LINGUIST List 14.194

Mon Jan 20 2003

Review: Applied Linguistics: Robinson (2002)

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  1. Ana Linares, Individual Differences and Instructed Language Learning

Message 1: Individual Differences and Instructed Language Learning

Date: Mon, 20 Jan 2003 10:56:36 +0000
From: Ana Linares <>
Subject: Individual Differences and Instructed Language Learning

Robinson, Peter, ed. (2002) Individual Differences and Instructed
Language Learning. John Benjamins Publishing Company, paperback ISBN
90-272-1694-0, XI+385pp, Language Learning and Language Teaching

Book Announcement on Linguist:

Ana Llinares Garcia, Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, Spain


This book consists of a collection of papers from different authors,
whose main aim is to present recent studies on individual differences
and second language learning, both from a theoretical and empirical
perspective. According to Robinson (the editor), if one looks for the
interaction between individual variables and the learning context,
there will be an optimal fit between learning and instruction.

Some of the theoretical chapters focus on revising the theory about
intelligence and aptitude. These are the chapters by Sternberg, Skehan
and Robinson. A common aim of these papers is to revise the existing
tests so that they can also be applied to the study of non-analytical
cognitive abilities (Sternberg) or taking into account variables such
as the SLA stage.

As far as the empirical chapters are concerned, some focus on the
contrast between learning in naturalistic versus instructed contexts,
showing that individual differences have to be related to the learning
situation. The chapters on classroom context study analytic ability
and motivation. Although the contexts used for the study of analytic
ability have been mostly grammar-based, these chapters present two
different classroom situations: the communicative approach and the
task-based approach. Finally, the experimental chapters are based on
the analysis of cognitive abilities and how they affect L2


In his paper, Sternberg argues that people do not have different
aptitudes for different languages. He points out that language
aptitude covers multiple aspects and may vary depending on the way
the language is taught. He adds ''People have different patterns of
abilities, and they will learn a language successfully when the way
they are taught fits their ability patterns'' (p.15). I think it is
very important to take this into account when developing tests of
learner abilities in EFL learning. The identification of a general
factor of human intelligence may tell us about the patterns of
schooling (generally the Western patterns) but not about the structure
of human abilities. Sternberg's belief that we learn a first language
because we need it and the environment facilitates it is very related
to the views of Vygotsky (1962) and Halliday (1975) who claim that we
learn a language because we have the need to communicate and to do
things with it. Sternberg also highlights the need for more empirical
work on intelligence and he concludes that there are three types of
intelligence: analytical, creative and practical. He argues that
teachers have had the tendency to discriminate children with creative
or practical abilities. Therefore, as far as second language
instruction is concerned, there are two main points claimed by the
author: the need to teach the L2 in a way that matches the three types
of abilities and the need to take into account the different learning
contexts to reinforce one or the other. There is a final very
interesting point in this paper: the more similarities there are
between parents� and teachers� idea of intelligence, the better
children will perform at school.

MacIntyre's chapter on the role of motivation in the acquisition of a
second language is based on Gardner's socio-educational model.
According to Gardner and MacIntyre, the socio-cultural context
influences cognitive and affective individual differences. In the same
way as MacIntyre claims more empirical work in the areas of motivation
and emotion, Skehan begins chapter 4 stating the lack of sufficient
empirical work on foreign language aptitude in the last 30 years. He
refers to the� MLAT (Modern Language Aptitude Test). One of the
components missing in that test, in my opinion, is the communicative
ability. One interesting point that Skehan makes is that, as opposed
to Krashen, he believes that aptitude may be more important in
informal contexts because there are fewer guidelines than in
instructed contexts. The author reports the validity of many studies
on aptitude, but he does not really give much information on why they
are valid. For example, he does not refer to the number of subjects
in each of the studies and, in my view, it is now widely accepted the
need to work on learner corpora (with large amounts of data), in order
to obtain valid conclusions. Skehan concludes, after observing the
importance of output, that memory tests have to include not only
encoding but also storage and retrieval. However, his proposal of SLA
processing is limited to the focus on form, as he also points out.

The study of Grigorenko shows the connections between NL disability
and FL acquisition. She says that having difficulties in the native
language is only one of the reasons for FL failure. In the same line
as Sternberg, she raises the interesting conclusion that there are
different types of language disabilities and that is why not all the
skills needed to learn a foreign language are deficient in all the
learners with learning disabilities. This conclusion can help teachers
come out of the idea that when a learner has some kind of language
disability, he/she will not be able to learn a foreign language. As
Grigorenko points out, specific techniques need to be developed by
teachers for each specific cases. I find this chapter extremely
interesting as a hint to make teachers aware that learners with some
kind of disability can also learn a FL.

In chapter 6, Robinson also focuses on cognitive abilities and
suggests the importance of matching them to instructional options. In
the line followed by Skehan, he questions the validity of MLAT,
because it does not fit with oral interaction and communicative
approaches. In his study, he finds that post-critical period learning
mechanisms are influenced by individual differences, in contrast to
the pre-critical period. Against the argument that implicit processes
of learning are not so affected by individual differences as the
explicit ones, his study shows that adult incidental learning of
grammar is sensitive to individual differences relevant to the demands
of the task.

The connection between SLA and learning tasks is very well studied in
D�rnyei�s paper. D�rnyei refers to two types of motivation:
instrumental and intrinsic. In my opinion, there should be a third
type, and this is the case of children who learn a foreign language
not because they feel they need it or because they have a free will to
do it, but because their parents or the school curriculum require
it. In this case, the role of the teacher is probably very important
to motivate the children (Llinares Garcia, 2002). One aspect that I
think is missing in this chapter is to measure not only the quantity
of speech but also the quality, especially taking into account that
the task chosen has the function of convincing. Therefore, I think
that the way this pragmatic function is realised should have been
measured, too. The conclusion of D�rnyei's study is very revealing:
''the fact that one's interlocutor is more talkative does not
automatically increase one's language output'' (p. 153). The author
states that motivation is what really matters. In my opinion,
motivation can be enhanced by the teacher with tasks that promote
attractive interaction in the class. The other paper that focuses on
the language class is the one by Ranta. Again she focuses on analytic
ability and she finds out that its effect cannot be wiped out in
communicative language classes.

In the same line as other papers in this volume, Mackey et al.'s
chapter concludes that memory can predict L2 learning for some
conditions, but not for others. Again, as in all the other chapters,
what these authors measure is the form (question formation, in this
case). It would be interesting to know if the results would change if
another type of linguistic form or functions were measured.

Following Sternberg's claims, in his experimental paper Robinson
argues that the task performed will influence the abilities and says
that incidental learning is sensitive to the individual difference
measure that most closely matches the abilities drawn on during the
task performance. Ross et al.'s study is based on adults and reaches
the conclusion that aptitude compensates some learners' late and
infrequent access to English. Finally, Harley & Hart's chapter argues
that one has to relate the individual differences to contextual
factors. Again, they focus on analytical language ability and find out
that the analytical ability is related to L2 outcomes in adolescents
both in a formal and natural context.


This is a very interesting selection of papers about some aspects that
characterise individual differences and their connection with
classroom instruction. The papers are relatively varied (theoretical
and empirical, experimental and classroom-based, focused on cognitive
ability and motivation, etc.). This variety might suggest a certain
lack of homogeneity. The final result is homogeneous, though. The
chapter by Sternberg introduces a claim that appears again in most of
the articles: the need to develop new ways of measuring aptitude,
taking into account the different learning conditions. However,
Sternberg makes a claim that is not represented in this collection of
papers. He makes the point that the abilities necessary for successful
learning must be more than memory and analytic abilities, measured by
traditional tests. However, most of the papers deal with analytic
abilities and only a few with motivation. Although the title of the
book says ''individual differences'', the main focus is on aptitude
and memory. It would have been interesting to have included one or two
studies on other types of cognitive abilities, especially taking into
account Sternberg's point that other cultures different from the
Western ones promote other types of cognitive abilities.

Finally, the chapters based on classroom studies show an interesting
attempt to work in contexts other than grammar-based EFL contexts. I
think it would be interesting to carry out similar studies in classes
with various degrees of immersion in the L2 and also with young

To conclude, a very interesting book to read for those scholars
interested in cognitive abilities, motivation and second language
learning. The book also provides interesting hints for methodological
improvements in EFL/ESL teaching. 

-Halliday, M.A.K. (1975) Learning how to mean: explorations in the
functions of language. London: Edward Arnold.

-Llinares Garc�a, A. (2002) La interacci�n ling��stica en el aula
de segundas lenguas en edades tempranas: an�lisis de un corpus desde
una perspectiva funcional. Universidad Autonoma de Madrid

-Vygostky, L.S. (1962) Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press.


Ana Llinares teaches Phonetics and Systemic Functional
Linguistics. She has a PhD in Applied Linguistics and has been working
on classroom discourse exchanges in bilingual contexts. She is
co-director of the UAM-Corpus project, which has been collecting
spoken classroom data from different types of EFL contexts since
1998. She is also participating in a European project on bilingual
teaching. Some of her recent publications include (2001)
"Communicative constraints in native/non-native pre-school settings,"
in International Journal of Corpus Linguistics, and (2001) "The
realisation of the heuristic function of language in classroom
conversations," in Recent Perspectives on Discourse.
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