Seminar: individual differences in second/foreign language learning: nature plus nurture?



Individual differences in second/foreign language learning: Nature plus nurture?


Second-language (L2) development is influenced both by learner-external variables such as instruction and context as well as by learner-internal variables such as motivation and aptitude. Most researchers and teachers focus their efforts on the effects of the former (e.g., instruction) and not without good reason: The type and amount of instruction that L2 students receive can have a massive effect on their learning (see Plonsky, 2017). Implicit in much of this research is the position that learners’ individual differences (IDs) are secondary, generally stable, and/or unaffected by teachers or teaching. However, a long-standing body of primary and secondary (i.e., meta-analytic) research has shown that IDs can play a significant role in explaining L2 achievement and, furthermore, that many IDs can indeed change as the result of teacher-based intervention. For example, there is a strong body of research demonstrating the positive effects of L2 strategy instruction (i.e., instruction on how to apply strategies for more effective L2 learning and/or use.; Plonsky, 2011/in press). With these theoretical and empirical findings as a backdrop, this discussion will outline our current understanding of the role of IDs in L2 development. Working our way through a set of core IDs (e.g., anxiety, strategies, motivation), I will emphasize both (a) their importance with respect to explaining variability in L2 achievement/proficiency and (b) what practicing teachers can do—beyond L2 instruction—to improve language learners’ efforts in their classrooms. In addition to a generalist discussion of IDs, I will also describe a recent study in which my co-authors and I propose and examine a new ID variable in the realm of applied linguistics: “grit” (i.e., passion and perseverance for long-term goals such as learning a second language). My hope in delivering this talk is that language learners as well as current and future language teachers will walk away with a better understanding of how to maximize their potential inside and outside the L2 classroom.


Dr Luke Plonsky

Luke Plonsky is Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics at Northern Arizona University, where he teaches courses in second language acquisition and research methods. Recent and forthcoming publications in these and other areas can be found in Applied Linguistics, Language Learning, and Modern Language Journal and in a number of other journals and edited volumes. He has also authored and edited several books including Second language acquisition: An introductory course (Gass, Behney, & Plonsky, 5th edition, under contract) and Advancing quantitative methods in second language research (Plonsky, 2015). Luke is Associate Editor of Studies in Second Language Acquisition, Managing Editor of Foreign Language Annals, and he serves on the editorial boards of Language Teaching and Learning and Individual Differences. He is also Co-Director of the IRIS repository for instruments in language learning and teaching ( Luke held previous faculty appointments at Georgetown University and University College London. He has also taught in Japan, The Netherlands, Spain, and Puerto Rico. Luke received his PhD in Second Language Studies from Michigan State University.