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Is your child gifted enough to learn languages ?

Imagine a group of individuals of identical age but all different, immersed in a perfectly uniform educational universe. Their excellent teacher uses a single method for teaching; the individuals all spend the same amount of time on language activities, in the same conditions and with the same motivation. They are thus exposed to the same language acquisition drivers, with the same intensity. Yet, some learn better than others. Why is that?

The explanation to this interpersonal variance is not well known, but it has been given a name: Language Learning Aptitude (LLA).  It is, in a way, the explanatory variable of last resort after exhausting all known factors and differentiators. In less scientific parlance, and discarding pathological cases, one would say that a person is more or less talented at learning languages, whereas specialists would point to a higher or lower language learning aptitude.

LLA has been studied for a long time. John B. Carroll, a prominent psycholinguist, was one of the pioneers. He even developed the first test to measure it in the 50s : the MLAT (Modern Language Aptitude Test). This test, still in use in some U.S. government circles, is based on several components: the first one phonemic, the second one related to associative memory, the third one linked to grammatical memory, and the last one addressing inductive learning ability, i.e. the ability to induce rules governing the structure of the language. Other tests exist, one of the most recent ones developed in the early 2000s by Paul Meara. This test also focuses on a set of various ability components: oral, visual, associative, or grammatical inferences.

Various theories on language learning aptitude (credit: collaborativestudyguide.wikispaces.com LING+575)

Various theories on language learning aptitude (credit: collaborativestudyguide.wikispaces.com LING+575)

Language Learning Aptitude is assumed relatively stable over time, once developmental maturity is reached. Not surprisingly, the language proficiency achieved by a learner will be high when their LLA itself is high. The concept is however somewhat controversial, because of the risk of circularity: can the quality of learning in turn increase the LLA ?

In 2008, a team of Swedish researchers led by Abrahamsson looked into the evolution of LLA impact with age. More specifically, is the impact of LLA as important for children as it is for adults? In other words, does it make sense to say that a child is  more or less gifted at languages ​​and will this determine their learning ability? An experiment was conducted on 42 Spanish adults, all highly proficient in Swedish. Key detail: 31 of them had learned Swedish in their childhood and the other 11 after puberty. Having all reached adult age, they were subjected to a Language Learning Aptitude test.

As anticipated by the authors of the study, the LLA turned out to be a much better predictor of eventual attainment for adult learners than for children. Those who had learned as adults (and achieved a high proficiency) had a high LLA, whereas the LLA of the successful child learners displayed a high variance amongst individuals. This confirmed the hypothesis that being a child is in itself such an important advantage in language learning that it erases differences in language aptitude. To be  precise, LLA differences had indeed been almost entirely neutralized, but not completely – which came as a small surprise.

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comparing children (credit 2dayswoman)

Not much individual variance in children learning languages… (credit 2dayswoman)

Abrahamsson therefore concludes that having a high LLA significantly eases the learning of foreign languages ​​for adults, and perhaps gives a little help to children. But looking at the main confirmation of the study, one can answer the question you might be asking yourself: yes, your child is gifted enough for languages, since he or she is a child.

 

For more information :

Abrahamsson, N., & Hyltenstam, K. (2008). THE ROBUSTNESS OF APTITUDE EFFECTS IN NEAR-NATIVE SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITIONStudies in Second Language Acquisition30(04), 481–509.

12 replies
  1. Carol Gullidge
    Carol Gullidge says:

    I think this whole article can be summed up in a nutshell: every child is gifted enough to learn languages. And personally, I believe it would be condescending to suggest otherwise!

    Reply
  2. Rod Mitchell
    Rod Mitchell says:

    The short answer is – yes – because he already learnt his first language. All children potentially can learn another – or other – languages.

    All we have to do is to know how to make sure that that can happen.

    Reply
  3. Christie Nielsen Chaar
    Christie Nielsen Chaar says:

    I agree with Rod. My children are trilingual not because I asked myself if they were gifted “enough” but because they had to be, since their parents speak different languages. It was learning three languages that made them gifted, not the other way around.

    Reply
  4. Rod Mitchell
    Rod Mitchell says:

    “It was learning three languages that made them gifted, not the other way around. ”

    So very true.

    Reply
  5. Patti Pascal
    Patti Pascal says:

    During the formative years of a child, parents can find out his/her strengths and weaknesses, which will pave the way to a successful life, if closely monitored.

    Reply
  6. Martine Hatswell
    Martine Hatswell says:

    Dear all! What an interesting article! It certainly challenges our attitudes towards language learning. My personal experience of language learning and teaching has been that however lacking in abilities you might be, a strong motivation is the key. I remember that if I wanted to make friend with a child or an adult who could not understand my language, I would try my very best to learn at least some of their language. To my mind, a varied social mix and an exposure to many cultures and many types of sounds right from the early years is a sure path towards acquiring the ability to learn other languages easily! What do you all think?

    Reply
  7. Laure Maillefaud
    Laure Maillefaud says:

    Great article indeed. I totally agree with Rod and Patti : all children are gifted. Just look at the way they manage to learn their first language : observing and listening for nine months, the trying out, repeating the sounds they like, then make sense out of it all to communicate… How amazing ! Then when surrounded by different languages, they easily switch from one language to another. It’s a natural process which doesn’t have to be thought through when they are young. My children are still young but they can understand some Spanish because our neighbours are spanish and we often go to Spain, they’ve been surrounded by English ever since they were born and until not so long ago, they didn’t fully realise it was unusual to understand English since we live in France ! They are quite curious about all languages and their sounds, they always ask questions about a language when they hear one. So the younger they are in contact with other languages, the easier – they become “language sensitive”- so the better for them.

    Reply
  8. Patti Pascal
    Patti Pascal says:

    Point well taken. I truly believe that most children learn faster than adults, particularly in learning a new language. Their candidness is a bonus. I’m speaking through experience from teaching English in Korea.

    Reply
  9. Patti Pascal
    Patti Pascal says:

    Thanks, Laurie and Rod. Regardless of age, it’s a joy to teach English, with the thought that wherever we go, we can get by with minimal frustrations if English is spoken in a conversation. In non-English speaking countries, students may find it hard to enunciate and pronounce words correctly and may even interchange words with the same sound. That is when fun comes in unexpectedly.

    Reply
  10. Rod Mitchell
    Rod Mitchell says:

    That is fun, indeed. In the “world” I am in, it is not only English, but also Spanish, French, Italian, German, Portuguese, Swedish, Mandarin, Cantonese, Arabic, Russian, Korean, Japanese – a host of different languages, people and their children having to learn all sorts of different languages because they go to live and work in the country, or do business with the country, have married someone from that country, or want to study in the country – or simply just have a personal interest in that language and culture – such as family background or simply interest for no reason.

    I started learning other langauges when I was a kid – and haven’t really looked back now that I speak quite a few. And this childhod learning has meant that adulthood learning is so much easier.

    Reply
  11. Emmanuelle Cremonesi
    Emmanuelle Cremonesi says:

    Most of the kids can learn languages, you just have to adapt how they learned. Which most schools don’t.They only teach one way, so if you don’t fit this profile you must have a learning disability!!

    Reply

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