Language Evolution: The Windows Approach addresses the question: "How can we unravel the evolution of language, given that there is no direct evidence about it?"
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EDITORS: Arabski, Januszl, Wojtaszek, Adam TITLE: Individual Learner Differences in SLA SERIES TITLE: Second Language Acquisition PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters YEAR: 2011
Tim S. O. Lee, Department of English, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
Publications in the area of individual differences in second language acquisition have expanded substantially in the last decade, and the issues that frequently reappear have been framed and discussed by, for instance, Dörnyei (2005) and Robinson (2002). The present volume, “Individual Learner Differences in SLA” edited by Janusz Arabski and Adam Wojtaszek, offers 20 chapters to present the latest theoretical and empirical input under the broad umbrella of individual differences. The first part of the book provides the theoretical groundings necessary for understanding research into individual differences. The second part is concerned with teachers’ involvement in fostering learner autonomy. The third part shifts the focus to how learners apply strategies successfully in institutionalized settings. After that, the fourth part goes on with the theme of strategy application, but in situations where learners have to put their knowledge into practice. The fifth part looks into individual variation in phonological attainment in production. The final part, which is the longest, encompasses three chapters related to reading skills and three focusing on writing abilities.
Chapter 1, “Individual Learner Differences and Instructed Language Learning: An Insoluble Conflict?” by Dieter Wolff is an attempt to deal with foreign language teachers’ reluctance to consider individual differences. It first describes the current taxonomies used to account for individual differences. Next, it looks into individual differences with respect to cognitive and learning psychology, which covers key issues such as nature versus nurture, and how certain features are more open to change. The third part illustrates how the six parameters (learning contents, learning aims, the learning environment, social forms of learning, learning strategies, and the evaluation of the learning results) can be used to contrast between traditional learning and approaches that take individual differences into consideration. The final section, with reference to four of the parameters, explains how content and language-integrated learning can be adapted to realize learner autonomy.
In Chapter 2, “Research into Language Learning Strategies: Taking Stock and Looking Ahead,” Mirosław Pawlak addresses the complexities involved in language learning strategies research from different angles. The definition and interpretation of the notion 'strategy' have changed over years, but more precision is called for as there are still problems and criticisms. Another major concern covered is the individual (such as age and motivation) and contextual variation (such as culture, the language being learnt, and the learning task), which is the basis for uncovering the relationship between strategy use and target language attainment. Strategy training has also drawn controversies, as it has been advocated by specialists irrespective of conflicting and inconclusive research findings. As for research methodology, the over-reliance on the Strategy Inventory for Language Learning as a data collection instrument has been found problematic, so there is a need to refine existing tools and search for other ways of assessing strategy use.
As the first chapter on supporting learner autonomy, Chapter 3, “Teachers’ Perceptions of Individual Differences in Turkish Primary School EFL Classes” by Hasan Bedir, reports on how 123 primary school teachers perceived individual differences and modified their teaching accordingly. Motivation, learning styles, and aptitude were the most frequently perceived individual differences, which were affected by the education system, materials, the teaching and learning environment, and the crowded classrooms. As regards modification, audio-visual materials and various teaching techniques were the preferred means to cater for individual differences, although issues such as crowded classrooms and examination based education prevented some participants from differentiating their teaching. Such findings highlight a conflict between theory and practice in language classrooms.
Chapter 4, “Learning Autonomy Support by Foreign Language Teachers” by Maria Stec and Anna Studenska is an investigation into 215 teachers’ level of learning autonomy support. Such support was gauged using the Learning Autonomy Support by Teachers Inventory, and the data collected from foreign language teachers were compared with those from teachers of other subjects. The results revealed that foreign language teachers were less ready to teach how to learn, allow for students’ feedback, and let students make decisions concerning formal lessons. In response to this, the authors conclude that foreign language teachers need more training in shifting responsibility to students, particularly for choosing tasks.
Chapter 5, “Personality and Parenting Styles as Predictors of Self-Regulation in Foreign Language Learning” by Anna Studenska presents a study investigating the level of foreign language self-regulation difficulty of 160 pedagogy and art students, together with which personality traits and parenting styles were its best predictors. Controlling emotions and maintaining learning motivation proved to be difficult, while the least difficult elements were identifying strong and weak points and choosing the way and place of learning. Personality traits, but not parenting styles, were found to be significant in predicting difficulty in self-regulating foreign language learning. Among the numerous personality traits, consciousness and openness were the most beneficial, whereas neuroticism hindered self-regulation.
Moving on to Part 3 of the book, Chapter 6, “The Development of Implicit Knowledge through Structured Input Activities: The Importance of Individual Perceptions Concerning Grammar Instruction” by Anna Mystkowska-Wiertelak, summarizes the dichotomy between explicit and implicit knowledge and the criteria that characterize them. It then reports on the effectiveness of reception-based and production-based grammar teaching on 57 students’ explicit and implicit knowledge. Four tests were used to measure the participants’ knowledge of the meaning and use of causative 'have,' and an interview was conducted to ascertain the participants’ view on the treatment, the target structure, and the testing procedure. The analysis showed that the cognitions and perceptions held by the participants were of great significance, and success was attributed to positive learning characteristics rather than the treatments.
Chapter 7, “Awareness of Cognate Vocabulary and Vocabulary Learning Strategies of Polish Multilingual and Bilingual Advanced Learners of English” by Agnieszka Otwinowska-Kasztelanic, focuses on the use of cognates, which does not always lead to enhanced vocabulary mastery of the target language. This chapter first surveys how advanced bilingual and multilingual learners of English perceived language distance between cognates, and then looks at the difference in vocabulary learning strategies between the two groups. The multilingual participants showed better awareness of cognates, and appropriate training could change the attitudes and vocabulary-learning strategies of the bilingual participants. This study sheds light on how to make use of cognates and facilitate positive transfer.
The fourth part of the book is concerned with experienced learners, and it begins with Chapter 8, “A Study of Gender-Related Levels of Processing Anxieties over Three Years of Secondary Grammar School Instruction” by Ewa Piechurska-Kuciel. It first offers an introduction to the effects of anxiety and gender on SLA and how the two factors interact. Next, it presents a longitudinal questionnaire study with the aim of comparing the two genders’ levels of processing anxieties. The data collected from 393 students showed that females generally declared higher levels of processing anxieties than males, but the two genders displayed different trends in the three types of anxiety (input, processing, and output) over time.
In Chapter 9, “Challenge or Threat? A Study of Perceived Self-Efficacy of Polish EFL Teachers,” Joanna Bielska examines if more years of teaching experience resulted in higher levels of teacher self-efficacy and satisfaction. Data were collected from 232 participants with limited teaching experience using the Teachers’ Sense of Efficacy Scale. The average levels of teachers’ sense of efficacy were found not very high, and the participants with least experience reported the lowest confidence, especially in maintaining classroom discipline. Unsurprisingly, the teachers with higher levels of self-efficacy were more satisfied with the teaching profession and also more certain of their career choice.
Chapter 10, “Managing Criticism and Praise by Trainee Interpreters: Looking for Gender Differences” by Andrzej Łyda, Krystyna Warchał, and Alina Jackiewicz focuses specifically on trainee interpreters. It aims to see how male and female consecutive interpreters used deictic shifts differently to deal with open criticism and direct praise in monologic, formal addresses. In general, deictic manipulation was found more frequent among the female participants. The male participants shifted deictic centre more often in laudatory contexts whilst the female counterparts used a higher number of shifts for negative judgement. When identification with the receivers was assumed, both genders changed deictic perspective more frequently, particularly by using YOU to THEY shifts.
Chapter 11, “Student Needs Assessment in Teaching English at the Tertiary Level: An Individual Learner Differences Perspective” by Zbigniew P. Możejko, begins by defining learner needs, connecting learner needs to motivation, and overviewing the practice of needs analysis. The second half is a report of part of a large project looking into learner needs and satisfaction, language proficiency, and quality of English instruction. In sum, the participants had well-formed and stable expectations for instruction, but there were also contradictory postulates which merit further studies, such as the participants’ demand for more translation training but less writing tuition.
The first chapter in the book that confronts the topic of individual variation in second language (L2) phonological attainment is Chapter 12, “Regularity and Individual Variation in Native English and Polish Learners’ Wh-Question Suprasegmentals” by Andrzej Porzuczek. It describes a study in which 13 participants read aloud the same passage before and after their first academic year, and the utterance in focus -- ‘Why are you crying, my dear?’ -- was analyzed. Some hypothesized problems among Polish learners were confirmed. For instance, the participants’ performance was slower than that of native speakers, redundant glottal stops and velar plosives were inserted, and the auxiliary verb ‘are’ was often not reduced.
Chapter 13, “Time-Limited Verbal Fluency Task with Polish-English Unbalanced Bilinguals” by Arkadiusz Rojczyk, gives an overview of how unbalanced bilinguals use an integrated lexicon and switch between languages by means of inhibition. After that, it details a time-limited verbal fluency experiment, in which 25 participants were required to generate words in both their first language (L1) and L2 that begin with a given sound. The comparison of the number of words generated revealed a significant advantage of L1 performance over L2. Moreover, individual difference was proved crucial as the participants who performed well in L1 were often equally good in L2.
In Chapter 14, “The Acquisition of English Vowel Length Differences before Word- Final Stops by Greek Learners of English” by Eleni Tsiartsioni, the research question is whether extrinsic vowel length can be effectively taught to learners at different ages. A group of 36 participants received instruction in vowel length, whereas the other group of 36 participants took the regular English classes. The data confirmed the hypothesis that there was little difference in vowel length before voiced and voiceless stops prior to the teaching intervention. After the treatment, only the experimental group showed improvement, yet there was inadequate evidence showing that any age group improved more than the others.
Chapter 15, “Individual Differences in Foreign Language Reading Comprehension: Gender and Topic Interest” by Sıla Ay and Özgür Şen Bartan, marks the beginning of the final part of the book, which is on reading and writing. The objective of this chapter is to examine the relationship between readers’ gender, topic interest, and foreign language reading comprehension. An interest scale was administered to find out the gender-oriented topic interests, and then 159 participants read the corresponding reading texts and completed the comprehension assessment tasks. While both genders got the highest marks from their most interested topic texts, they also performed better in the least interested topic texts than in the neutral topic text. Such findings are contradictory to the results of some previous studies, so there might be a need for both positive and negative emotions for better reading comprehension.
Chapter 16, “Individual Differences in L2 Readers’ Strategic Behaviour while Performing Reading to Learn Tasks: A Case Study” by Halina Chodkiewicz, takes a closer look at the key issues of reading comprehension. The first half discusses the purposes and processes of reading, instruments for measuring awareness and perceived use of strategies, and different aspects of highlighting, note-taking, and summarizing. The second half is a presentation of a case study in which four advanced learners were guided to perform a sequence of reading tasks using highlighting, note-taking, and summarizing strategies. All the strategies proved useful to the participants, but editing a summary was particularly difficult to them. The findings of this study imply that even advanced learners require adequate strategy training to handle productive content-oriented reading tasks well.
As motivation has always been one of the major concerns in individual differences, Chapter 17, “Current Views on Foreign Language Reading Motivation” by Liliana Piasecka summarizes the most influential motivational theories in the area of SLA. It also argues that reading motivation comprises unique components that are yet to be identified. In view of the scarcity of reading motivation research, the author conducted a questionnaire study to examine the reading motivation of 64 university students with reference to academic texts. Extrinsic motives were found to dominate, and the participants appeared to keep their reading motivations for L1 and L2 separately. This chapter concludes with suggestions for strengthening learners’ self-concept as academic readers.
Chapter 18, “From Oral Input to Written Output: On Individual Differences in External Storing of Information” by Danuta Gabryś-Barker, sets out with the assumption that note-taking is a developmental skill, and appropriate training can turn learners into more competent note-takers. The purpose of the study described was to investigate the content and form of 27 advanced learners’ notes, as well as the role of instructional training. The notes taken by the control group were neither adequate for practical use nor as evidence of how langauge had been processed from aural input to written output. In comparison, the treatment group showed evidence of attentional processing and exhibited clearly visible idiosyncratic styles. The findings lead to the recommendations for more facilitative awareness raising instruction and listening activities.
Unlike many other chapters, which involve large numbers of participants, Chapter 19, “Accounting for One Student’s Failure and Another’s Success on a Written Academic Assignment” by Jan Zalewski analyzes carefully two final take-home exam papers, one by a low achiever and one by a high achiever. A key requirement of the exam was to use only the course textbook, so the same pool of examples would make the comparison between the participants’ ability of argument construction more reliable. The more successful student not only presented knowledge but also demonstrated metacognitive control of the conceptual content, and such control is pivotal in turning writing experience into learning experience. The author believes that the essay-type take-home exam can prompt learners to develop metacognitive writing skills in a stress-free environment.
Chapter 20, “Online Revisions in FL Writing: General Rules and Individual Differences” by Iwona Kowal, wraps up the book by reviewing the taxonomies, analyzing tools, and current research on writing revision. It then examines the revisions made by seven beginner L3-learners and associates them with individual differences and language skills. As expected, the participants made online revisions frequently, spelling corrections were the most common, and less skilled learners revised more at the normative level (spelling, grammar, and vocabulary). However, the author suggests further longitudinal studies because the relationship between writing competence development, formal revisions, and conceptual revisions remains unclear.
The first thing that stands out in the book is the large number of recent contributions included. This is inevitable because new branches and frameworks continue to emerge, and this volume does a good job in balancing the variety and homogeneity of its content. Both teachers’ and learners’ role have been investigated, and three broad language skills have been covered. What’s more, most selected contributions begin a concise but substantial review, followed by clearly stated research questions, detailed research procedures, and findings presented with appropriate graphs. The homogeneity in format enhances greatly the readability of this book.
Another salient feature of this volume is its emphasis on studies examining the role of individual differences in specific language skills, in contrast with books using theories and learner characteristics (intelligence, aptitude, personality and so on) as the foundations. The chapters on pronunciation, reading, and writing are of high practical value to in-service teachers who have been facing ongoing problems in handling these skills.
One thing that struck me is the highly similar background of the authors and participants -- the majority of them are from various Polish universities. While some might worry that this would limit the usefulness and generalizability of the book, this problem is mitigated by, again, the rich variability of content and methods introduced. For example, the book discusses individual differences both inside and outside classrooms; participants of diverse proficiency levels were recruited; and intensive studies with few participants were reported alongside with large-scale research. This ensures that most potential readers, regardless of their purposes, would get something they need in the end.
As there is a need to free up more space for the 18 empirical studies, the first part of the volume, which informs readers of common learning strategies and the incessant tension between theory and practice, receives a mere 38 pages. While it serves as a nice introduction for seasoned researchers, novices who are less familiar with language development models, learning styles, and theoretical approaches to explaining SLA would have difficulty in understanding some chapters that follow. These readers might consider consulting Lightbown and Spada (2006) and Shore (1995), among other references that appear in Part 1 of the book. Another downside of packing so many chapters into one book is that it finishes abruptly without a conclusion section. Those who are looking for directions for future research might need to read several times before they could see any general trends or research gaps.
Overall, this volume makes an up-to-date contribution to the study of individual learner differences in SLA, as well as the development of more individualized language teaching. In particular, experienced researchers and teachers would benefit from its wide array of content. Beginner teachers and linguistics students, on the other hand, might need considerable guidance in order to make good use of it.
Dörnyei, Z. (2005). The psychology of the language learner: Individual differences in second language acquisition. Mahwah: NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N. (2006). How languages are learned (3rd ed.). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
Robinson, P. (Ed.). (2002). Individual differences and instructed language learning. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Shore, C. M. (1995). Individual differences in language development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Tim S. O. Lee is currently undertaking a PhD in Applied English
Linguistics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is also a visiting
lecturer at the Hong Kong Community College, Hong Kong Polytechnic
University, and he has been teaching adults and sub-degree students
since 2006. His previous research has focused on the use of
communicative tasks and written exercises in vocabulary teaching and
learning in tertiary institutes.