There is always this one person in your surroundings who speaks like 7 languages leaving you to wonder how this gifted bastard managed to learn them all. It’s quite easy to conclude that they just have this special language talent that allows them to easily pick up languages like mushrooms after the rain.
And there’s a part of truth in this reasoning: language talent does play a role in learning. But what if you too have the talent for languages?
Here’s how to know it for sure.
Language talent: what is Modern Language Aptitude Test
It’s often hard to deal with abstractions especially when it comes to innate “talents”. Plus, it’s even harder to measure them. So let me illustrate this point with an example.
People have no problem determining whether one person is smart or not quite; however, when it comes to measuring this intelligence, we didn’t come up with anything better than terrible and incredibly daunting IQ tests.
Same story with language talent. There are a number of official tests that can help you to identify how successful you would be in learning a foreign language.
One of them is MLAT, or Modern Language Aptitude Test, and it’s not that modern as you would expect. It was invented in 1958 by a couple of Harvard researchers and didn’t change since then.
This test is used by the government and with a very specific purpose. MLAT allows them to identify talented language learners and recruit them as military linguists in order to later plant them in different parts of the world so that they could serve the mission of the government.
Language talent or language talents?
When we talk about a language talent we often think about something uniform: a single magical ability that just works on every aspect of language learning.
Well, things are not quite like that. Talent for languages, or language aptitude, is actually a whole set of independent and very specific abilities. And the point is that some of them may be strong while others would generally suck, and it is this distribution of skill points that determines leaner’s strengths when it comes to languages.
MLAT, for example, currently tests four language talents:
- phonetic coding ability;
- grammatical sensitivity;
- rote learning ability;
- inductive language learning ability
Now let’s deal with each separately.
Phonetic coding ability
People with strong phonetic coding ability are really good at distinguishing sounds, quickly associating a sequence of these sounds with a certain meaning and keeping these links intact.
So you tell them a random word in a random language – something like “gawajingwaam” – they repeat it back.
Now, it’s quite different from the response of someone like me who usually raises an eyebrow and says, WHAT?!
Well, that’s the real difference between having language talent for phonetic coding or not having it.
Grammatical sensitivity comes to play when you need to identify who did what to whom in a sentence “lupum occidit venandi“, compare it with “magister discipulum laudavit” and tell where is a subject here.
People that have this language talent are fairly good at juggling words and identifying their grammatical functions. They are less likely to misunderstand a given sentence and more likely to build correct sentence structures themselves.
Someone who doesn’t have this skill would, by opposite, selectively blind to language-specific grammar. If you tried to translate anything with Google Translate you know that GT perfectly illustrates what does it mean having no grammatical sensitivity.
Rote learning ability
Rote learning ability is nothing more than a good word memory.
MLAT here assesses your ability to quickly memorize pairs of words, build efficient and strong form-meaning associations and accurately recall them even after some time has passed.
Inductive language learning ability
Another important language talent is ability to recognize and retain patterns.
So if by any chance you happened to take intro linguistics in university and did well in morphology and syntax, here’s your lucky star.
Theoretically, people with a strong inductive language learning ability would require less data to infer the grammatical rule. Thus, the language starts to make sense for them earlier than for the rest of population.
You can roughly estimate your level of these four language abilities with MLAT example questions. The full test, however, is top-classified (which makes sense considering its main function).
How language talent is important?
Language learning aptitude is fairly close to intelligence. It tends to remain on the same level over the course of one’s life. So if you suck – you suck. No way out.
However, the different scenario is more likely: you have a fairly prominent set of language skills but you didn’t quite notice that.
Learning strategy and working skills
As you may have noticed, inductive language learning ability really interweaves with grammatical sensitivity. Same way, phonetic coding and rote learning abilities come fairly close to each other. And, roughly, you can group them in two categories:
- analytical skills
- communicative skills
Determining your set of language skills is a good starting point because the more your learning strategy matches your set the faster your language learning progresses. By contrast, if there’s a huge mismatch, like grammar classes for an acute phonetic coder, well… it won’t go that well.
Timeframes and ultimate attainement
Next, the better your language talent is, the less time you need to learn a language.
This point is particularly important as MLAT is often used to estimate whether or not it is worth to place a test taker in a government-funded intensive language learning program.
These courses are fairly short as you can learn from FSI timeframes for language learning. Participants are expected to achieve a working proficiency level over a course of 20-40 weeks depending on a language in question. And someone with a lower language talent will take a longer time to reach the same level.
Language aptitude will also play a role in how far you’d be able to go in your language learning before you hit the ceiling of stabilization. Traditionally, gifted learners are expected to achieve more native-like levels in pronunciation, grammar, and overall communication.
So now, the question is whether there’s life after the MLAT test.
Can you learn languages if you don’t have language talent?
The only thing you can be sure in if you failed MLAT is that your future carrier of a government translator/interpreter/military linguist has just crashed.
Sorry, the US Government refuses to train you in their intensive programs.
But! It doesn’t mean that you cannot learn a foreign language whatsoever. Language aptitude is nothing but a bonus point: it only facilitates language learning or some parts of it. If you don’t have any, it will be simply harder for you to adjust your ears and hemispheres to another linguistic system, that’s all.
Folks like Benny Lewis clearly prove this point. You can spend half of your life struggling with languages only to discover that motivation and a new learning strategy suddenly made you a polyglot.
So don’t be distraught and embark back on you language learning task keeping in mind your strong sides.