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Thispaper sets to investigate the psychological and non-psychologicalfactors that determine individual differences in language learning orperformance. To achieve this, the paper will sample some of thepsychological factors such as language aptitude, self-confidence, thepsychological impact of age and playfulness among others. Moreover,the non-psychological factors such as motivation, environment,emigration and colonial factors will be analyzed in relation tocontributing to individual learner differences. The paper will defendthe position that even though psychological factors determineindividual learner difference, non-psychological factors play thegreatest role in shaping these differences. The possible explanationto this position will be that language is not an inborn ability but alearned skill which depends greatly on the external non-psychologicalfactors that influence different learners.



    1. Main point

Languageis an inventive tool through which human beings express theirthoughts and intemperate perceptive or experienced phenomena (Shafferand Kipp 2010 p.387). This implies that language is one of the mostimportant aspects in human development. As a matter of fact, thecomplexity of language distinguishes human beings from other brutes.Hence, acquisition and learning of language is “…oneof the most impressive aspects of human development…which hasattracted the attention of linguists for generations”(Al Ghazali 2006 p.2). In this regard, linguists have done studies onthe factors that influence language learning and performance. Suchfactors determine the difference in individual language performance.There are several antecedent conditions or “learnerindividual difference variables”(Gan n.d. p.67) that determine whether or not language learners areable to effectively produce the language they are learning. Thesefactors are either psychological or non-psychological.

    1. Learning language

Learninglanguage is the process by which individuals come to acquire newlanguage through conscious knowledge of the language. Hence languagelearning does not arise from unconscious and naturalistic use oflanguage as opposed to first language acquisition. Rather, it happensthrough formal process of instructions (Oxford 1990 p.4). In thisvein, linguists have sought to establish learning language strategieswhich denote the “… behaviors or actions which learners use tomake language learning more successful, self-directed and enjoyable”(Oxford 1989 p.235). Language learning implies that individuallearner differences have an impact on how a language is learned. Asaforementioned, individual learner differences can be psychologicalor non-psychological.

    1. The definition of psychological factors

Psychologicalfactors are the combination of character traits possessed by alanguage learner as an individual which affect the learner’sprocess of language learning in a personal and unique way. Hence,psychological factors are unique and internal to the learner. Thereare two categories of psychological factors that contribute toindividual differences in language performance. These are, emotionalor the affective factors and cognitive factors. Emotional factorsinvolve the sphere of influence via which the learning individualsfamiliarize themselves with their immediate environment, expressfeelings in response to the environment, and act in accordance withthe feelings. The psychological factors may include age of thelearner, learner’s aptitude, learner’s self confidence, regularpractice, willingness to make mistakes and playfulness among others.

    1. The definition of Non-psychological factors

Nonpsychological factors are a set of antecedent conditions external tothe learner that determine the quality and quantity of the input thelearner receives in the language being learned (Paradis 2011 p.216).This implies that, for instance, the quantity of input varies as theduration and variety in exposure varies. Non psychological factorsmay range from motivation, environment, emigration and colonialismamong others. Individual differences in language performance resultdepending on the external non-psychological factors that the learneris exposed to. For example, those nations that were under Britishindirect colonial rule had a different language learning experiencefrom those that were under the French assimilation colonial rule.


2.1.Psychological factors:


Linguistshave conducted studies to show that age determines the effectivenessof language learning. In this regard, it is believed that childrenare better than adults in learning language. For example, Lightbown &ampSpada contend that “…childhoodis the golden age for creating simultaneous bilingual children due tothe plasticity and virginity of the child’s brain to make forsuperior ability specifically in acquiring the early sets or units oflanguage”(1999 p.29). This implies that children have a privilege, owing totheir mental flexibility, in learning language over adults. As Brownobserves, the privileged ability almost ceases to exist after the ageof puberty. Brown writes, “Childrenwho acquire a second language after the age of five may have aphysical advantage in that phonemic control of a second language isphysically possible yet that mysterious plasticity is still present.It is no wonder that children acquire authentic pronunciation whileadults generally do not, since pronunciation involves the control ofso many muscles”(1994: 51).

Theimplication is that due to age factor, adults may develop apsychological resistance to learning language or the critical periodhypothesis (Ehrman ,1996 p.180). This is because they do not anylonger possess the kind of plasticity that helps the children tohandle new cerebral activities. Hence, the advancement in age leadsto brain’s developmental changes which tamper with the nature ofacquiring language. However, as Al Ghazali argues, age impact on newlanguage learning should not be used as an excuse in learninglanguage. He urges that adults also have certain advantages inlearning language over children such as the possession of a higherlevel of cognitive development than children which helps them to bemore proficient in learning language than children (2006 p. 5).


Languageaptitude is viewed as a form of measurable (not in form of IQ)intelligence inherent in each individual. Hence, language aptitude isan inborn learning ability. According to DeKeyser(2007 pp.256-286) aptitude is composed of four main components whichinclude the ability to code phonetics which enables a person todistinguish and code alien sounds such that he/she can recall themlater and varies from one person to another, associative memory isthe ability to establish connections between responses and stimuli,grammatical sensitivity is the capacity to comprehend thecontributions of words in a statement by recognizing the function ofthe statement, and the analytic ability for inductive language whichdenotes the capacity to examine the quantity of materials of languageand to figure out the patterns of relationships and correspondence.According to DeKeyser,these elements differ from individual to individual thus expressingthe individual differences in language performance.

2.1.3Self confidence

Selfconfidence denotes the learner’s feeling about him/herself. Personswho have a high level of self confidence or self esteem aresuccessful in learning language. In the same token, Schumannidentifies three aspects of self confidence which include global oroverall assessment of a person’s worth, specific or the selfassessment which takes place in different life circumstances, andtask or the self evaluation done during specific tasks at given lifesituations. Hence, the learning of language requires the individualto have a high level of self confidence. This implies that teachersshould bolster the learners’ sense of self confidence and esteem ifstudents are to succeed in language learning. Individuals havedifferent levels of self confidence. For example, some persons mayavoid the open use of a second language for fear of being criticized.This may lower a learners desire to learn a language. Given thedifferences in self esteem and confidence in different individualsand the role confidence plays in language learning, it follows thatindividual differences in language performance will result.

2.1.4Regular practice

Learningof language requires that the learner practices using it often. Thisis because the learned language is a skill like any other skills suchas swimming which may be forgotten or unperfected if not appliedfrequently. This calls for the adoption of appropriate learningstrategies that will enhance the learning of the language. Forexample, memory related strategies enable a student to learn andrecall information in a regular string such as use of acronyms,rhyming, images, and body movement (Oxford 1990).

2.1.5Play fullness &amp Willingness to make mistakes

Willingnessto make mistakes while using a new language may boosts the level ofproficiency in that language. As the saying goes, wise people learnfrom their mistakes. It is only through practicing and using thelanguage that one can make mistakes and be corrected by his/herinstructor or listeners. Rubin (1975) contended that a good secondlanguage learner has to be willing to make mistakes among otherqualities such as being willing and accurate guessers. In addition,having fun with the language can help in boosting the level ofproficiency. This implies using the new language in a creative andplayful manner such as writing a song in the language, composing apoem, or talking to anyone you can by using the language. AsCatherine Snow and Hoefnagel-Hohle observe, Adolescents are thefastest learners of language because they can make use of theirdeveloped abilities for logical and abstract reasoning in order toarrive at an analytical comprehension of the language being learned.This involves the role of adolescents in incorporating child-likewillingness to play and to experiment with the new language (Snow &ampHoefnagel-Hohle 1978 p.337-343).




Motivationdenotes the desire that makes a person to behave in certain ways.Motivation arises from a variety of factors such as institutional,individual, instructional and sociocultural factors. The success inlearning language depends on whether the learner is internally orexternally motivated. According to Ellis, there are four types ofmotivations in learning language. They include integrativemotivation, instrumental motivation, resultative motivation andintrinsic motivation (1997 p.75). Instrumental motivation helpspeople in achieving their practical goals such as getting a job.Integrative motivation helps people to better co-exist with thepeople of the society that uses the language being learned.Resultative motivation emerges as a consequence of learning such asthe kind that children receive from their parents as they learn alanguage. People will portray individual differences in languageperformance depending on the motivation in question.


Theenvironment in which the learner finds him/herself plays an importantrole in language learning and thus determines individual differencesin language performance. The environment, here, denote the socialenvironmental factors such as the social class, home language,religious and ethnic contexts and environmental language among others(Madrid 1995 p.64). For example, Madrid establishes that studies haveproved the correlation between and language learning. Moreover,studies have established that children from middle class are moreproficient and more motivated to learning a new language than thechildren of the working class (p.65). In addition, children tend tobe motivated to language learning by the language that theyfrequently hear spoken at their immediate surroundings and at home.This may apply to children brought up in a bilingual family who maytend to be motivated to learning the language that they are mostexposed to at home.


Emigrationis the act of leaving one’s own country to live in another country.This implies that language barrier is a major problem that facesmigrants. In this regard, learning the language of the foreigncountry is a crucial step in enhancing the integration between thelocals and the migrants. Owing to language barrier, the job seekingmigrants may be disadvantaged in getting a job. The implication isthat upon emigrating, one is forced to learn the language of thecountry of destination. In most cases, the language learnt is thedominant or the national language of that country. In this regard,differences in language performance will depend on the officiallanguage applied in the country of destination. For instance, in theUnited States, the official language is English while in France theofficial language is French. This implies that the migrants whosettle in United States and France have to learn English and Frenchrespectively. In Canada, there are two official languages: French andEnglish. These are the languages used at work place and therefore themigrants are expected to learn them for effective communication.


Colonialismis the conquering of one country by another and the establishment ofthe political rule of the colonizer in the conquered country.Colonialism is viewed as an effort to impose the civilization of thecolonizer to the colonized. In this regard, it involves introductionof the religious beliefs, educational systems and politicalstrategies of the colonizer into the colony. In this vein, foreffective colonization to take place, the official language of thecolonizer has to be imposed on the colonized. For example, when theUnited States military invaded Puerto Rico, the US made it arequirement between 1898 and 1952 that the official language to beused in education was English. Puerto had been using Spanish for morethan four hundred years when it was the colony of Spain. Theoccupation by the United States led to the shift from Spanish toEnglish as the official language (Navarro-Rivera 1999). Moreover, inall the western colonies in Africa, America and Asia, the colonizingcountry made its official language the official language of thecolonized country. This aspect has persisted for more than a centurysince the end of colonial rule in many countries. The former coloniallands still use the language of their colonial master up-to-date.

2.2.5Grammar is secondary to practice

Thephrase that grammar is secondary to practice denotes the attitudethat language learners have when learning a new language. Many peoplewill focus on the communication aspects of the language learned atthe expense of the grammatical structure of the language. Theassumption is that the language learnt should enhance the mode ofcommunication between interacting parties without the need ofgrasping the epistemological aspects of the language. The implicationis that people end up making poor grammatical statements that canonly be used in verbal conversation but not in written conversation.Hence, individual differences in language learning will depend on thecommunication and the grammatical aspects of a language. Those whoadhere to the learning of the two aspects vary from those who adhereto a single aspect in terms of proficiency.


Ithas been established that individual differences in languageperformance depend on a variety of factors both psychological andnon-psychological. However, it seems that the non-psychologicalaspects play the greatest role in determining the individualdifferences in learning. For example, as much as the learner may havelanguage aptitudes that enables him/her to learn a foreign Languagewith ease, non-psychological factors such as the motivation tolearning the language, the emigration status, the social environmentplay the most important role in determining individual differences inlearning. Children who are brought up in former colonies will tend tobe motivated to learning the dominant or the official languageregardless of their self confidence or age. Perhaps, this can beexplained by noting that language is not an innate ability or skill.Rather, language is learned depending on the pragmatic benefits thatresult from it. Given that pragmatism puts emphasis on themanipulation of the environment for man’s use, it follows thatexternal non-psychological factors are the most important in shapinglanguage learning and thus shaping individual differences in languagelearning and performance.


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