Which of these scenarios describes you best:
1. You’re required to learn another language in order to graduate, communicate with coworkers, or get around a place you will be visiting. No matter how hard you try, it’s just not happening.
2. You’re interested in another language and have been studying the vocabulary and grammar. No problem. You can read and write the language, but speaking it is pure butchery – yikes!
3. You met someone that speaks a different language and you very quickly pick up the basics and are able to converse, at least at a basic level. When you see it in writing, or read about the conjugations of a verb, you’re lost.
4. You’re not really sure how you do it, but new languages you’re exposed to are easy to pick up, whether you’re looking up translations or talking with someone. Why can’t everyone do that?
While there are many reasons learning another language can be easy or difficult, the Highlands Ability Battery (HAB) measures several aptitudes that influence language learning. The two foundational influencers are Verbal Memory and Tonal Memory.
What Is Verbal Memory and Tonal Memory?
Verbal Memory is the ability to remember the words your eyes move across when you read and this influences language learning from a “book” – the vocabulary and grammar. Tonal Memory is the ability to remember what you hear and this influences language learning through conversation or other auditory presentations of a language. By themselves, these two abilities help explain each of descriptions above.
Let’s look at them in reverse order. The combination of strong Verbal Memory and strong Tonal Memory indicates the ability to recall what you read and what you hear, making learning another language relatively easy (if you’re interested, of course). Whether looking up translations or hearing the spoken word, the new language “sticks”. In fact, you might even find yourself wanting to look up those verb conjugations and word spellings after hearing them, or wanting to practice what you’ve read aloud.
What Happens When One Natural Ability Is Stronger Than Another?
With strong Tonal Memory, you can recall what you’ve heard and probably understand when to use it in a conversation. This allows you to communicate in the new language, navigate in a country with that language, and even negotiate directions or purchases. However, when the public transportation person hands you written instructions, your blank stare gives away the fact that you need some real practice in reading or writing in that language.
Many students, who are required to take a different language to complete graduation requirements, bemoan that the first two courses often emphasize book-based grammar and vocabulary. If their Tonal Memory is strong and their Verbal Memory is low, it is no wonder they’d prefer a class that starts with hearing the language conversationally first.
Classmates with strong Verbal Memory and weak Tonal Memory find studying vocabulary and grammar relatively easy. Reading and writing the language is an efficient way for these folks to communicate this newly learned language and those vocab tests are a breeze. For this group, however, immersing themselves in a new language during a mission trip or a corporate site visit abroad could be challenging. Just how do you tell the driver where you’re going?
If both Verbal Memory and Tonal Memory are low, learning a new language may not be an easy task. It IS doable, however, by tapping into other learning channels and devoting additional time, effort and energy into learning.
By the way, there are two additional aptitudes that impact speaking a different language. The stronger your Rhythm Memory, the easier it is to recall/replicate the cadence of a language – especially romance languages such as Spanish, Italian, and French. And, the stronger your Pitch Discrimination, the easier it is to replicate an accent or other fine nuances often found in Asian languages. Even if you only know three words in a different language, those with strong Pitch Discrimination can often be mistaken for native speakers!
A Quick Overview of Each of the Language Learning Abilities at Play
High Verbal Memory – Easier to remember words you read and this influences language learning from a book
High Tonal Memory – Easier to recall what you’ve heard and probably understand when to use it in a conversation
High Rhythm Memory – Easier to recall/replicate the cadence of a language
High Pitch Discrimination – Easier to replicate an accent or other fine nuances