Is Aptitude Innate or Can It Be Taught?
The study of language aptitude started in the 1950s but for sometime, some researchers deemed it as being of marginal importance as it could only be applied in formal classroom setting based on what Skehan (1991) refers to as “old-fashioned” audio-lingual techniques. Nonetheless, studies indicate that aptitude is valid and real aspect of language learning. While there are various versions to the definition of the term aptitude, the generally accepted one is by Carroll (1973) who defines it as “the individual ability to demonstrate his awareness of the syntactical patterning of sentences in a language (p. 7). Other researchers (for example, Dörnyei 2005; Skehan (cited by Dörnyei 2005; Anselmo 1993 and Alexiou 2001) have all identified aptitude as a “biological endowments” and innate elements that is not teachable (Anslemo 1993, p. 80). At its inception, aptitude testing was directed at adult learners but as Harley and Hart (1997) report, children demonstrate certain variations in aptitude and this could be regarded as evidence of a fixed and genetically determined language talent.
A number of early researchers set out to determine if aptitude could be improved via the dissemination of specialized instructions. Sadly, these experiments hit dead ends. For example, Politxzer and Weiss (1969; cited by Carroll 1973) revealed that training adults on cognitive skills did not improve their aptitude scores, and that the students disliked such training, describing it as useless and irrelevant. In spite of this failure, Harley and Hart set out to revisit the issue of “learned aptitude” but took a totally different path: teaching a child a new language could be the answer to learning a different language characterized by a higher level of aptitude.
In spite of its varied definitions, innateness, measurability, or origins, that language aptitude exists is not in doubt. Various researchers also generally agree that language aptitude is a rare quality. Sadly, current instructional methodologies seem to sideline it for several reasons. To begin with, there appears to be a strict adherence among existing literature on the definition of aptitude provided by Carroll. Should we decide to define aptitude as a quality that is at best determined via MLAT scores and which sequentially indicates test scores, there is truth in Krashen’s statement that aptitude is only applicable in the classroom setting, and not in real language use. Perhaps we ought to make use of the term “talent” as defined by Schneider and Desmarais (1988), in place of aptitude. In this case, talent shows itself in various ways than just test scores, and considers a more in-depth understanding of the high-aptitude learner.
A second reason could be a certain unwillingness to acknowledge that certain individuals are better than others at learning certain skills; this appears indistinctly unfair, if not undemocratic. Nonetheless, what is clear though is that curriculum designers and teachers need to do more work in order to enable language learners succeed in aptitude learning. Failure to address the need of high-aptitude learners is undoubtedly of great disservice to them as they cannot reach their highest potential in language learning. In the same way, abandoning the needs lower aptitude learners means that they are faced with limited motivation and helplessness in learning by placing unreasonably high expectations on them. Although current research on aptitude seems to gravitate towards a universal approach, it is important to consider all language learners by focusing on their individual learning differences, including motivation learning styles, and aptitude.
Alexiou, T. (2001). Foreign Language Aptitude in Young Learners. Retrieved from
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Anselmo, A. (1993). Language Aptitude and Its Relationship to Bilingualism. Geolinguistics, 19, 76-84.
Carroll, J. B. (1973). Implications of Aptitude Test Research and Psycholinguistic Theory
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Dörnyei, Z. (2005). The Psychology of the Language Learner. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erblaum Associates, Inc.
Harley, B., & Hart, D. (1997). Language Aptitude and Second Language Proficiency in
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Krashen, S. D. (1981). Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning, Chapter 2. Retrieved from http://www. sdkrashen.com/SL_Acquisition_and_Learning /index.html
Skehan, P. (1991). Individual Differences in Second Language Learning. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 13 (2), 275-298.
Schneiderman, E. I., & Desmarais, C. (1988). A Neuropsychological Substrate for Talent in Second-Language Acquisition. In Obler & Fein (Eds.), The Exceptional Brain (pp. 103-126). New York: The Guildford Press.