Individual differences

It’s clear that some language learners do better than others, and that some language learning programmes produce better results than others. So what’s the secret behind the success? If you’ve ever wondered what makes an ideal language learner then this page is for you.


The learner

In this section we introduce you to the world of language learning, answering some of the most common questions people have about individual learner differences, including a range of issues such as age, gender, aptitude, personality, cognitive and learning style, attitude and motivation, and identity and culture. We also talk to expert Robert De Keyser about the role of individual differences during Study Abroad.

Robert De Keyser

— University of Maryland

Age: Is there an ideal age to learn a second language?

It is often suggested that children are like sponges, soaking up language and learning with ease. After all, we all learned out first language this way. But is this really the case for second language acquisition? Research has found that it isn’t simply that children are better language learners than adults or that adults are better than children, but rather that both have different advantages when it comes to language learning. It has been suggested that while older learners are at an advantage when it comes to acquisition of syntax and morphology, children are better at acquiring ultimate fluency and native-like pronunciation (Oxford and Erhman, 1993). Saville Troike (2012) summarised these advantages as follows (where “older” refers to individuals who have reached puberty):

Younger AdvantageOlder Advantage
Brain plasticityLearning capacity
Not analyticalAnalytic ability
Fewer inhibitions (usually)Pragmatic skills
Weaker group identityGreater knowledge of L1
Simplified input more likelyReal-world knowledge
* Saville Troike (2012)

When it comes to age, the context of learning itself evidently plays a big part, and it has been found that:

“instructed language learners do not have access to the amount and type of input that immersion in the L2 community entails and that, as a consequence, the lack of enough (massive) exposure prevents children from benefiting from their alleged superiority at implicit language learning.” (Munoz, 2010).

“the explicit instruction provided by the classroom favours explicit language learning, at which older learners are superior because of their greater cognitive maturity” (Munoz, 2010).

This suggests that while children may do better in an informal learning context (provided there is sufficient input), adults do well in a context such as formal instruction, where they can depend more on general learning abilities (Lightbown andSpada, 1993).


Gender: Do males or females make better language learners?

Though there has been scant research on this issue, previous research has seen a general trend towards higher achievement for females on most tests, for both children and adults (Bowden, Sanz and Stafford, 2005). Saville-Troike (2012) points out that women have been seen to outperform men in some verbal fluency tests (e.g. finding words that begin with a certain letter) and that women’s brains could be less asymmetrically organised than men’s for speech. Halpern (2002) states that while men seem to be better at computing compositional rules, women appear to be better at memorizing complex forms. Research has also suggested that differences between the sexes may be related to hormonal variables. According to Saville Troike (2012: 90), “higher androgen level correlates with better automatized skills, and high estrogen with better semantic/interpretive skills”. Estrogen has also been said to modulate verbal memory, which also affects memory for complex forms in the L1 (Bowden, Sanz and Stafford, 2005).


Aptitude: Are some people simply better at learning languages?

Regarding language aptitude, Caroll (1965) proposes four components which underlie this talent:

1 – Phonemic Coding ability: On hearing a continuous stream of speech, learners need to be able to segment this stream into meaningful parts in order to process it. For example, when you hear a foreign language you don’t understand, you are unable to pick out the boundaries between words, so something like “The man is reading a book” may sound something like “Themanisreadingabook”.

2 – Inductive language learning ability: Concerned with central processing. The ability to be able to infer rules from the structure of the language. For example, whenever you see the first person singular “I”, you notice that it is followed by “am”, while the second person singular “you” is always followed by “are”.

3 – Grammatical sensitivity: Concerned with central processing, grammatical sensitivity refers to understanding the grammatical function of different components of language. This doesn’t deal with explicit grammar knowledge, but rather with an awareness of syntactic patterns (Robinson, 2001).

4 – Associative memory capacity: The ability to store and retrieve elements of the second language. This ability enables the learner to make associations between words in the target language and their meaning, and to be able to retain that association.
As is pointed out by Saville-Troike (2012), talent in all four areas is not required for successful acquisition. Furthermore, while aptitude is an important predictor of success in different contexts of learning, it is not entirely deterministic, given that there are several factors which may ultimately determine second language proficiency.


Personality: what kind of person makes an ideal language learner?

Regarding personality, Saville-Troike (2012) provides the following table which includes the most commonly addressed factors in second language acquisition. While most individuals will be somewhere in between the two extremes, the table suggests that the most successful language learners tend to be self-confident, risk-taking, adventuresome, imaginative, empathetic, and tolerant of ambiguity.

Personality Traits in SLA
EmpatheticInsensitive to others
Tolerant of ambiguityClosure-oriented
* Saville-Troike (2012): Personality traits, with those in bold indicating positive correlation with success in L2 learning.

The issue of anxiety has received a lot of attention in second language research, and results have shown a correlation between language anxiety and lower success in L2 learning. Why not take this Foreign Language Anxiety Test (Horwtiz, Horwitz and Cope, 1986), which is used to investigate the level of foreign language anxiety experienced by language learners? If you struggle with language anxiety, make sure to check out our tips on our Study Abroad – Overcoming Difficulties page!
Learners may also be introverted/inner-directed/reflective, or extroverted/other-directed/impulsive. While introverts generally do better in school, extroverts tend to talk more, and there is no clear support for the advantage of either trait (Saville-Troike, 2012).


Cognitive and Learning Style: are some styles of language learning better than others?

When it comes to learning styles, there are two main differences that are usually compared, namely field dependent and field independent (Ellis, 2004), as shown in the chart below. Field dependent learners see things from a more holistic perspective (that is, they have greater difficulty in identifying the parts that make up the whole), but tend to be more people oriented and drawn towards social interaction. Field independent learners, on the other hand, adopt a more analytical approach (they can better distinguish the parts that make up the whole), but are less likely to seek out social interaction. When it comes to learning styles, it is not necessarily the case that one is simply better than the other, as a preference towards either style can be beneficial (Dornyei & Skehan, 2003), and research has shown that both more extroverted and more introverted learners have different advantages depending on the context and linguistic focus (Gass & Selinker, 2001).

Brown (1977) suggests that while field independent learners may do better in a Formal Instruction classroom setting, field dependent learners may do better in more naturalistic, “real life” scenarios, where they interact with native speakers. Salvisberg (2005) points out that in a Formal Instruction setting, teachers should aim to discover student’s learning tendencies, and encourage them to adopt the style which is best suited to them as a learner.

 PerspectiveSocial Tendency
Field DependantHolistic (difficulty in identifying the parts as a whole)More extrovert and people oriented
Field IndependentAnalytical (better at identifying the individual parts that make up the whole)More introvert and less people oriented
* Different Learning Styles, adapted from Ellis, 2004


Attitude and Motivation: what happens when someone is forced to learn a language they don’t want to learn?

It’s often a common problem, especially in high school education, that there are certain students who simply have no interest in learning the language they’re being taught. However, as Dörnyei (2014) points out, even language learners with the most extraordinary abilities will be unable to accomplish long term goals if they lack the motivation to do so. This is why motivation is one of the most common terms used by teachers and students to explain the success or failure of an individual’s learning, and unfortunately, keeping students motivated has been said to be the second most complicated challenge for teachers (Hadfield & Dörnyei, 2013).

Want to read some tips on improving language learning motivation? Check out the pages below:
Overcoming Difficulties in Formal Instruction
Overcoming Difficulties in Study Abroad


Identity and Culture: does it matter how I feel about the target culture?

The issue of identity is particular relevant in informal language learning contexts such as Study Abroad. As Block (2007: 109) points out ‘the sustained immersion in a new cultural and linguistic milieu seemingly cannot but impact on the individual’s sense of self’. Research has shown the importance of the degree to which the learner identifies with the target language, with studies showing that in many cases a positive identification with the target language culture results in successful language acquisition (e.g. Regan 2013; Norton 2000; Nestor and Regan, 2011; Nestor, Ní Chasaide and Regan, 2012), while negative identification results in unsuccessful language acquisition (e.g. Norton, 2000; Block, 2006). This is why it’s extremely important not just to concentrate on your language skills, but also to develop your intercultural skills so that you can better understand and relate to the target culture.

Intercultural skills in Immersion
Intercultural skills in Study Abroad