Influencing Second Language Learning – Personality Factors

This is a repost of a previous blogpost I wrote for ELT Knowledge (see here).

I thought it would be good to get a discussion going on the following topic and so here it is again:

A fellow teacher told me about two learners in his class – one, he says, is a better learner than the other. Which one do you think that might be?


Liliana is a university student from Argentina. She is shy and insecure about her English ability. She feels stupid when she speaks English, and is afraid of making mistakes. She loves travelling and meeting people from all over the world but prefers speaking English to ‘native speakers’ from Britain or America because they speak ‘correct’ English. For Liliana, the ultimate compliment would be if someone asked her if she were English.


Jochan is a manager of an important department in a multinational company based in Germany. He is talkative and confident, and used to being in control. A good team player, he enjoys participating in group activities. He has had a few bad experiences with some of the Americans and Brits, and so have his friends in Germany, and Jochan has decided that he does not like the American or British culture.

So, who do you think is the better learner?

(a)   Liliana – Her love and respect for the British/English culture and native speakers would propel her to learn the target language and she would seek out opportunities to speak English to ‘native speakers’, whereas Jochan’s status in his company might mean a lesser ability to relinquish power and therefore be more resistant to correction and being adventurous with language. In addition, Jochan’s distaste for the American and British culture is bound to affect his motivation levels as well.

(b)  Jochan – He’s confident and therefore would not be averse to taking risks. This should mean that he would be adventurous with language and not be afraid of making mistakes. His talkative nature also means that he would get lots of speaking practice. He’d be motivated because he can see how useful English is at his workplace. Liliana, on the other hand, is shy and this would lead to her not wanting to practise speaking and using the language.

(c)   This is just silly. I can’t decide based on the above descriptions. Doing so would be stereotyping and putting people in boxes. People’s personalities and behaviours change and evolve depending on the situations they are in. After all, Jochan’s confidence in his job does not mean confidence in language learning, and Liliana might just be shy in the classroom but not when she’s with her friends.

If you picked Jochan (b) as your answer, you perhaps believe that the personality of a learner has a large part to play in one’s success in language learning, and that these innate characteristics are biologically determined, and therefore some people make better language learners than others. It’s all in the genes.

If you picked Liliana (a) as your answer, you might think that one’s culture and experience of life moulds the way we learn to see the world, and that our view of the target culture of the language we are learning can largely affect our motivation, and therefore, our success rate. Loosely categorised as social structuralist or constructivist in outlook, you see external influences, such as social variables, as shaping the language learning process.

If you picked (c) as your answer, you probably are balking at this blogpost right now and wondering how anyone could make sweeping statements about issues as complex as Second Language Learning abilities and learner identity. Taking a more post-structuralist stance, you know that we play different roles and display different personality characteristics depending on the situation and community we are in, and the people we are talking to. And you are angry that some teachers blame the learners’ personality for failure in language learning.

Theories about how different factors could lead to success in the second language learning process have been a core part of studies into second language acquisition for decades. This is a series of blogposts attempting to categorise and summarise research that have been done in these different areas, and we start today with more biologically deterministic approaches, with a look at the different characteristics of a learner’s personality that are said to influence learning.

Individual differences among learners, such as personality variation, have long been seen as the cause of different learning abilities, and researchers like Gardner and Lambert (1972) have focused principally on the individual’s internal influences on Second Language Learning. There have been disagreements over the categorisation of affective variables, and although some might admit that personality variables are abstract concepts that are difficult to define, and that the validity of psychological tests that attempt to measure them are often challenged and criticised, their categorisation is still necessary to understanding the Second Language Learning process.


An important variable included in much SLA research, high self-esteem, or self-confidence, is believed to be an important construct for success in Second Language Learning. Often taken to be relatively stable in adults and resistant to change, a person is seen to either have high self-esteem or low self-esteem, regardless of the situation they find themselves in.

However, Malinowski (1923) provides a different view of ‘self esteem’ seeing it as the reflection and acceptance of oneself in interactions with others, which presumably vary depending on the different interlocutors and social networks.  Self-esteem was thus divided into three types: global, situational/specific, and task (Brown, 1994).

Nevertheless, it is usually assumed that global self-esteem is an intrinsic personality trait that improves proficiency, and not much focus was given to situational- or task-based self-confidence.


Learners with low self-esteem are believed to display more inhibition, leading to the building of defences and alienation from the target culture, as they are less able to tolerate threats to their existence.

The process of Second Language Learning could pose internal threats, such as learners judging themselves harshly for their mistakes, and external threats, where learners perceive others as judging them.  However, the emphasis on what learners ‘perceives’ seems to suggest that threat was not necessarily real, thus making learners wholly responsible for their learning.

Thin ego boundaries are believed to allow learners to be open and tolerant of ambiguity, and therefore more creative when learning a second language, and it is commonly believed that by lowering inhibition in the language classroom, we can promote freer communication and a willingness to learn from trial and error.

However, this call for learners to simply ‘remove their defences’ suggests that inhibition is purely intrinsic and does not take into consideration the social factors that perhaps contribute to a learner being inhibited.

Moreover, learners of far-eastern backgrounds might value the judgements of others highly, and might be brought up to believe that mistakes are detrimental to learning. Such cultural factors are often neglected when considering individual affective variables.


A fear of ramifications of mistakes made could deter one from taking risks with the language. Although some assume that good learners are high risk-takers (Ely, 1986), Beebe (1983) finds that highly-motivated learners are often moderate risk-takers, preferring to make intelligent guesses. It is widely assumed that learners with high global self-esteem take more risks, that fossilization is due to unwillingness to take risks, and that teachers should encourage risk-taking behaviour (Brown, 1994).

However, such overgeneralisations do not take into account that the willingness to take risks, especially outside the classroom, depends largely on what the individual stands to lose from being perceived negatively by his interlocutors and the costs of making mistakes.

Anxiety, Extroversion and Empathy

Anxiety, or the tendency to worry, can be seen as either a personality trait or a state due to a prevailing situation or event. Anxiety caused by a competitive environment can be facilitative or debilitative to success in Second Language Learning, but it is unclear why different effects are produced or what the optimal level of anxiety is in promoting Second Language Acquisition.

As abstract as the concept of anxiety is that of extroversion. Debunking the myth that extrovert learners are good learners, Brown (ibid) states that extroverts need their self-esteem reaffirmed by others and tend to have thick ego boundaries and less empathy.

Empathy is the ability to make accurate assumptions about state of the people one is talking to, thus leading to effective cross-cultural communication. This, again, makes the learner accountable for understanding the culture of the target language and interpreting non- and para-linguistic cues, on top of having to cope with interacting in an unfamiliar language.

Krashen (1981) mentions these personality factors as affecting learners’ affective filters, stating that a confident, secure and outgoing person who lacks anxiety would have low affective filters, thereby allowing comprehensible input to reach the language acquisition device, resulting in acquisition. However, there has been much disagreement about Krashen’s understanding of how these variables interact with social contexts (Norton, 2000).

Ultimately, the learner should not be made solely responsible for his or her learning.  Putting the onus on the learner to be motivated and to find opportunities to increase their exposure to the target language can be just as extreme and as unhelpful as blaming their failure entirely on the people around them.


Beebe, L. (1983) ‘Risk-taking and the language learner’. In H. Seliger and M. Long. Classroom-oriented research in second language acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House, pp: 39-166.

Brown, D. (1994) Principles of Language Learning and Teaching (3rd Edition). New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Ely, C. (1986) ‘An analysis of discomfort, risktaking, sociability and motivation in the L2 classroom’. Language Learning, 36, pp: 1-25.

Gardner, R. and W. Lambert. (1972) Attitudes and Motivation in Second Language Learning. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Krashen, S. (1981) Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon.

Malinowski, B. (1923) ‘The problem of meaning in primitive languages’. In C. Ogden and I. Richards. (eds.) The Meaning of Meaning. London: Kegan Paul, pp: 296-336.

Norton, B. (2000) Identity and Language Learning: Gender, Ethnicity and Educational Change. Essex: Pearson Education.


Things students say that break my heart Part 2

This is a post I wrote for ELT Knowledge a month ago.

Click here for Part 3 of the series.

Photo from ELTpics by @vale360


The learners who come to our classroom are most likely to have been students before at some point in their lives, and therefore have observed and evaluated other teaching professionals in action, formulating their own views of how learning should take place. After all, the average student would have spent around 13,000 hours in direct contact with their classroom teachers by the time they finish high school (Lortie, 1975).

Such a phenomenon, known as ‘The Apprenticeship of Observation’, suggests that most students watch their teachers ‘frontstage and centre’, like an audience watching a play, and are not privy to the thought processes and the justifications for the classroom decisions that the teacher makes (ibid).

Although, the Apprenticeship of Observation is often a term used in teacher training to describe teachers who teach the way they have been taught, I believe that it also clearly demonstrates why students often have fixed views about the language learning process and the reasons behind their expectations of themselves and their teachers.

The learner’s views on learning and teaching would without doubt also be influenced by cultural conventions and expectations as education systems round the world differ. Some might place more focus on information transmission and memorisation, while others might place focus on the importance of analysis and exploration. Education cultures and conventions aside, the 13,000 hours of contact with teachers of course also include the observation of how subjects other than languages are taught. A lack of understanding of the processes of language acquisition might lead them to think that learning a language is like learning Mathematics or Chemistry, and therefore, end up judging their own abilities and their progress too harshly.

In my last blogpost, I wrote about four things that students say that break my heart, and looked into the probable reasons behind these statements, in an attempt to better understand and help students be aware of language learning processes.

In this blogpost, I hope to look at a few more heartbreakers, and explore the things we can say to help students understand the reasons for the classroom decisions that their teachers make.


Photo from ELTpics by @JosetteLB


What they say: I can’t produce the language my teacher has taught me even after we’ve practised it in class.

What’s really happening: The learner is thinking of language acquisition as a linear process, not unlike the way we’d practise the use of a mathematical equation until we can solve mathematical problems with ease. The typical PPP (Present, Practice, Produce) lesson shape seen in many coursebooks and classrooms seems to cement the idea that language can be broken down into pieces which are then presented, learnt, practised and incorporated in the brain, ready to be produced.

We did the first conditional today. Now, you’ll practise it, and go forth and use it. Because tomorrow we’re doing the second conditional.  So you’d better be ready.’

Is that what learners think their teachers are thinking?

Perhaps the last ‘P’ (Produce), by nature of its label, has had a lot of bad press.

Perhaps we don’t really expect learners to master and produce the language point by the end of the lesson.

Then why is the final section of every chapter in Face-to-Face called ‘Get ready…Get it right’?

It is no wonder that the student thinks that they are expected to readily assimilate and use a language point covered in class that day, even though most language acquisition theories would tell you that that just isn’t how the brain works.


What they say: Everyone in the class is better than me.

What’s happening: In a communicative classroom, not only the teacher is in a ‘frontstage and centre’ position. Some students, especially the more outgoing and chatty ones, often get to be under the spotlight, and spoken fluency is often the quality that gets held up as being most celebrated, and therefore most desirable. From the point of view of the shy or less extroverted students, this might seem an impossible goal to try and achieve.

But spoken fluency is not the be all and end all. Students need to be made aware that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and some strengths are simply get more ‘air time’ in a communicative classroom than others.

While some students might not be good at speaking confidently and fluently in open class, their language abilities in other areas such as their communicative competence in smaller groups or pairs, their lexico-grammatical range and/or accuracy, their written fluency or their cultural sensitivity, might prove to be better.


In pairs, discuss…


What they say: Why do I want to talk in pairs/groups? I don’t want to learn my partner’s mistakes. I want to talk to the teacher/a native speaker.

What’s really happening: The student here is focused only on the end product (the bits of language he/she might acquire from talking to their partner) and the cognitive functions that will have been developed (e.g. a brain that can think in English, or use certain lexico-grammatical items with ease).

Yet, it is a focus on the process (and not the end product) that would aid language acquisition.

Pair/group work provides conditions that are conducive to the language learning process, and it is through the dynamic interactions and collaborations with other students that one activates the skills of meaning negotiation (paraphrasing, meaning clarification, and drawing upon all the lexico-grammatical resources that are available to communicate effectively).

There is plenty of theory to back this up. While Long (1996) was the one who articulated the Interaction Hypothesis, saying that interaction and communication are key to language acquisition, Krashen (1985) stated that the comprehensible input could be more effective when meaning negotiation is being practised. But it is probably Vygotsky (1978) who first suggested, in his theories of ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development), that such organised learning could speed up cognitive development through interaction and socialization, and help provide the scaffolding that facilitates language acquisition.

So, to these learners, I say:
Lots of scientific (soft science, nevertheless) research has proven that you can still improve in your English, whether you are practising your English with your partner or your teacher.

When you are trying to explain what you mean to your partner, language learning is happening.


What they say: I wrote my email by looking at a writing sample and copying the phrases. I think I am cheating.

What’s happening: The natural instinct of a learner is to go ‘bottom-up’ and attempt to understand individual words strung together to form phrases and sentences, both when reading and listening. We spend time ‘activating their schema’ by doing lead-ins and prediction tasks, we get them to notice collocations, we provide opportunities for skimming and scanning before any reading for detailed understanding…and we do all this in hope that they will process texts in a top-down fashion. But how much of this do we apply to productive activities like writing?

Evidently, the terms ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ processing are often applied to receptive skills like listening or reading, but using each and every word as individual building blocks to form sentences in production can also be taken to be a ‘bottom-up’ strategy. The Lexical Approach (1993) gives legitimacy to a grammaticalised lexis where phrases, both fixed and semi-fixed, and language chunks are seen as not only valid, but an effective way of producing language.

Perhaps what’s most important for the teacher is to let students in on how decisions are made in the classroom, inviting them to see what happens ‘backstage’. What’s important is not just the setting up the classroom activities themselves, but showing learners how these are judicious decisions based on sound reasoning, rather than going about in a mysterious ‘teacher-knows-best’ kind of way.

Perhaps then, students, as the Apprentices of Observation, would be better able to understand the approaches they can take to learn more effectively.



Krashen, S.D. (1985), The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications, New York: Longman

Lewis, Michael (1993) The Lexical Approach.

Long, M. (1996) “The role of the linguistic environment in second language acquisition”. In Ritchie, William; Bhatia, Tej. Handbook of second language acquisition. San Diego: Academic Press. pp. 413–468.

Lortie, D. (1975) Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study. London: University of Chicago Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, and E. Souberman (eds.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.




ELF 5 Part 5 – Kurt Kohn on Pedagogy and SLA

I listened to Kurt Kohn on ‘A Pedagogic Space for ELF in the English Classroom’ this afternoon and was extremely inspired by his social constructivist stance on the issue of teachers’ attitudes and beliefs towards ELF.

Here is his talk.

EFL and ELF: Diverging perspectives

The orientation in EFL is towards standard NS English, Educational regulations for ELT institutions (in Europe) continue to be based on an exonormative SE role model.

Empirical evidence from ELF research shows that successful ELF communication despite deviations from standard, communication strategies are used for communicative success (accommodation, meaning negotiation, and ‘let it pass’), and deviant phrases and structures can be shown to emerge through endonormative processes of ELF development.

The ELF communication argument i.e. reference to the rich diversity of successful ELF communication seems to be the obvious line argumentation. But for many teachers, however, this argument doesn’t seem to work. There is low acceptance among teachers and teacher trainees, and there are frequent misunderstandings (‘Do you want me to teach incorrect English?’)

Kurt asks, Why do we have these misunderstandings?

Why is the ELF communication argument often only poorly accepted by teachers?

Convincing accounts of diversity, plurality and success of ELF communication.

But the perceived subtext by teachers is: Your SE orientation is not in sync with reality (=your SE orientation is bad!)

You end up in a deadlock: For teachers with an SE orientation, the SE part of the ELF communication argument sticks out and makes them reject the whole argument.

Teachers who better understand how languages are acquired (SLA) will better understand the implications of ELF. And teacher trainings does not cover SLA enough.

So, how do we acquire English?

  • I acquire English by developing/constructing/creating my own version of it my mind, my hear and my behaviour.
  • In communicative, social interaction with others.
  • Influenced by my target language model, my native language, my attitudes & motivation, my goals & requirements, my learning approach, the effort I invest and last but not least the people I talk to.
  • It is in this social constructivist sense that the English I develop is my own.
    And it is inevitably different from any target language model toward which it is oriented.
  • The ‘My English condition’ is not an option, but part of the human condition.

In a strong version of SE orientation (which is what is most often done in EFL classrooms), learners are required to comply with standard English (teaching) norms and the closer they get, the better. But this is a procedure only compatible with behaviourist copying process that still lurks in the background.

In a weak version of SE orientation, learners take standard English as a model for orientation and they create their own version of it.

It is thus important to understand language learning as a cognitive and emotional process.

Imagine that the Mid-Atlantic SE (MASE) is my learning target. What kind of MASE would that be?

Linguistic descriptions of MASE on the basis of solid empirical research.

My version of what MASE is may not be another’s.

The weak version of a SE orientation is fully compatible with an endonormative conceptualization of ELF development.
Challenges for ELF research and pedagogy:

Extension of the endonormative view to include a ‘weak’ SE orientation

A promising turn in ELF research: teaching ELF is about the process of developing the kind of English users/learners are able to make authentic for themselves – including SE

Challenges for ELT

Because of the strong exonormative version of a SE orientation, learners tend to stay alienated from their creativity, resulting in frustration, anxiety and even fear.

Urgent need for an endonormative conceptualization of language learning and teaching (MY English) and acceptance of constructivist ‘weak’ SE orientation.

ELF in the foreign language classroom

Focus on raising awareness for LF manifestation of English

– to increase tolerance for others and for oneself

Focus on developing ELF-specific comprehension skills

– to get accustomed to NNS accents and ‘messy’ performance.

Focus on developing ELF-specific production skills

– to improve pragmatic fluency and strategic skills for accommodation and collaborative negotiation of meaning in intercultural ELF situations

Focus on developing the learners’ sense of ownership (‘agency’)

– to ensure speaker satisfaction and self-confidence

Liberation through communicative participation

How can ‘liberating’ conditions be successfully implemented in the English classroom?

  • CLIL – Practice Enterprise – Creative Writing
  • ‘Pushed output processing’/ ‘languaging’ (Swain 2006) – with increased self-satisfaction as a target (instead of better compliance with an external norm)
  • Authentic and autonomous web-based communication and collaboration
  • All with the aim to explore and extend one’s own creativity ( Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development)

The overall principle is to acknowledge that NNS/learners of English are speakers of English and not merely people learning English.

All in all, this was a talk that was so inspiring that I thought it deserved a blogpost all on its own. Kurt Kohn not only spoke sense but also showed us in very practical ways how we can shift attitudes of ELF towards useful and empowering standpoints that can help both the teacher (NS and NNS) and learners to better understand the process of language acquisition and how to provide conditions for a more helpful mindset to developing language competence.