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Aptitude In Second Language Acquisition English Language Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 3858 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In second language learning, motivation, attitude and aptitude relate closely to each other. It influences the learner and therefore dominates the particular individual motivation towards learning the target language. In casual observations in our daily life reveal to us that some people learn a foreign language easier, faster or better than others do (Grigorenko, Sternberg & Ehrman, 2000). This commonplace phenomenon is best encapsulated by the theoretical construct of foreign language aptitude which presupposes that “there is a specific talent for learning foreign languages which exhibits considerable variation between individual learners” (Dörnyei & Skehan, 2003: 590). Such an underlying assumption of foreign language aptitude has been put to considerable empirical tests as early as the 50s and 60s of the last century.

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When learning a foreign language, students must take something that is initially unknown and make it a part of who they are. Techniques in the field of teaching foreign language differ and can be unique learning experiences. Students experience diverse emotions, as well as various levels of success, while learning a foreign language. The difference could be a matter of motivation. Is there more to this puzzling picture than motivation and attitude? Does the individual difference of aptitude hold the learners’ success or failure? Gardner, Tremblay & Masgoret (1997) have researched numerous variables concerning success in foreign language learning. Some researchers (Skehan,1989) consider aptitude as the number one indicator of success in foreign language learning. Other researchers see motivation and attitude as the true indicators.

What is Attitudes?

Attitudes are considered to be one of the most important factors affecting the failure or success of foreign language learners. Therefore, it has recently received considerable attention from both first and second language researchers.

According to Gardner (1985:91-93), attitude is an evaluative reaction to some referent or attitude object, inferred on the basis of the individual’s beliefs or opinions about the referent. On the other hand, Lambert (1967), (quoted from Macnamara, 1973: 37) mentions about two types of attitudes; ‘integrative’ and ‘instrumental’ attitude to language learning. An integrative attitude is a desire to know and become friendly with speakers of a language, whereas an instrumental one is a desire to better oneself materially by means of the language. He adds, “an integrative attitude is more likely to lead to success than an instrumental one”.

Brown (1994: 168), in his great work ‘Principles of Language Learning and Teaching’ adds: “Attitudes, like all aspects of the development of cognition and affect in human beings, develop early in childhood and are the result of parent’s and peer’s attitudes, contact with people who are different in any number of ways, and interacting affective factors in the human experience”. Here it seems clear that there are many stimulants lead to positive or negative attitude of an individual.

Nevertheless attitude can be simply defined as a set of beliefs developed in a due course of time in a given socio-cultural setting. Although it does not necessarily determine behavior but can have some impact on it. Chamber (1999) asserts that learning occurs more easily, when the learner has a positive attitude towards the language and learning. Gardner and Lambert (1972) in their extensive studies give evidence that positive attitudes toward language enhance proficiency as well. Language attitude studies explore how people react to language interactions and how they evaluate others based on the language behavior they observe. Language learning is affected by the attitude and motivation. Motivated, de-motivated and a motivated students have different perceptions. Their perceptions are responsible to for their attitudes.

There has been considerable research conducted on the topic of attitudes and motivation in second language learning, to show the role of the beliefs and attitudes of the students. Most of the researches on the issue have concluded that student’s attitude is an integral part of learning and that it should, therefore, become an essential component of second language learning pedagogy. Dornyei (2001) argues that unsuccessful learners’ lack of learning attitude and motivation affects their learning in a negative way. Attitude and motivation play a significant role in determining the learners’ level of achievement in language learning.

According to Gardner (1985), there is a strong connection between achievement and language attitude, motivation and anxiety. A study of Gardner and Lambert (1959) has been done in order to find out if the research findings of Gardner and Lambert in regard to ‘attitude and motivation’ towards language learning are applicable in this context. Gardner, Lambert and Smythe (1979) have done extensive research on attitude and motivation and their co-relation with linguistic performance of learners. They suggested that an L2 learner needs to be psychologically prepared to acquire a second or a foreign language as it is a part of different ethno-linguistic community.

In his two studies about the psychology of second language learning, Lambert (1963, 1967, Cited in Reynolds & Lambert 1991) discussed some psychological theories related to language learning of Hebb (1949) and Skinner (1957) and the concept of language attitude of Carroll (1959). Lambert, in his article in 1963, described his “Social Psychology of Second Language Learning” and “Psychology of Bilingualism.” Lambert’s theory proposes that a learner who is acquiring a second language gradually gets various aspects of behavior that are unique to the members of another cultural group. The learners’ attitudes toward the other group are believed to determine their success in learning the new language and their motivation to learn is thought to be determined by their attitude.

An L2 learner is required to impose elements of another culture into one’s own life space (Khanna & Agnihotri: 1994). Therefore, he needs to be psychologically prepared. There are other factors like age, anxiety, aptitude and amount of exposure responsible for the language learning. The present investigation is also being done to study the influence of these factors on the target group learner. It is also being observed how the classroom environment and teachers’ attitude influence the attitude of target learners. According to Gardner and Lambert (1959, 1972) – when a language is learnt only for the utilitarian purposes, the success in a foreign/second language is supposed to be lower than if it is learnt for integrative purposes.

Burstall (1975), claims that indices of attitudes and motivation are strongly related to success in the second language. Likewise, McDonough (1986) and Skehan (1998) assert that second language acquisition is a cyclical process: strong motivation and positive attitude may lead to the desired level of success in learning a second language process. However, in this study it is clear that most of the participants had a negative attitude towards compulsory English courses and therefore, this may cause them failure.

In a study carried out at Dokuz Eylül University by Çakıcı (2007), it was determined that there was no significant difference between the gender and the attitudes of the students. Similarly, KaraÅŸ (1996) and SaracaloÄŸlu (1996) found no gender difference in their studies. However, Graham (1990), SaracaloÄŸlu(2000), and Spolsky (1989) found out that females had a significantly much more positive attitude towards foreign language learning. Our study is in paralel with Graham and Spolsky, as female students had a significantly more positive attitude than males did.

There are several reasons why research on students’ attitudes toward language learning is important. First, attitudes toward learning are believed to influence behaviors, (Kaballa & Crowley, 1985) such as selecting and reading books, speaking in a foreign language. Second, a relationship between attitudes and achievement has been shown to exist. Schibeci and Riley (1986), report that there is support for the proposition that attitudes influence achievement, rather than achievement influencing attitudes.

How attitudes towards learning are formed, how affect learning has been increasingly interest of language teachers and researchers as well. The reason is that attitude influence one’s behaviors, inner mood and therefore learning. So it is clear that there is an interaction between language learning and the environmental components in which the student grew up. Both negative and positive attitudes have a strong impact on the success of language learning. The attitude of an individual depends heavily upon different stimuli.

To sum up, attitude refers to our feelings and shapes our behaviors towards learning. Here are some studies taken from literature review that indicate the relationship between attitude and achievement:

Haitema (2002) and SaracaloÄŸlu (2000) in their studies reveal that there is a positive relationship between affective characteristics and foreign language achievement. In her study, SaracaloÄŸlu refers to the students’ attitudes that they differ according to the type of high school. Private high school showed high positive attitudes towards foreign language compared to government high schools. This result contrasts with Çalış (1995:7). Her study was carried out on university freshmen. She asserts that, graduates showed negative attitude towards foreign language at the university level.

There are some studies, which show a relation between knowing second foreign language and attitude. Gardner & Lambert (1972)’s study showed that bilingual children have markedly more favorable attitudes toward another language and culture. Quaßdorf (2002) in his/her studies figured out the close relation between bilingualism and attitudes towards foreign language and continues; “Bilingualism increases positive attitudes towards foreign language”.

2.3 What is Aptitude?

Aptitude in general is a talent. Aptitude can be considered as a talent in one individual because it is a competency to do something. It can be mentally or physically depends on the individual itself. It is not knowledge or the ability to understand, learned or acquired abilities or attitude. The innate nature of aptitude is in contrast to achievement, which represents knowledge or ability that is gained. In short, aptitude means an inherent capacity, talent or ability to do something. It is like having a high aptitude for something means will show how well or good a person doing that something.

Contrastive, in a foreign or second language acquisition, aptitude actually refers to the prediction of how well an individual can learn the second language in given time and conditions. It means that aptitude was not used to determine the learners’ success or failure in learning the target language but explain why there are some learner can learn faster than the others.

Language aptitude has been suggested as “… one of the central individual differences in language learning.” (Skehan, 1989, pp. 25, 38 as cited by Harley & Hart, p.379). It has also been declared to be the most consistent predictor of one’s success in learning a foreign language (Skehan, 1989 as cited by Harley & Hart, p. 379 and Dörnyei, p. 61, 2005). Due to the conceptual issues involved, the matter of differentiating among ability, aptitude, and intelligence must be considered. Aptitude is commonly used in reference to a specific area of performance, intelligence carries a broader meaning; it is not specific to a discipline, but rather entails all areas of learning.

The research on language learning aptitude has primarily focused on the Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT)

What is MLAT? Surely no review of foreign language aptitude research can fail to mention the American psychologist J. B. Carroll and his work. At the very least, he has dominated this sub-area of applied linguistics with four unsurpassable contributions: First, for his conceptualization of aptitude as speed of learning in which he operationalizes aptitude in terms of the rate (i.e. speed) of learning a foreign language in the context of some sort of formal instruction, be it a language course or a self-study program (see Sawyer &Ranta, 2001). Second, for his formulation of a model of school learning in which he offers a possible explanation for the interactions between variables comprising aptitude in order to predict learning outcomes in a classroom setting (cf. Skehan, 1986b for a more developed view). Third, for his MLAT test (Carroll and Sapon, 1959) that measured, as well as anything can, some of the components of individual variation in ability to speak a FL” (Spolsky, 1995: 322). As a matter of fact, the MLAT has become something of a model guiding almost all subsequent aptitude research (see Sawyer &Ranta, 2001). Fourth, for his conceptualization of foreign language aptitude as containing multiple-components which Skehan (2002) pointed out, has proved to be more enduring and interesting even than the MLAT test battery itself.

These classical four components are shown in Table 1 (see Dörnyei&Skehan 2003: 592):

Aptitude Components

Definitions of Abilities

Phonemic coding ability

Capacity to code unfamiliar sound so that it can be retained.

Grammatical sensitivity

Capacity to identify the functions that words fulfill in sentences.

Inductive language

learning ability

Capacity to extrapolate from given corpus to create new sentences.

Associative memory

Capacity to form links in memory.

Table 1.Carroll’s Four-Factor Aptitude Model

In the most research on foreign language aptitude following the publication of the MLAT can be grouped into three major categories (also see Skehan, 2002) :

measurement oriented research that targets the development of aptitude tests themselves

research based on the different components of aptitude as conceptualized by Carroll

research which sets out to address aptitude-treatment interactions

In order to have a complete grasp of these lines of research, the empirical studies in each of these categories are brief in Table 2 (together with other orientations) along with their major findings.


Representative Studies

Major Findings and Implications


Pimsleur’s PLAB, 1966; Green’s York Language Aptitude Test, 1975; Petersen and Al-Haik’s DLAB, 1976; Parry and Child’s VORD, 1990; Sternberg and Ehrman’s CANAL-F, 2000

Psychometric in nature;

Empirically based;

Mostly were MLAT alternatives or complementary tests;

Mostly associated with military or government initiatives/funding.


Sparks and Ganschow, 1991; Skehan, 1982 & 1986a; Sasaki, 1996; Ranta, 2002

The concept of factor-components is still viable;

Relatively little research has been conducted;

Much room for development (esp. memory).

Aptitude-treatment interaction: General

Reves, 1982; Wesche, 1981; Robinson, 1995 & 2002; Erlam, 2005

Aptitude information (profile) is not only desirable but also has tremendous pedagogical implications under different L2 learning conditions.

Aptitude and age

Johnson & Newport, 1989; Dekeyser, 2000; Harley and Hart, 1997 & 2002

Younger learners tend to show higher correlations with memory components and older learners with analytical components.

Aptitude and intelligence

Skehan, 1982; Wesche, Edwards & Wells, 1982; Sasaki, 1996;

Skehan reported low to moderate correlations;

Wesche et al & Sasaki reported moderate correlations.

Relationship between L1 and L2 abilities

Skehan, 1986b and 1990;

Aptitude is a product of two separate groups of influences: inner capacity for learning and the ability to handle language in a decontextualized way.

Despite the earlier criticisms (in the 1970s & 1980s) of being outdated and ineffective, the concept of foreign language aptitude is still relevant to foreign language learning. Furthermore, the effects of foreign language aptitude is not confined to traditional instructed settings, but is also viable under different learning conditions or under different learning contexts in today’s communicative classrooms; second, despite the importance of the four factors characterizing foreign language aptitude, research studies looking into them have been relatively scarce. This is particularly so with the case of the memory component, which stands in sharp contrast with the ‘cognitive revolution’ (Carroll, 1990) taking place in the psychology field.

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Researchers are now considering other factors; therefore, the emphasis has lessened, especially since the early 1990’s (Dörnyei, 2005;Gardner, 2001; Ehrman, M. E. & Oxford, R. L., 1995).Research reveals that though aptitude is well established as a general measure, its equivalent determiner in language learning ability is motivation. This body of emerging research continues to strengthen as more scholars take this into consideration (Dörnyei, 2001a; 2005; Gardner, 2001). The controversy of aptitude versus attitude continues even when scholars are proclaiming motivation to be at least equivalent, instead of superior, to aptitude as a predictor of success in foreign language learning (Ehrman, M.E. 1996; Noels, Pelletier, Clément, &Vallerand, 2000).

3.0 Effects of Motivation, Attitude and Aptitude on L2 Learning

Gardner and Smythe (1981) came up with a research called Attitude/Motivation Test Battery (AMTB) as a tool to measure five attributes associated with L2 that is integrativeness, attitudes toward the learning situation, motivation, language anxiety and instrumental orientation.

Gardner’s studies use the AMTB method to measure individual-difference variables. The collected data are investigated using quantitative analyses such as Factor Analysis or Structural Equation Modeling (Gardner, 2000). Factor analysis is to bring inter-correlated variables together under more general underlying variables. Specifically, the goal of factor analysis is to reduce “the dimensionality of the original space and to give an interpretation to the new space, spanned by a reduced number of new dimensions which are supposed to underlie the old ones” (Rietveld &Van Hout 1993: 254) or to explain the variance in the observed variables in terms of underlying latent factors (Habing 2003: 2). So, the possibility of gaining a clear view of the data and also the possibility of using the output in subsequent analyses are being offered by factor analysis (Field 2000; Rietveld & Van Hout 1993). Meanwhile, Structural Equation Modeling is based on the Socio-Educational Model of Second Language Acquisition that account for the relationships among attitude and motivation measures as reflected in the covariance matrix. Direct tests of the Socio-Educational Model described earlier have been made in a number of studies and each has confirmed the validity of the model. These tests make use of Structural Equation Modeling procedures to examine the measurement and structural components of the model. The three components of integrative motivation are integrativeness, attitude toward the learning situation and motivation. These are treated as latent variables in Structural Equation Modeling.

Various versions of the AMTB have subsequently been use by many studies to conduct research into the role of motivation in SLA within Gardner’s socioeducational framework in L2 learning contexts outside of Canada. The reported results have varied widely due to the differences in their measurement tools, methods of analysis and sociocultural contexts. From the results achieved, the following five factors have been contributors to L2 proficiency: language aptitude ( Gordon, 1980; Lett & O’Mara, 1990); motivation and attitudes (Lett & O’Mara, 1990); self-confidence (CIément, Gardner, & Smythe, 1977, 1980; CIément, Major, Gardner, & Smythe, 1977; Laine, 1977); attitudes toward the language course and classroom anxiety (Muchnick & Wolfe, 1982); and attitudes, motivation and language anxiety (Sison, 1991).

Language aptitude ( Gordon, 1980; Lett & O’Mara, 1990) is the potential that a person has for learning language. This potential is often evaluated using formal aptitude tests, which predict the degree of success of the language user. For instance, the Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT) is used to evaluate language aptitude. If a learner already has the ability to learn the language by him or herself, he or she should be a competent user of the language. Second, motivation and attitudes (Lett & O’Mara, 1990) refer to the learner’s attitudes towards L2 learning and how desire they are to achieve the goal of learning the language. As a learner, one must have the combination of both motivation and positive attitudes along to achieve the proficiency in the L2. Third, self-confidence (CIément, Gardner, & Smythe, 1977, 1980; CIément, Major, Gardner, & Smythe, 1977; Laine, 1977) refers to the self- perception of second language. For example, to learn a L2, a learner must have the confidence. It is quite difficult for them to learn a L2 if they do not have the confidence in them. Fourth, attitudes toward the language course and classroom anxiety (Muchnick & Wolfe, 1982) refer to the attitude (like or dislike) towards the L2 learning and the level of the anxiety of learning L2 in the classroom. If a learner has the positive attitudes towards learning the L2, he or she may has the excitement when learning the L2 instead of not paying attention in class and also feel nervous throughout the period of lesson. Fifth, attitudes, motivation and language anxiety (Sison, 1991) refer to the learner’s attitude whether is positive or negative, their desire to achieve the L2 proficiency and the levels of anxiety towards the L2 learning. For example, if a learner has the positive attitude along with being motivated and having confidence in learning L2, they will definitely be a competent user of a L2.

4.0 Conclusion


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