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What factors influence language learning?

A world map with books in different languages placed on the map.

There are many factors that influence how quickly and successfully you can learn a foreign language. Some of these factors are unchangeable, like your age or native language. Other factors are more in your control, like the environment you choose to study in or how much exposure you get to the new language. Learning about these factors can help you develop realistic goals and expectations for learning, and give you an idea of what you can do to speed up the learning process. In this article, we’ll break down 6 factors known to affect foreign language learning, and talk about how you can use them to your advantage.

Let’s start with three factors that are more or less out of your control: your age, your native language, and your personality.

Age

Age plays a critical role in foreign language learning (and is not under your control – unless you’ve invented an age-reversal cream!). Generally speaking, the younger you are when you start learning a foreign language, the higher level of proficiency you’ll be able to achieve. Why might this be? Well, for one, children have more time to spend on language learning. They don’t have to worry about things like mowing the lawn or paying bills! A child’s brain is also more flexible and adaptable than an adult’s, so they are more likely to naturally pick up on the language that’s being spoken around them, and develop native-like intuitions. 

However, this doesn’t mean that adults can’t achieve high language proficiency. Adults are more cognitively mature than children, and should thus be able to grasp complex structures more easily. In fact, research has shown that, in early stages of learning, adults learn languages more quickly than children (although a study conducted with Japanese children in the United States suggests kids do catch up eventually). All in all, the earlier you start learning a language, the better, but anyone can achieve a high level of language proficiency. It’s all up to you and what you do!

Native language

Your native language can have a large impact on how quickly you progress in foreign language learning. Generally, languages that are closer to your native tongue (or to other languages you know!) take less time to learn. For example, it takes English speakers an average of 600 classroom hours to learn Spanish, which is very similar to English. Compare this to the 2200 class hours needed to learn a much different language like Arabic. Similar languages are learned more quickly because they share a large amount of vocabulary, which can give learners a head start right out of the gate. However, even if two languages are similar, they are likely to have some differences that can slow learning down (e.g., in grammar or pronunciation). It is important to be aware of the challenges you may face when learning the language you choose in order to make the language learning process as smooth as possible!

Personality

Personality is another uncontrollable factor that can influence how quickly and deeply you learn a foreign language. Your personality is made up of different traits, like how open you are to new experiences, how organized you are, whether you are more introverted or extraverted, how well you work with others, and how anxious you are in general. These traits are thought to partially determine how you behave in different situations, including those related to language learning. Here’s a quick breakdown:

As you may have guessed, people with different personality types tend to learn best from different activities. If you’re an extravert, you should definitely make sure that you get out and have as many conversations in your foreign language as possible. If you work well with others, try registering for a language class in your area. And if you aren’t the most organized person in the world, don’t worry! Try using a language learning app like Mango Languages, which organizes and spaces out learning content for you!

So far we’ve seen that your age, native language, and personality are three factors important for language learning that are generally out of your control. So which factors can we bend to our will in order to optimize learning? Here we will look at motivation, language exposure, and learning environment. Let’s jump in!

Motivation

Motivation represents the reasons why you’re studying a language, and how much effort you are willing to commit to learning. Motivated language learners tend to be more successful because they set clear learning goals, give it their all, and stay on track when learning gets hard.

Learners are motivated for all sorts of reasons. Some may choose to learn a language because they want to identify with another culture. Others might learn because they feel like it will help their career or improve their social standing. Whatever your reason, it’s important to always keep it in mind when studying to make sure that you continue to put in the hours that make learning possible. 

But motivation isn’t some fixed factor that is out of your control. You can actually take steps to change your motivation over time in ways that positively impact your learning. One way to increase your motivation is to clarify your reasons for studying a language. Ask yourself, “Why am I learning my target language? What do I want to achieve?” Your answer can help you determine your language learning goals. Do you want to use a language in a professional setting? Or do you just want to be able to get by while traveling? Whatever your goals are, you can keep your motivation trending in a positive direction by regularly checking on your learning progress. If you feel that your progress has stalled, it might be time to get organized and put in a little more effort!

Language Exposure

How much language you’re exposed to on a regular basis can have a big impact on how much you learn. In order to make any progress at all, you need to receive massive amounts of input – language that you hear or read. The more input you have, the more opportunities you’ll have to pick up on new words and grammar structures, and to reinforce those that are already in your head. This is key to improving your language proficiency, and explains why learners who receive more input tend to become fluent speakers more quickly.

Luckily, in today’s interconnected world, you should be able to get a hold of plenty of authentic materials. Reading books, magazines, or articles in your target language is great for learning vocabulary, and can be done at your own pace. For spoken input, try listening to podcasts or watching TV and movies on your favorite streaming service. 

Another way to increase your exposure is to get out there and use talk to people! Conversations are great for learning new words and grammar rules and putting your existing knowledge into practice. Go chat with a friend who speaks your target language, join a language exchange group, or take a private language class.

Whichever form of exposure you choose, remember that you need to give yourself time to absorb all the new information. In general, it’s better to space out learning sessions instead of cramming everything into one day!

Language Learning Environment

The environment you choose to study in can have a big influence on language learning. Are you surrounded by native speakers? Or is the classroom the only contact you have with the language you are trying to learn? If you are surrounded by native speakers (i.e., immersion), chances are that you will have the opportunity to practice the language on a daily basis. Research has shown that learners in immersive environments pick up a lot of language very quickly. Immersion also helps you develop intuitions about language that are needed for using it effortlessly on a day-to-day basis. 

Classroom environments play a different role in learning. In a classroom, you generally learn a lot about vocabulary and grammar rules, and build the kind of knowledge that is really useful when taking a language test. Classrooms are also great places to receive corrective feedback on your mistakes when you need it, which can help you make quick progress. However, spending all of your time in a classroom means that you’ll likely have less practice using the language in authentic situations. So even if a classroom learner knows how to form a perfect sentence, they may have difficulty completing simple tasks when they go abroad (e.g., ordering a coffee or asking for directions)!

So what does this mean for the average language learner? Well, simply put, it’s important to mix up your learning environment. If you’ve never taken a language class, try enrolling in one today, or using an app (which can provide a similar experience). If you’ve never been immersed in the language, try saving up for a trip abroad, or look for target language communities in your area you can interact with. By learning in diverse environments, you’ll develop good knowledge of how a language works, and gain plenty of experience using it – both factors that can help you achieve high proficiency in the long run!

What types of factors affect the language learning process?

There are five types of factors that affect the language learning process: cognitive, affective, personal, environmental, and cultural. All of these factors affect language learning in different ways.

Cognitive factors have to do with how your mind helps you learn a new language. Learners with high intelligence, memory, and language aptitude are able to learn languages more quickly because they are skilled at paying attention and making connections in the brain.

Affective factors have to do with your feelings, values, beliefs, and attitudes towards learning a language. Positive affective factors like motivation influence how willing you are to start and keep learning a new language, as well as how much effort you put in. Learners with high levels of motivation may end up becoming more proficient than those with lower motivation. Negative affective factors tend to slow down language learning. For example, language learning anxiety can distract you and prevent you from picking up on new words and grammar.

Personality factors have to do with how you prefer to interact with your environment. Your personality partly determines which language learning activities are most suitable for you. For example, learners who work well with others excel in classrooms and when cooperating with others. 

Environmental factors have to do with where and how you learn your language. In general, language learning can take place in an immersion setting or non-immersion setting. Learners who study a language through immersion tend to learn a lot of vocabulary and communication skills quickly (within a few months), and develop good intuitions about how and when to use a language. However, immersion has been shown to sometimes lead to lower levels of grammatical accuracy, which can persist for years after leaving immersion. Learners who learn in non-immersion settings (like traditional language classrooms), on the other hand, tend to develop good knowledge of vocabulary and grammar, but may have trouble applying that knowledge in the real world (e.g., in natural conversations).

Lastly, cultural factors can be thought of as social factors. These include feeling accepted by the community of the target language and your attitudes towards learning languages. Cultural factors affect your motivation to learn a language, as well as how successful you are at language learning.

What is the best way to learn a second language?

There is no universally “best” way to learn a language. However, you can determine what approach works best for you by considering your age, native language, personality, motivation, exposure, and learning environment.

Well, that’s it! We hope that reading about all of these factors will empower you to go out and take steps to optimize your own personal language learning journey. Bye for now!

References

Meet The Author:
George Smith - Headshot
George Smith
Linguist at Mango Languages
George Smith is a Linguist at Mango Languages. He holds a Ph.D. in Second Language Studies from the University of Hawai‛i at Mānoa and conducts research on second language listening, speaking, and vocabulary learning. He is a lifelong language teacher and learner who enjoys gabbing about language with his family and friends.

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