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In Australia, although it has changed significantly in the past 30 years due to migration, it is quite common for people of Anglo background to only speak one language.

I learned my second language quite quickly due to hard work and regular practice, but I get told often I must have a "gift for languages" as other people state they tried learning a language before and can only remember one or two words.

Someone usually chimes in about some guy they know from Europe who speaks 5 languages and then another person will then repeat the claim "yep, he definitely has a gift for languages".

I've heard this so many times and it is quite frustrating and insulting to those people who have gone to the length of learning several languages.

Obviously learning one language as an adult will give you some helpful techniques which could be used when learning a third or fourth language, but is there any science to indicate that certain people have some super talent and can learn languages at a higher level than normal human beings?

  • There are studies, there are loads of studies. I dont have a proper answer yet, so can only point you to wikipedia on second language acquisition – JoseK Jul 29 '11 at 6:46
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    1) in most European countries studying 2 foreign languages is required; 2) quite some regions are bi- tri-lingual; 3) from my observation it seem that effort required is inversely proportional to how complex you native language is. – vartec Jul 29 '11 at 11:32
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    @vartec: also, many of the Latin languages bear strong similarities so for instance it is very easy for an Italian to learn Spanish probably more than it is learning English or German. In fact I never studied Spanish in my life, but if I hear two people speaking Spanish (not too fast) I can easily grasp the sense of the conversation. – nico Jul 29 '11 at 14:12
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    @nico: totally true, but I meant for example Slavic languages have very complex grammar, thus it's quite easy for Slav to learn Italian, and quite difficult for Italian to learn let's say Russian. – vartec Jul 29 '11 at 14:30
  • @vartec: sure, I was just adding that as a 4th point! – nico Jul 29 '11 at 14:32
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One way to have a "gift" for languages is to have been brought up bilingual (or at least exposed to a challenging monolingual situation).

"Children whose neural pathways have been reinforced by a great deal of positive early experience--including a variety of language activities--will be better off when the brain's pruning process begins." http://www2.ed.gov/pubs/ReadWithMe/makconn.html

Further, it's been shown that music is also linked to language. Presumably, one with an ear for music will also have an ear for languages. But this can also be developed.

"Musicians have highly consistent auditory-neural responses," says Kraus. "It may be that musical training – with its emphasis on rhythmic skills – can exercise the auditory-system, leading to less neural jitter and stronger sound-to-meaning associations that are so essential to learning to read." http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201309/musical-training-may-improve-brain-s-language-skills

Personally: I grew up bilingual and picked up another four languages along the way (two fluent, two less so). For all of them, I had an easier/faster time with comprehension and pronunciation than those who had grown up only with one language.

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Daniel Tammet is a good example of what you are asking. He knows atleast 10 languages and is capable of learning a new language (on a conversational level) in just a week.

Another savant that could do the same was Kim Peek.

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    While an interesting example this does not contain enough detail to really address the question. Show why the examples prove the claim. – matt_black Aug 28 '14 at 15:28
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There are several language aptitude tests, such as the Modern Language Aptitude Test. These are used by governments, militaries and companies to determine who is most likely to be able to successfully learn languages - these tests are usually for adults, though some are for children as well.

How exactly these tests measure language aptitude could be debated, but their effectiveness shows that whatever they do measure does correlate with a real increased likelihood of success.

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