* Language Aptitude


A convenient answer to the question of why some foreign language learners do better than others is that the better learners have an aptitude for language learning. The question is, of course: What does “aptitude” refer to here?

Dornyei & Skehan (2003: 590) identify a range of questions, which include:

– Is aptitude innate, fixed, amenable to training?
– How does it relate to other abilities e.g. intelligence?
– Can aptitude be measured effectively?
– Can such measurements be used as predictors of success?

Such questions led to the development of language aptitude tests which aimed to predict the likely achievement of an individual even before they had started learning. Carroll and Sapon (1957) produced the Modern Languages Aptitude Test (MLAT), and Carroll (1981) went on to propose a “four component” view of language aptitude:

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

These components were tested by five sub-tests: Number Learning, Phonetic Script, Spelling Clues, Words in Sentences, and Paired Associates.

Saywer and Ranta (2001) discuss a number of problems with Carroll’s treatment of aptitude. First, there is a mismatch between the four categories and the five subtests of the MLAT. The mismatch is especially clear given his admission that one of the factors – inductive language learning ability – is not really measured on the MLAT (Saywer and Ranta, 2001: 327).

Second, as Oller (1983) has most forcefully argued, language attitude is really just general intelligence as applied to the task of foreign language learning, and there is therefore little point in studying it as a special learner trait.

Third, we must ask if aptitude is innate, a capacity that declines with age, linking it to the “critical period” argument, or is it a matter of skill development?

Fourth, is aptitude related to formal instruction, and if so, what kind 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).

The fifth problem with Carroll’s account of aptitude is that, as already hinted at in the passage from Cook in the previous paragraph, it is linked to behaviourism.

While later work on aptitude is not tied to a behaviourist epistemology, the nature of the investigation seems to make this a daunting enterprise. Either accounts of second language learning aptitude rely on general theories of learning, or they equate aptitude with intelligence and, at the cost of blurring the phenomenon under study, rely on theories of intelligence to provide the background. Neither approach is likely to provide a satisfactory explanation of the slippery phenomenon of aptitude.

One example of attempting to provide theoretical adequacy is the CANAL-F theory of foreign language aptitude which argues that “one of the central abilities required in FL acquisition is the ability to cope with novelty and ambiguity” (Grigorenko, Sternberg and Ehrman, 2000: 392). A new test of foreign language aptitude is provided, but there is no attempt to explain aptitude in any causal way. The theory fails to illuminate the description given of foreign language ability; we do not get beyond a limiting of the domain in which the general ability to cope with novelty and ambiguity operates. What explains the individual differences between foreign language learners’ ability? Some are better at coping with novelty and ambiguity than others!

MacWhinney (1995) suggests that a second question, namely “Are some languages easier for a certain type of student and other languages easier for another?” needs to be added. In attempting to answer these questions, MacWhinney uses the framework of the ANOVA model of “main effects and interactions”. The main effects are the the language learning ability of the learner and the difficulty of the language. Skipping the first question for a minute, MacWhinney suggests that languages can be grouped in terms of difficulty, ranging from the easiest anguages of western Europe, through those with non-Roman orthographies and complex grammatical systems, to exotic languages like Eskimo “which present the learner with major challenges in lexicon, grammar, and underlying conceptual organisation” (MacWhinney, 1995: 294).

Skehan (1989) argues that aptitude should be seen as multidimensional, not a monolithic construct, so that learners can be seen in terms of their strengths and weaknesses (e.g., a learner scores highly on inductive language learning and poorly on phonemic coding ability). But, even if aptitude can be properly defined and measured without falling into the familiar trap of being circular (those who do well at language aptitude tests have an aptitude for language learning), how can we step outside the reference of aptitude and establish more than a simple correlation?

Skehan made an attempt to do this when (1998 and 2003) he identified language analytic ability as the central component of aptitude. He proposed that language aptitude was composed of three principal abilities: auditory ability; linguistic ability and memory ability (1998: 201). His three-component view is related to an information processing view of SLA (Dornyei & Skehan, 2003) where the construct of aptitude is integrated with recent developments in SLA (e.g. associated with noticing, focus on form, and input processing). They argue that aptitude can be seen as consistent with a cognitive/information processing view of second language learning, drawing on some of the research associated with consciousness, noticing and input processing. However “consistent” it might be with such a view, they still don’t tell us what aptitude is.

Well, there’s a potted history of work on aptitude for you. What it persuades me is that there are some things which are better left alone. But then, Einstein’s mum told him to stop messing around with numbers and go and get a proper job.


Carroll J. & Sapon S. (1959) The Modern Languages Aptitude Test. San Antonio, Texas.: The Psychological Corporation.
Cook, V. J. (1996) Second Language Learning and Language Teaching. London: Arnold.
Carroll, J. (1981) Twenty five-years of research on foreign language aptitude. In Diller, K. (ed.) Individual Differences and Universals in Language Learning Aptitude. Rowley, Mass: Newbury House.
Dornyei, Z and Skehan, P. (2003) Individual Differences In Second Language Learning. In Doughty, C.J. and Long, M.H. (2003) The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.
Grigorenko, E., Sternberg, R., and Ehrman, M. (2000) A Theory-Based Approach to the Measurement of Foreign Language Learning Ablity: The Canal-F Theory and Test. The Modern Language Journal 84, iii, 390-405.
MacWhinney, B. (1995) Language-specific prediction in foreign language learning. Language Testing 12, 292-319.
Sawyer, M., and Ranta, L. (2001) Aptitude, individual differences, and instructional design. In Robinson, P. Cognition and Second Language Instruction. Cambridge: CUP.
Skehan, P. (1989) Individual differences in foreign language learning. London: Edward Arnold.


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