Personal Factors in Language Learning

Este material tiene como objetivo que el docente haga foco en la información previa que poseen los alumnos cuando ingresan por primera vez a una clase de inglés,  para que puedan determinar en qué medida esos conocimientos previos inciden en el aprendizaje de cada individuo.
The learner has a lot of information on his brain, as if it were the hard disk of a computer. This means that the learner is definitely not a tabula rasa, a blank slate. That is, a being with nothing on their mind at birth.

What do we mean by this?

Some approaches to (language) learning in vogue in the 50s and 60s postulated the idea that there’s nothing on the mind/brain before the learner comes into contact with the learning task. Some approaches, based on Behaviourism, put all the load on the environment, on the effect of input and habit formation.

Is this true? What dou you think?

Along these lines, the basic idea was that whatever comes from the external world –say in the form of teaching, for example– got «imprinted» on the mind, provided there was enough stimulus, response and reinforcement in the way of feedback. This included practice, notably drills based on repetition and little or no thinking.

This comes as no surprise since Leonard Bloomfield said at the turn of the 20th century. «We have no right to access the workings on an inaccessible mind.» What he meant was that there was no way, within the empiricist tradition, to prove with direct evidence that there was cognitive functioning.

One must understand: it was the age of empiricism, and, of course, cognitive processes could not be analyzed directly.

Further, this type of approach minimized –denied?– the human capacity to process information in terms of its own structure, and, in particular, to process knowledge of language. This means that the human brain is different from the brains of the other species on the zoological scale, and that, as such, it’s got different powers, still being discovered.

In addition, it amounts to asserting that knowledge of language is accessed and acquired in ways different from other types of knowledge. The present general consensus of opinion seems to point to the fact that different types of learning are learnt in different ways. This is not new for language: it was originally postulated by Noam Chomsky, way back in 1957. And of late it seems to have been confirmed for other knowledge areas.

As was anticipated, research points in a different direction from that of the behaviourists. Humans, as we say above, have a great contribution to make to their own learning. This is what we mean when we say that this individual is no tabula rasa, or that we’re born with knowledge already, and different hypotheses postulate that different kinds of knowledge are accessed, acquired and learnt in ways characteristic of each knowledge area. This is a significant turning point in learning.

In this light, as humans we've got well defined ways of relating with the world that surrounds us, well defined ways of apprehending and interpreting reality, of processing information, thinking, remembering and solving problems.

This is normally referred to as cognitive style.

Some of us require the overall context to be able to understand the parts; others can reconstruct the whole after having examined the parts. Analytically v. globally. Technically the former is called field dependence, and the latter field independence. What does the term field mean? Context.

A language learner who is analytical or field independent tends to learn best by analysing language, extracting rules and applying them. And context does not seem to be so relevant to them.

At a perceptual level, field independent personalities are able to distinguish figures as discrete from their backgrounds compared to field dependent individuals who experience events in an undifferentiated way. In addition, field dependent individuals have a greater social orientation relative to field independent personalities. Studies have identified a number of connections between this cognitive style and learning, For example, field independent individuals are likely to learn more effectively under conditions of intrinsic motivation (e.g. self-study) and are influenced less by social reinforcement.

Can you identify some of your learners along these lines?

Can you think of activities that might reveal either kind of cognitive style?

All learners have needs. These can be linguistic, communicative, cognitive, affective, and sociocultural. If these aspects are considered in the learning programme, then learning will take place more easily.

Have you thought of ways to identify their needs in this respect?

It is not easy to determine our learners' linguistic needs because learning is an internal process: each person processes content in different ways, and may be at different stages of development. However, we can create an environment where learners are exposed to a lot of meaningful language, known and unknown, and where they have curiosity or questions about it. If learners are interested, then they will be fulfilling their communicative needs, expectations and motivations.

All the more so if their basic linguistic needs are taken into account. Surely the learning process will take more smooth paths if these are taken into account. We have no doubts in this respect.

As regards cognitive and affective needs, these are derived from the topics chosen, the tasks and learners' participation in them. As we say in the Introduction, the guidelines we have selected are interesting to a good number of learners in the Third Cycle in our country.

There's a lot of diversity in our country. One cannot expect to find the same reality in Jujuy as in Tierra del Fuego. Even within the City of Buenos Aires there are many different realities. So we have tried to make room for this diversity by allowing learners to bring it into their classroom all along and into the Final Task.

Please, make sure you're attentive and understanding of this fact. It's most important.

It is very difficult to determine our learners' grammar needs because they can be at different stages of the developmental sequence of acquisition. However, we can create an environment where a lot of language, known and unknown, is met and where the learners are helped with new language and have curiosity or questions about it.

Now have a look at this grid on needs assessment.

How much have you changed in your programme in this respect?

See if the following premises make sense in your context of teaching and learning English:

This type of learning...

  • provides a means of obtaining wider input into the content, design and implementation of a language programme;
  • can be used in developing goals, objectives and content;
  • can provide data for reviewing and evaluating an existing programme

It’s often the case that researchers identify objective and subjective needs. Which is which?

Objective needs result in content satisfactions derived from an analysis of the target communicative situations in which learners are likely to find themselves. We recommend that you initiate reflection in this respect. Beware: they might not be in the habit of doing this type of activity, and it might be difficult at the very beginning.

Subjective needs are derived from the learners themselves, which requires sound knowledge of your group of learners. We suggest your circulating a survey along these lines with them. It’s always fascinating to find out about their insight into their own language learning.


BLOOMFIELD, L. (1933). Language. George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

CHOMSKY, N. (1957). Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton.


ELLIS, R. (1995). Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Publicado: 20 de enero de 2015
Última modificación: 03 de marzo de 2015


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