At the heart of the perennial nature vs nurture debate on human development is language acquisition. Two schools of thought exist to convince us how we attain language proficiency. Are we imbued with an inherent ability to excel in a language we choose to learn? Or are detractors right in arguing that there’s no such thing as an inherent linguistic talent but only factors in our social environment that determine how well we pick up a language?

My view is that language acquisition is an interaction between intrinsic factors such as a person’s natural inclination towards language absorption and external factors such as exposure to and use of the language with people around them and through media and learning institutions.

As a language trainer, I’ve been asked by my students if they can attain native proficiency in a foreign language they’re learning.

Some individuals tend to pick up a language quickly while others need more time, but eventually both reach the same goal. It’s rather clear to me that some people have a natural propensity to grasp linguistic concepts, just as one may have an innate talent for music, arts, sports, to name a few. Given a conducive environment that stimulates their innate linguistic flair, their mastery of the language wouldn’t be such a hard task. Others, however, may not find language acquisition too easy. I have no easy answer to this.

There’s really no silver bullet in language acquisition. 

Notwithstanding the challenges for the less linguistically-inclined, constant exposure that compels active and persistent use of the said language would eventually lead to fluency. No better is this illustrated in the case of people who have to live in a foreign country for work or studies where they’re consistently obligated to speak their host country’s language. Most of them may not be natural linguists but soon become fluent in their adoptive language. Constant speaking and listening gradually attune them to the vocabulary, expressions, nuances and sounds of the language.

The insight that I can share in this matter is that language proficiency is attained not through natural flair alone, but through diligence, enthusiasm, necessity, among others. Students who don’t have an inherent linguistic predilection may achieve the same proficiency as those who do if they are motivated, curious, active, and brave to apply their linguistic knowledge in social situations consistently.

Language acquisition is both an art and a science. It is an art as it requires creativity and spontaneity which might be more innate than learned. At the same time, it is a science as it can be achieved through a logical, structured, and systematic approach. In any case, hard work, exposure, and courage to use it are key to mastery.

From another perspective, language acquisition can be seen as a pragmatic process. One who is concerned about the practical vis-à-vis artistic purpose of language learning may strive mainly to understand and make himself understood in communication; to them, they’ve indeed achieved their goal in language acquisition despite lacking full native proficiency. Hence, the term “language proficiency” on its own may carry a different understanding to different learners.