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What about natural aptitude for second language learning?

At the current time it is not particularly fashionable to talk about natural aptitude for subjects at school, the current preference being for the notion that with good teaching and practice all students have the potential to achieve well. This is no doubt a good message to be sending to pupils, but it does seem to fly in the face of language teachers' everyday experience, namely that some students, for whatever reason, seem to pick up languages much quicker than others.

Over the years research in psychology and applied linguistics has focused a good deal on language learning aptitude and motivation, both of which show good correlations with language learning success in formal learning contexts. In this blog, I'm going to look at aptitude and summarise where we are on this issue, using as my source parts of a chapter about individual differences in second language learning, written by Zoltán Dörnyei and Peter Skehan. The chapter appeared in The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition, ed. Catherine Doughty and Michael Long (2008).

Firstly, the writers ask some useful questions:

1. Is a natural talent for second language learning innate?
2. Is it relatively fixed?
3. If it is not fixed, is it amenable to training?
4. Is second language aptitude a distinct ability, or does it relate to more general abilities, such as intelligence, effectively functioning as a subset of a more general view of human variation?
5. Could such a talent be used as the basis for prediction of language learning success? If so, how effective might it be for such prediction, and how would predictions based on it compare with predictions made from other sources?
6. Could such a talent be used as the basis for adaptation of instruction?
7. Does such a talent always apply in a similar manner without influence of learning context or learning methodology.
8. Is such a talent undifferentiated, or does it have sub-components?
9. What is the theoretical basis for any such talent or sub-talents?
10. Can such a talent be measured effectively?

I'll leave you to think about those questions, to which there are no certain answers.

The work of psychologist J.B. Carroll

Carroll is the most famous name in this field of research. He began studying foreign language aptitude in the 1950s and he is still much quoted. Together with Stanley Sapon he designed tests (Modern Language Aptitude Tests - MLATs) which tried to predict the future performance of students. Carroll produced a four-component model of aptitude:

  • Phonemic coding ability - a capacity to decode unfamiliar sounds, store the knowledge in memory and retrieve it.
  • Grammatical sensitivity - the capacity to identify grammatical functions in sentences or utterances.
  • Inductive language learning ability - the capacity to extract syntacic and morphological patterns in a sample of language.
  • Associative memory - the capacity to form bonds in the memory between L1 and L2 words.

To simplify this further, we might sum up by saying: having a good ear, an ability to spot and use patterns and a good memory! This would seem uncontroversial to most teachers.

The above components were used as the basis for the aptitude tests which did, indeed, correlate quite well with performance.

Research after Carroll

Since Carroll, the nature of aptitude research has not changed a great deal, even if it has become more marginal in the field of applied linguistics. Why has research into aptitude fallen out of favour? Firstly, Dörnyei and Skehan echo something I mentioned in my introduction:

"One reason for this has been that aptitude is perceived as anti-egalitarian, in that if a fixed, immutable interpretation of aptitude is taken, it is seen as potentially disadvantaging many learners, with no hope offered of overcoming the handicap of low aptitude."

In other words, the study of aptitude, along with, for example, the study of IQ and genetics, looks a little politically incorrect these days. The writers also mention that standardised text books seem to assume that all learners are effectively the same and benefit from similar input and instruction.

Secondly, Carroll's work was done at a time when the prevailing teaching methods were based on explicit teaching of grammar, audio-lingual approaches and structural drilling. When alternative, nativist approaches came along (think of Krashen) and even, to some extent, European-style communicative approaches, language learning is no longer seen in Carroll's terms: it is seen to resemble first language learning where individual differences in achievement are far less marked. If second language learning happens almost entirely "beneath the radar", unconsciously, how, therefore, can the ability to identify grammatical patterns in a formal test predict future success? (This is an issue for schools who wish to produce baseline tests for students arriving in the schools, largely for accountability purposes.)

By the way, it is worth mentioning that some scholars take the view that tests can predict success in both formal teaching environments and with more naturalistic, input-based contexts.

In sum

For many years aptitude was isolated from the wider field of second language learning and acquisition. It has been perceived as quite effective as a predictor of learning success, but "undemocratic with respect to learners, out of date conceptually, and of little explanatory value." More recent research has, according to Dörnyei and Skehan, indicated that this judgment is incorrect.

Aptitude may well be a particularly useful notion now that a focus on grammatical form has started to come back into fashion. If you believe that a totally meaning-based approach to language teaching is unwise or just unworkable in school contexts, then aptitude is most likely a good predictor of progress. Even if you favour little or no focus on grammatical form, some research suggests it is still relevant.

My own view, for what it's worth, and having worked with school students for 35 years, is that natural aptitude (whether it be general intelligence or language learning-specific) is a key factor in progress, but only one of several. I also had the feeling that some students favoured formal approaches over naturalistic, immersion settings and vice versa. I would have to say also that, in the contexts I worked, natural ability often trumped hard work. Now that's not a fashionable thing to say!


  1. so the ones with natural ability never had to work at learning languages at all?

  2. That is not said or implied in the blog. The answer is, of course, that those with more ability have to work less hard.

  3. For what it's worth I think hard work (which can be measured ) 'trumps' natural aptitude (which is very difficult to quantify) most times. As evidenced by the number of people in Europe and Rest of the World who speak English as their second or third language. Or is it that those from UK have lower natural aptitude to learn languages than rest of the world? Teachers in UK blame everyone but themselves for the sorry state of MFL in UK. Their degree of self examination would be laughable if it hadn't done so much damage.

  4. I'm afraid I do not see how hard work is more measurable than aptitude. Learners in all anglophone countries do less well on average because a) they have less motivation to learn and b) they give up sooner. The "sorry state" of MFL is connected with the factors I mentioned, rather than, I would suggest' any methodological failing. There are are good and poor teachers in all countries. Of note is the fact that the French perform relatively poorly in second language acquisition, mainly, I surmise, because of the extent to which they value their own language and culture, as do the British. Is there evidence that UK language teachers are worse than our maths or science teachers?

  5. Work is measurable by tallying amount of time spent on all activities related to the subject. You can argue about which activities are involved and their relative merits but a clock pretty much does the job.
    Less motivation and give up sooner on average? So teaching methods have no effect on these?
    As regards the French. I would venture to say there are more French citizens who can hold a conversation in English than Uk citizens who can hold a conversation in either French,German or Spanish put together.
    Are uk MFL teachers worse than maths or science teachers? That's a difficult question to answer if only for the the fact that the paltry amount of time dedicated to MFL in curriculum makes any comparison unfair.

  6. The main reasons for giving up sooner are that MFL is optional after 14 (for the time being) and our post 16 curriculum is extremely narrow in England and Wales. In a survey of language achievement across Europe the Britsh were bottom, but the French were next to bottom. Hard to judge effect of teaching methods. We do know that in the days of grammar-translation only those in grammar schools and independents did much MFL.

  7. To get back to aptitude I believe MFL teachers believe in concepts like natural aptitude because they have been successful in the subject and most of them would believe that is not in small part due to their natural aptitude. They then extend that to their pupils and maybe general society.
    Everyone has a natural aptitude to learn languages. But it sure gets eroded in the school system as much if not more than outside of it.The UK secondary system takes on kids at 11 ready to learn. But if you fall behind in MFL you never catch up and that is because of the way it is taught especially early on.

  8. But I assume you are not claiming all children have the same aptitude. That would be wrong, no? My post was arguing that it plays an important role. All my experience and research evidence support the view. Recent research at Washigton University with brain scans, for example, supports the (common sense) view that some learn faster than others.

  9. I believe natural aptitude is one of many get out clauses that mfl teachers use to shift blame onto students. Changing fashions like grammar translation or communicative approach show the uncertainty in the profession and yet I rarely see much self criticism.

  10. I am not sure if you think ability varies or not.. i have usually found that when teachers shift blame on to students, it is about their attitude or lack of work, not their natural ability. You may be right about self-criticism, or at least a failure to recognise one's inadequacies.

  11. I think natural aptitude is a valid concept that needs to be discussed but ultimately like discussions about IQ leads down blind alleyways about whether it's fixed or malleable. And to policy discussions about setting and 11+ exams.

  12. Thank you for engaging in the blog and this discussion.

  13. No problem. Keep up the good work.

  14. Hi Steve, thank you for gathering some very interesting research on this topic. I am currently finishing my last semester of my Bachelor of Education degree and the question of natural aptitude is one that I had been pondering for some time.
    I did notice stronger language learning capabilities among some of the students during my student teaching practicum (I was teaching FSL). This led me to wonder whether aptitude is a concept I should even consider and what exactly was allowing them to grasp concepts more easily.
    From my experience, motivation is clearly a strong factor but I’d be interested in seeing how Carroll’s model could be used as a guide to develop an aptitude for language learning.
    As you pointed out, explicit grammar teaching was the context of the study and during my education, we have focused more on the communicative/experiential approach. I wonder if it would be useful to students to have some focus on strategies like those proposed in the model to complement the communicative/experiential approach. I found that encouraging metacognition amongst students went a long way towards helping them grasp concepts during my teaching. As I continue learning and start teaching, I hope I can explore these ideas more. Once again, thank you.

  15. Thank you for leaving a comment. Good luck with your degree, Corinne.

    I would be interested to know if you consider this test as being a good measure of natural aptitude.

  17. No. It looks more like a a way of guaging previous knowledge. Also, no assessment of phonological skill.

  18. Can you point me in the way of a test which you think may be more suitable?

  19. Quite a few British teachers use the Swedish test with Y7 students. It's a grammar/morphology pattern-spptting trst, so limited in scope. I do not think thete is a genuinely useful test.


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