Language is mysterious. Would anyone disagree? Whenever I hear someone from my own culture speaking a second language that I don’t understand, it’s amazing to me. It’s almost like magic.
Perhaps because of the mystery of language, we may sometimes ask ourselves: “Do I have a gift for learning languages?”
Another way of asking this is, “Do I have an aptitude for learning languages, or not?”
So, what exactly does aptitude mean?
Two language researchers named Susan Gass and Larry Selinker give the following definition: “Aptitude, simply put, refers to one’s potential for learning new knowledge or skills.” So, when people ask the question, “Do I have an aptitude for language?” They are really asking, “Do I have the potential to learn languages well?”
It seems obvious that some people do have an aptitude for language and others do not. However, measuring someone’s aptitude for learning language is a difficult task. To begin with, how do we measure someone’s “potential for learning new knowledge or skills?” What scales should we use? What does ‘potential’ in a second language mean? Can this be improved, or should people who do not test well for language aptitude be encouraged to study something else?
Some researchers have said that language aptitude is the same thing as “intelligence.” In this view, if someone gets a high score on an IQ test, they will also have an aptitude for language learning. However, when language test scores have been compared with IQ test scores statistically, no direct relationship was found. So we cannot say that IQ and language aptitude are the same thing.
Other researches have suggested that aptitude is connected to “working memory.” Working memory, also called “short-term memory,” refers to the brain’s capacity to keep and analyze new information. Most of the information in our working memory is not stored in our long term memory, so after we analyze it, we forget it. For example, we may see something interesting on the news, but then we see an advertisement or our family asks us a question, and we forget. Research has suggested that different people have different levels of working memory capacity and that this capacity predicts language learning aptitude.
However, Peter Robinson, a professor who studies language aptitude at Aoyama Gakuin University, has suggested that language aptitude is not a single ability, but rather a collection of different abilities that work together to create language learning aptitude. Another researcher named Zoltan Dornyei from the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom has suggested that how these collections of abilities work together is based on a language learner’s motivation to learn.
In other words, a student’s true aptitude only appears if the student is also highly motivated to learn.
This means that one of the best ways to answer the question “Do I have an aptitude for language learning?” is to study hard, with strong motivation, and see what happens.