Think back to when you first started learning a foreign language. For many readers it was probably French, German or Spanish at school.
I was one of those considered lucky enough to be “good at languages” and I studied all three. Like me though, I imagine you can remember friends who froze at the thought of speaking a second language in class.
The psychologist Albert Bandura called this “social persuasion” – I just call it fear of being shown up in front of your mates. Teachers often define this in terms of “having (or not having) a gift” – student A is good at languages but student B just isn’t.
But there is another argument: that actually language learning has nothing to do with natural aptitude, and much more to do with other factors – such as your learning environment and exposure to language.
Noam Chomsky introduced a controversial idea about learning languages in the 1960s – known as the “language acquisition device”. He suggested that children have an inbuilt universal grammar that enables them to learn any language. In short, learning a first language is easy because you are programmed from birth to be able to do it.
But this concept is a bone of contention among many researchers, because there are logical reasons to disagree with Chomsky’s ideas as he presented them.
The linguist Yukio Otsu for example, made the valid point that the “language acquisition device” did not seem adaptable to different dialects and accents.
Other research has questioned why some people learn languages slower than others. Because if Chomsky’s device existed, then it should – theoretically – automatically activate at the same rate for every learner.
However, a recent study at Florida Atlantic University seems to imply that Chomsky’s device may indeed exist – albeit one that behaves in a slightly different way.