Individual differences in second and foreign language learning

Author: Peter Skehan


The contribution surveys work on individual differences in second and foreign language learning. It covers the areas of foreign language aptitude, motivation, learning strategies and learning style. Research in each area is covered, and the current state of play in each sub-field is assessed. Further bibliographic guidance is provided.

Table of contents


The differences literature emphasises four main areas: language aptitude, learning style, motivation, and learner strategies. There are other less researched areas which cannot be covered for reasons of space, such as personality (see e.g. Dewaele and Furnham 1999), but which clearly have importance.

Language aptitude has a long history in language teaching. The most significant development was (and is) the development of the Modern Language Aptitude Test (MLAT), (Carroll and Sapon 1959). This device has theoretical and practical importance. Theoretically, it represents Carroll's views of four aptitude components. These are phonemic coding ability, the capacity to code sounds so that they can be retained for more than a few seconds; grammatical sensitivity, the capacity to identify the functions that words fulfil in sentences; inductive language learning ability, the capacity to take a corpus of material in a target language and make extrapolations (i.e. generalisations) from that material; and associative memory, a capacity to form links between native and foreign language words. Practically, the MLAT represents a method of assessing foreign language aptitude, although it is now hardly used. (Other aptitude batteries, e.g. PLAB, DLAB, and CANAL-F also exist - see Skehan (in press) for details.) Since the development of the MLAT, most aptitude research has focused on specific aptitude components, with particular attention having been paid to memory, both long term and working. Other research has explored the role aptitude plays in formal and informal learning contexts, and in matching (and mismatching) students with appropriate methodologies. Most recently, there have been elaborations of the connections between aptitude and second language acquisition (Skehan, in press).

Motivation has been the other major area for research into individual differences. The most influential approach has been that due to Robert Gardner. Originally, Gardner distinguished between two motivational orientations, integrative and instrumental. The former concerns learners who want to learn a language to "enter" the community of its speakers, while the latter regards language as a potential tool which may simply be useful. Gardner has researched this orientation distinction extensively, and developed complex social psychological models to account for data, in a wide range of situations, as well as an assessment procedure. The approach has received some criticism, but has nonetheless dominated the field until recently (see Dornyei and Skehan, in press, for review). In the last decade or so, there have been some major challenges to the Gardner model, suggesting it is not sufficiently dynamic and rooted in classroom situations. More recently Dornyei (2001) has proposed a more dynamic account of motivation, based on Action Control Theory. In this model, clear distinctions are made between the pre-actional phase (where Dornyei locates much of Gardner's work), the actional phase, where learning activities are situated, and the post-actional phase, where important attributions about success and failure are made.

Learning Strategies research is at something of a crossroads (again). Early work suggested that learners use strategies extensively, and held out the promise that identifying the strategies used by good language learners would enable them to be taught to less successful learners, and more successful learning would result. This early promise was not fulfilled, and major research effort was devoted to establishing taxonomies of strategies, rather than to studies examining the impact of training. The taxonomy approach did not lead to significant progress, and Dornyei and Skehan (in press) attempt to resolve this issue simply by synthesising the systems which are available. The key issue with strategies seems to be the operation of metacognitive strategies - what distinguishes good learners is their capacity to use appropriate strategies and to select the most effective strategy for a particular learning problem. Most recently of all, the second language field has come to recognise that the broader psychological literature has moved on from a concern with learning strategies, and now prefers to use the term "self-regulation". It remains to be seen what impact this switch of emphasis will have on the second language field.

Cognitive and Learning Styles concern the ways learners prefer to acquire and represent language. Such styles contrast with aptitude, in that aptitude is seen as more of an invariant attribute, whereas styles imply scope for malleability. There is also the possibility that different styles may contrast with one another, but each style may have its own advantages. The major style difference which has influenced the language learning field is the field independent vs. field dependent contrast. The former style implies people who are analytic, breaking down (learning) problems into component parts. Field dependents are holistic in comparison, and treat a learning problem as a "gestalt". Such people are also supposed to be more person-oriented and warm. This opposition has influenced a number of studies in language learning (see Dornyei and Skehan for review). Research suggests that only the field independent style correlates (moderately) with language learning success. Possibly there is a need to broaden the concept to go beyond simply style of cognitive processing, and also incorporate broader learning orientations (Kolb 1984). But the area is one of promise, rather than realised achievement.


Carroll J. and Sapon S. (1959). The Modern Languages Aptitude Test. San Antonio, Tx.: The Psychological Corporation.

Dewaele J-M. and Furnham A (1999). Extraversion: the unloved variable in applied linguistic research. Language Learning 43:3.

Dornyei Z. (2001). Teaching and Researching Motivation. London: Longman.

Dornyei Z. and Skehan P. (in press). Individual differences in second language learning. In Doughty C. and Long M. (Eds.), Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Kolb D. (1984). Learning Style Inventory. Boston, Ma.: McBer.

Skehan P. (in press). Theorising and updating aptitude. In Robinson P. (Ed.), Individual Differences and Instructed Second Language Acquisition. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

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