What’s aptitude got to do with it?

Ljiljana’s and Aleksandra’s recent posts here were responses to my invitation to NNS teachers to tell us how they learnt English. My original question was to do with the relative importance thay gave to implicit and explicit learning, but behind this lies the more fundamental question of why Ljiljana and Aleksandra (like Hana Tichá, Svetlana Kandybovich, Rose Bard, Thom (who often comments here), Marek Kiczkowiak and other bloggers) succeeded in an endeavour where the majority fail.

One of the key phenomena in SLA research is “incompleteness”, which refers to the fact that most learners fail to reach a high level of ultimate attainment. As Sawyer and Ranta said:

the clearest fact about SLA that we currently have is that L2 learners differ dramatically in their rates of acquisition and in their ultimate attainment (Sawyer and Ranta, 2001: 319).

While it might be “the clearest fact” we have, it is not, alas, the area of SLA research that’s made the most progress; rather the opposite is the case. Explaining the role that individual differences make to SLA has proved very difficult, partly because the theoretical constructs involved are so slippery.

Aptitude would seem to be the individual difference most likely to explain the huge differences in results of foreign language learning, wouldn’t it? “I’m no good at languages” we say, by which we mean that we have no aptitude for it, just as we might say we’re no good at maths, or singing, or cooking. But when we try to define aptitude for language learning so as to get a clear idea of what we’re talking about, it turns out to be notoriously hard to pin down.  Until quite recently, the best attempt to define language aptitude was made by Carroll and Sapon (1959), who produced the Modern Languages Aptitude Test (MLAT). This divided language aptitude into four components:

  1. Phonemic Coding Ability
  2. Grammatical Sensitivity
  3. Inductive Language Learning Ability
  4. Rote learning activity for foreign language materials.

Scores on the MLAT subsequently yielded multiple correlations of between 0.40  and 0.60, which is quite impressive. As Sawyer and Ranta commented:

These are considered moderate to strong correlations, and although they imply that considerable learner variation remains to be explained by additional factors, they also demonstrate that language aptitude has consistently been the single best predictor of subsequent language learning achievement (Sawyer and Ranta, 2001: 322).

But there are a number of problems with this view.

  1. The biggest problem is that defining aptitude in terms of a bank of tests falls into the trap of being circular; we say that those who have an aptitude for language learning are those who do well at language aptitude tests. But as with IQ tests, we can turn this round and say that a high score simply shows that you are good at the tests.
  2. Related to this, Oller (1983) argued that the MLAT treats language attitude as simply general intelligence applied to the task of foreign language learning, and there is therefore little point in studying it as a special learner trait.
  3. Then there are unanswered questions. Is aptitude innate, declining with age (linked to the “critical period” argument), or is it a matter of skill development?
  4. Last but not least, the aptitude being defined here seems to relate only to formal instruction, and, what’s more, to a particular type of formal instruction. Cook (1996) argues that the aptitude tests are not relevant to current L2 teaching methodology:
  •  Such tests are not neutral about what happens in the classroom nor about the goals of language teaching.  They assume that learning words by heart is an important part of L2 learning ability, that the spoken language is crucial, and that grammar consists of structural patterns. In short, MLAT mostly predicts how well a student will do in a course that is predominantly audiolingual in methodology rather than in a course taught by other methods.  (Cook, 1996: 101)

Long (2017) seems to agree with Cook when he notes that the MLAT is heavily weighted towards aptitude for analytic, explicit language learning.  He says that it’s not surprising to find moderate to high correlations between scores on such measures and scores on tests of foreign language abilities learned and measured in the same way. Furthermore, although the tests are still good at predicting rate of progress in the early stages of foreign languages taught explicitly, they don’t address questions about success at later stages, or very advanced proficiency, or learners with higher aptitude for implicit language learning, or classroom learners taught by teachers using a communicative methodology.


The Hi-LAB (High-Level Language Aptitude Battery) tests address some of these questions.  Linck et al. (2013) explain:

Hi-LAB was designed to predict the attainment of high-level proficiency—rather than initial rate of learning—with the expectation that high-level acquisition requires going beyond the classroom setting, for instance by participating in an immersion experience. Most of the constructs in Hi-LAB were designed to capture potential for language learning processes that operate in such non-instructional settings, where superior cognitive and perceptual abilities of the learner may enhance the processing of language input and facilitate the mapping in memory of apperceived forms, meaning and function. Hi-LAB does not measure phonetic coding ability (important in learning to read in a foreign language) or grammatical sensitivity (important in explicit language instruction), since those measures already exist and are hypothesized to be more relevant at initial stages. Instead, the focus was on measuring potential for dealing with the remaining language learning problems, such as mastering complex linguistic systems and perceiving non-salient language features. Therefore, we have focused on cognitive and perceptual abilities that are hypothesized to support more advanced aspects of L2 learning that are required to attain high-level proficiency.

The results of the Linck et al. (2013) study are tentative and rather general, but, nevertheless, it’s a promising development. I would love to see how the NNS teachers and bloggers I mentioned at the start of this post would do in Hi-LAB. Both Ljiljana and Aleksandra emphasised the importance of explicit learning, and Aleksandra in particular stressed how much hard work she’d put in to reaching such a high level. Still, I can’t help thinking that there’s more to it than working hard on explicit learning. On top of all their hard work, do they have more than just the ability to get high scores on tests? Do they have exceptional cognitive abilities related to attention and memory that make both explicit and implicit learning easier and faster for them than for most people?

Another thing, of course, is motivation, but we’ll have to leave that for another day.



Carroll J. and Sapon S. (1959). The Modern Languages Aptitude Test. San Antonio, Tx.: The Psychological Corporation.

Linck, J. A., Hughes, M. M., Campbell, S. G., Silbert, N. H., Tare, M., Jackson, S. R., Smith, B. K., Bunting, M. F. and Doughty, C. J. (2013) Hi-LAB: a new measure of aptitude for high-level language proficiency. Language Learning 63(3): 530–66.

Long, M.H. (201) Instructed second language acquisition (ISLA): geopolitics, methodological issues, and some major research questions. Instructed Second Language Acquisition, 1.1, pp.7 to 44.

8 thoughts on “What’s aptitude got to do with it?

  1. Hi Geoff,
    I’d like to refer to my teaching experience and reflect on the influence that cognitive abilities and language aptitude have on reaching high-level linguistic competence. First of all, I agree that ” cognitive and perceptual abilities that are hypothesized to aspects of L2 learning that are required to attain high- level proficiency”. I noticed that learners who’ve excelled in their career, which I link to their cognitive abilities, like succeessful lawyers, doctors, CEOs, etc, learn English faster, with ease and they outperform other learners. But, if their language aptitude (, i.e. phonemic coding ability, grammatical sensitivity, inductive language learning ability) is slightly below the avarage then their language aquisition is much slower and they need to put more effort into learning.So, I think that language aptitude is the best predictor of language learning achievement.


    1. Hi Aleksandra,

      You’ve noticed that learners who’ve excelled in their career – lawyers, doctors, CEOs, etc, – “learn English faster, with ease and they outperform other learners”. I have to say that my experience was different; I didn’t see any less variation in the level of success among successful professionals than in, for example, those not working (for whatever reason), or those working in middle management jobs. Still, I think the literature supports your impression, although, there again, the literature on aptitude is mostly about the MLAT. Round and round we go!


  2. Hi Geoff,
    I would hate to see language aptitude to be the decisive factor for learning success. I have been an apostle of the “all can learn” gospel admitting learning failure to the statistical outliers of the few afflicted with some learning impairment. But here it is more a calling and a hunch than certainty.

    I learned my best three languages via different avenues. Being a Swiss kid (speaking Swiss German), German came in the form of stern grammatical instruction and as an impediment to my soccer aspirations, and so did French. Study the system and the culture; read and translate. Deutsch kept its place as TV and much else comes in the official language. But French did not make it. Rien no vas plus. If I managed English, it is not due to having slipped in the language before the door of a critical period closed on me. I started with English in my early 20s. And then Spanish in my 30s. The three methods are, grammar for German, grammar-translation for French, reading/ writing for English, and living abroad for Spanish.

    In all of this, I cannot easily identify instances where I thought that being taught the language helped me significantly. The single most helpful language driver in English for me has been the fact that I need to write in English. Getting feedback on stuff I wrote has always been very useful. That is the reason, in my opinion, why I am stuck at a B2 level with Spanish. I use it for shopping. Also, my study of English or Spanish has almost never been focused on form. Only once I started teaching (bloody German) and then English did I get to visit the grammar underworld.

    If I had to judge my language aptitude I would say I am a French disaster, a German counter revolutionary, a promising English student, and a kind of Spanish language tourist with lots of fossilized language.

    It is partially this experience that has made me critical of the kind of grammar teaching often seen in language courses. Other than calming down the patient, look the heart is still beating, I cannot see much benefit for the learning process. And so by default, I came to focus early on in my teaching career on teaching vocabulary. This attitude pre-dated my reading of the Lexical Approach. I had read Krashen and then came to Lewis and both points of view dovetailed with my learner experience. Getting better at English, to me at least, had to do with reading lots of text, seeing lots of good language samples. I started out as a literature major. Literary criticism is fairly blind to grammar. It’s all meaning, interpretation and design of text. With this in mind, and it is my current professional object of study, I think language learning success is largely a function of purpose and meaning. So much language instruction leads horses to the water, but will they drink? Why should they? What for?



    1. Hi Thom,

      Thanks for this very interesting account. You make a persuasive argument for the view that success depends on “purpose and meaning”. But still, it could be the case that 2 people have the same purpose and meaning, but one of them does much better than the other, couldn’t it? In which case, aptitude, if we had a handle on it, might explain the difference, no?


      1. I think the argument for purpose and meaning as a sole facilitator of learning is false. Rather, I think one can make a strong case for purpose and meaning as a decisive factor that helps normally endowed people reach advanced language competence. Also, if aptitude turns out to be important, the question poses itself whether there is anything we can do about enhancing aptitude. I am not sure if much could be done about this.

        It is hard for me to blend out my own experience as language learner. I have the privilege of having gone through very different learning scenarios. The aspect that is common in all is exactly my learning aptitude. It is me, my brain and all, that passed from one language to another. Among the reasons why the outcomes are so different I would quickly come to the impression that motivation and purpose played a crucial role. As a second thought follows all issues related to learning strategies / teaching methodology.

        I think this position goes far with your criticism of coursebooks and lexical teaching. What can make us think that asking people to say what others had written for non-purpose communication instances will be engaging? And if it is not engaging, how will we get the neural networks going, and how will learners come up with the energy to go for the long haul?
        Sometimes I get students who want to know how long it will take them to speak English the way I do. I tell them about 25 years. I think ELT suffers from an illusion about how long it takes to become a competent user of a language. Implicitly we curb the daunting aspect of language learning by establishing learning goals that aim at structural / grammar aspects of the language. In terms of communicative competence these goals are illusory. This cop out surfaces when teachers discuss what grammar point they have to teach next to their intermediate students. It would be possible to study and memorize R. Murphy’s grammar units in a year. But how on earth can it be made operational? I think word learning, collocations and all that story, must get much more attention.



      2. Hi Thom,

        Thanks for this. I agree with all the opinions expressed here. I share your doubts about the usefulness of trying to pin down “aptitude”; I agree that motivation and purpose are the main drivers, but have my doubts about studying them, too; and of course I agree with your criticisms of grammar-based teaching and the myth that you can reach an advanced level of proficiency by doing 700 hours of classroom-based learning as many ELT schools and institutes infer in their course structure.


  3. Ironically, after sending my comment, I came across a video in which a Polish girl tells how she learnt English. The first thing she points out is that she doesn’t have a talent for languages! She says she learnt English with the Callan Method then she went to live in Australia. She immersed herself in English. She speaks really well. I didn’t know that she was Polish until she mentioned that. She says that using English on a daily basis helped here become fluent.


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