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Language Learning

Part 1 About Language and Language Learning

By : Joan Rubin & Irene Thompson

Chapter 1


You, the language learner, are the most important factor in the language learning process. Success or failure will, in the end, be determined by what you yourself contribute. Many learners tend to blame teachers, circumstances, teaching materials for their lack of success, when the most important reasons for their success or failure can ultimately be found in themselves. There are several learner traits that are relevant to learning a foreign language, and they usually appear in combination. A positive combination of these traits is probably more important than any one alone.

It is important to realize that there is no stereotype of “the good language learner.” There are instead, many individual traits that are contribute to success, and there are many individual ways of learning a foreign language. People can compensate for the absence of one traits by relying more heavily on another, by accentuating their strengths to compensate for their weaknesses. There is no conclusive evidence that any one of the traits described below is more important than another, particularly over long periods of language study. The descriptions in this chapter are intended to help you analyze your predispositions. You will then better understand how to enhance your learning by accentuating your strengths and minimizing the effects of your weaknesses.


Some people think that the best time to begin studying a foreign language is in childhood, and that the younger you are, the easiest it is to learn another language. There is little evidence, however, that children in language classrooms learn foreign languages any better than adults. (People over age 15) in similar classroom situations. In fact, adults have many advantages over children: better memories, more efficient ways of organizing information, longer attention spans, better study habits, and greater ability to handle complex mental tasks. Adults are often better motivated than children : they see learning a foreign language as necessary for education or career. In addition, adults are particularly sensitive to correctness of grammar and appropriateness of vocabulary, two factors that receive much attention in most language classrooms.

Age does have some disadvantages, however. For instance, adults usually want to learn a foreign language in a hurry, unlike children, who can devote more time to language mastery. Also adults have complex communication needs that extend beyond the mere ability to carry on a simple conversation. Adults need to be able to argue, persuade, express concern, object explain, and present information about complex matters that pertain their work or education. Because most adults do not like top appear foolish, they often deny themselves opportunities to practice for fear of making mistakes, no getting their message across, or appearing ridiculously incompetent. Also adults have more trouble than children in making new friends who speak the foreign language.

One example usually given to support the notion of children’s superiority as language learners is their ability to pick up an authentic accent. It is usually observed that children of immigrants learn to speak the language of their adopted country without an accent, whereas their parents rarely do. It is also observed that even adults with high need and motivation, such as diplomats, rarely learn a foreign language without retaining some of their native accent. In a sense, the same is true in sports: to learn well the complex coordination of the hundred muscles needed to play tennis, swim, or figure skate, a person has to start young. Most champions begin training at an early age. There are examples of strong competitors who entered their sport after childhood, but they are the exception, not the rule. The same is true of adults who acquire native like accents.

Taken together, the disadvantages of age are clearly offset by advantages. By properly combining positive traits and effective strategies, you can indeed master a foreign language – as lots of adults do.

The best time to learn a foreign language, then is when your need is clearest and have sufficient time. If you are strongly motivated to study a foreign language and if you have the time to do it, the best time to begin is now.


A person’s intellectual predisposition to learn a foreign language is commonly referred to as aptitude. Aptitude is another way of saying “knack for languages,” and like having a good ear for languages,” it is one those myths people use to explain why some succeed where other fail. Strictly speaking, language-learning aptitude is the intellectual capacity to learn a foreign language, a kind of foreign language IQ. In a classroom situation, a person with high language aptitude can usually master foreign language material faster and better than someone with lower aptitude. Thus, several studies show strong relationship between grades and aptitude.

What is your language IQ?
There are several standardized tests that measure language-learning aptitude. They predict how fast and how well and individual can learn foreign languages under formal classroom conditions, when the emphasis is on grammar and memorization. However, these tests may not be such good predictors of how well a person can learn to communicate in a foreign language, especially if he or she has the opportunity to practice in real life situations. In other words, language aptitude tests may predict ability to learn formally and analytically, but they may not be as reliable in measuring ability to learn unconsciously and intuitively.

Remember that language success may ultimately depend not only on abilty but on persistence. You may have the potential to be a brilliant language learner, but if you fail to put effort into it, chances are you will not learn much. A good combination of talent and perseverance is ideal. For example, it has been shown that pronunciation accuracy in adult students can be predicted by two traits: aptitude for mimicry, presumably an inherent trait, and strength of concern of pronunciation, a motivational factor. When the two are combined, one can acquire a good foreign accent.

A number of psychological traits appear to be related to successful language learning. One of them, motivation, is so important that is discussed separately in chapter 2. In this chapter we examine several other traits that have a significant effect on language mastery.


If aptitude is an intellectual trait, attitude is an emotional one. On the one hand, it may have to do with the way learners feel about the foreign culture and its people. They may admire them and want to learn more about them by becoming fluent in their language. Or they may like the people who speak the foreign language and wish to be accepted by them. Research has shown a definite relationship between attitude and success when foreign-language learners have an opportunity to know people who speak the language they are studying. Such positive attitudes usually help learners to maintain their interest long enough to achieve language mastery. Thus, if you find French and the French people attractive, if you wish to learn more about them or wish to become more like them, you are likely to succeed at learning to speak French well.

Some people are remarkably successful in mastering a language without feeling powerfully drawn to the country or the people who speak it. They may need the language for academic or career purposes, so their attitude is purely pragmatic. These two attitude are not mutually exclusive: it is entirely possible that a person may want to learn Spanish because he or she wants to understand the Spanish people better and wants to study in Spain. More important that specific attitude is that the language learner experience a real need to communicate and make meanings clear.


It should not be surprising that personality influences the way a person goes about learning a foreign language. Although we cannot, at present, sketch the ideal language learning personality, several traits appear to be related to success. Of these, extroversion is repeatedly mentioned as a positive trait. When everything else is equal, a sociable person who uses every opportunity to talk with other people may be more successful because by initiating and maintaining more contacts he or she has more occasion to hear and use the new language.


People who are painfully aware of their limitations and worry about their ability to use the language are usually less willing to engage in either classroom practice or in real-world communication. Shyness and inhibition can stand in the way of progress in speaking (perhaps less in the way of reading) a foreign language. They can also prevent a person from taking risks or seizing opportunities to practice and learn. Fear of making a mistake or being misunderstood can keep a learner form adopting an open-minded, active, creative approach to language learning. Everything else being equal, a person who has an open, receptive attitude towards the foreign language, who is not afraid to use it, and who feels at ease in foreign language situations is more likely to learn from his or her language experiences.

Thus, if you have an open, inquisitive, worry-free approach to learning a foreign language, if you find the whole experience enjoyable and rewarding, you will probably learn better. You may want o review your life situation in general and ask yourself the following questions : Is my self-esteem low in language class? If so, what can I do to raise it? (If your teacher is highly intolerant of errors, you may find it helpful, when you can, to change teachers.) Is there anything wrong with my study habits? Do I expect too much of myself? Do I really have the time to devote to language learning, or do I have too many other pressing matters on my hand?

Tolerance of Ambiguity

Tolerance of ambiguity allows a person to reconcile and accommodate ideas that may be contradictory or information that may be inconsistent. A person who is tolerant of ambiguity does not see everything in terms of black and white and does not put information in air-tight compartments. Such a person is wiling to accept the fact that there are many shades of grey and uncertainty and inconsistency must be accommodated. Tolerance of ambiguity has been noted as an asset in learning a foreign language because there are so many inconsistencies in language rules that even native speakers cannot always agree on correct usage or explain certain language phenomena. Also, whether a turn a speech is right or wrong may depend on accept an evasive answer, such as, “Well, I suppose you could say it that way under certain circumstances,” is more likely to have an open flexible system for accommodating new information as knowledge of the language increases.

Learning Style

Learning a foreign language is just one form of learning in general; therefore, each individual will employ the approach that he or she usually applies to other learning situations. When it comes to foreign languages, one kind of learner prefers a highly-structured approach with much explanation in the mother tongue, graded exercises, constant correction, and careful formulation of rules. This type of learner is very analytical, reflective, and reluctant to say anything in the foreign language that is not grammatically perfect. This person is a rule learner. A second type of learner relies more on intuition, the gathering of examples and imitation. He or she is willing to take risks. There is no evidence that one type of learner is more successful than the other. What is more important perhaps is that the learner’s style be appropriate to the particular task. If the task is to communicate, then risk taking is in order. If the task is to say or write something correctly, then rules should be consulted.

It is important that each learner’s preferences be accommodated in the classroom. You may thus wish to examine your own preferences, and communicate them to your teachers. For instance, if you feel that you need rules, you may be quite uncomfortable in a classroom dedicated to imitation and repetition of dialogues and should ask the teacher for more explanations. If, on the other hand, you feel that you learn more from being exposed to the language and from making your own inferences, you may feel ill-at-ease in classroom where the teacher painstakingly explains the new grammar in English and should ask the teacher for more practice in speaking.

Eye- Ear Learning

When learning a foreign language, some students depend on their eyes; other depend on their ears. Some learners feel that they learn better if they can see the language written out, while others prefer to listen to tapes and records. It is not clear to what extent “eye-mindedness” and “ear mindedness” are related to foreign language mastery. You may want to experiment to find out whether a single method or a combination of the two works best for you.


Language and culture are inseparably interwoven, so you cannot really learn one without learning something about the other. When you set out to study another language, you also set out to study the culture that gives it life and meaning. Your relationship to the people and their culture is directly relevant to your learning of their language. Let us look at this relationship more closely.


Stereotypes are overgeneralizations, or caricatures, of other people. They can interfere with learning how to understand and communicate with the members of other cultures. In a sense, they are defense mechanisms- a way of making the known more predictable. The Japanese are “inscrutable,” the Russians are “boorish,” the French are “snooty”, the Arab are “volatile and unstable.” Such oversimplifications impair our objectivity because we then see – that is, the ones that fit the stereotype. Thus, an act of generosity by a Scotsman can be either overlooked or treated as an exception, and a American peace Corps volunteer may be seen by nationals of the host- country as either as materialist or a misfit.

Once formed, stereotypes are difficult to dispel. But if you realize that your view of Spaniards, Frenchmen, Germans, or Italians is stereotyped, you should examine your views and try to become more objective and open minded. You will find that there is a difference between a caricature and a real person. It is difficult to learn to communicate with a caricature; you can only do it with a real person.


Ethnocentrism is closely related to reliance on stereotypes. It is the tendency to measure other people against one’s own cultural yardstick. Most of us believe that our way of life is the best and most natural one. Thus, when we encounter a different culture, we tend to judge it in terms of our own. Almost invariably, we feel that our culture is with it and because it gives us a sense of security. Here are a few examples:

Americans like to separate work and private life; Latin Americans socialize a lot with their colleagues. Judged by the Latin American standard, Americans are cold and distant; judged from the American point of view, Latins don’t know where to draw the line between work and play. Both feel uncomfortable with each other. This may inhibit the formation of meaningful relationships that would allow members of one group to learn the language and culture of the other.

Similarly, Americans like to pride themselves on their openness, their “telling it like it is.” In the Middle East, such candor is seen not as a virtue, but as stupidity or obtuseness. A Middle Easterners, their “telling it like it is.” In the Middle East, such candor is seen not as a virtue, but as a stupidity or obtuseness. A Middle Easterner uses involved circumlocutions to avoid stating what may tell them, while Middle Easterners perceive Americans as lacking in finesse. This, of course, can prevent both groups from having personal relationships that would allow them to learn other languages and customs.


Previous experiences with foreign language study may influence future attempts. If, on the one hand, a person has had a favorable experience studying one language and believes that he or she learned something valuable, that person will be predisposed to study another language and will approach it expecting to achieve success. On the other hand, if an individual first experience with a foreign language were not particularly pleasant or successful, he or she will tend to expect the next language-learning experience to be just as a stressful and unfruitful as the first. Such a person should examine the reasons for the earlier lack of success. Perhaps it was due to a teacher that the learner did not like, a textbook that was not particularly helpful, a method that clashed with the learner’s learning preferences, or perhaps it was due to the learner’s own inexperience, absence of motivation, or lack of good reasons for studying the particular language. Chances are that these conditions will not be repeated or can be avoided the second time around. The best approach then is simply to wipe the slate clean and approach the study of the next language as a completely new experience.

Keep in mind, too, that people get better at whatever they do over a long period of time. In other words, based on past experience, they learn how to learn. People who have learned several languages usually report that each became successively easier to master, particularly if the languages were related. So, don’t be surprised when the star performer in your class tells you that it is his or her third or even fourth foreign language. 

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