Can Everybody Learn a New Language?

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Photo credit: Ivan Walsh

A friend of mine who is a Spanish teacher at a local elementary school said something over the weekend that got me thinking about whether or not everybody is capable of learning a new language. She said that in her years as a teacher, she’s seen with her own two eyes how some children struggle to learn Spanish while others pick it up with unbelievable ease.

The most interesting part is that, some times, the students who struggle are the ones you’d least expect: the Latinos (usually second/third generation and above) whose parents may not speak Spanish to them at home, but they’ve been exposed to the language, to some degree, thanks to their grandparents and/or other elder members of their family. Meanwhile, she’s had many students who come from completely monolingual families who have demonstrated an almost innate ability to learn Spanish with near-native pronunciation and all!

Her stories got me thinking about how I often hear people say that someone has “an ear” for languages. It seems as if it’s a common belief that learning languages (just like learning to play a musical instrument) comes much easier to some than to others. Is there any truth to that? Well, I went searching and I found out that there’s actually been some research, at least in adults, that suggests brain anatomy is linked to the ability to learn a second language. In addition, it seems that, in general, having greater cognitive abilities helps make the progress faster. In fact, some linguists believe some people have a stronger, innate language learning ability than others.

When people find out I’m bilingual, they usally share with me that they’ve attempted to learn Spanish, but it hasn’t stuck and they’ve given up in frustration. And, then, I know a few people who are so determined to learn a second language that they find a way to make it happen. As with anything in life, this is obviously accomplished only through hard work. But, besides hard work and age (which we’ve written about in the past) what else determines the speed and ease with which someone can learn a new language?


People who are introverted or anxious tend to make slower progress, especially when it comes to developing oral skills. Most probably, people with this type of personality won’t take advantage of or seek opportunities to try to speak and practice their new language. Learners with a more outgoing personality will probably not care about the inevitable: making mistakes. They’ll most likely practice their new language a lot more because they don’t mind taking risks.

Native language

In general, if your children’s second (or third) language is from the same language family as their first language, the task will be much easier. So, for example, an English-speaking child will learn German more quickly than a Japanese child.

I’ve been debating which language to start learning next and while Mandarin seems like the logical answer, I really want to learn Italian. Whenever I’ve mentioned this among Italian speakers who know I already speak Spanish and French, I’m always told it’s going to be increcibly easy. This might have to do with the fact that Italian is not a tonal language, like Chinese, which is a topic I’m extremely interested in and I promise to write about in the future.


People who have already gained general knwoledge and experience are in a better position to learn a new language than those who haven’t. This means that someone who has lived in different countries and has been exposed to other languages and cultures has a stronger base for learning a new language than the person who hasn’t had such experiences.

I know for a fact that this made a whole world of difference in my life. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I was born in Peru, but in my childhood years, I lived in Mexico, Argentina and South Africa (where I was exposed not only to English, but also to Afrikaans and Zulu) before moving to the United States. Both my siblings and I, as well as my parents, have a fascination for languages!

Language status

There is some evidence that when the second (minority) language has a lower status than that of the majority language the learning progress is slower. It’s undeniable that this still seems to be the case with Spanish in the United States. We’ve actually written about this here.

In the end, I think one of the most important factors is motivation which, without a doubt, strongly correlates with achievement. My father was determined to learn English as an adult, and he did everything in his power to make it happen – including the painstaking method of reading with a dictionary right next to him so he could look up the words he didn’t know (which, at first, I’m sure included the majority of them). Not only did he become fluent and proficient in English, but being bilingual is what opened up the doors that took us, his family, on the amazing journey through five different countries that I described above. Proof that if you really want something, it’s yours!

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