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Influencing Second Language Learning - Personality Factors

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?


Second language 1


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.


Second language 2


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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


Second language 3


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.


Second language 4


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.

Second language 5


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.


Second language 6



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.  


Second language 7


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:

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

About English Teaching professional’s regular blogger:

Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London. 

A self-confessed conference addict, she spends a lot of her time tweeting (@chiasuan/@ETprofessional), Skyping, and writing. You can find out more about her on her blogsite: 








comments 4
  • Thanks for your comments. Torn Halves (10/11/2012), I'm glad you like the little quiz at the beginning of the post, devising whether you are 'behaviourally deterministic', a social constructivist, or a post structuralist. And you definitely caught on to my position on things as well... a bit of a post structuralist, I am... These personality factors are indeed being influenced by the experiences we have and the people we come into contact with, including the teachers, and it would be presumptuous to assume that a confident person would be confident under all circumstances. Prof Kurt Kohn (11/11/2012), I'm really honoured that you took time to comment here. It's really enlightening to have a real social constructivist engage in discussion on this platform. There has been some who say that the communicative approach to teaching disadvantages shy students and is more suitable for students from a certain culture. Perhaps more needs to be done in terms of action research as to the methods that can complement different students, but there are just so many factors at play here, and as we can see, a shy student might not be shy under other circumstances. Maybe it's not only using different methods with the shy student, but also introducing motivating topics that can bring out the communicative side of that student? Andrew, thanks for raising the question. I'm sure it must be one of many a reader's mind. When I say the student should not be made responsible, I was referring to the people who say things like, 'She's been in England for 6 months and she still can't speak good English. She must be stupid!' or 'She must be lazy' Or people who say, 'She lives in London, so why can't she just go out and find some English people to practise English with.' In Bonny Norton-Pierce's research, she looked at how difficult it is for learners who live in native speaker countries to find native speakers wh
    Site Visitor
    14 November 2012
  • An interesting post Chia Suan. This is an important area that really not enough attention is paid to. So its great that you have. I have in fact spent a great deal of time talking about this in a book that will soon be published- Language Learning Unlocked I was a bit perplexed by your comment "the learner should not be made solely responsible for his or her learning." Who then should be? The teacher? Of course the teacher is responsible for s/he does and inevitably impacts the learning experiences of the learner. So the teacher IS responsible for the teaching but ultimately can't be responsible for the learning (You can take a horse to water....etc. ONLY the horse can drink). As a teacher I work hard at making sure my classes are engaging, inspiring, fun and full of learning experiences. However, that is all I can do. The learner IS fully responsible for their learning. Learners can try to blame this or that but ultimately it is their choice if they want to participate in the activity AND learn from it. And as we know there are learners who choose not to. It is fully their responsibility. This can be best seen when learners learn a language outside of a class. Everything they do is up to themselves. The only way a class is different is that the teacher organises the experiences and actively intervenes. However it is the learner's choice to allow that.
    Andrew Weiler
    12 November 2012
  • A highly stimulating contribution - thank you very much, Chia! I would like to add a comment on the interdependence between personality traits and teaching methods. While some personality traits are said to promote successful learning, others are said to obstruct it. Evidence seems to be easy to find. Sometimes, however, I wonder to what extent weak learning due to "negative" personality traits might not be a self-fulfilling prophecy effect - or, more crudely, an artifact of the respective teaching method. What strikes me as particularly interesting - and comforting at the same time - is how flexibly and creatively personality traits seem to be pedagogically exploitable to the learner's advantage. "Weaknesses" are seldom absolute and more often than not can be turned into surprising strengths. Shy learners, for instance, might be disadvantaged in free public conversation, thereby loosing relevant learning opportunites because of a lack of output processing (see Swain). At the same time, however, they might be better listeners and thus open for a pedagogic approach that tries to play to this strength (see Krashen's comprehensible input). And regarding their shyness-related communication weaknesses, e-learning might offer compensatory pedagogical option. In my linguistics seminars I have often met students whose "visibility" in the face-to-face class room was rather low, whereas in accompanying forum discussions it was extremely high. What I am trying to say is that we need to explore in greater depth the possibilities available for adapting teaching methods to given personality traits - including seemingly negative ones.
    Site Visitor
    11 November 2012
  • A VERY interesting post. I especially like the brilliant summary of three approaches to the issue, and you nicely highlight the way that each is one-sided. And the "I can't decide" that you hear coming from the lips of the post-structuralist beautifully sums up the political impasse that post-structuralism faces. You say this post focuses (in the second half) on the biological determinist view, but then you seem to show that in fact there is no simple biological determinism because the biological factors are always mediated by social and cognitive factors. Nice. By the way, when thinking about self-esteem, the biggest of the big guns of German philosophy hit the nail on the head (I think) at the beginning of the 19th century, and it would be nice if people like Dr. D Brown acknowledged a debt to him. Self-esteem is something that overturns the simplistic distinction between the internal and the external. There is a sense in which the deepest part of ourselves is, in fact, the other living within us, although the opposite is also true. An observation: You are dealing here with adult students. With children things are doubtless different, and there (if we want to borrow big intellectual frameworks) we could borrow something from the physicist Heisenberg. The teacher cannot attend to the personality of the student without also affecting it (and the effect of each teacher may be small, but the imprint left by schooling as a whole must be significant). Again, self-esteem is a big issue. The phrase you put in bold implies that it is a constant (in adults). Teachers and schools, of course, have the power to crush that self-esteem.
    Site Visitor
    10 November 2012