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Why can't some people learn a second language?


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An ex-boyfriend of mine struggled to learn Spanish. As a matter of fact, he actually flunked the course twice before giving up all together. For whatever reason, he could not grasp this language.

Considering we both were living in California around many Latino people, this was shocking to me. He was smart in every other way.  However, I know he isn't alone.  Why is it that some people can't learn a second language?

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I believe  the reason why some people can't seem to be able to learn a second language varies greatly; some people are too lazy to put in the even the most minimal effort to learn and others just lack the natural ability to learn a new language.

I believe everyone is capable to learn a language if she/he tries hard enough, but some people are natural language learners than can learn languages easily, while others need to put a lot more effort and patience into it.

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It mainly depends on the level of interest a person has in learning a new language, and of course, their will to succeed in doing it. If a person isn't that keen and determined to learn, then they will never get to achieve anything in general.

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I agree with everybody that mentioned interest as a big factor. I am currently living in Taiwan. I also lived in Spain. I was very interested in learning Spanish while I was there. Therefore, Spanish came easy and natural to me. I have studied Chinese just a little bit since I have been in Taiwan. The language just doesn't have the same appeal to me. This has made learning it much more difficult. I seem to always have an abundance of excuses as to why I am not getting it. But, I think it is just not very interesting to me.

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In my view, this is a complicated topic.

There may be a number of reasons for this.

Let me start by pointing out that in my view there is no such thing as being to dumb to learn a second language. I have known a few people that generally were not very smart, but nevertheless were able to communicate in several languages. It was a bit like a 7 year old speaking 4 languages. All the languages spoken by those people were spoken at a basic level.

However, there can be very smart people with a generally high IQ that still are not able to communicate properly in a second language. This happens when a person has got no talent at all to learn a language. One has to have a certain feeling for it. When that talent just is not there, it can be difficult to learn a second language.

Of course there are people that are too lazy to learn a new language, due to laziness or lack of interest. This may also be the case when somebody has been unfortunate enough to have a bad teacher at some point.

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Here at my country we have a saying "Burro velho não aprende linguas" (old donkey doesn't learn languages lol), this proves the point it's harder to learn a language as a grown up than as a kid. Having this said, I think the interest and the effort you put in count a big deal, especially when you said he was smart for everything else. He might also not be gifted for languages though.

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He was probably just not interested enough. But, as my english teacher said: "It's hard to learn new language in school". In most courses you will just learn a few basic guidelines, and that's it. I think the best way to learn a new language would be to put yourself in circumstances where you NEED to use it, even if you don't know it. That will really speed up the process, and it's the only foolproof way.

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I am in the same boat as your ex I think, but I don't think I have it quite as bad as he did. When it comes to Biology I can absorb those facts so quickly that the subject is so easy for me to pass it is laughable. When my sister and I were studying German together I would have to read a paragraph about fifty times before I could commit it to memory let alone being able to memorize the grammar. I needed so much help in that class, and my sister had to help me study for it so much she got sick of tutoring me, and I think I passed it with a C which is not that great for me. I managed to pull a B out in French which wasn't to bad.

If he was motivated enough to take the class twice and still not pass I would say he is also not a natural language learner, and the way language classes are taught is not the way he specifically needs to learn. I have had better luck learning languages through software, and directly from people who speak other languages than I ever did through a high school or college class. There is some new research suggesting that a pill used to treat epilepsy that contains valproic acid might help adults learn languages faster. To early to tell right now, but I will be keeping up with any research I can find on the subject.

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Just as with anything else, some people are good at some things and not-so-good at others. I think it is very difficult for some people to grasp the idea of speaking a different language.

I also think doubt in one's self makes a difference, as does caring or not caring about actually learning the material.

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I believe that if you can speak one language well, you can speak many -- that is your proof and you can take it from there. However, the decision to master a new tongue is a brave one. Learning a new language is not picking up few greetings as a tourist. It is a lifetime project. When someone decides to learn or not to learn an x language, it is a worthwhile decision and it is not always right or wrong. That, I believe, is the reason why some people can not learn a new language, they can, but they do not want to.

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Could be that some people are not that patient and persistent to learn a new language or two that's why they can't seem to grasp things. When one puts his mind to it, he can be good at something. I have a lot of students who tell me they are just being forced by their parents to study the English language and they were left with no choice but to obey. It's also for their own good since it's the universal language and they can have opportunities once they have learned it well.

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Some people just don't have the opportunities available to be immersed daily. This is why grammar/vocabulary etc aside, I think English is one of the easiest languages to learn, because there is so much immersion whether you like it or not. Also some people may not have to time to practice or be using poor methods. I think that people are all inherently similar when it comes to language learning ability.

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As pointed out by some posters, human beings have the natural ability to learn a language. I don't believe learning a language is a talent. All it takes is to have the right motivation and passion for the language in order for you to learn it, not necessarily in a quick manner, but still eventually learn it and reach the conversational level.

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I really don't think that there are people who can't learn a second language. Unless they have some sort of mental disability. It's all about taking the time to practice. You only get as much out of learning a language as you are willing to put into it. Obviously for people who are younger it might be easier to learn a new language, but with the right tools and motivation anyone can learn.

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I think it is more that when you have been speaking one language for pretty much your entire life, those word and grammatical concepts become completely engrained in your mind. Everything you do is automatically associated with that language, and so you have a hard time mentally thinking about everyday life in another language, which is necessary to learning any new language.

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I believe that the reason for some people not being able to learn a second language is because it has to do with the mind. If someone has a willingness to learn a second language and put their mind to it they will definitely succeed.

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I think it depends on the person.

Whether, or not, the person has an interest in the language, isn't always the only reason why some have trouble learning it. My parents try hard, every day, to learn Spanish. It just isn't sticking with them. There is a reason why they say you should learn a second language while you are young. When you're young you are a sponge.

It's the same as everything else you learn; you're either good at or you aren't. If everyone was good at learning, we'd all have our Phd's.  However, some people are book smart, others are street smart and a lucky few are both.

Maybe the posters boyfriend didn't learn well by the way they were teaching him in school. Who knows. My parents, however, have realized they'll never fully understand the language. They keep on trying though. 

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