We all know someone with a high aptitude for languages. While the rest of us struggle, they seem to hear everything and pick up new words without even trying. It’s a shame that when it comes to aptitude you’re either one of the lucky few to be born with it or you aren’t, right? Wrong.
The dictionary definition of aptitude is actually a natural or acquired capacity for learning. That means any language learner can enhance their aptitude if they go about it in the right way. Since aptitude for languages is closely related to working memory, it’s best to first understand how the mechanisms that help us trap and retain language work, and then consider some strategies.
The Visuospatial Sketchpad
In 1974, Baddeley & Hitch proposed a model of working memory in which a central executive managed and processed information gathered from two sub-systems: the visuospatial sketchpad and the phonological loop. Have you ever stared hard at a page and then closed your eyes? Give it a try now and notice how the image lasts for a few seconds, even when you can no longer see it. That’s the visuospatial sketchpad at work. While everyone has one of these, the amount of time it takes for an image to disappear varies depending on the individual. People with higher aptitude tend to be able to hold an image in mind for longer amounts of time.
So, what does this have to do with language learning? When you first start reading in your new language, your brain is not used to the novel letter combinations (or perhaps you’re even working with an entirely new alphabet/script). This makes it difficult to visualize words and hold them in working memory long-enough for them to be learned and transferred over for long-term storage. A lot of time is wasted in checking back and forth to look-up new terms in a dictionary or use them in productive exercises. Vocabulary is the most basic component of language and if your ability to acquire words from written text is hampered, it can have a severe impact on learning and progress.
The Phonological Loop
Of course language is both written and spoken, so acquiring new vocabulary can also be done with your ears. Have you ever recited a telephone number over and over until you found a pen to write it down? That’s the phonological loop at work, allowing you to record bits of audio and play them on repeat until you have a chance to process and understand what you have heard. Some people can hold longer strings of numbers and sounds in memory than others and they tend to be individuals with a higher aptitude for language learning.
Why is that? Well spoken language happens in real-time and there isn’t a pause button for native-speaker conversation. You may not have understood exactly what was said, but if you can record it and replay it in your mind, then you can also save it for later processing. It’s like having an internal voice recorder that can help you get better at parsing speech, unpacking chunks of language and acquiring new words from context. If your sound to letter mapping is accurate, it also allows you to look up words in a dictionary (like Lingua.ly’s) and learn their written form.
Improving Language Aptitude
So what can you do to boost your aptitude for languages? Train your brain! Both the phonological loop and visuospatial sketchpad respond to strategy training. Just like stretching before a run, set 20 minutes aside to practice looking at words in your target language and then writing them down from memory. Juggle a few items at once and mix up the order in which you produce them. Gradually increase the time intervals and amount of terms. Don’t worry about learning the content or definitions, simply focus on form. Repeat the process for spoken language. Focus on holding in memory longer strings of speech instead of worrying about what the language means or how to respond. You’ll notice a difference right away, as written vocabulary become easier to work with and spoken language, easier to hear.
For more info on improving your ability to hear and understand target language speech, check out this article from the author of the Fluent Forever Blog. Once you’ve amped up you aptitude for extracting new language, the sky is the limit! Keep up the strategic effort and use a free platform like Lingua.ly to stay on top of all of the words you are learning. Create dynamic flashcards, play fun practice games, see vocabulary in authentic contexts and help ensure your new words make it into long-term memory.