Can Anyone Learn Another Language?

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As someone who teaches language and researches language, I get this question a lot, from teachers in other fields, friends, and even other professionals who teach language. This is a difficult question to answer. Others may disagree with my answer, but here goes…

The short answer is yes. The long answer is yes, but… The ‘but’ here is really complex, but it basically comes down to three parts: the learner, the teacher, and the context. Let’s break this down a bit more and look at each part separately:

The Learner: You are an important part of your language learning success. Equipped with knowledge about your learning preferences, strategies, well-defined goals, and a strong desire or sense of motivation, most people will succeed over time in reaching a basic working proficiency, or ability, in their second language. This does not mean fluency. That’s another topic for another article. If you think you can do it, you probably can.

The Teacher:
Language learning does not happen in a vacuum. At some point you will probably have a teacher helping you. Teachers can motivate learners, give relevant materials, and help guide you to materials at your level for your language learning needs. Teachers can also undermine learners. I can’t tell you how many learners I’ve spoken to who claim that their high school Spanish teacher said that they’d never be able to learn another language. Teachers are important. Beliefs about your abilities are important.

The Context:
The learning context refers to how and where you are learning your second or foreign language. A recent immigrant from China learning English in a small community in the United States is going to have a vastly different language learning experience than a student studying English for university entrance exams in China. This is somewhat related to motivation. In general, language learners are learning the language to be able to meet some need, whether that’s to get into university or open a bank account. Once that need is met and there is no longer pressure to satisfy some need, then learning generally stops. Proficiency development plateaus (or flat lines). This is called fossilization – yes, just like dinosaurs. The learning context is crucial, shaping your language success.

So, given the right learner, the right teacher, and the right context, anyone can learn a language to a level which meets the individual’s communication needs (what you need or want to be able to do in the language). This is still oversimplifying things, but does highlight just how complex learning another language can be. As a learner, there are certain things you can do with each of these three elements which will dramatically improve your language learning. But that, my dear learner, is for another post.


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