Some people better language learners?

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Well, I assume most people probably accept that some people are better than average at learning languages, while others are not as good. But the reasons for this aren’t quite clear. PNAS has a paper out on this topic, Brain potentials to native phoneme discrimination reveal the origin of individual differences in learning the sounds of a second language. I find the ScienceDaily summary comprehensible, and one of the researchers says:

“Therefore, these results show that there is a positive correlation between specific speech discrimination abilities and the ability to learn a second language, which means that the individual ability to distinguish the specific phonemes of the language, both in the case of the mother tongue and in the case of other languages, is, without a doubt, a decisive factor in the learning process, and the ability to speak and master other languages,” concludes Begona Diaz.



  1. Said the teacher “Your daughter is doing well at French and German. I wouldn’t say that she is a natural linguist, but she is a natural talker who won’t let a foreign language stand in her way.”

  2. The abstract preceding the article only speaks of a speech-specific origin of individual variability in “L2 phonetic mastery” which is not at all the same as “the ability to speak and master other languages”. What about morphology, syntax, vocabulary use, etc.? 
    I must admit that according to my own casual observations, phonetic skills tend to correlate with other aspects of language mastery to a certain extent, but they are by no means interchangeable.

  3. They seem to be concentrating on speaking the language, not on reading / writing it.

  4. Interesting. Are there any indications that the difference in phoneme discrimation is a ‘mechanical’ advantage that makes hearing easier, or a ‘processing’ advantage inherent to the brain? 
    To put it another way: are people good at learning languages because they can distinguish phonemes, or can they distinguish phonemes because their brains are optimized to devote resources and attention to language?

  5. Man, wtf? Is this haloscan thing censoring words like the vernacular for rooster? 
    Every time I enter C O C K it disconnects me.

  6. sorry, i’m a prig ;-)