Nov 27

CELTA - Why do some people succeed better at learning languages?

Teaching language
Why do some people succeed better at learning languages?
When you're teaching a class, it's worth being aware of the differences between learners and how these differences can affect language learning. In this video, I talk about ten of them. If you're writing your Focus on the Learner assignment or you're a novice teacher getting to know your class, this will be helpful!

When you're teaching a group of learners to speak English, it's worth being aware of the many, many differences there are between them, and how these differences will impact their learning. I'm Jo Gakonga, from and if you like this, then check out my website for lots of other useful material for ELT teachers and trainers.

So, differences between learners, you can probably think of quite a few yourself. I've got 10. So I challenge you to stop me for a minute, and write a list. Go on, do it. Don't, don't cheat, do it.

What factors affect a person's ability to learn English?

Different Ages

There's a pervasive myth that the earlier you start to learn a language, the better. It seems kind of obvious that there's a critical period and if you start learning later than this, then you'll never really achieve native-like fluency. But research actually shows that children who are learning in their own country, not an English speaking environment, then whether they start at five, or whether they start at 11, it actually makes no difference to their proficiency at 16. The results are a bit different in immersion situations where children move to an English speaking country, of course, but that won't be the case for most learners of English. So age might not be as important factor as you imagined at first.

Different First Languages

This is a hugely important factor. It's obviously much easier to learn a language that's similar to your own, than one that's really different. If your first language is French, for example, many of the words that you have to learn will be cognates, you'll easily recognize them. If your first language is Arabic, on the other hand, there are going to be very few of these helpful cognates. Languages from different language groups usually differ quite markedly in their pronunciation. So this can make the road longer and more difficult. And if you have to learn a different script, then that's an extra task too.

Different Language Learning History

If you're a person who's learned several languages successfully, then learning another one is going to be easier than if you failed previously, or haven't learned before. Success breeds confidence, and also a knowledge of the kind of learning habits that work for you personally. Failure, of course, also tends to reinforce itself and make you feel that maybe I'm just not a good language learner.

Different Attitudes

Something that goes hand in hand with the last point is your more general expectation of success. So if you live in a country where everybody speaks two or three languages, then I think it's likely that you would expect that you could, too. And this will affect your learning ability.

Different Aptitudes

Some people are better at running than others. Some people are better at music than others. And although everybody is able to learn their first language completely fluently, seemingly effortlessly. Some people seem to have a better aptitude for additional languages than others. What can you do?

Different Personalities

It's not just about your aptitude, or perhaps these things are linked, but there are some personality traits that seem to be helpful when you're learning a language. So a tolerance of ambiguity is usually good, not being frustrated by not understanding everything, knowing that it'll all become clear and being able to just accept that. On the other hand, a need to get it right actually can be very helpful too. Confidence is usually useful, a willingness to make mistakes and not be too embarrassed by it. And your communicative competence in your first language is likely to be important. If you don't find it easy to talk to people in your first language, then you probably won't be any more successful in a second language. So good interpersonal skills do help.

Different Motivations

This one has a huge effect. Why are you learning? Are you in a classroom because your parents say that you have to be (and I was with Spanish for example). In that case, your motivation is likely to be pretty low. But if you need it for an important exam that's meaningful for you, or you need it because you're living in that country, or because you want to communicate better with a particular person, then you might be much, much more interested in putting in the effort. And of course, that'll make a big difference to your progress.

Different Levels of Exposure

If you only hear or speak the language once a week in class, then you're unlikely to learn it very quickly. If you're living in the environment where it's spoken, it definitely helps. But it's worth remembering, if you're an ESOL teacher in the UK or in the US, for example, that living in the country doesn't necessarily mean that you're more exposed. Maybe you live with your family and speak your language at home. Maybe you work with other people who speak your language. It's not a given that you'll have the opportunity to speak English all the time. Absolutely not. The availability of good materials here is also a factor. If you want to learn English, actually there are a million free resources on the internet. If you want to learn Kikuyu, hmm, not so much.

Time Available

Anything worthwhile takes time. How busy are you? How much time do you have to study? This is another factor which is inevitably going to affect your progress.

The Teacher

Finally, john Hattie's research shows that one of the biggest factors that affects learning is, surprise, surprise, the teacher! And it's worth remembering that even if some of these other factors are against your learner, YOU can make a big difference.

So there's my list of 10. Did you get all of them? Did you get anything different? If you do then please let me know in the comments below. Thanks for watching. Bye bye.

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