Why is it that some people have an easier time learning languages than other people?
I believe that a good language learner has to achieve a sort of ethnic weightlessness. The good learner has to leave the firm ground of his or her national identity or native language. The good learner is just an individual, of no nationality, and therefore does not resist the new language but becomes a part of it and makes it a part of him or her. Maybe this is the Taoism of language learning.
Once you have achieved this state of mind everything becomes easier, not easy, of course, but easier. In this state the mind opens up to receive the habits and behaviour of another culture.
Motivation is the greatest factor influencing success in language learning. Aptitude for language learning is also highly correlated with general intelligence. An open mind helps a great deal, too; I note that people who are set in their ways have tremendous trouble learning new languages, whereas people who readily adapt to new situations have much less trouble.
There's a longstanding theory about "linguistic ego" that partially addresses this: it says that the more a person considers his native language to be part of his identity, the harder it is for him to learn any other language. And I have found this to be apparently true. People who are very attached to their native language--who consider their native language to be a part of _them_--never seem to be able to become fluent in any other language. People who see their native language as just a communication tool, in contrast, don't seem to have much problem picking up additional languages.
The ones with strong linguistic egos are easy to identify because they will mentally translate to and from their native languages all their lives, no matter how much they study other languages. Those without this handicap invariably will begin to think in the languages they study after reaching a certain level of proficiency.
I do not know whether to feel vindicated or disappointed that one of my own principles of language learning turns out to be a longstanding theory. In my book on language learning I devote a whole chapter to identity and language.
I own a lumber trading company and after 30 years in the business decided to write a book on language learning, since I speak nine, and to develop a website for language learning. This project has taken two years and a lot of money and effort. In addition to my own experience, I enlisted the ingenuity of a small group of programmers. I also visited bookstore throughout Europe and Asia, where I travel for business. I read lots of books and was appalled at the layers of sophistry that constitute the theories of language teaching today.
To me the truth seemed more and more simple the more I read, motivation and efficiency. A large part of the motivation is the ability to sympathize with and want to become a part of the language and culture that one is studying. The efficiency has to do with developing an effective way to accumulate useful words and phrases and measure results, while absorbing great amounts of interesting content. All the rest, all the theories, all the technical terms, all the hair-splitting on grammar, is all a waste of time.
And efficiency is largely a function of intelligence, whence the correlation between intelligence and language aptitude (although motivation is still the most important factor by far).
I agree with the motivation factor. And that motivation has to be attached to something deep-rooted, ie: The underlying reasons for wanting to learn can't be superficial, or else the motivation fizzles out.
I find that students who take a strong personal interest in learning a language can do very well, whereas those who take an "externally imposed" interest (a job requirement, etc.) do much more poorly, despite their apparent motivation. In language learning you really must want to learn a language; just accepting that you need it for some purpose doesn't seem to be good enough.
You are absolutely right! The learner has to want to communicate in the new language, with the new culture(at least some of it), with the people of that language(at last some of them).
Too bad you cannot read my book on language learning. It sounds as if you could have written it.