Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Do children have a natural aptitude for second language learning?

Language teachers may be surprised by the title of this post, since, in my experience, it is self-evident that some students are much better at learning languages than others and this, I have always assumed, is down to something different within their brain which (I mention this in view of Dominic Cummings recent paper which referred to genetics) I assume has an inherited factor behind it.

The current vogue, encouraged by hypotheses such as Carol Dweck's mindsets, the claim that IQ is flexible and the idea that anyone can become skilled at an activity with 10 000 hours of practice, is that all children can achieve highly. I may be wrong, but in some educational circles, to suggest that some children are naturally more gifted than others has begun to sound like heresy.

A friend who knows much more about educational theory than me doubts that natural ability exists and would claim that competence derives from self-belief, motivation and practice.

I understand why one would want to value practice over natural ability (genetics?). To suggest that some children are limited in some respects, are for example "good with their hands", could lead teachers to lower their aspirations or direct pupils away from subjects they find harder.

I do not think this need be the case at all. I do believe some children are more musical, mathematical, creative, linguistically able, practical than others. I do believe we are born with different characteristics and my gut feeling is that natural ability probably trumps hard work in a school setting. No school student gets 10 000 hours to perfect their skills. Teachers do make a very significant difference, but even a very gifted teacher can only do so much with an averagely able student, however motivated they may be.

I have no expert knowledge nor any research to support this view, although the research by Professor Plomin referred to by Dominic Cummings, does claim that genes account for most of the academic success students enjoy.

In sum, students do vary, some are naturally gifted at languages, but this does not stop us having high expectations for all.


  1. I think this is a fascinating topic. When teaching young children (10ish and below)- they usually approach language learning with enthusiasm. As soon as they have had any negative experience they quickly produce the phrase "I am not good at languages" much more quickly than they would express, say, a lack of ability in Maths. Or they are very quick to express a preference for a particular language being easier/better than another - Spanish is much more fashionable, currently, than German, even with very young children, and it gives them a convenient excuse not to make an effort in the language being offered. There may be something in the genetic argument. However, let's think about this: a poor Indian family would be delighted to be able to offer their child an English medium education. Is the child or are the parents going to say that he can't do it because he isn't gifted in languages? That would in that context be blatantly ridiculous. Most Indians and Africans speak 2,3 or even 4 languages as a matter of course just to operate in normal society. I strongly believe in introducing languages at a very young age (Nursery level) to remove the attitude of can/can't or odd ideas about aptitude. A second language should be as natural as breathing.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Nicola. I cannot disagree with anything you say. With the young learners, do you notice, apart from enthusiasm, variations in apparent aptitude? e.g. good accents?

  3. Steve,

    Thanks for this. I think that this is a very interesting article and worthy of debate. I would agree with everything you say, and my own personal experience bears this out in the raging debate about nature vs. nurture. At the age of seven, I was trying to learn to speak French off the television. When I went to grammar school, I came top of my class in Latin and French in my first year, and I went to a small country primary school in the heart of Northern Ireland. There were other boys in my class in grammar school who had done French in their primary school. By the way, I also have Aspergers Syndrome.

  4. Thanks Steve. This is a useful contribution to the raging debate about the nature of intelligence and ability. If my own life experience is anything to go by, I think that I would pretty much strong proof of the 'innate ability' argument. Neither of my parents went to university and I went to a small country school in the heart of Northern Ireland. When I went to grammar school, it was pretty obvious that I was strong in languages from the outset. In my first year, I came top of my class in French and Latin, and there were some boys in my class who had done some French in their previous primary school. By the way, it might interest you to know that I also have Aspergers Syndrome

  5. I see that the Plomin research was quoted again in the press the other day. The current zeitgeist seems to be against any notion of natural ability. I'm sure it will pass.

    Thanks for commenting, Brian. I am sure your experience must be common.

  6. Hi Steve, Thanks for your reply. In response to your reply, I would say that my experience is not all that typical and I would describe myself as a very atypical language learner. I was drawn to study German at university because I seemed to have an instinctive fondness for a language that draws a lot on order and logic. I am glad to see that you taught in a grammar school environment and you could obviously that even among very highly able students some people were better at languages than others. Speaking of Plomin, there is an article by Jill Boucher professor of psychology at City University London which appeared in December's edition of Prospect magazine, and which cites his work in defence of her argument that intelligence does depend a great deal upon genetics. What is most infuriating is that many prominent educationalists and other professionals seem to believe that children are largely born with the same intelligence, when this is clearly not the case.