P. 1
Individual Differences in Language Learning

Individual Differences in Language Learning

|Views: 3,037|Likes:
Published by api-3716467

More info:

Published by: api-3716467 on Oct 19, 2008
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


Read on Scribd mobile: iPhone, iPad and Android.
download as DOC, PDF, TXT or read online from Scribd
See more
See less





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 language 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 semistructured 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). Anxiety 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 Age 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


Gardner (reviewed later in this chapter) has consistently shown that aptitude and motivation are eparate factors. Third, aptitude must be seen as a stable factor, perhaps even innate. In support of this claim, Carroll refers to studies which show that learners' aptitude is difficult to alter through training. Fourth, aptitude is to be viewed not as a prerequisite for L2 acquisition (as all learners, irrespective of their aptitude, may achieve a reasonable level of proficiency), but as a capacity that enhances the rate and ease of learning. Aptitude tests, therefore, provide a prediction of rate of learning. Finally, Carroll argues that aptitude must be found to be distinct from general intelligence. He refers again to research by Lambert and Gardner which has shown that aptitude and intelligence measurements are not related. There are doubts about this claim, however. Pimsleur considers intelligence an important part of aptitude. Oller and Perkins (1978) have also argued that verbal intelligence is a major factor as it is needed to answer tests of the kind used to measure aptitude and language proficiency and thus is a common factor to both. In contrast, although finding significant correlations between scores on a verbal intelligence test and a test of foreign language proficiency, Skehan (1990) argues that there are clear differences between them. Similarly, Obler (1989), in a study of one exceptional learner who had a record of `picking up' languages with great rapidity and ease, concluded that `generally superior cognitive functioning is not necessary for exceptional L2 acquisition' (1989: 153). We will return to the question of intelligence later. Learning styles The second general factor we will consider is learning style. The idea of learning style comes from general psychology. It refers to the characteristic ways in which individuals orientate to problem-solving. Keefe (1979) defines learning style as: ... the characteristic cognitive, affective and physiological behaviours that serve as relatively stable indicators of how learners perceive, interact with and respond to the learning environment ... Learning style is a consistent way of functioning, that reflects underlying causes of behaviour. Motivation Language teachers readily acknowledge the importance of learners' motivation, not infrequently explaining their own sense of failure with reference to their students' lack of motivation. SLA research also views motivation as a key factor in L2 learning. There have been differences, however, in the way in which teachers and researchers have typically conceptualized `motivation' (see Crookes and Schmidt 1990). In an attempt to characterize a non-theoretical view of motivation, Skehan (1989) puts forward four hypotheses: 1 The Intrinsic Hypothesis: motivation derives from an inherent interest in the learning tasks the learner is asked to perform. 2 The Resultative Hypothesis: learners who do well will persevere, those who do not do well will be discouraged and try less hard. 3 The Internal Cause Hypothesis: the learner brings to the learning situation a certain quantity of motivation. 4 The Carrot and Stick Hypothesis: external influences and incentives will affect the strength of the learner's motivation. These hypotheses have their correlates in the study of motivation in SLA research, but one of them, (3), has received the lion's share of researchers' attention. We will begin, therefore, by examining the research which has addressed this hypothesis. Integrative motivation According to Gardner's socio-educational model (which we examined in some detail in Chapter 6), an integrative orientation involves an interest in learning an L2 because of `a sincere and personal interest in the people and culture represented by the other language group' (Lambert 1974: 98). It contrasts with an instrumental orientation, which concerns `the practical value


and advantages of learning a new language'. `Orientation', however, is not the same as motivation, which is defined by Gardner as `the combination of effort plus desire to achieve the goal of learning the language plus favourable attitudes towards learning the language' (1985: 10). Thus, whereas 'orientation' refers to the underlying reasons for studying an L2, `motivation' refers to the directed effort individual learners make to learn the language. Over the years, Gardner has become increasingly critical of research that focuses narrowly on the role of orientation in L2 learning, arguing that the effects of learners' orientations are mediated by their motivation-that is, whereas orientation and L2 achievement are only indirectly related, motivation and achievement are directly related.

Personality In the eyes of many language teachers, the personality of their students constitutes a major factor contributing to success or failure in language learning. Griffiths (1991 b), for example, conducted a survey of 98 teachers of ESL/EFL in England, Japan, and Oman in order to determine how important they rated personality and two other IDs. He reports a mean rating of 4 on a five-point scale-slightly higher than the rating for intelligence and just below that for memory. Learners also consider personality factors to be important. Of the `good language learners' investigated by Naiman et al. (1978) 31 per cent believed that extroversion was helpful in acquiring oral skills. Some personality factors found to have an impact on language learning are described below, along with the results the have produced in different studies


Discussion •
The framework for research in IDs suggests three main areas that constitute three interrelated variables that may affect an individual’s language learning process. How should language teachers tackle them in order to help students engage in a really fruitful learning process? Taking as a basis the three categories proposed by Wenden (1986) develop some statements to reveal the learners believes your group has as language students. Teacher’s awareness about the impact of students’ affective state in learning may directly influence such aspects as: classroom activities, curriculum development, materials choice, and testing and classroom assessment among others. Choose the factor you consider more relevant and explain how you would face it in order to help your students. Which of the three kinds of anxiety you think is more likely to interfere with language learning. What strategies would you recommend to help students turn anxiety into a beneficial tool for learning? What arguments may you provide to dispel the old belief represented in this saying: “an old parrot won’t learn to speak”? Based upon the paper and your previous knowledge of the matter, define and explain the role of: aptitude, motivation, intelligence and achievement in language learning. How do those aspects interrelate? According to the figure shown at the end of the paper, how influential do you think personality is in the language learning process. How may the language teacher benefit from this awareness? Draw a conclusion you would take as relevant from the awareness language teachers need to have about Ids and their role in LL.

• •

• • • •


You're Reading a Free Preview

/*********** DO NOT ALTER ANYTHING BELOW THIS LINE ! ************/ var s_code=s.t();if(s_code)document.write(s_code)//-->