Possible not to be able to learn another language?

Okay, this question comes from personal experience. It’s a long explanation, but bear with me. I’ve been thinking a lot about all the information that’s been coming out in the last couple years about American students not studying foreign languages (or foreign, non-european, anything). I know people are going to jump on me for that, so, yes, I’m exaggerating, but not much.

From first grade until my sophomore year in college, I did horribly in my French classes. I had always heard that there was a foreign language “exemption” exam that one could take (either in high school or college) and be exempt from the required foreign language classes all students had to take (which are minimal to begin with). I had always thought of taking it because I thought I had a foreign language disability, but I always waited to long or just decided to eek by with a low B (which is completely possible for someone who knows nothing about a language with the tests are organized so that a student just proves that he remembers vocabulary and the organization of a sentence, in other words he is not required to actually USE the language).

Well, my sophomore year in college, as a result of everything that was going on in the world, I became interested in learning about the world and it’s languages. I decided I wanted to be fluent in at least one foreign langauge.

Now, three years later, I live in Paris. All of my classes are in French. My girlfriend and I both speak to each other in French (neither of our langue maternelle ). Not only have I found that I can learn another language, I’ve found that I’m rather good at it. Through having friends from all over the world, I can now have simple, basic conversations in several langauges (Chinese, Italian, Spanish), and people always compliment my pronounciation.

So, it turns out I never had a language learning deficiency. That’s not to say that I speak French perfectly at all, but I can speak it nonetheless.

The reason I mention this, is that I know many people who had the same outlook as I did who took their distaste for language studies (which we all saw as pointless) as a deficiency, and they were exempt from studying a language. **So, I want to know to what extent it really is possible that someone CANNOT learn a foreign language ** or is it a bunch of people that see it as pointless or don’t give a damn?

see what I’m saying.

English is a foreign languag to a baby. If you learned English, you can learn any other language.*

  • Except perhaps due to age–and probably that just increases the difficulty rather than making it impossible.


Voulez-vous IMHO avec moi?

(a cheap way of saying this is an IMHO thread)

No problem - I’ll move it for you.


Purely IMHO and spoken as a non-psychologist, non-educator: I don’t see why not, in the sense in which some people cannot leave their house and some other people cannot urinate in a public toilet. There are all manners of psychological inhibitions around, why not ones concerning learning foreign languages?

I could easily say I had the same experience as the OP. Languages, to me, (and to an extent musical instruments) simply don’t come easily in a classroom.

Growing up in LA I was exposed to a great deal of spanish from an early age. Example: Sesame Street would run in english and then be followed with a spanish-language version of the same program. It sunk in.

But the minute I stopped doing it every day I lost it.

My dad’ssecond wife is from Lyon, France. While I was living with the and exposed to and using French every day I got to be pretty fluent. But when I moved back in with my mom (on another coast) I lost it in a hurry.

It just appears to be one of those things that I can learn if immersed but not through book-learning.

I’ve had formal training in Spanish, Portuguese and French and can tell you that there are definitely people who just can’t manage it. Whether it’s a problem with inability to memorize or compartmentalize, or a bonafide learning disability, these folks were hopeless. I knew one guy who was on his third go-round in French at the Foreign Language Institute. These are six-month intensive language courses with native speakers, and he was still stuck on “bon jour”, pronounced badly. Now, one might think he was faking it, but his job depended on him being able to be functional in a world language.

I’m hearing impaired, and rely on lip-reading for filling in a lot of gaps in conversation.

Learning a foreign language is EXTREMELY difficult for me.

Naturally, I had to marry someone born in Hong Kong, and had to learn to at least basically speak and understand a tonal language w/ SEVEN tones, cantonese.


It is certainly possible to be very lacking in tha language gift, as it is possible to be gifted.
I will never be good at another language, like someone very poor at maths who never gets beyond division. I have great difficulty in determining the subtlties of pronounciation. I tried learning to pronounce ou et whilst in Montreal, asking the perfectly bi-lingual lady at the hotel front desk.
"How do I pronounce ‘ou et’ as in ‘ou et le bibliotech?’ "
followed by her saying ‘ooo eh’ me saying ‘ooo eh’ in what was to my comprehension an identical pronounciation followed by her saying ‘No. ooo eh’…
I just could not translate the sounds I heard into the ability to make a good enough approximation to those sounds with my own voice. I simply lack sufficient skill in recreating the pronounciation I hear from someone else myself. From this I am sure I can never be skilled at another language.

I can pick up a new programming language sufficient to write a simple program (quicksort, inefficiently generating prime numbers, etc.) within hours with a basic reference and a working implementation (interpreter or compiler).*

I took German in high school and have been to Austria twice to visit relatives, many of whom are monolingual German speakers, and I still don’t know enough German to get by. I want to learn it, I simply can’t.

It is certainly possible to be able to learn new ways of expessing oneself and still suck at natural languages.

*(I don’t doubt that any experienced, competent programmer could say the same, especially if he/she already has a very firm grounding in C, Perl, Lisp (Common Lisp and Scheme, with a good taste of Emacs Lisp), GW-BASIC, and assembly language (x86 and PDP/VAX, mainly). Most languages are very closely related to one or more of the above.)

I have to admit I’m a little bummed. I don’t think this is a IMHO question. The question I intended was whether or not there is a documented psychological block in the region of the brain that controls learning languages. One’s mother tongue is stored in a different region of the brain than second, third, and so on languages, n’est pas?

Oh well.

That said, I do appreciate the responses…

Have a good one…

The mechanisms we use for learning our first language as a child and for learning subsequent language as older children/adults are completely different. It’s the difference between learning to walk vs. learning to play the piano: one is an instinctive drive, one is a skill that we learn as we learn other skills. There are some similarities but in general, completely different mechanisms.

That said, I shouldn’t wonder that there are different aptitudes from person to person, and a lot of it depends on how much you are exposed to other languages as a child (the earlier you learn your second language, the better, not only for that language but for all subsequent ones); but it would surprise me that someone would be completely incapable of learning a second language in ideal conditions after seriously applying himself/herself.

According to Why Michael Couldn’t Hit: And Other Tales of the Neurology of Sports, by Harold Klawens, there is a time when the brain is ripe for learning various things. In the case of language it’s pre-puberty, the earlier the better. There are cases of neglected and/or abused children rescued after puberty who were unable to learn more than a few words, and who never were able to create sentences. In other cases, it seemed that the younger the child, the more complete the recovery.

Again, according to Klawens, a normal preschool child can readily learn several languages with ease. After puberty, it becomes harder and if a second language is acquired it is not usually with the same fluency and ease as the first one was.

The same appears to be true of the motor and visual skills needed for sports excellency (thus the book’s title). Michael Jordan, while an extraordinarily accomplished basketball player, was unable to acquire the necessary skills for a major league baseball.

I took Spanish in fourth grade for a year, then didn’t do anything with any foreign languages at all until high school. In high school, I took two years of Latin (VERY easy and fun for me!), then two years of French. I liked French so much that I decided to major in it in college, then went onto get an MA and and ABD in French Linguistics.

I lived in France for a total of three years (non-consecutive), and felt perfectly comfortable speaking French while I lived there. I even spent one of those years in an environment where I knew almost no one who spoke any English.

I also travelled quite a bit. I did take German as an undergrade (which was also very easy for me), and I had no problems understanding and using German when I was in Germany and Austria. I have never formally studied Italian, but with a crash course in verb conjugation and a dictionary for vocabulary, I picked up what I needed fairly quickly–it wasn’t good, but it didn’t make people I talked to cringe, either, and we generally understood each other when I went to Italy.

I can NOT learn Spanish, though. The words just won’t stick in my head at all. I went to Spain, and was quite glad to leave because I was SO tired of never knowing what was going on around me. I couldn’t even ask basic tourist-type questions when I was there, much less understand the answer. Here in the States, I hear Spanish quite often–I’ve even tried listening to Spanish radio stations when I can find them, and buying Spanish language CDs (designed to help you learn conversational Spanish). My brain just won’t do it.

I suspect that if I actually had to live in a Spanish-speaking community for an extended period of time, I would probably eventually pick it up. But without that opportunity, I suspect that my brain’s Spanish block will remain firmly in place.

Living in Canada, I was exposed to French for 37 years. Heard it on the radio and TV, read it on all the packaging for everything. I took it in high school, and had such difficulty with conjugations and tenses that I failed it miserably. I couldn’t even translate the questions on the exams to find out what they were. I couldn’t carry on a conversation in French to save my life, then or now. “Le crayon est sur le table” is not going to get me anywhere in the real world. I just don’t get it.

One of the teachers at my old high school (a private girls’s school) was tone-deaf and couldn’t pronouce words in other languages. So yeah it does happen.

Just as some people have a ‘talent’ for languages and pick them up almost effortlessly, even past the golden age of childhood, it stands to reason that some people are such dunces at learning languages that, practically, it won’t happen for them.

I dated a guy once who’s parents were both Chinese immigrants. After 30 years in the USA they couldn’t speak or read English well enough to ride a bus and get off at the right stop. 30 years! I guarantee you that after 30 years in China I would speak Chinese. I might almost have a thick accent and I might screw up my grammar, etc., but I would learn that freaking language in 30 years. But for some folks, they feel more comfortable living in their little enclaves in Chinatown or the equivalent, rarely interact with people outside their community, and if they have no talent at languages and little to no incentive, they just won’t learn.

I know that my daughter had trouble with learning foreign languages; despite hard work, when she was in the Peace Corps, she could not learn Portuguese despite their best efforts (and she already had taken Spanish, which is supposed to give you a head start). They ended up transferring her from Mozambique to Namibia.

But she always had some auditory processing problems, even very young. She underwent speech therapy for her articulation (she would pronounce “yellow” and “little” the same way: “yegger”) at age 4 and it improved her so it wasn’t a problem in school. But there are signs that she still has the issue, and learning a language is very difficult for her.

FYI, this is a 9 year old thread.

I still struggle with my native tongue. My wife corrects me all the time. I can’t spell my way out of a wet paper bag. I am 32 years old and have to stop to think “should I use a C or an S?” for “S” sounds in common everyday words.

Needless to say, I was never very good at foreign languages.

I think that just about anyone can learn some of a foreign language with enough time and determination. Some will always be better at it than others.

Orthography isn’t really language. You can be fluent in a language and completely illiterate.