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Individual Differences in Language Learning

Individual Differences in Language Learning

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Explaining Learners Individual Differences
Taken from:
Ellis, Rod. (1994) The Study Of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford University Press
Individual differences: Three different surveys.

There is a veritable plethora of individual learner variables which researchers have identified as influencing learning outcomes. The following table lists the main variables mentioned in three surveys. It demonstrates the importance attached to individual differences (IDs) by different researchers, and also the different ways they classify them.

A framework for research
Three sets of interrelating variables are identified. The first set consists of IDs, which are of
three main types. Learners have been shown to have beliefs about

learning. Horwitz (1987a) and Wenden (1987a) have shown that learners have strong, pre-conceived ideas about such issues as the importance of language aptitude, the nature of language learning, and the strategies that are likely to work best. Second, learners have been shown to be strongly influenced by their affective states (see Bailey 1983). Some learners are fearful of starting to learn an L2, while some are confident. Some develop anxiety as a result of their


competitive natures and their perceptions of whether they are progressing or not. Both learners' attitudes and their affective states are subject to change as a result of experience. Third, there are various general factors. These constitute major areas of influence on learning and can be ranged along a continuum according to how mutable they are. For example, language aptitude is generally considered a stable factor, not readily influenced by the environment (Carroll 1981), while certain types of motivation are likely to change as a result of the learner's learning experiences (see Berwick and Ross 1989; Crookes and Schmidt 1990). The general factors also vary according to the extent of the learners' control over them. For example, learners can do nothing about their age, but they may be able to change their learning style (Thomas and Harri-Augstein 1990). Clearly, beliefs, affective states, and general factors are interrelated. For example, learners' beliefs and their affective responses to learning situations may be influenced by personality variables. One of the goals of ID research is to identify the nature of these interrelationships.

The second set of variables consists of the different strategies that a learner employs to learn the L2. These will be considered in detail in the following chapter, together with studies of the `good language learner'. The third set concerns language learning outcomes. These can be considered in terms of overall L2 proficiency, achievement with regard to L2 performance on a particular task, and rate of acquisition. Learning outcomes constitute the 'products' of the acquisitional process.

Learners' beliefs about language learning

Language learners-especially adults-bring a variety of beliefs to the classroom. According to Hosenfeld (1978), students form `mini theories' of L2 learning. There has been relatively little research into the nature of these theories and even less about how learners' beliefs affect language learning.

Wenden (1986a; 1987a) reports a study of 25 adults enrolled in a part-time advanced level class at an American university. She elicited their views about language learning in a semi- structured interview and then summarized them in terms of twelve explicit statements, grouped into three general categories. The first category is `use of the language'. It includes beliefs relating to the importance of `learning in a natural way'-practising, trying to think in the L2, and living and studying in an environment where the L2 is spoken. The second category concerns beliefs relating to `learning about the language'. Learners with beliefs in this category emphasized learning grammar and vocabulary, enrolling in a language class, receiving feedback on errors they made, and being mentally active. The third category is labelled `importance of personal factors'. It includes beliefs about the feelings that facilitate or inhibit learning, self-concept, and aptitude for learning. Wenden found that her learners varied enormously in their beliefs, but that each learner seemed to have a preferred set of beliefs that belonged to one of the three categories.

Learners' affective states

Learners, in particular classroom learners, react to the learning situations they find themselves in a variety of affective ways. For example, F. Schumann (Schumann and Schumann 1977) reports being unable to settle down to studying Farsi and Arabic (in Iran and Tunisia) until she had achieved order and comfort in her physical surroundings. Bailey (1980) discusses a `classroom crisis' that occurred when her French teacher administered a test that the class considered unfair. One of the beginner learners of German that Ellis and Rathbone (1987) studied reported a period during which she was unable to learn any German because of a boyfriend problem. These and other studies testify to the complexity and dynamic nature of learners' affective states and the influence these have on their ability to concentrate on learning. Learners, it seems, need to feel secure and to be free of stress before they can focus on the learning task-the importance of which is directly acknowledged in humanistic approaches to language teaching (see Moskowitz 1978).


A distinction can be made between trait anxiety, state anxiety, and situation specific anxiety. Scovel (1978), drawing on work in general psychology, defines trait anxiety as `a more permanent predisposition to be anxious. It is perhaps best viewed as an aspect of personality. State anxiety can be defined as apprehension that is experienced at a particular moment in time as a response to a definite situation (Spielberger 1983). It is a combination of trait and situation-specific anxiety. This latter type consists of the anxiety which is aroused by a specific type of situation or event such as public speaking, examinations, or class participation.

General factors

There is a widely-held lay belief that younger L2 learners generally do better than older learners. This is supported by the critical period hypothesis, according to which there is a fixed span of years during which language learning can take place naturally and effortlessly, and after which it is not possible to be completely successful. Penfield and Roberts (1959), for example, argued that the optimum period for language acquisition falls within the first ten years of life, when the brain retains its plasticity. Initially, this period was equated with the period taken for lateralization of the language function to the left side of the brain to be completed. Work on children and adults who had experienced brain injuries or operations indicated that damage to the left hemisphere caused few speech disorders and was rapidly repaired in the case of children but not adults (Lenneberg 1967). Although subsequent work (for example, Krashen 1973; Whitaker, Bub, and Leventer 1981) has challenged the precise age when lateralization takes place, resulting in doubts about the neurological basis of the critical period hypothesis, the age question has continued to attract the attention of researchers.

Language aptitude

In an article reviewing early aptitude research, Carroll (1981) defines general aptitude as
`capability of learning a task', which depends on `some combination of more or less enduring
characteristics of the learner'. In the case of language aptitude the capability involves a special
propensity for learning an L2.
The general claim that language aptitude constitutes a relevant factor in L2 acquisition entails,
in Carrol's view, a number of more specific claims. The first is that aptitude is separate from
achievement. Carroll argues that they are conceptually distinct and also that they can be
distinguished empirically (by demonstrating that there is no relationship between measures of
aptitude and measures of proficiency at the beginning of a language program, but that there is
a relationship at the end of the program). Second, aptitude must be shown to be separate
from motivation. On this point, however, there is some disagreement, as Pimsleur (1966)
treats motivation as an integral part of aptitude. Carroll argues that research by Lambert and


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