It’s quite politically correct in our times to say that (almost) everything can be learned. Education especially is an area where people talk a lot about equal chances and about ‘education for everyone’, so it’s very unwise to say that someone can’t make any further progress, or that certain people will never be able to learn a language beyond basic bits.
But everyone who has been through some sort of training knows about the learning curve, which shows that we do a lot of learning in a first stage of a course, but get slower in time and in the end our progress becomes a flat line. Of course, educators hurry to add, this is just a plateau that can, and needs to be, overcome, in other words, we must go on with the course – or at least with whatever we do that generates learning – until we manage to go past the plateau. After the flat plateau, that is, our learning takes off again.
But that simply means that in real life it’s just very probable that our learning comes to an end at that point: we finish the course, we get tired of the 4 hours a day studying and driving around with the English CD , we (or our teacher) go on holiday, or we have dealt with the important exam / job interview / negotiation that has forced the training programme on us.
Another issue here is how much progress we can realistically expect to make in a language. I mean, we can learn the basics, then we can become more fluent and natural, we can learn some alternative ways of saying what we mean, or we can learn to put it more precisely. Good. What next? I have written in a few posts here that a language is a thinking mode, an organic part of someone’s personal and cultural identity, not just a code to move information from speaker A to speaker B. This means that beyond learning how to move that information from A to B there is a soft area which may be learned – but under what circumstances? and in how many years? – or in many cases is simply not learned at all.
Also, progress gets slower as we go up the scale of abilities. A beginner will reach the next level pretty fast, because they only need to learn simple things that will enable them to manage to communicate very soon. Moving on from intermediate levels higher is not so easy any longer, because the difference in that area of the scale lies more in the quality of the communication than in the quantity of words we have learned, for example. It follows then, that many learners may stop there as they may not have the time and may not be willing to go on studying for ‘finesses’.
And lastly, learning a language may stop simply at the point where someone’s intellectual abilities end. I know, it sounds very undiplomatic, but it’s common sense. You can’t put in a foreign language what you can’t put in your own, and that simply because you can’t even think of it! Progress in using a language happens to mean progress in the way the language material is used to communicate more briefly, more effectively, more expressively, more precisely and in other ways that reflect in fact your intelligence, your knowledge of the world, your life or professional experience – and here we come again to a soft area. People who can’t put specific items under general categories, who can’t understand how a text organizes the information, or who can’t see the difference between ’cause’ and ‘effect’ will not learn another language beyond the basics, because learning requires mental associations and logical distinctions.
So if you’re a Training manager, an HR manager, a teacher or a parent, and you’re not happy at all with the progress your employees, your students or your kids make in their language course, remember that language is not a pile of sugar lumps to be tucked down the learner’s throats. There’s a limit to what they can take in.