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Overview of Learner Characteristics

There is a considerable amount of research (Skehan, 1989; Dornyei, 2006; Ellis, 2008) on individual differences among second language learners that may affect their success in second language acquisition.  Factors that may or may not make a difference include:

  1. The learner’s aims and purposes in learning the language. Does the learner want to get a high score on a standardized grammar test, or want to be able to communicate with people in social and professional situations? Some learners aim for accuracy and others aim for communicative effectiveness. Different aims and purposes will produce different outcomes in second language acquisition.

  2. Exposure to the language. Has the learner only been exposed to more formal language in the classroom, where there is often more emphasis on accuracy? Or has the learner been able to travel to a country where more informal varieties of the language are spoken outside the classroom, and where the emphasis is more on communication?

  3. Age.  How old was the learner when he or she began to study the language?  The research shows that our ability to learn a second language gradually declines as we get older, starting in early childhood. However, there is little research evidence for the idea of a critical period, a definite age-range when language learning is optimal, and after which it is not possible to learn a second language. (That said, Scovel (2001, pp. 113-116) and others highlight evidence that native-like pronunciation is almost always easier to achieve before puberty.)

  4. Motivation. How much does the learner want to learn the language?  And is the learner’s motivation more practical (instrumental motivation), or social and emotional (integrative motivation)? Although motivation type is hard to measure, many researchers and teachers believe that the willingness to put in a lot of effort is a very important factor in determining success in learning a second language.

  5. Personality. Personality traits such as empathy and risk-taking have been argued to affect success in learning a second language. Some research suggests that one’s ability to empathize with speakers of the other language causes one to speak in more native-like ways (Beebe & Zuengler, 1983). Such personality types as ‘extrovert’ (sociable, out-going, with many friends) vs. ‘introvert’ (quiet, observant, with smaller numbers of close friends) have not been found to affect success in second language learning. Both personality types can succeed.

  6. Language aptitude. Aptitude is a special ability for language learning, a combination of linguistic, memory, and auditory ability. Research suggests that some individuals have more aptitude for language learning than others (Ellis, 2008, p. 659).

  7. Learning styles and strategies. Learners vary tremendously in their preferred ‘style’, or approach to learning second languages (whether concrete, analytical, synthesizing, communicative or authority-based). Some learners want clear rules and others are content with ambiguity.  Research has so far not shown a clear relationship between learning styles and strategies, and success in second language acquisition (Ellis, 2008, pp. 671, 719-20).  Learners can succeed using very different approaches in different social contexts.

Most language teachers believe that individual learner characteristics cause students to follow very different paths to success in learning a second language. What do you think? Can you predict how learners will do in your classes, based on their individual characteristics and language background? 


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Last Modified: February 14, 2014 at 14:21