Why are some people good at learning languages?

Nobody is “good at” languages; nobody is “bad at” them. Some people are willing to spend a LOT of time studying; some people aren’t.

itchy feet two beers a17e56417c88a674e0fd712fcbce8a39
Picture source: http://www.itchyfeetcomic.com/.

I would never claim to “speak” any language that I don’t speak natively, and that pretty much means English–more specifically, American English.  However, I’m pretty comfortable in Spanish, and I’m getting there in French (which doesn’t mean that I don’t still sound like an idiot, but I do pretty much live my life in French when I’m in France, both personal and professional).  People often say something like this to me–almost always Americans: I’m no good at languages.  Or: why are you so good at languages?  My answer: I’m not “good at languages,” and you’re not bad at them.  Why I am comfortable in one or two of them, and can survive in a few others: you would not believe how much time I spend studying.

As far as I know, the only reliable predictor of success in learning a foreign language is motivation.  That was the case when I started grad school in 1991, and it’s still the case now.  Motivation is important in a couple forms, where language-learning is concerned:

  1. You cannot quit.  If you don’t quit, it’s not like success is guaranteed–I don’t know what level of mastery you’re looking to achieve, after all–but, if you do quit, that does guarantee failure.
  2. While you’re busy not quitting, you have to bear in mind that you will learn quickly to the extent that you spend a lot of time working on it–or not.  I’ve been able to go from not speaking French to living my life in French in 2.5 years only because I am relentless about taking notes on the words that I don’t know in the course of my day and then looking them up, memorizing vocabulary, learning new grammatical points, driving around town (when I’m in America) practicing the French r in my car, listening to French radio, following a really good French-learning podcast (Coffee Break French), using French every single time that I can, and reading in French.  It’s pretty uncommon for a day to go by without me spending some time studying the language.

Here’s what the Wikipedia page on second-language acquisition has to say about the role of motivation in learning a second language.  (The links to references are working, so I’ll leave them as-is.)

The motivation of the individual learner is of vital importance to the success of language learning. Motivation is influenced by goal salience, valence, and self-efficacy.[92] In this context, goal salience is the importance of the L2 learner’s goal, as well as how often the goal is pursued; valence is the value the L2 learner places on SLA, determined by desire to learn and attitudes about learning the L2; and self-efficacy is the learner’s own belief that he or she is capable of achieving the linguistic goal.[92] Studies have consistently shown that intrinsic motivation, or a genuine interest in the language itself, is more effective over the long term than extrinsic motivation, as in learning a language for a reward such as high grades or praise. However, motivation is dynamic and, as a L2 learner’s fluency develops, their extrinsic motivation may evolve to become more intrinsic.[92] Learner motivation can develop through contact with the L2 community and culture, as learners often desire to communicate and identify with individuals in the L2 community. Further, a supportive learning environment facilitates motivation through the increase in self-confidence and autonomy.[92] Learners in a supportive environment are more often willing to take on challenging tasks, thus encouraging L2 development.

So, if you want to learn another language: work hard, and don’t quit.  As far as I know, that’s really the only secret.



16 thoughts on “Why are some people good at learning languages?”

  1. Motivation is definitely a must. Nowadays there are so many audio, cd, dvd & online tools available that “I don’t have time for lessons”, or “I can’t afford to go to X country” isn’t an excuse anymore. However, I’d go easy on traditional grammar and rote-based learning systems, and simply try to read a bit each day, but without a dictionary. Just skim over what you don’t understand and let your brain play the intelligent-software role. Over time it’ll start figuring things out like magic. And never ever say or think “I’m not good at languages”. There’s no such thing, just people who hang on to scholastic type translation and reasoning, which build a wall against instinctive comprehension.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That’s a good point about getting used to reading without constantly consulting a dictionary. I learnt it from a guy who taught a theater class at the Alliance Française when we were all struggling to make any progress whatsoever with Tartuffe. It has made reading in French so much more enjoyable for me!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think for people who’ve never learned another language, there’s a kind of terror that keeps them from trying. They don’t want to make fools of themselves. They don’t want to sound like idiots. Etc., etc., etc. If they’ll once jump in and screw up a bit, they’ll find it gets better. They get better. But they have to make that first jump into the murky water of another sound system.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I’d say for me learning a language is made in the country, and as a single traveler .
    When you have sort of short money and don’t know anybody you ARE motivated . I always carry a grammar/conjugation booklet, of the old school kind, plus a pocket dictionary . In public transports of third world countries you have plenty time to study every mood and tense you just missed and look for the words you desperately needed a minute ago . An intensive concentration on learning, due to an absolute need, and a permanent immersion in the music of the language and its idiosyncrasies makes the deal .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good points about having a dictionary/grammar with you all the time. And, the music: definitely! I am listening to music almost constantly, and it does help to have as much of that as possible be in French.


  4. Hey I didn’t mean that music . I meant the music OF the LANGUAGE . Every tongue has its music, a musical ear is useful for that, you listen and reproduce . This way you got the first part, the ever growing stocked knowledge (vocabulary and grammar) and the second part, pronounciation and more : accent .
    There also is a third element, the idiomatic ways, the slangs, the “feeling” expressed through a phrase and a tone . This one is the key to enter the soul of a people and share the experience of those alien brothers .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, OK–yep, you’re definitely right about that! In that sense, my music lately is most definitely Bardamu, and that’s not going over so well around the office. 🙂


    1. You mean a writer . I’m sure it’s possible to find happy real writers . Take Jules Romains : he wrote a mountain of serious books but he also wrote “Knock” and my favourite “Les Copains” . These guys use passé simple and imparfait du subjonctif even completely drunk and also to achieve gigantic public hoaxes .
      This one is full of a certain quality of French humour .

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Zipf; I agree totally with your article. I teach Spanish to English speakers and English to Spanish speakers. Most will get demotivated very soon because of lack of progress. They have to be reminded they need to study quite seriously and immerse themselves in the language as much as possible, if they want to make any real progress. I find it strange that they seem to forget that and tend to rely solely on lessons they have with me!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Curative Power of Medical Data

JCDL 2020 Workshop on Biomedical Natural Language Processing


Criminal Curiosities


Biomedical natural language processing

Mostly Mammoths

but other things that fascinate me, too


Adventures in natural history collections

Our French Oasis


ACL 2017

PC Chairs Blog

Abby Mullen

A site about history and life

EFL Notes

Random commentary on teaching English as a foreign language

Natural Language Processing

Université Paris-Centrale, Spring 2017

Speak Out in Spanish!

living and loving language




Exploring and venting about quantitative issues

%d bloggers like this: