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Review of  Individual Differences and Instructed Language Learning

Reviewer: Ana Llinares
Book Title: Individual Differences and Instructed Language Learning
Book Author: Peter Robinson
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 14.194

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Date: Fri, 17 Jan 2003 18:28:45 +0100
From: Ana Linares
Subject: Review: Applied: Robinson (2002), Individual Differences

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

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 learning.         


     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 Dörnyei´s paper. Dörnyei 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
Dörnyei´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 García, A. (2002) La interacción lingüística en el aula de
segundas lenguas en edades tempranas: análisis 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.