Maya Angelou the writer and poet once said,
“I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way (s)he handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.”
Maya’s quote is getting at the fact that the way we go about tackling the everyday puzzles and problems in life says a lot about our personality. Personality is a tricky thing to talk about when it comes to language learning. The evidence from studies about personality and language learning often tend to be about correlations, fuzzy connections really, which can be quite hard to pin down and say with certainty, ‘this means this!’
As for my personality, I think of myself as a pretty outgoing person, someone who likes to meet new people, and not really afraid of making mistakes…well, I’d like to think so. To illustrate some examples of what we might mean by “personality” types, I’m gonna talk story a bit about two kinds of seemingly diametrically opposed personality traits concerning language learning: the so-called extrovert and introvert.
A really short story
When I went to Japan for the first time, I went to a Japanese university in a fairly large city along with about 15-20 other exchange students. I had studied Japanese a bit before I got there, but that didn’t seem to prepare me much for the vibrant and tonal language that I encountered in Kansai Japan, a bit different from the “standard” Tokyo dialect I had studied back in school.
When I first arrived I decided I would try to spend as much time with Japanese speakers as possible, not worry about fumbling the language up with my plentiful mistakes and make an concentrated effort to ‘learn’ the language fluently (which for me meant being able to talk with anyone spontaneously about any topic with a fair amount of ease within the year that I would be there: a fairly ambitious goal, but achievable I thought).
As surfing is one of my favorite activities, I joined a Japanese surf club within the first weeks and found out that I would be the only non-Japanese person in the club: perfect! I’ll have no choice but to learn. And indeed I did. It was a bit slow going at first, but there’s nothing like a necessity to communicate with a bit of motivation mixed into the batter to make some tasty proficiency rise in the pan. I surfed, traveled, partied, and became good friends with many people in that cool little club (which is one of the main reasons why I think doing some activity with other people is a great way to socialize into the language!).
Another really short story
There was another kid in the program. He spent his days hanging out with the other English-speaking exchange students all day at the university. He said he didn’t really like talking with his host family too much and would go to his room right after school and play on the computer or go out with the other English speaking exchange students, roving around town in a bubble of English, or so it seemed to me at least. He was a really good student of the language however and would often study grammar points, peruse vocab lists endlessly, read manga comic after manga comic and watch a good amount of Japanese TV.
He often said he hated making mistakes and would work out how to say something perfectly before releasing the phrase from his lips, and even go on to try to predict the phrases he might need in further responses so nothing would come as a surprise. When unknown words popped out at its usual machine gun pace from an actual Japanese speaker’s mouth, he said it was overwhelming and didn’t like not knowing the whole message of what was being said. So he made it a point to avoid uncomfortable situations so as not be confronted with those embarrassing moments of not knowing what’s going on.
Big Idea # 1: To be or not to be…extraverted
So who do you think was better at Japanese at the end of the year? I would have guaranteed with super confidence that the extroverted approach was the way to go. But thinking back about it, we both got pretty much the same score on the final exam, I did better on the oral and he on the written, so it seems our two approaches didn’t seem to make much of a difference…on the overall test (although our skills understandably diverged where we had put in the most time).
And even though common-sense seems to tell us that the extrovert will have much better luck learning another language, the research on this doesn’t quite support it surprisingly, or just doesn’t seem that clear:
Naiman, Frohlich, Stern, and Todesco (1978), looking at the speech production of 72 Candadian learners of French claimed that the relationship between extraversion and oral proficiency was weak at best, after administering, among other tests, the Eysenck Personality Inventory (EPI) test. Most studies after have had trouble finding any strong evidence showing that extraversion plays a part in successful language learning.
Still, it seems to me that, just based on my common-sense intuition, extravert type people being more into socializing would have better oral proficiency, and introverts would have stronger literacy proficiency. But that’s just my intuition…;p
In another, somewhat more recent review of the lit, Dewaele and Furnham (1999) talk of the “unloved variable” in Applied Linguistics that is the extraversion-introversion pair. They say that it shouldn’t be neglected in future research and past research made the mistake of confusing attributes of literacy and oral proficiency.
This extravert/introvert dichotomy brought to mind a quote from Mihaly’s book “Flow” I read some time ago:
“The names we use to describe personality traits – such as extrovert, high achiever, or paranoid – refer to the specific patterns people have used to structure their attention. At the same party, the extrovert will seek out and enjoy interactions with others, the high achiever will look for useful business contacts, and the paranoid will be on guard for signs of danger he must avoid. Attention can be invested in innumerable ways, ways that can make life either rich or miserable.”
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Big Idea # 2: AA (attention and…alcohol?)
This harkens back to a Language Note I did on Attention in language learning. It seems likely that the traits we attribute to ‘personality’ might just be pieces (or products) of the larger puzzle of attention.
When learning a new language, for most people it seems taking those few steps into unknown territory can be a bit jolting, and our thirst for “knowing what’s going on” as human beings makes hearing a stream of unintelligible syllables a bit daunting. But this ‘thirst’ can also be a deep reservoir of motivation. Or perhaps, to get over our shyness and jump into the fray, we just need a little social lubricant.
As the famous study Alexander Guiora did in 1972, he found that a little bit of alcohol (moderate amounts of course, there is definitely a line crossed where it becomes more of hindrance that an aid to language learning:-) ) helped learners of Thai do much better at pronunciation tests. This study prompted many a language student and teacher to suggest that perhaps language classes would be better conducted in the local bar (the linguist Derek Bickerton would agree with this I think).
But generally speaking, I think what being an extravert does allow you to do is what was called “a high-input generator” by Seliger (1977). Putting yourself out there not only exposes you to more ‘input,’ that all important piece of the puzzle in learning a new language, but it also creates opportunities for you to ‘produce output.’ It’s a win-win situation.
Big Idea # 3: Accuracy/Fluency – not either/or but both/and
Or perhaps it has to do more with the trade-off between accuracy and fluency, by focusing more on one than the other for our specific purposes. I always liked to think of the accuracy/fluency dichotomy as two mutually beneficial forces rather than centrifugal forces pulling in two directions. The more I jumped into the conversation, the more fluency I seemed to gain, and the more motivation I had to improve my accuracy in grammar.
If there is one thing that personality does play a role in, it is its influence on our ‘attitude’ toward the language. Language attitudes seem to be where the real personality rubber hits the proficiency road. Our perceptions and ideas about the target language play a huge role in how we may or may not approach the language we are endeavoring to learn. But whichever personality type you ‘fall into,’ I think the Danish physicist Niels Bohr was talking more about language learning than he realized when he said:
“An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.”
— Niels Bohr
Big Idea # 4: Take the Leap
Personality is one of those seemingly common-sense concepts that we have no trouble talking about when it comes to language learning in our daily lives, but when it comes down to it in the research, it’s a bit harder to follow the tangled threads that correspond to being successful at language learning. But while the debate rages on in academia, there’s no reason you can’t go out there, let the unfamiliar sounds stumble out of your mouth without fear and take the leap into a very cool new way of seeing the world: through the lens of another language.
The main resources used for this post:
Bialystock, E., Kenji, H. 1994. In Other Words: The Science and Psychology of Second-Language Acquisition.
Guiora, A. Z., Beit-Hallahmi, B., Brannon, R. C. L., Dull, C. Y., and Scovel, T. 1972. The effects of experimentally induced changes in ego states on pronunciation ability in a second language: An exploratory study. Comprehensive Psychiatry 13:421-28
Naiman, N. et al. 1978. The good language learner.
The featured image for this post was taken on a very extraverted journy I had to Okinawa in the city of Naha.