What is language aptitude?

Dr. John B. Carroll, who created the Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT) with his co-author Stanley Sapon, defined language aptitude as simply an ability or “knack” for learning foreign languages. Virtually everyone has this ability, but some people appear to learn at a faster rate than others. According to Carroll, the purpose of the MLAT was to predict “how well, relative to other individuals, an individual can learn a foreign language in a given amount of time and under given conditions.” In other words, language aptitude is an ability that largely determines how quickly and easily an individual will learn a language in a language course or language training program. As is the case for other kinds of aptitude, such as verbal ability and musical abilities, language aptitude is believed to be relatively stable throughout an individual’s lifetime.

It is important to keep in mind that, given enough time and reasonably good instruction, virtually anyone can learn a second language, but people differ in terms of the rate and ease with which they can learn. Scores from a language aptitude test can therefore be used to help to determine how much time will be sufficient for an individual language learner to accomplish a given goal, assuming that the individual has at least some motivation to learn.

Carroll, an internationally acclaimed psychometrician and educational psychologist, conducted a five-year research project in the 1950s to investigate the concept of language aptitude and how it could be measured. During this time, Carroll identified four distinct abilities that factored into language aptitude, separate from motivation and verbal intelligence. Carroll designed the Modern Language Aptitude Test based on this four-part model of language aptitude.

Carroll’s Four Components of Language Aptitude
Phonetic coding ability – ability to perceive and remember distinct sounds associated with symbols
Grammatical sensitivity – ability to recognize the function of a lexical element in a sentence
Rote learning ability – ability to learn and retain associations between words in a new language and their meaning in English
Inductive learning ability – ability to infer or induce rules governing the structure of a language

Dr. Paul Pimsleur of Ohio State University also researched the subject of language aptitude, which led to the development of the Pimsleur Language Aptitude Battery. Pimleur’s research led him to identify two main factors of language aptitude in addition to motivation and study habits.

Pimsleur’s Components of Language Aptitude
Verbal Ability – ability to handle the mechanics of learning a foreign language
Auditory Ability – ability to hear, recognize and reproduce sounds in a foreign language

Pimsleur was particularly interested in students who failed foreign language courses while doing well in other subjects. He noted that the majority of such students were weak in auditory ability.

The Spring 2006 American Educational Research Association (AERA) Research Points article “Foreign Language Instruction: Implementing the Best Teaching Methods” explores factors affecting foreign language learning in adolescents and adults. The authors of this AERA publication found that language aptitude in conjunction with motivation is a powerful factor in language learning. In fact, after age, language aptitude is the second most important factor in foreign language learning. The AERA publication rates aptitude as more important than contextual factors, which include teaching method, textbook used, or teacher quality.