Scholars in SLA und multilingualism research agree that there are important individual differences regarding the ability to learn and use languages. Factors investigated in the field range from the genetic heritage to general cognitive or specifically linguistic capacities. In this talk, I present results from different types of studies tapping into the investigation of such individual differences, mostly focusing on early (or even radically embryonic) stages of foreign language learning.

First, I present results from the investigation in interlingual inferencing skills in multilinguals. These studies typically involve receptive tasks in previously unlearnt languages that are nevertheless partially intelligible for the participants. This is largely due to genealogical proximity to languages that are mastered by the participants (intercomprehension tasks). Although such tasks have been around for quite some time, also in the foreign language classroom, they are increasingly relevant today as they are part of contemporary multilingual foreign language teaching methodologies. Both features of the target items (mostly words) and of participants are modelled in the analyses. The results allow identifying individuals who are particularly apt at this kind of interlingual inferencing. More specifically they stress the importance of both linguistic experience and specific types of multilingual proficiency for these tasks.

In a second series of analyses, I present findings from studies on modern language learning aptitude that investigate the covariation patterns of cognitive, affective and linguistic traits and predispositions and ability in foreign languages. Here, the dependent variables are skills in target languages (mostly French and English) in Swiss schools. The data show that the large number of potentially relevant factors can be reduced to a relatively small set of variables involving motivational and cognitive characteristics of learners that predict the achievement in foreign language learning.

The goal of the talk is to provide the basis for a better understanding for what is feasible in multilingual language learning in a classroom setting and who is likely to benefit the most from the limited exposure that such settings can provide.