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50% of Your Language Learning Success is Predetermined… or is it?

Pass or FailSecond Language Acquisition (SLA) researchers say there are two factors that determine how well you’ll eventually learn a second language.

In fact, they say those two factors alone account for 50% of your success to learn a language at a high level.

What’s worse — these two factors are almost completely out of your hands.

So, the question is, if these factors aren’t in your favor, are you doomed to continue speaking your target language like a three year old?

I want to turn the mic over to you, to hear your thoughts and individual experiences…

But first, here are the two factors years and years of research points to.


Factor 1: Age of Onset

Age of Onset (usually just AO) is defined as:

The age of first meaningful exposure to a language

There have been 100s of studies that show how AO and other aspects work together. For example, cognitive and environmental factors, rate of acquisition, and ultimate level reached.

Most researchers are now in agreement that AO is the strongest predictor of success, accounting for 30%.

That said, there’s still disagreement as to why.

A rough summary of what AO predicts is that beyond age 6, the possibility of speaking with native like pronunciation and grammar begins to decrease gradually, being almost impossible for anyone over the age of 16 or 17.


Factor 2: Language Aptitude

Language learning aptitude defines how quickly a learner can progress through the early stages, as well as the ultimate level they are able to attain.

There are a number of different measures being used to measure a person’s aptitude, with the aims of actually being able to identify those with a high possibility of achieving an advanced level.

Basically, if you aren’t born with it, you’re going to struggle to reach a high level — or possibly even a lower level.

What does this mean for normal people interested in language learning?

With all the research that’s been done over the last 40 years, this post is obviously not meant to be comprehensive. But I am curious to know what you think about these two points.

Most people who encourage others to learn foreign languages tend to believe that almost anyone can do it.

We eagerly follow the blogs of polyglots who kindly guide us in their past successes and failures, in hopes that we’ll be able to reach our own goals.

But are we really like them?

Or are they just part of a small percentage of the population that really does just have a higher aptitude for learning a foreign language?

Of course, we all want to believe that with the proper motivation, study methods, and consistent daily practice, we too can learn to speak other languages.

Does the research even matter to us?

  • So what if we’ll never sound just like native speakers?
  • So what if we’ll make grammar mistakes?
  • So what if we use unnatural phrases?

As long as you can reach a level of communication that you’re proud of, why let the research discourage you from getting started?

Learning a language is extremely difficult. It’s why people develop elaborate beliefs why they’ll never be able to learn a language.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try — even if you’re 80 — even if you’ve always thought, “I’m terrible at learning languages.”

Share Your Thoughts

Between age of onset and the natural aptitude we’re born with, research says that 50% of our success as language learners is predetermined.

What do you think?

Does any of this matter, or can you still reach amazing levels of fluency — even when the odds are not in your favor?

Take it away in the comments below.