As a linguist, language learner, and language teacher I am often asked questions similar to the following:
- So how do you actually learn a language?
- What can I do to learn a language more easily?
- How can I learn a language more quickly?
- What’s the trick to learning a new language?
- In your experience, what are the best ways to learn a new language?
These are all great questions with no short answers. However, as I’ve observed my own language learning and the learning of countless others, I’ve identified three components to language learning. My hypothesis is that if at least two of these components are present, the language learner will be successful. When all three components are present, you may find an exceptional language learner.
This concept needs testing. I invite anyone who wishes to prove or disprove this hypothesis to please do so.
Aptitude, attitude, and access are three factors that contribute to second language acquisition.
Aptitude refers to the learner’s natural ability or capacity to learn language. This is not necessarily connected to general intelligence. Some people have a natural aptitude for language learning. When I first shared this idea with a group of language teachers, Ray Clifford pointed out that we can do some things to increase aptitude. While nature is clearly a factor here, nurture may be as well.
Attitude refers to several factors. Motivation centers on the reasons for learning and the impact those reasons have on effort. Effort is the time and work put into learning a language. In one of my earlier drafts I called this component effort because of the huge impact it can have. After thinking about it, effort is directly connected to the attitude of the learner. But attitude is not limited to effort. What types of attitudes do language learners have toward risk-taking, failure, and success? Certainly, these learner responses to these situations have an impact on effort and progress.
I’m thankful that Troy Cox found a better name for this one. When I mentioned these ideas over lunch I used the term environment. When he was talking to another colleague he remembered it as access. Access seems to target the core idea of environment. Certain environments are more conducive to learning a language. This may refer to being in a country where the target language is spoken or it may refer to classroom culture and instruction. The concept behind access is that the the language learner has unfettered access to language input and opportunities for language output.
Implications for Language Learners
While ideal, it might be rare to have all three factors in a language learning situation. But, having two of these generally leads to effective language acquisition. What can the language learner do to enhance any of these areas? There are probably a multitude of activities and practices that could help strengthen language learners in these three areas. Perhaps, the first step is to simply let language learners know about the three components. I am continually impressed by how my students can take knowledge and understanding and convert it into application.
Implications of Language Teachers
Ideally, teachers should help learners reach their potential in these three areas. Some may be easier to tackle than others. Perhaps access is the area in which teachers can have the most impact on language acquisition. The culture of the classroom coupled with effective instruction can promote language acquisition. Then again, teachers have the opportunity to inspire their students which may impact attitude. And, does the very act of learning a language increase language learning aptitude? Are there other things we can do to increase aptitude?