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Feb 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

The Human Face of Language Learning: A Complex/Dynamic Perspective

Carol Griffiths (University of Leeds, UK and Auckland Institute of Studies, NZ) has been a teacher, manager and teacher trainer of ELT for many years. She has taught in many places around the world, including New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan, China, North Korea, Turkey and UK. She has also presented at numerous conferences and published widely, including her books Lessons from Good Language Learners and The Strategy Factor in Successful Language Learning. Individual differences, teacher education and support, English as a medium of instruction, English as a lingua franca, action research, and using literature to teach language are her major areas of research interest. Email:,  webpage:



Although an awareness of the importance of the human dimension in language learning has been increasing in recent years, the effect of this on language learning remains under-researched compared with other theoretical paradigms (such as Cognitivism, Socioculturalism, etc.). It would seem, however, to be no more than stating the obvious to say that learners are all different from each other in terms of their own human characteristics, their situations, and their goal-orientations, and all these different factors contribute to their individual human identity, to their motivation, and to the amount of time and effort they are prepared to invest in the learning endeavour. In other words, the individual language learner is an extremely complex being, representing an amalgamation of a multitude of variables. Not only that, but all of these variables are dynamic, that is, they can and do change, so it is impossible to assume that learners’ human faces will necessarily remain the same from one point in time to another. This article will briefly review some of the differences which are most commonly dealt with in the literature, and emphasize the importance of recognising and respecting individual learners’ human identity. (192 words)



A quick scan of a catalogue of language learning materials will reveal numerous texts on how to teach grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, skills, and so on. Although these are, of course, clearly important, something that often seems to get overlooked is that it is not just WHAT is learned that is important. A critical factor in the learning process is WHO is doing the learning, that is, the learner. However, texts which deal with this human aspect (such as Rinvolucri, 2007) are the exception. In fact, as all teachers know full well, their classes are full not of identical clones who all learn in the same way and share the same goals, but of unique human individuals who are all different from each other in terms of their individual characteristics, their situations, and their goals, and who filter what is being taught according to their own unique identities.

As Griffiths (2018) notes, the issue of identity has given rise to a lot of interest in recent years. Perhaps the first to draw attention to the importance of identity in language learning was Norton Peirce (1995) who suggested that many learners already have a very well-established sense of their own identity, and this may influence the willingness to learn a new language, since there is a “powerful relationship between identity and language learning” (Norton & Toohey, 2011, p. 413). Definitions of identity vary: it is what defines an individual, and it is complex rather than unitary (e.g. Nunan and Choi, 2010); it is dynamic rather than fixed (e.g. Miller, 2003), and developed in context through social interaction (e.g. Morgan and Clarke, 2011). Nevertheless, although it is such a complex and dynamic concept, making it difficult to pin down to a precise and universally agreed definition, the identity concept remains important in the field of language learning. For one thing, students may resist learning language which conflicts with their identity, as Canagarajah (2004) reports when he found students creating “pedagogical safe houses” (p.116) in their classroom. Kim (2014) is another who found students resisting adopting target language pragmatic norms which they felt conflicted with their own sense of identity. And Soruç and Griffiths (2015) found something similar when researching the teachability of various features of spoken grammar (SGE). Although there was some uptake of the target features by the time of the post-test, little of this remained by the time of the delayed post-test just three weeks later. When asked for their reasons, students explained that they felt the spoken grammar features conflicted with their own sense of identity, contributing to embarrassment and a sense of artificiality.


Individual characteristics

Many interacting factors contribute to a learner’s sense of identity, including the learner’s own individual characteristics. Perhaps one of the most basic of these is the learner’s sex/gender. The concept of sex is usually used to mean a biological attribute, whereas the concept of gender refers more to a culturally determined characteristic, although the two terms are often used more-or-less interchangeably in the literature, with “gender” often being preferred as the “softer” term. On a biological level, research appears to indicate that women have more nerve cells in the left half of the brain where language is centered, and, in addition, women often use both sides of the brain (Legato, 2005). However, it is also possible that girls’ linguistic development may be as much a social phenomenon as it is a biological one, since “much of the perceived female superiority in language capability may be due to the added effort which adults tend to lavish on baby girls compared with baby boys” (Nyikos, 2008, p.75). When considering sex/gender differences in language learning, care should be taken to avoid "oversimplification and unproductive generalizations" (Sunderland, 2000, p.149). Although women are often believed to be better language learners than men (e.g. Ellis, 1994; Larsen-Freeman and Long, 1991), according to Nyikos (2008), men and women can be equally successful as language learners, with much greater variation between individuals than according to sex/gender.

Age is another individual factor which is often believed to have a strong influence on language learning. Ever since Lenneberg (1967) popularized the Critical Period Hypothesis, which suggests that there is a threshold (commonly hypothesized to be around the age of puberty) beyond which learning language becomes difficult or even impossible, the idea that age is a limitation for learning language has been commonly held. Indeed, a number of well-known studies appeared to support this hypothesis (e.g. Harley, 1986; Oyama, 1976; Snow and Hoefnagel-Hohle, 1978). More recently, however, evidence seems to be mounting that under the right conditions, adults can learn language very successfully. For instance, in a well-known case study by Ioup, Boustagui, El Tigi and Moselle (1994), Julie, who moved from England to Cairo with her Egyptian husband at the age of 21, managed to pass as a native speaker of Arabic within about two and a half years after she was left in a situation of total immersion with her in-laws when her husband was called away for military service. A number of adult Dutch learners of English in a study by Bongaerts, van Summeren, Planken and Schils (1997) could not be distinguished from native speakers, suggesting that “it is not impossible to achieve an authentic, nativelike pronunciation of a second language after a specified biological period of time” (p.447). Although they found that overall, target language attainment was negatively correlated with age, Birdsong and Molis (2001, p.235) nevertheless found “modest evidence of nativelike attainment among late learners.” When Muńoz and Singleton (2007) asked adult learners of English to re-tell the narrative of a movie, two of the students scored within the native speaker range as judged by native speakers of English. Reichle (2010), who discovered high levels of native-like proficiency among some of the adult participants in his study, concluded that “these results are incompatible with the traditional notion of a critical period for second language acquisition” (p. 53). And when Kinsella and Singleton (2014) investigated adult Anglophone near-native users of French, several of them scored within the native speaker range, causing the authors to conclude that “native-likeness remains attainable until quite late in life” (p. 458).

Of course, it is difficult to know to what extent the success of cases like Julie noted above might be due to aptitude. In other words, such results might simply be due to the fact that some individuals are just better at learning languages than others. It was common practice in the past to give school entrants an aptitude test and to place them according to the results of such tests. A well-known test used for this purpose was the Modern Language Aptitude Test (Carroll and Sapon, 1959. Other tests of aptitude include the Pimsleur Language Aptitude Battery (PLAB) aimed at high school students (Pimsleur, 1966), and the Cognitive Ability for Novelty in Acquisition of Language - Foreign (CANAL – F) based on the premise that successful language learners are able to cope with new ideas (Grigorenko, Sternberg and Ehrman, 2000). According to Williams and Burden (1997) the predictive value of aptitude tests is not particularly high, and they run the risk of “placing limitations on the way in which we view learners and consequently the way we treat them” (p.18). As a result of such reservations, aptitude tests have come to be considered rather “undemocratic” (Dörnyei and Skehan, 2003, p.601) in recent years. Nevertheless, in the course of a meta-analysis involving 66 studies and 13,035 learners, Li (2016) concluded that aptitude tests were “a strong predictor” (p.801) of language proficiency. Rather than viewing aptitude as a unitary characteristic, more recent research has tended to view aptitude from a perspective of aptitude complexes, which “draw in subtly differentiated clusters of abilities and other personal factors” (Robinson, 2012, p.57), including pattern recognition, phonological capacity, semantic inferencing, grammatical sensitivity and rote memory (for instance, DeKeyser and Koeth, 2011). Furthermore, although aptitude was once regarded as a relatively fixed attribute, more recently it has been viewed as more dynamic, that is, it is changeable. As Mercer (2012, pp.28-29) puts it, aptitude “is not an immutable, fixed, innate entity that only a privileged few possess, but it is rather a complex, ongoing process composed of multiple abilities that every single learner can further develop”.  Singleton (2017, p.90) also suggests the need to “make room for acceptance of the proposition that language aptitude is not as ‘given’ as we may have once thought”.

Like aptitude, personality is another individual attribute which has tended to be regarded as relatively “given”. According to Richards and Schmidt (2010, p.431), personality can be defined as “those aspects of an individual’s behaviour, attitudes, beliefs, thought, actions and feelings which are seen as typical and distinctive of that person”. A number of different instruments have been used to measure personality, including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI - Myers, 1962), which measures personality according to four dichotomous scales: Extraversion-Introversion, Sensing-Intuition, Thinking-Feeling, and Judging-Perceiving. The Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (Hans and Sybil Eysenck, 1975), based on three dimensions and their opposites (psychoticism/socialization, neuroticism/stability and extroversion/introversion) is another well-known instrument for measuring personality. More recently (McCrae and John, 1992) developed the Big Five Model  based on the five factors of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (OCEAN). The salient common factor of the MBTI, the EPQ and the Big Five Model is the extrovert/introvert dimension. Although extroverted personalities are commonly believed to be the best language learners, Ehrman (2008) discovered that, contrary to expectations, the really high level learners in her study had introverted personalities and were overrepresented among the top learners; she concludes, however, that “it is clear from the fact that there are high level language learners in a wide variety of personality categories that motivated individuals can become good language learners whatever their personalities” (p.70).

Sometimes thought to be an aspect of personality, learning style is another possible contributor to variations in individual language learning ability. Reid (1995) provided a definition of learning styles which has proven to be enduring: according to this definition, learning styles are “an individual’s natural, habitual and preferred way(s) of absorbing, processing, and retaining new information and skills” (p.viii). Although there have been many style questionnaires over the years, it was Reid (1987) who developed the first well-known style questionnaire explicitly aimed at language learning, known as the Perceptual Learning Style Preference Questionnaire (PLSPQ) which was based on five modalities: visual (learning by seeing), auditory (learning by hearing), tactile (learning by touching), kinaesthetic (learning by moving) and individual/group preferences. Others include the Style Analysis Survey (Oxford, 1993) which analyzed learning style according to preferences such as intuitive/random, concrete/sequential, closure-oriented/open and global/analytic; the Learning Style Survey (Cohen, Oxford & Chi, 2002) with yet more style dimensions, including sharpener/leveller, global/particular, synthesizing/analytic, deductive/inductive, impulsive/reflective, metaphoric/literal, field dependent/independent and memorization; and the Learning Style Questionnaire (Ehrman & Leaver, 2003) which operates between the two poles of ectasis (exercising conscious control) and synopsis (relying on subconscious processing) and employs style concepts including random/sequential, analogue/digital and concrete/abstract. Although learning style is generally considered to be a relatively stable learner characteristic, according to Reid (1987, p.100), learning styles “can be modified and extended”. Confirming this idea, Griffiths and Inceçay (2016) discovered that the more successful students in their study used many more styles (that is, they were more willing to style-stretch) than the less successful students.

Learning style is, in turn, often thought to be related to learning strategies. A learner with a visual style, for instance, might be expected to opt for strategies such as watching videos or movies, and to find diagrams more helpful than long texts. A kinaesthetic learner might prefer to learn by participating in activities rather than reading about them, and so on. Griffiths (2018, p.19) defines language learning strategies as “actions chosen by learners for the purpose of learning language”. This basic definition underlines the ideas that strategies are active (as distinct from passive), they are selected by the learners themselves (as distinct from being imposed by someone else, such as the teacher), they are goal-oriented (as distinct from being randomly adopted for no particular reason), and they are for learning language (as distinct from other purposes such as communicating a particular need – such as buying something in a shop).

A number of studies have shown a relationship between strategy use and successful language learning. Griffiths (2003), for instance, discovered that frequency of strategy use was significantly correlated with course level among international students at a language school in New Zealand. In a study among Turkish language learners using an original questionnaire, Griffiths (2018) discovered that the higher-level students gave high ratings (strongly agree) to three times as many strategy items as the lower-level students. Effective strategy choice depends on a number of factors, such as how suitable it is for the learning purpose, how appropriate it is for the given context, how well it accords with the learner’s individual characteristics, and how effectively specific strategies are orchestrated with other strategies. As Griffiths (2018, p.23) explains: “the orchestration metaphor is often employed to convey the idea that strategies need to be harmonized with each other if they are to produce the desired learning outcome: strategies are not used effectively in isolation”. Learning strategies continue to be a vibrant area of research, as indicated by an ongoing stream of publications, such as Cohen (2011) and Oxford (2017).

According to Wenden, 1991, strategies are an important element of learner autonomy, since it is by using strategies that learners are able to become autonomous and able to regulate their own learning, and, therefore, to become less dependent on others. It is generally Henri Holec (1981) who is credited with first applying the term autonomy to language learning, defining it as “the ability to take charge of one’s own learning” (p.3). Benson (2001, p.47) describes autonomy as “a multidimensional capacity that will take different forms for different individuals, and even for the same individual in different contexts or at different times”. Learner autonomy is generally assumed to be advantageous (for instance, Dam, 1995), although it is “socially mediated” (Murray, 2014, p.4). In recent years, the term autonomy has sometimes been replaced by the term self-regulation, defined as “the degree to which individuals are active participants in their own learning” (Dörnyei and Skehan (2003, p.611). Although the difference between autonomy and self-regulation may not always be clear, according to Griffiths (2018), autonomy is the superordinate term, which self-regulation aims to achieve: students self-regulate in order to become autonomous. Cotterall (2008) makes the important point that autonomy, by its very nature, is an individual attribute, unique to each learner; as she puts it: “learners will inevitably be diverse and that the contexts in which they learn and use the language will exert a powerful influence…..the obvious conclusion is that….. we need to pay more attention to individual learners, and their unique motivations, experiences and stories” (p.119). Recognition of this individuality is especially important since autonomy is linked to motivation which helps to drive future trajectories (Lamb, 2011). When Griffiths (2017) investigated the characteristics of 14 successful language learners from various places around the world, she found that autonomy was given a maximum median rating of 5 (strongly agree); as she comments “this group did not wait for others to make their decisions” (p.63).

Learner beliefs are yet another area of learner individuality which have the potential to influence language learning. An important development in the field of learner beliefs was Horwitz’s (1987) Beliefs about Language Learning Inventory (BALLI), an instrument which was divided into five belief areas: aptitude, language learning difficulties, the nature of language learning, strategies and motivation. Although an individual’s beliefs are often assumed to be a relatively stable individual characteristic, White (2008) reports that, according to a longitudinal study which she conducted good language learners are not “those who have particular sets of beliefs but [those] who succeed in sensing out the affordances of a particular learning context, and developing a productive interface between their beliefs and attributes and different possibilities and experiences within that context” (p.125). According to White (ibid.), good language learners believe in themselves as able to learn and they also believe that the language they are studying is worth leaning. When Griffiths (2017) studied a group of successful language learners from multiple national origins, she found that they gave a maximum median rating of 5 to the item on beliefs that English is a good language to learn.

It is now well recognised that human emotions have an important role to play in all learning, not least language learning. Schumann (1975), for instance, investigated the factors which created problems for his subject, Alberto, a Puerto Rican immigrant to the USA who failed to progress in his English, which Schumann ascribed to affective difficulties. Krashen (1982) introduced the Affective Filter Hypothesis, explaining that the higher the affective filter (that is, the more negative the emotions), the more difficulty the learner will experience. Affect can itself be broken down into a number of areas, each of which tends to have its own literature. These include anxiety (which has generally been shown to have a negative influence on language development), attitude (which is related to feelings, emotions and motivation), attribution (which relates to an individual’s perception of the causes for successes or failures), empathy (which refers to the ability to identify with another and to understand another’s point of view), inhibition (which relates to the willingness to communicate), and self-concept (which refers to the beliefs one has about oneself, and which, itself, includes a number of sub-concepts, including self-confidence, self-efficacy, self-esteem and self-image)



So, as we can see, individual human beings are very complex, with multifaceted identities to which numerous individual characteristics (including gender, age, aptitude, personality, style, autonomy, strategies, beliefs and affect) contribute. To further complicate this already complex picture, it is important to consider that these complex beings do not exist in isolation: the context in which they operate will inevitably have an effect. Context itself, however, is also not a simple concept, since the context in which an individual is situated is a composite of a number of different variables, including nationality and culture. Nationality is essentially a political concept (e.g. British, Chinese, etc.). Within this broad concept, however, there may be numerous cultures, consisting of different ethnicities (e.g. African, Indian, Arabic, European, Scandinavian, Asian, etc.), and each of these may have sub-cultures (Asia, for instance, is a very big continent, so, inevitably, although there may be some similarities, there will also be differences from one group to another). These differences will extend down to the local level (the Huli people of Papua New Guinea, for instance, have a culture and language which is quite distinct from people in just the next valley), and even to the family level. In short, as Norton and Toohey (2001) explained, individuals are situated, and the affordances and constraints of the situation in which they function will have a profound effect on the way they develop and operate.


Goal orientation

In addition to all of the foregone factors, we must not forget that individuals are by no means all aiming at the same target. On the contrary, their goal-orientations may vary widely. This diversity became apparent in the study by Griffiths (2017) which investigated a group of successful language learners who gave a maximum rating of 5 (strongly agree) to the item on learning goal. Various goals mentioned by the participants included (p.62):

‘To communicate with others and be a member of a multicultural and multilingual world.’ (Liz)

‘To achieve accuracy and fluency . . . and . . . to sound like a native speaker.’ (Tina)

‘Higher studies, job, dating/social.’ (Hanu)

‘Acquiring a new/different language to understand a new/different culture in a better way.’ (Ana)

‘To achieve accuracy and fluency . . . and the desire to sound like a native speaker.’ (Tina)

As we can see, the goals at which these successful learners were aiming are by no means identical, and they may well be partly determined by situation. A girl from a poor rural community, for instance, is likely to have different goals from a boy from a rich urban family. Not only that, but such a girl is likely to have less support than such a boy. This is, of course, not to say that it is impossible, but such a girl would need more determination than a boy from a more affluent background. In other words, personal characteristics and context can also help to determine goal-orientation, the motivation to achieve the chosen target, and the amount of time and effort learners are able or willing to invest.  


Motivation and investment

The importance of motivation in language learning has been dealt with by many. Ushioda (2008, p.19) defines motivation as “what moves a person to make certain choices, to engage in action, and to persist in action”. From a human point of view, it is difficult to disagree with the basic premise that motivation is important if students are to learn successfully. Over the years, motivation has been viewed from a variety of perspectives. In one of the earliest distinctions, Gardner and Lambert (1959) identified two different motivational orientations: integrative (arising from a desire to identify with those who speak the language, perhaps in a social context, in a workplace or as an immigrant) and instrumental (arising from a desire to benefit practically from acquiring the language, for instance by gaining access to desired educational institutions, by getting a better job, higher salary etc). Taking a somewhat different view Deci and Ryan (1980) typified motivation as intrinsic (originating from within the learner – it is something the learner wants for his/her own satisfaction) or extrinsic (arising from outside the learner, for instance from a parent, a teacher/school system or an employer). Although the two dichotomous models of motivation have proven to be enduring, they may be overly simplistic: motivation is actually a highly complex phenomenon. For one thing, as Ushioda (2008) points out, the different concepts may not necessarily be mutually exclusive, but may be “working in concert with one another” (p.22). The complex nature of motivation is illustrated by a small-scale study by Griffiths and Özgür (2013) in which students at a private language school in Istanbul, Turkey were asked to complete a short questionnaire which included statements relating to intrinsic, extrinsic, instrumental and integrative motivation. Although according to the results, agreement was strongest for instrumental motivation (getting a good job), the statement which had the strongest correlation with successful course results was intrinsic (I study for my own satisfaction). These results suggest a certain degree of ambivalence: students may think they are studying in order to obtain some future goal, they may even tell others (e.g. friends, parents) that this is their reason, but it is actually those who really want to study who do best. Rather than viewing motivation as a static phenomenon which can be described according to integrative/instrumental, intrinsic/extrinsic criteria, Dörnyei (2001) presents motivation as dynamic and constantly changing. According to this view, language learners are complex individuals whose motivation derives from their ideal vision of themselves, from social pressures, and the effects of prior learning experiences.

The level of motivation is very likely to contribute to the level of investment (especially of time and effort) that a learner is prepared to make in the learning endeavour. The concept of investment was introduced to the language learning literature by Norton Peirce (1995), according to whom, when learners invest in language learning, they expect to get an identity-enhancing return on their investment. As Ushioda (2008) further explains: “When learners invest in learning a new language, they do so with the understanding that they will acquire a wider range of symbolic and material resources, which will enhance their cultural capital, their conception of themselves, and their desires for the future” (p. 24). When Griffiths (2017), surveyed a number of successful learners of English, she found that the majority of her participants gave responses in the “agree” (rating=4) to “strongly agree” (rating =5) range for the items on investment. As one of the participants commented for the item on time commitment:

“Yes, I consulted dictionaries, referred to grammar books, and spent a lot of time doing assignments and reading recommended and supplementary materials” (p.63).

With regard to the investment of effort, one of the participants commented:

“I regarded learning English as my utmost goal and dedicated myself to it” (p.64).

And another elaborated:

“I was diligent at what I was doing and gave much attention” (p.64).



Although theoretical paradigms such as Behaviourism, Structuralism, Cognitivism and Socioculturalism have tended to dominate language learning and teaching over the years, it is encouraging to find that Humanism (which emphasizes the value and agency of human beings) has been gaining ground (e.g. Rinvolucri, 2007). Nevertheless, a search of the literature reveals a surprising dearth of material which deals with the human dimension of learning, in spite of the obvious reality that learners are human, and need to be dealt with as such if positive results are to ensue. Perhaps, then, research from a Humanistic perspective is an overdue direction for future researchers to take seriously. 

As we can see from the above, language learners are complex, situated, goal-oriented beings, who learn according to their own individual characteristics (including gender, age, aptitude, personality, style, autonomy, strategies, beliefs and affect). Not only that, but this complexity is dynamic, that is, it is in a constant state of actual or potential flux. And all of these multiple factors will influence learners’ motivation and their willingness to invest time and effort in the learning endeavor. If learners are to be successful, it is essential that all these facets of their human identity are recognized and respected.



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