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Project Summary and Rationale

Research in applied linguistics tends to focus on language teaching. This is the case even when the focus is on the learner, as in ‘learner-centred teaching’. A possible exception to this may be research into learner strategies, in order to explain apparent success in acquiring a second language by some learners, and failure or more limited success in others. What bears consideration, however, are other features of the learner which are not affected by language teaching methodology, but which may make significant, perhaps even decisive, difference in the level of success, namely, individual differences in personality traits and motivation.

Applied linguistic research has tended to focus on such areas as the processes of second language acquisition, learning strategies, effective classroom procedures, etc. These can typically be viewed as aspects of input or the stimulus and are therefore deterministic in that they assume that given the right type of input the learner will ‘automatically’ acquire the language. To that extent they do not take into account characteristics of the learner that affect how the learner deals with the input so as to affect the success or failure to acquire the target language. Two types of characteristics that may affect how the learner deals with the input, that will therefore affect acquisition, that we want to focus in this project, are (a) the leaerner’s personality traits and (b) the learner’s goals.


A common problem both in formal and informal contexts is what is sometimes identified as ‘lack of motivation’. Teachers stuggle to keep their students engaged. Often there is little control over the materials which can be used because of institutional policies or simply lack of access to resources. Even when quality teaching and resources are available, learners do not make effective use of them. Independent learners often struggle to keep motivated. Other times, learners seem to pick up quite a bit of a language with minimal resources, eg., by talking to people or watching movies.

It is now generally accepted that learners need a good amount of input and interaction, which is comprehensible and facilitates noticing (if you are a cognitivist) or in the zone of proximal development (if you are a social constructivist). So we can predict that lacking comprehensible input and interaction a learner is unlikely to pick up the target language. However, for some learners access to comprehensible input and interaction might lead to relatively poor outcomes in terms of acquisition, while lack of access to such input might lead some highly motivated learners to seek out such input and make maximal use of what is available.

This might lead us to ask the question as to the significance of individual differences among learners, and the importance of these relative to aspects of the stimulus. Focusing on how the material is structured (factors such as the planning of the lesson, the vocabulary taught, the teaching of strategies, the quality of interaction in the lesson, etc.) is looking at the stimulus. It assumes that if the stimulus is structured properly acquisition will take place automatically. This is not an unreasonable assumption given that, a child can be reliably predicted to acquire the language in its environment.

However, it is clear that this does not apply in the case of second language acquisition. Migrants do not acquire the language of the host country. There are wide individual differences among learners who attend language schools. Some of these differences might be attributed to the quality of the stimulus, ie., the quality of the teaching, the quality of the materials available.

But one variable that is likely to determine acquisition is what the learner does with the stimulus. In other words, it cannot simply be assumed that once the stimulus hits the cognitive system, given its correct structuring, it will simply ‘trigger’ acquisition as it appears to do so in the case of the first language acquisition. The observation is that there are individual and cultural differences in the way that second languages are acquired. So learners must be doing different things with the stimulus that is delivered. Or alternatively, they seek out and/or respond to different types of stimuli. That is, learners actively select the way that they want the stimulus delivered and respond only to that.

Individual and Cultural Differences in Learners

So the view developed here is that the learner will select and attend to the stimulus in different ways. One idea that has been popular is the idea of ‘multiple intelligences’ as well as different ‘learning styles’. These ideas have limited empirical support, although these arguments warrant a longer discussion and analysis.

One set of ideas about individual differences that seems relevant to this has been developed by Jordan B. Peterson. Peterson is interested in the prediction and improvement of performance. For example, employers are highly interested in predicting the performance of job applicants, as this makes significant difference in terms of the cost of hiring a poor performer and the value of hiring a high performer. They are also interested in improving the performance of existing employees, as this may prove more cost effective than replacement.

It turns out that the factors that make a difference in performance on the job are quite general and may apply to, for example, the level of success in acquiring a language. Peterson focuses on two areas:

Big Five Personality Traits

Peterson points to the Big Five Personality Traits as a way of predicting performance: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and euroticism. These traits have been identified through many decades of psychometric research into personality differences, and have been highly predictive. Each of the Big Five personality traits contain separate but correlated aspects:

  • Neuroticism: volatility and withdrawal
  • Extraversion: enthusiasm and assertiveness
  • Openness: intellect and openness
  • Conscientiousness: industriousness and orderliness
  • Agreeableness: compassion and politeness

Roughly, research indicates that success is positively correlated with Conscientiousness and Openness, and negatively correlated with Neuroticism. It is therefore a reasonable hypothesis that success in acquiring a language may be correlated with these aspects. For example, we may speculate that learners who are high on Openness but low on Conscientiousness will learn differently and respond differently to input than learners who are low on Openness and high on Conscientiousness.

It is then a separate question whether this would merely serve as an instrument for prediction of outcomes, and hence potentially as a means of selection, or whether it is possible to adapt the input to the personality type for better outcomes. So it may be that learners who score below a certain level on Openness and Conscientiousness are unlikely to have acceptable outcomes irrespective of the input. Also, it may be that learners who score higher on Openness respond better to different type of imput than learners who score higher on Conscientiousness.


Peterson has also looked at research into goal setting in relation to improving performance. Reviewing the literature he found that setting goals and pursuing them leads to improvements in mental and physical health, as well as significant improvements in task performance. The majority of this research has been done in the context of business. Locke and Letham (1964, 1990) report that

  1. Goals that are specific and difficult lead to better performance than vague exhortations to “do your best” or no specified goals at all.
  2. The relationship between goal difficulty and performance is linear and positive
  3. Other factors (competition, feedback, decision-making) only affect performance to the extent that they help to establish and adjust the commitment to specific and difficult goals
  4. The main motivational mediators of the goal setting-performance relationship are: direction, effort, persistence and strategy.

Peterson et al developed a writing tool in which participants imagine an ideal future, arguing that this is likely to lead to improved outcomes in terms of physical and mental health and likely outcomes.

The idea of goal-setting in relation to language learning is not new. In fact, it is a central component of the idea of learner autonomy. The result of research in this area has been the development of such tools as the European Language Portfolio in which learners are asked to write down their language learning history and their language learning goals.

This type of tool is different from Peterson’s writing tool in that (a) it focuses on biography and goals which are specific to language; and (b) it is not clear that learners are encouraged to set goals that are difficult, or imagine futures which are ‘ideal’. If performance is in a linear proportion to the difficulty of the goals it may not be optimal to set goals that are ‘realistic’.

Concluding remarks

The two approaches investigated by Peterson appear to generalise to a language teaching and learning context. Scores on the Big Five personality traits may predict and explain different levels of success, and therefore serve as a tool for selection and potentially also planning of teaching materials. If learners cannot be pre-selected performance may be further improved with the use of goal-setting tools such as the Self-Authoring suite.


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