Why are some adult foreign language learners more proficient than others?

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Past puberty our capacity to learn foreign languages decreases, but adults do not learn a second or additional language at the same pace. Many individual variations affect the outcomes, continue reading to find out which one seems to be the most influential one.

Language Aptitude

Language Aptitude

Besides age, aptitude seems to be the best language learning predictor in L2/3/4 adult learners. The construct of foreign language aptitude is strongly associated with the name of John B. Carroll, the first to establish the methodology for studying aptitude, and its nature.

Carroll (1962) believed foreign language aptitude to be a specific autonomous talent or a group of talents separated from intelligence. Far from regarding aptitude as a monolithic construct, Carroll, pinpointed four independent subcomponents able to help foreign language learning:

1) Phonemic coding ability, the ability to distinguish foreign sounds and to encode them so that they can be recalled;

2) Grammatical sensitivity, the capacity to recognise the functions of words in sentences (a skill strictly related to the ability to assess whether or not words in different sentences perform the same function);

3) Inductive language learning ability, the capacity to deduce and extrapolate rules about a language from language samples;

4) Associative memory, the capacity to form associations in memory. He also suggested that aptitude has to be considered as a fairly stable construct and maintained a neutral position as to whether aptitude exists within an individual from birth or is the result of early experience.

As a result of his work, Carroll published the Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT) (Carroll and Sapon 1959), a measure which generated significant high correlations with language performance. Up to these days, this test is still the keystone of aptitude research.

The total score produced by the MLAT is at the base for predictions of language learning success. However, despite its importance, the study of foreign language aptitude decreased considerably by the 1970s: first of all, because it was perceived to be anti-egalitarian; second, because it was seen as irrelevant and associated to old-fashioned class learning; third, because at that time English language teachers did not appear to be interested in the differences present between learners.

However, the research scenario changed from 1990s with research focusing on investigating individual differences affecting language learning success in L2 learners. The MLAT test was then, reconsidered to be a respected test for foreign language aptitude prediction.

There was also a continuation in believing that aptitude could significantly be influenced by affective variables. In addition, aptitude was then reconsidered to be a cognitive construct influenced to a great extent by language variables especially by the individual’s skills related to his/her phonological and orthographic native language systems.

The latter concept was at the basis of the Linguistic Coding Differences Hypothesis formulated by Sparks and Ganschow (1991). In recent literature, aptitude is thought to be one of the key factors which influence adult second and additional language learning.

Recent studies have suggested that aptitude correlates significantly positively, especially in native-like adult L2 learners, producing positive effects, which may compensate for the negative effects linked to the brain maturational constraints and the critical period.

However, high or low aptitude seems to be irrelevant or of a minor importance in early acquisition. Abrahamsson and Hyltenstam (2008), investigated L2 proficiency and language aptitude in 42 near native L2 speakers of Swedish perceived to be native speakers by mother-tongue speakers of Swedish.

Their study was conducted in order to test DeKeyser’s (2000) hypothesis according to which aptitude is a strong predictor of language achievement in naturalistic acquisition as well as in an instructed context. Indeed, the results indicated that high levels of analytical abilities are required in learners who can pass as native speakers in daily communication.

However, it was also suggested that even a high degree of aptitude does not represent a sufficient condition for achieving a “complete” native-like fluency.



A salient social psychological factor which appears to be second best predictor in adult language learning success, is motivation. It appears logical, to deduce that individuals who are motivated will learn another language quicker and to a higher degree.

Even today, the precise nature of this construct is still not clear. Researchers seem to agree about motivation being somehow related to drive, though, many definitions were suggested but diverged in many directions. Motivation appears to be a construct including a prominent social dimension given the fact that language learning, contrary to other subjects, requires the incorporation of numerous elements inherent to the L2 culture (Dörnyei 2003).

Therefore, it is no coincidence that the first investigations in L2 motivation were carried out in Canada where the co-existence of the Anglophone and Francophone communities have been at the centre of social sciences researchers’ attention for long time.

Robert Gardner is the primary figure associated with L2 motivation. Gardner (1985) distinguished two types of L2 motivation: integrative, associated as the word suggests, to a desire to integrate in the target language community, and instrumental which derives from the rewards that the individual can achieve from learning.

At the basis of integrative motivation is a positive disposition to interact with the target language community and in some instances even to become similar to its respected members. In some extreme cases, there is a total identification which might lead to the individual’s native community rejection (Dörnyei 2003).

Therefore, a key facet of integrative motivation is a sort of psychological and emotional identification (Dörnyei 2003). In recent research, integrative motivation is considered to be a better predictor in language learning success than instrumental motivation. In this respect, many studies have examined the effects of integrative motivation on L2 learners.

A meta-analysis undertaken by Masgoret and Gardner (2003) investigated 75 independent samples including 10,489 individuals, and found out that integrative motivation helps successful second language acquisition. However, as Dörnyei (2003) states, integrative motivation remains a notion of undefined nature as it cannot be allocated to any specific main stream of motivational psychology.

Most recently, Dörnyei (2008) extended his research in investigating the impact of teachers’ motivational strategy on L2 learners. Such a study was guided by scarce empirical evidence to support the claim that motivational teaching strategies would have an important positive impact on L2 instructed learning.

Therefore, Dörnyei (2008) examined 40 ESOL classrooms in South Korea to which took part 27 teachers and more than 1,300 learners. The study focused on the link between the teachers’ motivational practice and their students’ language learning motivation.

The results showed a significant positive correlation between the two, providing robust evidence of the importance of teacher’s motivational practice.

This finding is extremely important as it sets a priority for motivational teaching strategies to be included in the teacher’s agenda.