaps through shared support for a pop group or football team or another shared interest).
It might involve creating accountability by taking part in a language challenge or otherwise logging our progress to create some accountability to a wider public or just to one friend, tutor or mentor.
We can choose ways of interacting that suit or introvert or extravert natures. Both are personality types have different strengths and weaknesses. The introvert will probably enjoy reading and disciplined study. The extrovert will perhaps be less inclined to such things but more ready to get out there and just get talking.
If we’re shy we can work to overcome shyness.
In all these ways (and more), we can “game the system”. Yes, we can influence our likelihood of getting fluent – even if we’re a bit short in the genetic aptitude stakes.
Talent, language learning, you and me
So, the question shouldn’t ever be “am I talented”, “do I have a talent for languages”. That question’s too simple.
First, pure cognitive talent is multi-faceted.
Then, the answer is anyway of limited relevance. The world is full of talented people who achieve very little.
Be confident that you have ENOUGH talent and look beyond aptitude to the wider picture.
Ask yourself how can you change your attitude, circumstances, habits and methods to favour language learning success. How can you engage with your language and the community that’s learning and speaking it?
True, you may never reach the heights of accomplished polyglots x, y and z.
You may never be mistaken for a native.
You may never become a UN interpreter or win a polyglot Olympiad.
Life ain’t always fair and yep, at times that feels tough.
But, in language learning, average brain power is fine.
If we go about language learning in a good way we can all, given time (and then more time) get fluent in one new language. We can all (with more time still) get fluent in several.
For me, at least, that’s a pretty good consolation prize for not coming first in the language aptitude talent stakes!
I’ve developed this post from a talk I gave at the Polyglot Gathering. Here’s the Gathering’s video of the talk:
Useful when I was preparing the topic/citation sources: Rod Ellis Understanding Second Language Acquisition (2nd ed) (OUP, 2015);Vivian Cook Second Language Learning and Language Teaching (4th ed)(Routledge, 2008); Patsy M. Lightbrown/Nina Spada How Languages are Learned (OUP, 2013).