Please do not take this question at face value, it was deliberately meant to be provocative. What I mean is, I chanced to meet people who never seemed to master a foreign language properly, no matter how motivated they were or how hard they tried (and we have heard of immigrants who did not learn the language of a given country properly after living there for decades). So the real issue behind my question is: what is that important piece of difference that makes learning a foreign language so easy for one and so difficult for others? Yes, I know most of you would say that motivation is the key factor here, but I feel there may be more to that. Is it "talent" or "competence"? If so, what does that consist of? I have not had this problem myself as a learner, but did encounter it in some form or the other when I was teaching. Why do people who are excellent speakers and communicators in their own language become utterly lost when they start learning a foreign one? And why do relatively shy people master one language after the other? Are cognitive or communicative skills more important when learning a foreign language? I personally think it needs a bit of both, but I would really appreciate your opinions about this issue.
<<Are there people who are "immune" to learning a foreign language?>>
Yes and I've met quite a few.
<<So the real issue behind my question is: what is that important piece of difference that makes learning a foreign language so easy for one and so difficult for others? Yes, I know most of you would say that motivation is the key factor here, but I feel there may be more to that. Is it "talent" or "competence"? If so, what does that consist of? >>
In my opinion, motivation is OK but by no means crucial. The point is that the mother tongue and culture for some people is an essential (if not prevailing) part of their personality. For them it's a daunting challenge to think in a different language. It's almost unimaginable for them.
For these people words and meaning are inseparable.
For successful learners there's a difference. Language is just a habitual code. Surely it's an effort for them to master another language but no problem actually. They learn another code.
This often happens when a child is risen in a monolingual environment.
Many Russians are a good example of such people.
Language is just a tool like a racket for table tennis. The problem is that for some people that racket becomes a part of their hands.
<<This often happens when a child is risen in a monolingual environment.>>
Oops! I'm ambiguous. I mean "immune" people here.
Denis is right. One has to be able to get out of one's own identity. One has to be able to visualize oneself as one of them, of the group whose language one is studying.
I have alwasy felt this, even when learning Asian languages. I felt that there were no obstacles to learning the new language. I did it as an individual and not as a Canadian English speaker.
That is why I am against all the "socio-linguistic" influences in language learning. The learner texts for English with names like Mei Ling and Ahmed just to make the learner feel good are counterproductive. The sooner the learners forget their own identity, the better. They should also forget their own language while learning.
In my experience, poor language learners always ask why. Why is it said this way in the new language? Never mind, just learn it.
Yes, I think some people are definitely more talented for learning foreign languages than the others. But I think that almost anyone can learn a foreign language if he/she tries hard enough and is motivated enough.
Anyone who has become fluent in his native language can become equally fluent in any other language, in theory, so pure ability isn't normally an issue.
The most important factor seems to be motivation—and it has to be real motivation, not just the kind of motivation that results from being forced to learn a language by circumstances. No other factor is as predictive of success as motivation.
The next most important factor seems to be the degree to which a person makes his language a part of his identity. People who consider their native language to be a part of their identity tend to do very poorly in learning other languages; they unconsciously consider it a change in their being and resist the adaptation required to use a different language.
Another important factor is intelligence. The more intelligence a student is, the more easily he can learn a language. However, it must be kept in mind that, as I've said, anyone who has successfully learned his own language is intelligent enough to learn others. Usually intelligence affects the ease (or difficulty) with which someone learns a language, but few people are so lacking in intelligence that they simply _cannot_ learn another language (those who are actually this unfortunate will usually show it by a lack of fluency in their native languages as well). I do have a few students who are manifestly unintelligent, but they will still make progress if one goes slowly enough with them.
Most people who seem "immune" are lacking in motivation and have a strong linguistic identity. They may seem to want to learn another language, but they really don't, at least unconsciously. They are powerfully attached to their native languages and it makes them inflexible and unable to adapt to any other way of thinking, and so they make no progress.
I agree with your identity analysis. It almost sounds as if you have read my book. People who think they are trying to learn the language but really are secretly resisting it. Yes!
I don't think that anyone who has successfully learnt his own language can learn a foreign language equally easily. Everyone learns his own language unless he is disabled or something, that is a normal result of your living in the given country, you just have to learn your native language. But learning a foreign language is not equally easy to everyone and you can rarely become as fluent as in your native language, even after many years.
<<Anyone who has become fluent in his native language can become equally fluent in any other language, in theory, so pure ability isn't normally an issue. >>
Not necessarily. It's not logical. There's no garantee that what has been done successfully for the first time may be so again.
You can easily draw a picture on an empty sheet of paper but would it be that easy if there's already another drawing on the sheet?
a language = data
a human = CD-R/CD-RW
A very, very rough analogy but there's something in it. Don't you think?
There is no reason to assume that subsequent language acquisition will be any more difficult or any less possible than first language acquisition. It's an article of faith among many linguists (especially those who aren't any good at learning languages) that some magic change occurs in human beings after they acquire their first language that makes all subsequent acquisitions mysteriously different, but there is _no_ proof of this, and the evidence usually cited to support it can be interpreted in many ways, not just in ways favorable to this hypothesis. Additionally, there are people who develop native fluency in one or more languages much later in life, which proves that it is possible (and disproves any theory that says that some magic and insurmountable obstacle to such acquisition exists).
Stated more simply, people who really want to learn a language with a high degree of fluency or native fluency can do so, as long as they aren't too stupid. But the reality is that very, very few people are that interested in learning new languages. Adult learners, for example, spend more time complaining about how a new language seems "illogical" and "sounds funny" than they do studying it and trying to speak it fluently—so naturally they don't do very well.
Mxsmanic, you're going too far. Of course learning a second language is more difficult than learning your first language. I learned Polish effortlessly. I had to make a conscious effort to learn English.
If both were equally difficult, it would be enough to live in an English-speaking country for, say, 7 years to be indistinguishable from a native speaker.
You also wrote: "People who consider their native language to be a part of their identity tend to do very poorly in learning other languages;"
Perhaps it's the other way round? People who are lousy language learners "sanctify" their native language so that they can avoid admitting that they're no good. "I don't speak any foreign languages because it would violate my soul which is French/Japanese/etc., but of course I *COULD* do it if I wanted." Classic cognitive dissonance.
It took me a few years to learn Swedish. (I was born in Sweden). I moved to Canada when I was 5 and cannot remember learning English. It is as if I arrived in Canada went to school and spoke English. So I agree with Mxsmanic it is a matter of attitude, method and environment.
I also agree the conscious or sub-conscious clinging to one's language identity is one of the major obstacles to language learning. It is not 'the other way around". There are no lousy language learners who really want to learn and are willing to observe and absorb the language, but are unable .
Age must have something to do with the language learning process. Up until perhaps 10, it seems that children can learn several languages effortlessly. Even with strong motivation the task is more difficult at age 40.
As for the first language, the young child has little else to do for the first two years except absorb the language's sounds, vocabulary, and grammatical patterns.
The language I just started to learn is Korean. I feel I am a better language learner now than when I was a teenager or at any time I can remember. I know what to do now. I am 58.