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UNDERSTANDING INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES IN LANGUAGE ACQUISITION

posted Apr 13, 2017, 6:31 AM by Jose Dasig
By CARLA D. RIVERA
Master Teacher I
Our Lady of Lourdes Elementary School

        Every person has his own unique characteristic and own unique ways of doing and learning things. Every person possesses some traits which is distinct to him as an individual. This is generally what individual differences is all about. Dornyei (Dörnyei, Z. (2005). The Psychology of the Language Learner : Individual Differences in Second Language Acquisition) defines IDs as the “dimensions of enduring personal characteristics that assumed to apply to everybody and on which people differ by degree” (p.17). My own definition and interpretation of individual differences, particularly in second language acquisition is the extent to which different individuals differ in the way or process of learning a second language which is largely dependent or affected by several internal and external factors that surrounds an individual. Ellis (2008) thoroughly discussed in his book all about these IDs factors which are deemed responsible for the acquisition of second language. In the light of this, I will briefly discuss and summarize all these eight factors and the underlying issues involving these.

        The first factor is language aptitude. Carroll (1981 as cited by Ellis, R. (2008). The Study of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.) enumerated five key aspects of language aptitude which becomes the basis of most researches. According to Carroll, aptitude is separate from achievement and motivation. Therefore, one’s academic performance does not determine one’s language aptitude nor his level of motivation influences his aptitude. Another key aspect of language aptitude is its innateness and being stable suggesting that it cannot be altered through training or formal teaching. Aptitude is also viewed as a predictor of learning but not necessarily a prerequisite to it and it is far different from intelligence.

        The role of language aptitude in language learning is also a necessary point to consider as it complements the key aspects mentioned earlier. Language aptitude predicts successful learning in formal and informal learning situations as proven by the studies of Horwitz (1987b), Skehan (1986a, 1986b, 1990)and Harley & Hart (1997) – all cited by Ellis (2008). Language aptitude is differentiated rather than cumulative where learners find different ways to learn a language successfully (Skehan, 1986a as cited by Ellis, 2008). Language aptitude is also considered as a factor in L1 language skills and proficiency. This means that when learners have strong L1 acquisition, they also generally have strong language aptitude (Sparks, Ganschow & Patton, 1995 as cited by Ellis, 2008). Lastly, language aptitude does not depend on training. Studies have shown that formal training does not improve language aptitude. However, it has also been observed that the language aptitude of learning-disabled students significantly improved and therefore, training cannot be totally dismissed in relation to language aptitude.

        The second factor is the cognitive style which is generally based on field independence (FI) and field dependence (FD). The basic assumptions regarding this FD/I is that FI learners usually excel in a formal language learning while FD do better in informal one. Another assumption is that FI are generally good in cognitive task while FD excel in communicative task. Lastly, FI were also believed to do better when taught deductively while FD learners do better when given examples using inductive method. However, research findings show that FI generally do better both in formal and informal as well as functional language situations than FD.   

        Personality, being the third factor revolves around two major personality traits: extraversion and introversion. It is assumed that extroverts excel in acquiring basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) while introvert excel in developing cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP). Studies show however, that extroverts have a general advantage over introverts not only in communicative aspects but also in academic aspects. (Strong (1983); Dewaele & Furnham (1999) as cited by Ellis 2008; Mei-Ling and Li-Mei (2012) Mei-Ling, C., & Li-Mei, H. (2012). Personality Type, Perceptual Style References, and Strategies for Learning English as a Second Language. Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal, 40(9), 1501-1510.

        Another factor is the effect of integrative and instrumental motivation in L2 learning. Integratively motivated learners are said to be goal-oriented. Their goal is to become a part of their target language community and to identify with the social groups. On the other hand, instrumentally motivated learners focus more on the result or what they will gain from learning a language such as opportunity for work, education etc. Muftah and Rafik-Galea (2013) Muftah, M., & Rafik-Galea, S. (2013). Language Learning Motivation among Malaysian Pre-University Students. English Language Teaching, 6(3), 92-103. doi: 10.5539/elt.v6n3p92) found that most pre-university students were instrumentally motivated. We can therefore conclude from this finding that most foreign language learners are instrumentally motivated and second language learner are integratively motivated. Generally, integrative motivation has greater advantage over instrumental motivation but both can influence language acquisition.

        Another factor that affects language acquisition is anxiety. Three basic assumptions were studied as to this effect. The first assumption is that anxiety facilitates learning. This is true however, in sports performance (Yerkes-Dodson law as cited by Ellis, 2008) and not yet proven in language learning. Another assumption which was largely supported by most studies is the negative impact of anxiety in language learning (Salito & Samimy, 1996; Rodriguez, 1995 as cited by Elli, 2008; Serraj, S., & Noordin, N. b. (2013). Relationship among Iranian EFL Students' Foreign Language Anxiety, Foreign Language Listening Anxiety and Their Listening Comprehension. English Language Teaching, 6(5), 1-12. doi: 10.5539/elt.v6n5p1). The third assumption is that language anxiety is the result of language learning difficulties and not the cause. However, this claim has not yet been clearly established through research and studies.

        Willingness to communicate (WTC) or the learner’s attitude is also assumed to play a role in language learning. WTC is assumed to be a part or somewhat related to motivation. It is also believed that positive attitude leads to successful language learning and that learners with strong willingness to communicate benefit from communicative language teaching (CLT). The findings however, show that learners’ WTC depends in part in their personality and in part in motivation which enables them to perform classroom activities (Ellis, 2008). Therefore, WTC indirectly influence proficiency.

        Learner beliefs were also considered as factors in language learning. It is assumed that language learners form mini theories of how they learn a second language (Hosenfield, 1978 as cited by Ellis, 2008). Learner beliefs may also have different results for different learners which will define their success or failure in learning a language. It is also situation specific and dynamic which greatly varies depending on the learners’ situation. However, most studies have not established a strong relationship between learner beliefs and language learning.

        Finally, learning strategies or the learners’ way of learning a language can also be considered as a factor that influence language learning. It largely depends on the learners’ choice of strategy which can be divided into two factors: learner factor and social & situational factors. It is believed that the learners’ choice of strategy depends on their age, motivation, learning style, beliefs and language learning experience. Also, their choice may be dependent on the target language, type of language acquisition, task type and gender.


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