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Aptitude Influences: Second Language Acquisition

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 3282 words Published: 9th May 2017

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Second language learning aptitude is featured as strengths which individual learners have in the cognitive abilities information processing during L2 learning and accomplishment in various stages and within different contexts. Aptitude has conventionally been observed as a key factor in the domain of L2 learning in which Ehrman and Oxford (1995) propose that its measures are most strongly correlated with L2 proficiency among all the individual differences (ID) variables. Therefore, emphasizing on the way it is measured, its role in the second language acquisition (SLA) process, and most importantly, the extent to which its factors may affect L2, aptitude can be confirmed as a strong predictor of academic success in SLA. In this paper, after discussing the nature of aptitude in general, a few important aptitude factors which contribute to SLA will be focused.

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In an early review paper on aptitude research, Carroll (1981) defines general aptitude as an ability of learning a task, which involves a special inclination towards learning L2 and depends on some combination of persistent characteristics of the learner. In Carroll’s specific view, aptitude is separated from achievement and motivation. Also, aptitude must be seen as a stable factor, perhaps even innate. Notably, it is not a prerequisite for L2 acquisition and should be distinct from general intelligence.


It is appropriate to start the discussion of aptitude with a review of the work of the American psychologist J. B. Carroll who dominated the area by researched foreign language aptitude and established the parameters within which the sub-field still operates. It is important to report that till date, there has been large-scale work in making use of the Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT) produced by Carroll and Sapon (1959).

Carroll’s four factors of aptitude

Carroll (1965, 1991) reports that aptitude contains four sub-components, namely, phonemic coding ability, grammatical sensitivity, inductive language analytic ability, and memory. Their descriptions can be expanded and their perspectives can be processed to SLA by using the four factors as described below.

Phonemic coding ability

This is not simply the ability to make sound discrimination, but the ability to code foreign sounds in such a way that they can be recalled later. Sound discrimination can be different from one to another; however, there is no correlation between this variation and language learning success. What really correlates is the ability to analyze sound so that it can be done quicker and can be recalled more readily without the need of having immediate rehearsal (Skehan, 1998).

Associative memory

This involves the ability to make connections between stimuli and responses, for instance, foreign language words or equivalents, and to develop such links’ strength. At the time of the MLAT production, its interpretation reflected the focus on psychology, described it as relatively simple stimulus-response connections, without mentioning more complex memory organization or representation. Skehan, (1980) has expanded in the recent aptitude research to the conceptualization of memory significantly, to seeing memory as only one part of aptitude but not the most important aspect. Instead, the ability to memorize more auditorily complex material are now viewed as more powerful predictors of L2 learning.

Grammatical sensitivity

The ability to understand the contribution that words make in sentences is the main focus in this area. The passive aspect to this ability is to emphasize recognition of function other than explicit representation (Skehan, 1998).

Inductive language analytic ability

This involves the ability to analyze a corpus of language material and then pay attention and discover patterns of correspondence and relationships including meaning and syntactic form. No matter it involves implicit or explicit rule representation, this fundamental attribute represents an ability to identify pattern, especially in verbal material. In addition, it is a productive ability in which the identification of pattern can be viewed as the beginning of inferring from input material for producing language based on the pattern which has been identified (Skehan, 1998).


Since Carroll’s influential work, the story of aptitude has not changed very much. However, it is useful to briefly review the studies which have appeared. Working during the 1960s, Pimsleur (1966) produces the only alternative battery, the Pimsleur Language Aptitude Battery (PLAB), targeted at high school students. This set of sub-tests is broadly similar to Carroll’s MLAT, but places greater emphasis on auditory factors, and less on memory.

Since then, there has been marginalizing influence related to the putative link between aptitude and learning context. Many researchers believe that foreign language aptitude with the methodologies that prevailed at the time of Carroll’s research no longer survives in SLA field. In particular, Krashen (1981) links foreign language aptitude to learning, in which it involves teacher-led activities and occurs in classrooms. In other words, aptitude is explicit rule-focus, non-communicative practice, and learners’ awareness of language items. As a matter of fact, however, Reves (1983) points out the existing evidence between aptitude scores and naturalistic learning as well as de Graaff (1997a, 1997b) and Robinson (1995) mention the connections between aptitude scores and acquisitional measures that move towards the center of aptitude related to L2 acquisition processes.

Post Carroll’s five factors of aptitude

Inspirations from SLA and foreign language aptitude will have led to be given an understanding of aptitude factors, namely, capacity to process input, implicit and explicit learning, output, attention and Focus on Form (FonF) Techniques and age, as highlighted in the following paragraphs.

Capacity to process input

SLA in earlier days mainly mentions input, and Krashen (1985) even comments that learners are required to process comprehensible input for meaning, which certainly engages the mechanism of language acquisition. Further developments have shown limitations by using this approach (Swain, 1985, 1995). VanPatten (1990, 1996) finds how input can be processed more effectively through carrying out a key research tradition in this aspect. A researcher later proves that if learners are placed under any level of information processing pressure, they can make use of their limited processing resources to reach the meaning (Van Patten, 1990). Furthermore, learners can only involve in forming an input if their processing capacity is available. Schmidt (1995, 2001) has pointed out the importance of noticing which includes the necessity to direct attention to some aspects of the input.

On the one hand, Krashen provides the processing of comprehensible input and argues that such processing will turn out to develop an implicit system without awareness of learner in general. On the other hand, Schmidt claims that development involves noticing as a precondition in which it is necessary to have aspects of form before noticing consciously in the input. Definitely, this does not mean that complexity and ramifications of the aspect of form has to be thoroughly understood but to be in focal attention. Afterwards, additional processes, whether it is implicit or explicit, can be brought out. Noticing, therefore, becomes a pre-requisite condition, instead of a full explanation on the process of teaching and learning.

Implicit and Explicit Learning

The earlier research discusses the relationship of cognitive abilities to learning under instructional exposure in different conditions. Some recent researchers try to identify relationships between the information processing demands of different ‘instructional sets’ and the L2 learner, and in addition, how influential these instructional sets are on learning (Robinson & Ha, 1993; Williams, 1999). These ‘instructional sets’ contain the symbols: +/- awareness of targets, +/- intention to learn targets, and +/- explicit metalinguistic information in relation to the ‘form’ of targets. It is discovered that that L2 learning in explicit conditions, with certain level of metalinguistic awareness and instruction, were as effective and efficient as learning in implicit conditions under the condition that the stimulus domain was complex rather than having a simple L2 stimulus domain (Robinson, 1996a and de Graaff, 1997b).

In addition, as measured by subtests of traditional tests like Carroll’s MLAT, Robinson (1997a) and Williams (1999) claim that ID in aptitude and memory ability affect learning in both implicit and explicit conditions. Hence, it is suggested that adult L2 learning under all conditions of exposure is basically more or less the same (Robinson, 1996b, 2001) since the ID in the conscious information processing abilities are the underlying differences in the extent of learning which can be observed through the measurement of aptitude and memory tests.

There are findings proving that L2 learning is facilitated when strengths in patterns of abilities or aptitudes are compatible with the processing demands of certain instructional sets. On the contrary, Krashen’s (1982) supports that implicit learning is basically different from explicit learning as the former focuses on unconscious processes and is insensitive to ID in the abilities in the traditional aptitude tests measurement such as MLAT which forms contrast to the concept of the latter.

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The output study is important in SLA in which the emphasis of most research activity has been on competence-oriented analyses of structural change. Therefore, output can be observed either as the immediate and extensive results of structural change, or the consequence of automatisation process. New analysis of output has recently formed a more central role. It is argued that the use of communication strategies can be influential to language development. Although it is at the expense of pressure for structural change, such strategies enable the effective communication of meanings. The necessity to communicate may induce more difficulties in basic form changes in some L2 learners (Schmidt, 1983; Skehan, 1992, 1998).

Moreover, the nature of fluency should be understood or viewed as an interesting problem in SLA learners. Bygate (1988) clarifies that learners make noticeable dependence on time-creating devices to ease off real-time processing pressure. At the same time, Foster (2001) points out that learners lexically depend on chunks of language which function as “wholes” and therefore ease off processing demands as they can be retrieved without internal analysis. Since language in this view depends on lexicalized chunks, a different analysis on the role of memory in language processing is required. Instead of using a conservative slot-and-filler approach which involves syntactic rules and lexical elements, ‘language as memory reliant’ can be used with the need of a capacious, redundantly-stored memory system. This is the only way to ensure speakers to have the pressures of real-time processing.

Attention and Focus on Form (FonF) Techniques

Many earlier research studies conducted classroom research under the influence of different kinds of intervention aiming to direct learner attention to L2 form through activities, which have a primary focus on meaning and the accomplishment of communicative goals (Doughty, 2004; Doughty & Williams, 1998). The degree of attention to form in classroom L2 processing is being controlled by using various FonF techniques, for instance, input flooding which is a technique for drawing attention to form in input processing (White, 1998), input enhancement (Fridman, & Doughty, 1995; Robinson, 1997b), structured input processing independent of rule explanation (Benati, 2004; Farley, 2004;); and recasting (Lyster, 2004; Philp, 2003).

Research findings of less communicative FonF techniques generate mixed results recently, with some research proving input enhancement and recasting, but not others, do affect subsequent L2 learning. One reason behind is that in the studied population, the aptitudes or abilities of some L2 learners, are more suitable to learn from one FonF technique while others are not. Two recent studies show this may be due to recasting. Mackey, Philp, Egi, Fujii, and Tatsumi (2002), in collaboration with various levels of students who join foreign language EFL program, discover obvious positive relationships between phonological working memory capacity measurement and recasts of noticing of information in communicative L2 interaction within three consecutive days. Yet, lower educational levels learners indicate this relationship more significantly than that of higher educational levels learners.

Likewise, Robinson (1999) and Robinson & Yamaguchi (1999) report obvious positive correlations between phonetic sensitivity measurement and rote memory, in which learning from recasts by university level and non-language majors over a five week of task-based interaction. Pre- and post-test scores on relative clause production are used to measure learning as a whole, with the targeted form in the research.


Cooper (2002) shows evidence that intelligence measures in middle childhood can be used to predict intelligence in later life. The other side of the coin, yet, is that age is a central factor to an individual’s language learning capacity as proved by a huge body of literature on the ‘critical period hypothesis’ mentioning age-related changes in SLA. Therefore, it is practical to assume that aptitude changes occurred over time is in relation to some age-related variation.

Researcher proves that foreign language aptitude shown to be relatively fixed over long period of one’s life span (Carroll, 1981). Bristol-linked research of Skehan also claims aptitude is stable because of the obvious correlations between related measures taken more than 10 years apart. Therefore, Skehan (1989) comments that abilities during some language learning arise by the age of three and a half. Nonetheless, he highlights that it is not too clear if these abilities are innate or are affected by the early environment where the children are exposed to in the first three years of age.

Harley and Hart (1997), however, have recently indicated that the story is not so straightforward. By investigating Grade 7 and Grade 11 L2 learners, the extent of different aptitude factors’ predictive qualities which changed with age can be analyzed. They conclude that different factors of aptitude were involved in the different age groups. The younger the children, the stronger the correlations were found with the memory factors, while the older the learners, the highest explanatory power showed in the language analysis subtests.


Foreign language aptitude studies and the related research decline notably from the 1970s with the following suggested reasons behind (Skehan, 2002). Firstly, aptitude is considered as anti-egalitarian in which testing aptitude of someone and assigning them a score really contain a forbidding quality. According to the assumption of the possible fixed talent and shaped level of achievement, language learning capacity would be measured in a rigid manner and may hence lead to the consequent that aptitude which is originally taken to be the value of individual effort is vanished. Instead of struggling against the nature of aptitude and its measurement as mentioned above, many researchers disagree with this strict perspective and choose other options in their research field for an effective pedagogy.

Secondly, the study of aptitude accompanies with old-fashioned audiolingual methodologies. Consequently, with these methodologies, aptitude was considered to be particularly suit the prediction under such situations (Skehan, 2002). Two developments highlighted the disadvantages of these methodologies. Firstly, when the communicative approach becomes more effective, researchers start to question the relevance of aptitude. Although it can be used to predict the structured input and practice oriented activities, it is not a meaningful approach applied to communicative language teaching. Secondly, the growth of SLA research after 1970 has led to the naturalistic engagement of the processes of acquisition and at the same time, the handling of learners’ input from communicative contexts. Again, aptitude is viewed as an irrelevant item which actually meets the requirement of an outmode class teaching and learning. In addition, Krashen (1981), who insists that aptitude is only for the purpose of learning rather than acquisition, comments that the marginality of learning is a very destructive assessment of the role of aptitude.

Thirdly, it is an obvious that English Language teachers are not interested in the individual differences that exist among learners (Skehan, 2002). This may due to the fact that there is a huge growth of importance in the material of language teaching and learning. The forward movement of such materials means textbooks should be published in a way that can suit the largest markets for the teachers and learners. Those textbook series are sold in a large number which reflects the growing importance of English as a global language, with more international and general in nature. In other words, it is not an attractive commercial option for having the ideas of catering for individual learning preferences, styles, or aptitudes. Therefore, it is more a “general theory” to predict that all learners are exactly the same with the over-riding issue of these textbooks. Teachers and textbook writers find that the individual learner differences are based on a generalized aptitude score and are hence no longer attractive, especially under the situation of having mixed-ability classes.


Defined as the capacity of language learning, aptitude is one of the key areas in individual learner differences in SLA. Its strong correlation with the language proficiency makes it a predictor of academic success in learners’ acquisition of language. Both Carroll’s initial work and post Carroll research contain factors contributing to the aptitude which in turn influencing SLA. It is worth to discuss those factors widely across the timeline because they dominate the area of research in foreign language aptitude and involve lots of pedagogical activities in classrooms. However, for many years, aptitude has been isolated from the wider contexts of foreign language learning and acquisition as discussed. Perhaps, aptitude may well be a central theory if there is a focus on form in SLA. Also, under the condition that critical period for second language learning is accepted generally, and the real “acquisition” is undertaking, aptitude may then well represent ID which is responsible for the effectiveness of language learning.


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