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Review of  The Psychology of the Language Learner

Reviewer: Robert A May
Book Title: The Psychology of the Language Learner
Book Author: Zoltán Dörnyei
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 16.3459

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Date: Fri, 2 Dec 2005 15:00:05 -0000
From: Robert Mayr
Subject: The Psychology of the Language Learner

AUTHOR: Dörnyei, Zoltán
TITLE: The Psychology of the Language Learner
SUBTITLE: Individual Differences in Second Language Acquisition
PUBLISHER: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
YEAR: 2005

Robert Mayr, University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, United Kingdom


As the title suggests, Dörnyei's monograph deals with the
psychological aspects of second language learning, thereby focusing
on factors that account for individual differences (ID) between L2
learners. In the preface, the author points out that although several
anthologies on learner issues have recently been published (e.g.
Breen 2001, Cook 2002, Robinson 2002), this monograph has a
number of advantages compared with anthologies. For example, it can
provide a unified voice and avoid repetitions and gaps.

The book comprises a total of eight chapters, followed by an extensive
references section. In addition to author and subject indices, it also
features a 'definition index' which, given the large number of
definitions used in the book, was considered more useful than a
standard glossary. Chapter 1 introduces the reader to the study of
individual differences, Chapter 2 deals with personality-related
variables, Chapter 3 is dedicated to language aptitude, Chapter 4
deals with motivation, Chapter 5 with learning/cognitive styles,
Chapter 6 with language learning strategies, and Chapter 7 with
several other variables. The book ends with a short concluding
chapter. Since the author is particularly renowned for his research on
motivation (e.g. Dörnyei 2001, 2003), it is not surprising that Chapter
4 is the longest one (54 pages).

In structural terms, the book is very consistent and all chapters are
organised in similar ways. Thus each chapter starts out with a
definition and explanation of particular ID variables, followed by a
general discussion of these variables within the framework of cognitive
and educational psychology. They are then examined with reference
to SLA research, depicting a multitude of both established and very
recent models. These models are not only discussed in theoretical
terms but also in terms of their practical applicability, which enables
the reader to establish a link between the abstract concepts that
underlie the models and the concrete tasks that (purportedly)
measure them. Throughout the book, the author also voices his
opinion concerning the pros and cons of the various models.

In the introductory chapter (Ch.1), Dörnyei mentions that his ''primary
purpose […] has not been to provide a book-length literature review
[although that is a component] but rather to offer conceptual
clarification'' since ''the greatest problem in using these variables in L2
studies has been […] the lack of sufficient theoretical coherence''
(p.3). His ''second objective […] has been to show that IDs are related
to some of the core issues in applied linguistics and that they can be
meaningfully linked to the most important processes underlying SLA''
(p.3). Thus with this book the author wants to convince SLA
researchers/ applied linguists that in-depth knowledge of ID variables
is important, since, as he claims, applied linguists have fallen prey to
the ''almost irresistible temptation […] to adopt somewhat simplistic
psychological models'' (p.219). The author exemplifies this by pointing
out that motivation is often viewed as no more than the sum
of 'instrumental' and 'integrative' orientation.

As mentioned above, each chapter commences with basic conceptual
introductions and definitions. In other words, the author does not
presuppose any previous knowledge of ID research. On the other
hand, Dörnyei also introduces new concepts, such as his 'L2
Motivational Self System'. Therefore this book is intended for readers
with little or no background in this field and for experts alike. Since ID
research operates at the interface of several different disciplines, the
intended readers are, amongst others, educational psychologists,
cognitive psychologists, SLA researchers, applied linguists, and
teachers, or more broadly speaking, anyone with an interest in


Chapter 1 opens with a general introduction to ID research, in which
the author defines ID constructs as ''dimensions of enduring personal
characteristics that are assumed to apply to everybody and on which
people differ by degree'' (p.4). He then critically summarises the
history of ID research in general, followed by an historical account of
studying IDs in SLA. The last section discusses the organisation of the
book and explains the decision not to include the variables of 'age'
and 'gender' because they affect all other ID variables.

In Chapter 2 ('Personality, Temperament, and Mood'), Dörnyei defines
the three terms in the title, adding that due to insufficient research
findings, the remainder of the chapter only deals with personality
proper. He then points out that the majority of psychologists are in
agreement concerning the main dimensions of human personality, as
represented by the 'Big Five Model' (e.g. Goldberg 1992), but states
that the latter model is not informative on personality development.
After a detailed discussion of the model, its usefulness and practical
applicability in the form of the 'NEO-PI', he describes the 'Myers-
Briggs Type Indicator' (MBTI). In the subsequent section, Dörnyei
raises the question of whether personality traits affect academic
achievement and concludes on the basis of empirical studies that the
evidence is mixed. Finally, the author analyses the role of personality
in SLA and reviews a variety of SLA studies, most notably those on
the most widely studied personality variable in SLA research:

In Chapter 3 ('Language Aptitude'), Dörnyei clarifies the
terms 'ability', 'aptitude' and 'intelligence', and then discusses the
history of language aptitude research up to the 1990's. This section
features a detailed examination and critique of Carroll & Sapon's
(1959) 'Modern Language Aptitude Test' (MLAT) and Pimsleur's
(1966) 'Pimsleur Language Aptitude Battery' (PLAB), as well as a
variety of post-Carroll aptitude models. He then investigates a variety
of different aptitude issues, such as the question what language
aptitude actually determines, the difference between L1 and L2
aptitude, the relation between language aptitude and age, and that
between aptitude and intelligence. After considering the various
purposes of language aptitude tests, Dörnyei analyses new directions
in recent aptitude research. He suggests that what unifies them is an
attempt to investigate specific cognitive ID factors in detail, rather than
looking at aptitude as an umbrella term. In this context, he discusses
Grigorenko et al.'s (2000) CANAL-FT, Sparks' (1995) LCDH, and
recent research on working memory capacity (e.g. Miyake & Friedman
1998). Towards the end of the chapter, Dörnyei presents Robinson's
(e.g. 2002) research on the aptitude-treatment interaction as well as
Skehan's (e.g. 2002) research, which links specific SLA stages (e.g.
noticing) to specific aptitude constructs (e.g. phonetic coding ability).

Chapter 4 ('Motivation and Self-Motivation') is about the author's
specialist area and in addition to a detailed historical review of
motivational research it also features a new theory: Dörnyei's 'L2
Motivational Self System'. The chapter begins with an overview of the
three chronological phases of motivational research: (1) the 'social
psychological period' up to 1990, (2) the 'cognitive-situated period'
during the 1990's, and (3) the 'process-oriented period' of the last five
years. This is followed by a discussion of new conceptual issues, such
as the relation between motivation and group dynamics, research into
the notion of demotivation, motivational self-regulation, and the
neurobiology of motivation. In the subsequent section, Dörnyei
introduces his new model, which relates L2 motivation to a theory of
self and identity. A key aspect of the model is the notion of
the 'possible self', which represents an ''individual's ideas of what they
might become, what they would like to become, and what they are
afraid of becoming'' (p. 99, italics in original), while the 'ideal self'
represents ''the attributes that someone would like to possess'' (p.101)
and the 'ought self' refers to ''the attributes that one believes one
ought to possess'' (p.101). According to Dörnyei, motivation ''involves
the desire to reduce the discrepancy between one's actual and ideal
or ought selves'' (p.101). By drawing on the concept of the 'ideal self',
the author explains an apparently curious finding in Cziser & Dörnyei's
(2005) study, i.e. that 'integrativeness' is related to 'instrumentality'
and 'attitudes to the L2 community'. In view of this, he suggests that
the concept of 'integrativeness' requires a broader definition and,
most crucially, that it ought to be relabelled as the 'ideal L2 self'. He
then goes on to link this notion with Noels' (2003) and Ushioda's
(2001) conceptions of L2 motivation, and proposes the 'L2
Motivational Self System'. This model is composed of (1) the 'Ideal L2
Self' (2) the 'Ought-to L2 Self', and (3) the 'L2 Learning Experience'.
Following a detailed commentary on the role of L2 motivation within
the domain of SLA research in general, Dörnyei lists several practical
implications of motivational research.

In Chapter 5 ('Learning Styles and Cognitive Styles'), Dörnyei
introduces the notions of 'learning style' and 'cognitive style', before
describing Riding's (2001) and Kolb's (1999) models. He then
presents assessment methods of cognitive styles, which he considers
to be ''the Achilles heel of the concept'' (p.131). This section features
a critical evaluation of Kolb's 'Learning Style Inventory' and
Riding's 'Cognitive Styles Analysis'. The remainder of the chapter is
dedicated to a discussion of the role of cognitive and learning styles in
SLA, commencing with the most widely studied style variable in SLA
research, 'field dependence-independence'. After describing the
familiar concept of 'sensory preferences', Dörnyei discusses various
learning style measurement instruments, such as Reid's
(1995) 'Perceptual Learning Style Preference Questionnaire', Oxford's
(1993) 'Style Analysis Survey', and Cohen et al.'s (2001) 'Learning
Style Survey'. This is followed by a depiction of the Ehrman & Leaver
Construct (2003) and Skehan's (1998) distinction between 'analysis-
oriented learners' and 'memory-oriented learners'. Finally, Dörnyei
evaluates the usefulness of the notion of learning styles in instructed
SLA, pointing out that there are still severe problems that
have ''prevented styles from becoming accessible and practical for
classroom use'' (p.157). However, ''it may be possible for future
research to come up with style-based teaching suggestions that are
both useful and do-able'' (p.159).

In Chapter 6 ('Language Learning Strategies and Student Self-
Regulation'), Dörnyei introduces the reader to the controversial nature
of learning strategies and raises the question as to whether they
actually exist. His assessment suggests that they do, although they
are difficult to define. Generally, learning strategies are seen as
important since they potentially shed light on the actual processes and
mechanisms of learning. In an historical review of learning strategy
research in SLA, Dörnyei states that after a period of general interest
in strategies in the 1980's, it went out of fashion since ''the necessary
theoretical clarification about the nature of the language learning
concept did not happen'' (p.170). As a result, it was replaced by
language teaching methodology in L2 research, and by the study
of 'self-regulation' in educational psychology. This latter concept,
which refers to ''the degree to which individuals are active participants
in their learning'' (p.191), is then discussed in some detail, including
an investigation of the role of self-regulation in ID research.

Finally, Chapter 7 ('Other Learner Characteristics') focuses on five
additional ID variables: 'anxiety', 'creativity', 'willingness to
communicate', 'self-esteem', and 'learner beliefs'. According to the
author, these areas ''do not warrant a chapter of their own'' (p.8).


Given the sheer amount and complexity of the information provided in
this book, readers could easily feel overwhelmed and confused.
However, due to the coherent structure of the book, the reader is
always clear about the relevance of specific contents in relation to
other areas. This is, of course, of paramount importance since one of
the objectives of this book is to demonstrate the link between ID
research and applied linguistics. The small number of typos is further
evidence of the author's attention to formal accuracy.

As far as the content of this book is concerned, a number of factors
make it a must-read for anyone with an interest in language learning:
First, all chapters contain an historical dimension. As a consequence,
specific approaches/ models are not (merely) portrayed as the result
of a 'sudden brainwave' on the part of a few scholars (although I do
not want to dispute that), but rather as extensions of prior research
and thus embedded in specific research traditions. Second, the book
includes a multitude of very recent research findings and models, not
least the author's 'L2 Motivational Self System'. Since this model
constitutes a radical departure from traditional accounts of motivation
in language learning, it is almost certain to spark a great deal of
discussion and controversy. Third, the book contains lucid definitions
and explanations of basic concepts. This is particularly helpful for
readers with no prior knowledge of ID research, and I would certainly
recommend the book as an introductory textbook in any course on ID
variables. In fact, even in courses that do not focus on language
learning at all, the more general introductory sections in each chapter
will prove useful. This not withstanding, the book was primarily written
for readers with a background in applied linguistics (like myself) and
this latter group will find the conceptual clarifications throughout the
book absolutely essential. After all, it is these conceptual issues that
provide us with knowledge of the very variables that we wish to relate
to language.

My only (minor) criticism concerns Dörnyei's evaluation of the models
he presents. Naturally, it is impossible to do this without introducing a
certain element of bias. However, by criticising some accounts (e.g.
Kolb's model), but not others, Dörnyei implicitly accepts the validity of
the latter. For example, when discussing Schumann's (2001)
research, he states that through neuroimaging methods cognitive
processes are directly observable (p.92). Despite the new avenues
that recent technological advances in neurology have opened up,
such a direct equation of neurolinguistic data and cognitive processes
is questionable. This not withstanding, it would be grossly unfair to
penalise the author for not raising all possible objections, not least
because of the huge amount of concepts and models that he has

Taken together, this is a very well-structured informative book that
fulfils all the objectives that the author set out to achieve. To my mind,
its most significant contribution is the author's success at bridging the
gap between educational and cognitive psychology, on the one hand,
and applied linguistics, on the other. From the point of view of applied
linguistics, the publication of this book has made our lives 'utterly
miserable' since it bereaves us of the excuse to draw on simplistic
conceptualisations of ID variables.


Breen, M. P., ed. (2001) Learner contributions to language learning:
new directions in research. Harlow, England: Longman.

Carroll, J. B. & Sapon, S. (1959) The modern languages aptitude test.
San Antonio, TX: Psychological Corporation.

Cohen, A. D., Oxford, R. L., & Chi, J. C. (2001) Learning style survey.

Cook, V., ed. (2002) Portraits of the L2 user. Clevedon, England:
Multilingual Matters.

Cziser, K. & Dörnyei, Z. (2005) 'The internal structure of language
learning motivation: results of structural equation modelling'. Modern
Language Journal 89(1), 19-36.

Dörnyei, Z. (2001) Motivational strategies in the language classroom.
Cambridge: CUP.

Dörnyei, Z., ed. (2003) Attitudes, orientations, and motivations in
language learning. Oxford: Blackwell.

Ehrman, M. E. & Leaver, B. L. (2003) 'Cognitive styles in the service of
language learning'. System 31, 391-415.

Goldberg, L. R. (1992) 'The development of markers for the Big-Five
factor structure'. Psychological Assessment 4(1), 26-42.

Grigorenko, E., Sternberg, R. & Ehrman, M. E. (2000) 'A theory-based
approach to the measurement of foreign language learning ability:
The Canal F theory and test'. Modern Language Journal 84(3), 390-

Kolb, D. A. (1999) Learning Style Inventory, Version 3. Boston: TRG
Hay/ McBer.

Miyake, A. & Friedman, D. (1998) 'Individual differences in second
language proficiency: working memory as language aptitude'. In: A.F.
Healy & L.E. Bourne (eds.) Foreign language learning:
psycholinguistic studies on training and retention (pp. 339-364).
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Noels, K. A. (2003) 'Learning Spanish as a second language:
learners' orientations and perceptions of their teachers'
communication style.' In: Dörnyei, Z. (ed.), pp. 97-136.

Pimsleur, P. (1966) The Pimsleur Language Aptitude Battery. NY:
Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovic.

Reid, J. M., ed. (1995) Learning styles in the ESL/ EFL classroom.
Boston: Heinle and Heinle.

Riding, R. (2001) 'The nature and effects of cognitive style' In: R. J.
Sternberg & L.-F. Zhang (eds.) Perspectives on thinking, learning,
and cognitive styles (pp. 47-72). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

Robinson, P., ed. (2002) Individual differences and instructed
language learning. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Schumann, J. H. (2001) 'Appraisal psychology, neurobiology, and
language'. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 21, 23-42.

Skehan, P. (1998) A cognitive approach to language learning. Oxford:

Skehan, P. (2002) 'Theorising and updating aptitude'. In: P. Robinson,
(ed.), pp. 69-93.

Sparks, R. L. (1995) 'Examining the Linguistic Coding Differences
Hypothesis to explain individual differences in foreign language
learning'. Annals of Dyslexia 45, 187-214.

Oxford, R. L. (1993) Style Analysis Survey (SAS). Tuscaloosa:
University of Alabama.

Ushioda, E. (2001) 'Language learning at university: exploring the role
of motivational thinking' In: Z. Dörnyei & R. Schmidt (eds.) Motivation
and second language learning (pp. 91-124). Honolulu, HI: University
of Hawaii Press.

Robert Mayr is a lecturer in linguistics at the Centre for Speech and
Language Therapy, University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, UK. He
teaches undergraduate courses in a range of areas in linguistics. Prior
to that he worked as a foreign languages teacher in secondary and
higher education. His research interests include SLA research,
phonetics, phonology, and psycholinguistics. He has recently
completed his doctoral thesis on the acquisition of German
monophthongs by British learners of German.

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ISBN: 0805847294
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