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Are some people just good at learning new languages?

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By Kaitlyn Tagarelli and George Smith

This article on language aptitude is the first in our "Learners as Individuals" strand of The Science Behind Language Learning series. In this strand, we'll be taking a look at the factors, or individual differences, that account for the different levels of language learning success among learners. Read on to learn more!

Chào cô! Γεια σας! Welcome back to Adventures in Language! Have you ever wondered why some people seem to be naturally gifted at learning other languages? In this article, we examine whether some people have a special talent for language learning — something researchers call language aptitude. We’ll talk about what language aptitude actually is, how it has been measured, and why it may be important for language learning success. Let's jump in!

What is Language Aptitude?

Put simply, language aptitude is the capacity to learn a new language. This doesn’t mean that some people are able to learn a new language and others aren’t — anyone can learn a new language if they put their mind to it! Instead, language aptitude has to do with degrees of success in language learning, so how fast you learn or what stage of fluency you can ultimately reach. Generally, research has shown that learners with higher language aptitude tend to be better at learning new languages, while those with lower language aptitude might find language learning more challenging.group of young people studying

On a deeper level, language aptitude is a little hard to define because it’s not just one ability. Instead, it is thought to be made up of a series of cognitive skills that are important for different areas of language learning. Let’s take a closer look at some of these.

  • The ability to process and remember new sounds. A new language is likely to have sounds that are different from those in your first language. Your ability to recognize these sounds, tell them apart, and remember them in the future could affect how well you learn new words and pronunciation. 
  • The ability to make associations. Part of learning a new language involves making associations between how something looks or sounds and what it means, or between a word in your native language and its translation in the new language. Your ability to make and remember these associations could affect how well you learn new words. It also helps if you are able to easily pick these words out from a continuous stream of speech. 
  • The ability to learn and analyze patterns. In any language, words go together according to specific patterns. In addition, the way a word looks or sounds might change depending on where it appears in a sentence or what role it plays. Thus, your ability to analyze patterns and correct apply them to novel situations could affect how easily you learn and remember grammatical forms.
  • The ability to handle a lot of information at once. In order to learn a new language, your brain has to process a lot of new information. It is thought that the amount of information you can process all at once, as well as how quickly you can process it, are key to many aspects of language learning — such as language comprehension or the acquisition of new language forms.
It is clear that a lot goes into learning a language, and that these cognitive skills represent just a snapshot of the factors involved in the process. But how do you know if you’re someone who is good at all of these different things — that is, someone with high language aptitude?

How Do You Measure Language Aptitude?

young woman taking test in classroom

Over the years, researchers have developed several tests to measure the different cognitive skills that make up language aptitude. One of the oldest and most widely used tests is the Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT), which was developed in the early 1960s by Harvard Psychologist John Carroll with funding from the US government. The MLAT features tasks which represent many of the cognitive skills mentioned above. For example, test-takers are asked to tell new sounds apart, learn numbers in a made-up language, memorize translations of new words, identify words that are missing several letters, and identify the grammatical roles of words in sentences. Curious about what these look like? Check out some sample MLAT questions here!

Research with the MLAT has shown that test-takers with higher aptitude scores tend to learn more grammar over short periods of time, and tend to get higher grades in language courses. In other words, language aptitude seems to positively correlate with both how fast and how much you can learn.

graph showing linear relationship between language learning achievement and apitude

Language aptitude positively correlates with how fast and how much you can learn.

One criticism of the MLAT, however, is that it was developed specifically for adults studying in a foreign language context – think of a native speaker of English studying Italian at an American university. Other tests may be better at estimating the aptitude of learners at different ages – like children (MLAT-E, for "elementary") and teenagers (Pimsleur Language Aptitude Battery, or PLAB) – or studying under different learning conditions. For instance, the Cognitive Ability for Novelty in Acquisition of Language-Foreign test (CANAL-F), an aptitude test based in theories of human intelligence, guides test-takers through the process of learning an invented language. The tasks on the CANAL-F resemble what a learner might encounter when studying in a foreign country – for example, learning the meaning of new words from context instead of via translations. Because of this, it may be a better measure of how much you can learn via immersion or study abroad!

Different aptitude tests may also give you a better idea about your potential to learn different languages. If you are curious about your ability to learn an “easier” language, like Spanish or Portuguese, then the MLAT is probably a good bet. However, if you want to learn a harder language, like Arabic or Chinese, then a test like the Hi-LAB developed to identify government workers who have the potential to reach advanced language proficiency might give you a better idea of your potential.

Unfortunately, most existing language aptitude tests are not freely available for public use. Recognizing this, researchers at Swansea University created the LLAMA aptitude tests, which measure similar abilities as the MLAT, but are free for anyone to use.

Aptitude and Other Factors that Help Language Learning

Let's be clear: a high score on an aptitude test does not guarantee that you will become fluent in another language. There’s a difference between having high potential for learning a language, and actually learning it! This is where other factors come in. Motivation, for instance, is an extremely important factor in learning a new language. It is even possible that a highly motivated learner with lower aptitude could end up learning more than a less motivated learner with higher aptitude, simply because they seek out more opportunities to practice their  language.

young woman smiling outdoors

How fast you learn a new language may also be influenced by how similar that language is to your first language. You could also have an advantage because you’ve developed good strategies and habits for learning additional languages, or because you already know a lot of other languages!

The takeaway? Aptitude is just one of many factors that can predict language learning success. There are still lots of open questions about the role of aptitude in second language learning. For example:
  • “Is aptitude a stable trait, or can it increase over time or with experience?” For example, if you study a lot of languages or take a few linguistics classes.
  • “Does aptitude play a different role depending on how a language is learned, for example under implicit vs. explicit learning conditions?”
  • “Is aptitude distinct from general intelligence and other cognitive abilities?”

Well, there you have it! Some people are actually just kind of good at learning languages.

But of course, there's more to the story. Let's recap what we learned:

  1. Language aptitude is the capacity to learn a new language. Anyone can learn a language, but people who have high aptitude have the potential to be particularly good at it.
  2. Language aptitude is tough to define and measure because learning a new language is a complex process. Rather than one specific ability, researchers think that aptitude is made up of several components, notably the ability to hear and remember new sounds, make and memorize new associations, pick up on patterns, and handle large amounts of information.
  3. The MLAT is the oldest and most widely-used test of language aptitude. Research has shown that the MLAT can predict how well people can learn grammar or perform in a language course. Other tests may be better suited for studying aptitude with different age groups and in different contexts because they target slightly different skills.
  4. High aptitude doesn’t guarantee language learning success. Learners with lower aptitude can still reach high proficiency in a language given the presence of other factors, such as motivation. There are so many factors that go into language learning, and aptitude is just one of them.
Overall, we can say that language aptitude is a fascinating, complex, and important piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding the incredible variability among second language learners.

Thanks for reading!

If you liked this article, let us know! Want more engaging language content like this? Subscribe to our YouTube channel and podcast feed, and follow us on Instagram @MangoLanguages! Or visit us at Mangolanguages.com!

Fill out the form below  to take a quiz where you can find out how you'd perform on some classic aptitude test questions. Chào nhé! Τα λέμε! We look forward to seeing you back here for our next article. To embark on your next language adventure, visit us at mangolanguages.com!

Wondering what languages were used in today’s article?

Chào cô! (chow-3 koh-1) and Chào nhé! (chow-3 nheh-2) mean “Hello” and “Bye, then” in Vietnamese, an Austroasiatic language spoken around the world, but mostly in Vietnam and its neighboring countries. Fun fact: Vietnamese is an official minority language of Czech Republic. 

 Γεια σας (yah sahs) and Τα λέμε! (tah LEHmeh) mean “Hello” and “Talk to you later” in Greek, an Indo-European language spoken mostly in Greece and Cyprus, but also in parts of Albania, Italy, and Turkey.

Interested in learning Vietnamese, Greek, or one of the other 70+ languages that the Mango app offers?  Click here to check out our courses! 

References and suggested readings to explore more about this topic:

Learn more about each aptitude test and check out sample questions:

About the authors

Kaitlyn Tagarelli is a linguist and the Head of Research at Mango Languages. She holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics from Georgetown University, specializing in how the mind and brain learn languages. Aside from geeking out about all things neuroscience and linguistics, she loves hanging out with her family at their Connecticut home, trying to convince them to speak French with her.

George Smith is the Linguistics Content Writer at Mango Languages. He holds a Ph.D. in Second Language Studies from the University of Hawai‛i at Mānoa, and conducts research on second language listening, speaking, and vocabulary learning. He is a lifelong teacher and learner who enjoys gabbing about language with his family and friends.

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