For most people, learning a second language is often challenging, and when they speak it, they can’t disguise their accent or origin. However, others effortlessly pick up new languages like sunburns or colds. But what exactly makes some people stride around making talks in French and reading Don Quixote in Spanish while the rest struggle understanding a new language?

What Makes Some People Better Language Learners?
Eliott Reyna
@eliottreyna

To help you understand why some people are better at learning new languages while others stumble, we consulted several language experts to hear their opinion on this.

Why Some People Are Better Language Learners

According to “The Bilingual Brain” author professor Arturo Hernandez, People aren’t fully in control over whether they can understand a second language as most of it is environmental. If a person is exposed to a second language at a young age, it becomes easier to understand that language and more languages in the future.

For later language learners, research has shown that the musical ear is increasingly important. That’s why people who can’t sing in tune have trouble learning to communicate in a new language. That has a lot to do with discriminating foreign sounds since you need to detect a difference between notes to hear them. You’ll also need to detect the difference in pronunciation of different alphabets in various languages.

In Michael Erard’s book, “Babel No More,” where super language learners are called hyperpolyglots, people who learn new languages easily have a good ear and the ability to think about grammar abstractly. Meanwhile, those without a good musical ear struggle with languages and have stronger accents. However, they might rely on grammar as they need the rules as the guideline.

Good language learners can talk about the rules abstractly, and they have a natural feel for the language. That means they can intuitively hear what’s right or wrong.

Language development researcher Alissa Ferry believes that age is a crucial factor in learning new languages. That means the younger you are when starting to learn a language, the better you’ll become at communicating using it and sound like a native speaker. There is a wide range of sounds that people can produce, although any language uses only a small subset to form words. For instance, English has 40 different sounds.

Initially, children start out being sensitive to all these sounds, and they can identify the sounds that aren’t accommodated in their language. However, they tend to focus on the most important sounds as they start learning their language. As a result, they stop discriminating between the sounds not used in their language and narrow the production sounds to those used in their language. That means the older you get, the harder it becomes to pick out and use new sounds that aren’t in your native language.

The earlier you learn a new language, the easier it becomes to organize and use new words. It’s also less likely to make grammatical errors while speaking, but it’s quite easy for later speakers to make grammatical errors while writing or speaking the new language. Later learners also have difficulty learning grammatical rules. That shows that young people can learn multiple languages, which also influences how well you can learn additional languages in your adult life.

Research also shows that bilingual people are faster at learning new languages compared to monolinguals. That might be because they have diverse language skills to help them relate to new languages, and they might have mastered the skill to switch between different languages. That means being young and possessing a second language makes it easier to pick up more languages.

According to Language Learning Laboratory Director Joshua Hartstone, age and environment are crucial in mastering many languages. People who live in areas where a language is spoken are much better at learning it. That is because using a language every day beats paying for a good course to learn the language.

The effect of interacting with a language every day and practicing new words in real life is significant. Children have also proven to be phenomenal language learners, especially when they’re immersed in the language. Beyond that, there’s some person-to-person variation, although that’s not significant as age and environment.

Another crucial factor for learning a new language is institutional support. Unfortunately, not many public schools prioritize learning a second language, especially when the languages don’t add value to the courses they offer. However, having different types of bilingual education models can drastically change how people get to learn a second language all over the world.

Bottom Line

While some research might suggest that genes might prime your brain to be good at learning languages, age and environment are the most crucial factors. Younger people have a great chance of understanding new languages easily, especially if they’re exposed to them on a daily basis.