Chapter 5: Individual learner differences and Second Language Acquisition for Exam

Saeed Mojarradi Ph.D Candidate

Identification and classification of learner factors
The identification and classification of the different individual factors has proved to be problematic. The main difficulty is that it is not possible to observe directly qualities such as aptitude, .motivation, or anxiety. These are merely labels for clusters of behaviors and, not surprisingly, different researchers have used different sets of behavioral traits. As a result, these labels to describe it is not easy to compare and evaluate the results of their investigations. Each factor is not a unitary construct but a complex of features which are manifest in a range of overlapping behaviors. It is, therefore, not surprising to find that a host of terms have been employed to describe the phenomena Hawkey (1982) lists some of these: ‘affective 2- cognitive, 3- and social factors’ 4- ‘affective and ability factors’ 5- and ‘attitudinal/motivational characteristics’
I propose to make an initial distinction between personal and general factors.
Personal factors are highly idiosyncratic features of each individual’s approach to learning a L2. Some examples are provided by Schumann and Schumann (1977) in a report of their own language learning experiences. They include ‘nesting patterns’ (the need for a secure and orderly home base before learning can effectively begin), `transition anxiety’ (the stress generated by moving to a foreign place), and the desire to maintain a personal language learning agenda.
The general factors are variables that are characteristic of all learners. They differ not in whether they are present in a particular individual’s learning, but in the extent to which they are present, or the manner in which they are realized. General factors can be further divided into those that are modifiable (i.e. are likely to change during the course of SLA), such as motivation, and those that are unmodifiable (i.e. do not change in strength or nature as SLA takes place), such as aptitude. Personal and general factors have social, cognitive, and affective aspects. Social aspects are external to the learner and concern the relationship between the learner and native speakers of the L2 and also between the learner and other speakers of his own language. Cognitive and affective aspects are internal to the learner. Cognitive factors concern the nature of the problem-solving strategic used by the learner while affective factors concern the emotional responses aroused by the attempts to learn a L2. Different personal and general factors involve all is thought of as three aspects in different degrees. Aptitude, for instance, primarily cognitive in nature, but also involves affective and aspects is primarily affective, but also has social and cognitive sides. Age is a factor that may involve all three aspects fairly equally.
Personal factors: Personal factors such as those identified by Schumann and Schumann are difficult to observe by a third person. This methodological problem has been solved in two ways.
First, through the use of diary studies. In these, individual learners keep daily records of their experiences in learning a L24 When the learning period is over, the author of the diary can prepare a report, trying to highlight the `significant trends’. Examples of published reports of diary studies are Schumann and Schumann (1977), F. Schumann (1980), and Bailey (1980 and 1983). (The last of these is a comprehensive review of a number of published and unpublished diary studies.)
The second solution to the methodological problem is to use questionnaires and interviews with individual learners (e.g. Pickett 1978; Nairnan et al. 1978). However, they can be grouped together under three headings: 1) Group dynamics, (2) Attitudes to the teacher and course materials, and (3) Individual learning techniques. I shall consider each of these in turn. Group dynamics Group dynamics seem to be important in classroom SLA. Bailey (1983) records in some detail the anxiety and competitiveness experienced by a number of diarists. Some classroom learners. Make overt comparisons of themselves with other learners. In another kind of comparison, learners match how they think they are progressing against their expectations. Often these comparisons result in emotive responses to the language-learning experience.
Individual learning techniques
1 Preparing and memorizing vocabulary lists Individual learners appear to have highly idiosyncratic ways of coping with this. For instance, one of Pickett’s subjects kept a notebook in which he recorded first the English the foreign word in sh word, then P transcription, and finally the orthographic version of the foreign word. He also reported having three vocabulary lists, which he kept going at the same time—one was arranged chronologically, the second alphabetically, and the third either grammatically or situationally. 2 Learning words in context .Some learners made no attempt to keep lists. They relied on picking out key vocabulary items from the contexts in which they were used. 3 Practicing vocabulary various techniques fall under this heading: deliberately putting words into different structures in order to drill oneself, reading to reinforce vocabulary, playing games such as trying to think of words with the same ending, and repeating words to oneself.
Techniques similar to these have been identified for other aspects of language learning such as grammar and pronunciation. Vocabulary is the area that learners seem most conscious of. The second group of learning techniques concerns the ways in which the learner gets into contact with the L2.Learners often seek out situations in which they can communicate with native-speakers, or they make use of the radio or cinema to get maximum exposure to the L2. Some learners even arrange their holidays so they visit a country where the L2 is used.
General factors: The general factors which I shall consider are (1) age, (2) aptitude, – (3) cognitive style, (4) motivation, and (5) personality. Age: Age is the variable that has been most frequently considered in discussions of individual differences in SLA. This is doubtlessly due in part to the ease with which it can be measured—unlike all the other general factors, it can be described reliably and precisely. Another reason, however, has been the need to submit to empirical investigation the commonly held belief that children are better language learners than adults. There are a number of comprehensive reviews of the SLA literature dealing with age and SLA. The effects of age: First, it is necessary to separate out the effects of age on the route of SLA from the effects of age on the rate or success of SLA. Most of the studies that have investigated the role of age have been concerned with the latter. That is, they have examined the extent of the correlation between measures of age or length of learning period and measures of proficiency achieved.
The pattern is:
1 Starting age does riot affect the route of SLA? Although there may be differences in the acquisitional order, these are not the result of age. 2 Starting age affects the rate of learning. Where grammar and vocabulary are concerned, adolescent learners do better than either children or adults, when the length of exposure is held constant. Where pronunciation is concerned, there is no appreciable difference. 3 Both number of years of exposure and starting age affect the level of success. The number of years’ exposure contributes greatly to the overall communicative fluency of the learners, but starting age determines the levels of accuracy achieved, particularly in pronunciation.
Cognitive explanations:One obvious difference between the young child and the adolescent or adult is the ability of the latter to comprehend language as a formal system.
Affective explanations: Another possibility that has been explored is that differences in the affective states of young and older learners account for age differences in SLA. Brown (1980b) proposes that SLA is related to stages of acculturation (i.e. the ability of the learner to relate and respond easily to the foreign language culture). Brown identifies four stages of acculturation: (1) initial excitement and euphoria; (2) culture shock, leading to feelings of estrangement and hostility towards the target culture; (3) culture stress, involving a gradual and vacillating recovery; and (4) assimilation or adaptation to the new culture. Brown argues that stage (3) is the crucial phase. Young children are seen as socio-culturally resilient, because they are less culture-bound that adults.
Intelligence and aptitude: Learning a L2 in a classroom involves two sets of intellectual abilities, it involves what might be called ‘a general academic or reasoning ability’ (Stern 1983: 368), often referred to as intelligence. This ability is involved in the learning of other school subjects as well as a U. The other kind of ability consists of specific cognitive qualities needed for SLA, often referred-to as aptitude.
Intelligence: Intelligence is the term used to refer to a hypothesized ‘general factor’ (often referred to as the `g’ factor), which underlies our ability to master and use a whole range of academic skills. As McDonough (1981: 126) emphasizes, it refers to ‘capacity rather than contents of the mind’. That is, it is the underlying ability to learn, rather than the actual knowledge that is supposedly measured by intelligence tests. In practice, of course, it is extremely difficult to separate these. To what extent does the ‘fie factor influence SLA? Oiler and Perkins (1978: 413) have argued that ‘there exists a global language proficiency factor which accounts for the bulk of the reliable variance in a wide variety of language proficiency measures.
(1) Cognitive/academic language ability (CALP); this is the dimension of language proficiency which is strongly related to overall cognitive and academic skills and can be equated with 01ler and Perkins’s ‘g’ factor and general intelligence. (2) Basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS); these are the skills required for oral fluency and also include sociolinguistic aspects of competence. They are `basic’ in the sense that they are developed naturally. The distinction between CALF and B1CS explains a number of research findings in studies that have investigated the effects of intelligence. For example, Genesee (1976) found that intelligence was strongly related to the development of academic L2 French language skills (reading, grammar, and vocabulary), but was in the main unrelated to ratings of oral productive skills by native speakers.
Aptitude
Aptitude is not easy to define. It is usually defined in terms of the tests that have been used to measure it (Carroll and Sapon, s Modern Language Aptitude Test (1959) and Pimsleur’s Language Aptitude Battery (1966)). These tests do not measure exactly the same behaviors. Both tests, however, seek to measure the abilities of learners to discriminate the meaningful sounds of a language, to associate sounds with written symbols, and to identify the grammatical regularities of a language.
Carroll and Sapon (1959) identify three major components of aptitude:
(1) Phonetic coding ability, which consists of the ability to perceive and memorize new sounds; (2) Grammatical sensitivity, -which is ‘the individual’s ability to demonstrate awareness of the syntactical patterning of sentences of a language’ (ibid: 7); and (3) Inductive ability, which consists of the ability to notice and identify similarities and differences in both grammatical form and meaning. In this view of aptitude, which is shared with Pimsleur’s Language Aptitude Battery, the emphasis is on ‘a composite of different characteristics’ (Stern 1983: 369). The effects of aptitude on language learning have been measured in terms of the proficiency levels achieved by different classroom learners.
Cognitive style
Cognitive style is a term used to refer to the manner in which people perceive, conceptualize, organize, and recall information. Each person is considered to have a more or less consistent mode of cognitive functioning. Various dimensions of cognitive style have been identified. These are usually presented as dichotomies. The dichotomy which has received the greatest attention where SLA is concerned is that of field dependence independence.
Attitudes and motivation: The problems of defining attitudes and motivation are considerable. A common-sense view is that a person’s behavior is governed by certain needs and interests which influence how he actually performs. However, these cannot be directly observed. They have to be inferred from what he actually does. Not surprisingly, therefore, the study of attitudes and motivation in SLA has involved the development of concepts specific to language learning. The concepts have been derived from the behaviors of language learners and have been only loosely related to general theories of motivation in psychology, it is not always clear in SLA research what the distinction is between attitudes and motivation. Gardner and Lambert (1972) define ‘motivation’ in terms of the L2 learner’s overall goal or orientation, and ‘attitude’ as the persistence shown by the learner in striving for a goal.
Brown (1981) also distinguishes ‘motivation’ and ‘attitudes’.
He identifies three types of motivation: (1} Global motivation, which consists of a general orientation to the goal of learning a L2; (2) Situational motivation, which varies according to the situation in which learning takes place (the motivation associated with classroom learning is distinct from the motivation involved to naturalistic learning); (3) Task motivation, which is the motivation for performing particular learning tasks.
Stern (1983: 376-7) classifies these attitudes into three types: (1) Attitudes towards the community and people who speak the L2 (i.e. ‘group specific attitudes); (2) Attitudes towards learning the language concerned; and (3) Attitudes towards languages and language learning in general.
The following is a summary of the major findings: 1 Motivation and .attitudes are important factors, which help to determine the level of proficiency achieved by different learners. For example, Gardner (1980) reports that a single index of attitude/ motivation derived from various measures of affective responses to L2 learning is strongly related to measures of French proficiency in Canadian school leavers. 2The effects of motivation/ attitudes appear to be separate from the effects of aptitude. The most successful learners will be those who have both a talent and a high level of motivation for learning.3 In certain situations an integrative motivation may be more powerful in facilitating successful L2 learning, but in other situations instrumental motivations may count far more. 4 The level and type of motivation is strongly influenced by the social context in which learning takes place, as has already been noted.
Personality: In general psychology, personality has been explored in terms of a number of personal traits, which in aggregate are said to constitute the personality of an individual. Eysenck (1964) identifies two general traits, again represented as dichotomies—extrovert/introvert and neurotic/stable. However, with one or two exceptions (e.g. Hawkey 1982), SLA researchers have preferred to develop their own battery of personality traits, calling them anything from ‘social styles’ (Fillmore 1979; Strong 1983) to ‘egocentric factors’ (Brown 1981).
Extroversion /introversion: One of the intuitively appealing hypotheses that has been investigated is that extroverted learners learn more rapidly and are more successful than introverted learners. It has been suggested that extroverted learners will find it easier to make contact with other users of the 11 and therefore will obtain more input. Krashen (1981a), for instance, argues that an outgoing personality may contribute to ‘acquisition’. The classroom learner may also benefit from being extroverted by getting more practice in using the L2.
Social skills: Related to the extroversion/introversion distinction are the types of social skills involved in SLA. Fillmore (1979) in a longitudinal study of five Spanish-speaking children’s acquisition of English argues that the social skills of the learner control the amount of exposure to the 12.Those children who found it easy to interact with English-speaking children progressed more rapidly than those who did not. However, Strong (1983) disputes the emphasis Fillmore places on social skills. The thirteen children in his study learnt English at markedly different rates. After one year the differences were so great that whereas some children had become comfortable communicators, others had hardly acquired any English at all.
Inhibition: The other major aspect of personality that has been studied with regard to SLA is inhibition. It is hypothesized that the defensiveness associated with inhibition discourages the risk-taking which is necessary for rapid progress in a L2.
The ‘good language learner’
There have been a number of attempts to specify the qualities of the ‘good language learner’, based on studies of personal and general learner factors (Rubin 1975; Naiman et AL 1978) shall draw on these in my own list of the characteristics of good language learning. The good language learner will: 1 be able to respond to the group dynamics of the learning situation so as not to develop negative anxiety and inhibitions; 2 seek out all opportunities to use the target language; 3 make maximum use of the opportunities afforded to practice Listening to and responding to speech in the L2 addressed to him and to others—this will involve attending to meaning rather than to form; 4 supplement the learning that derives from direct contact with speakers of the L2 with learning derived from the use of study techniques (such as making vocabulary lists)–this is likely to involve attention to form; 5 be an adolescent or an adult rather than a young child, at least as far as the early stages of grammatical development are concerned; 6 possess sufficient analytic skills to perceive, categorize, and store the linguistic features of the L2, and also to monitor errors; 7 possess a strong reason for learning the L2 (which may reflect an integrative or an instrumental motivation) and also develop a strong `task motivation’ (i.e. respond positively to the learning tasks chosen or provided);8 be prepared to experiment by taking risks, even if this makes the learner appear foolish; 9 be capable of adapting to different learning conditions.

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Published by S Mojarradi

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