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Can you have a "great personality" for language learning?

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By George Smith and Kaitlyn Tagarelli

This article is part of our "Learners as Individuals" strand of The Science Behind Language Learning series. In this strand, we are taking a look at the factors, or individual differences, that account for the different levels of language learning success among learners. Read on to learn more!

Доброго дня! Hallo! Welcome  to Adventures in Language! In this series, we’ve covered a lot of factors and traits that make each individual unique. But perhaps nothing defines you — nothing really makes you, YOU — more than your personality. On the one hand, personality needs no definition. As humans, we all kind of intuitively get what it is about people that makes up their personalities, and how much people can differ when it comes to personality. But what is personality exactly – from a scientific point of view?

What is personality?

man-and-woman-sitting-and-talking

Psychologists define personality as the “individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving.” In other words, personality refers to how you uniquely experience, reflect on, and act in the world. Personality — like several of the other factors we’ve discussed recently in this series — is anything but simple. It’s made up of several dimensions that come together in different ways for different people.

When it comes to multi-dimensional aspects of behavior, like personality, psychologists love to create models to understand how all these pieces fit together. Perhaps the most widely accepted model of personality today is the Big Five. The Big Five consists of five primary personality traits: Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. Each trait represents a continuum from low to high, and people can fall anywhere on the continuum for each trait. Let’s take a look at each of these, and then dive into how we might expect them to relate to language learning.

The Big Five Personality Traits

Without a doubt, the most widely studied trait among the Big Five is Extraversion. The typical extravert is sociable, outgoing, gregarious, optimistic…basically someone who loves (and thrives in) social situations. Extraverts tend to take more risks and are less afraid of making mistakes. At the low end of the continuum are introverts – reserved, quiet, independent types who prefer spending time alone or with small groups. Introverts tend to be much more task-oriented, usually think things through carefully before acting, and prefer going with sure bets to taking excessive risks. 

The second personality trait, Openness to Experience, is pretty much what it sounds like: the tendency to be curious, open-minded, and explorative. People who are on the high end of the Openness to Experience continuum are very creative and willing to try new things. Those who are on the lower end of this continuum may have difficulty accepting change and thrive on routine. 

Next up, we have Conscientiousness, which basically represents how organized you are. People with high levels of conscientiousness prefer having structure in their lives, are great at making plans, and are very detail-oriented. On the flip side, people with low levels of conscientiousness are more likely to go with the flow, act spontaneously, and may have trouble meeting deadlines.

The fourth of the Big Five personality traits is Agreeableness, which has to do with how well you cooperate with others. Someone who is very agreeable is empathetic, kind, cares about others, and helps people when they are in need. On the other hand, people who are less agreeable are more competitive, take less interest in others, and may come off as distant.

The fifth and final personality trait is Neuroticism, or how anxious and preoccupied you tend to be about things in general. People on the high end of the neuroticism continuum tend to be easily worried, experience dramatic shifts in their mood, and have difficulty coping with stress. By contrast, those on the low end of the continuum tend to be more relaxed, fairly even-tempered, and are less worried in general.

Personality and Language Learning

So now that we know a bit more about some key personality traits, let’s think about why these might have anything to do with language learning. Let’s take Extraversion, for example. We might expect extraverts to be more successful learners than introverts because they are more likely to have and therefore benefit from conversations in their second language. Likewise, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that highly conscientious learners, who are great at making and sticking to study plans, could achieve more than learners who have trouble setting and meeting learning goals. However, when you look at the actual research findings, some of these seemingly intuitive relationships are more complicated than you might think.

Full disclosure here: Our understanding of the role of personality in second language learning is somewhat limited, because there has not been a whole lot of research in this area. But here’s what we know so far.

people-white-water-rafting

One personality trait that has a clearly positive influence on language learning is Openness to Experience. Research shows that learners who are curious and able to easily adapt to new environments tend to be more interested in learning new languages (i.e., have higher motivation), and may also be better at intuitively picking up on language patterns

Agreeableness also seems to be beneficial for learning. Learners who cooperate well with others tend to get high grades in language classrooms, probably because they complete all of their homework assignments and take an active part in group activities. It has also been shown that, because of their caring nature, more agreeable language learners tend to have positive attitudes towards different cultures – an important underpinning of language learning motivation.

The picture gets a little bit murkier when it comes to the other three major traits of the Big Five: conscientiousness, neuroticism, and extraversion. Take conscientiousness, for example. Some studies have shown that more conscientious learners tend to use lots of strategies for organizing and managing their learning, which could explain why they tend to do so well at language learning. However, there is some evidence that conscientiousness may have a negative impact on motivation. For instance, in one study, learners who were more conscientious held less positive attitudes towards learning about, and engaging with, other cultures – possibly because they held more traditional values. 

Given the strong relationship between neuroticism and anxiety, we might expect high levels of neuroticism to have a negative impact on language achievement. However, recent research tells us that there is no clear link between neuroticism and language learning. Interestingly, though, studies show that neurotic learners may be able to avoid the anxiety trap if they stay motivated and believe in their ability to succeed.

Extraversion has a finicky relationship with language learning achievement. On the one hand, all of that risk-taking and socializing does seem to help extraverts achieve success, especially when it comes to speaking and conversational skills. On the other hand, being an introvert does not necessarily mean that you won't succeed in language learning. In fact, introverts are known to be hard-working, can learn a lot from solitary activities (like reading books or listening to music), and tend to do well in school. Research shows that introverts appear to be on par with extraverts when it comes to writing ability, and may even outscore extraverts on tests of listening comprehension. Also, believe it or not, introverts are actually more drawn to the study of second languages in the first place! At the end of the day, the link between extraversion and language learning may come down to the type of situation in which language is being used: extraverts will excel in unfamiliar situations with lots of risks, whereas introverts will prevail in familiar circumstances where they can think things over.

Multiple Personality (Traits)

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Each of the Big Five personality traits seems to impact language learning in interesting and different ways. But the reality is that they don't exist in isolation. People aren’t either introverted or open to experience or neurotic and so on — as we've already said, they fall somewhere on a continuum for each of these traits. It’s actually the combination of all five of these traits that makes up someone’s personality. 

Research has provided some insight into how some of these combinations influence second language learning. For example:  

Ok, so personality seems to influence second language learning in some predictable and some surprising ways. But what about the other way around?  

Can language learning influence personality?

You may have heard people say that they have different personalities when speaking different languages. Maybe they feel more serious and timid speaking English, but their carefree and fun side comes out when they’re speaking Spanish. Is there any truth to this? Well, on the one hand, there is some evidence that the specific languages you speak can influence the way you think, which could have downstream effects on your personality. Studies have shown that bilinguals express different aspects of their personalities depending on the language they’re using, and that these differences are often closely tied to the cultural norms associated with the languages. But actually, simply having more languages in your repertoire could make you more open to new experiences – probably because learning new languages involves stepping into the shoes of another culture. 

Well, there you have it!

Let’s recap what we’ve discussed today. 

  1. Personality is a multidimensional aspect of behavior made up of Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (according to the most widely accepted model, the Big Five).

  2. Personality can impact language learning in interesting, complicated, and sometimes surprising ways. 

  3. Learning a new language can influence your personality. This might mean that you express your personality differently depending on the language you’re speaking, or that your overall personality changes as a result of being bilingual or multilingual.

At the end of the day, like other individual differences, personality is just one piece of the (very complex!) puzzle explaining why different people ultimately end up with different levels of language achievement. Second language researchers still have a lot to learn about the fascinating relationship between personality and second language learning. We can't wait to see what they find out!

Thanks for reading!

If you liked this article, let us know! Want more engaging language content like this? Subscribe to our YouTube channel and podcast feed, and follow us on Instagram @MangoLanguages! Or visit us at Mangolanguages.com!

Fill out the form below to take a quiz testing your knowledge about personality and language learning. Thanks for reading! До побачення! Ha det!

Wondering what languages were used in today’s post? 

Доброго дня (dobroho dnya) and До побачення (doh pobachenya) mean “Hello” and “Goodbye” in Ukrainian, an East Slavic language spoken mainly in Ukraine. Ukrainian is officially recognized as a minority language by more than 10 countries in Eastern Europe.

Hallo (HAHLLoh) and Ha det (HAAHdeh) mean “Hello” and “Bye” in Norwegian, a Germanic language spoken in Norway.

Interested in learning Ukrainian, Norwegian, or one of the other 70+ languages that the Mango app offers? Click here to start learning! https://mangolanguages.com/app

Want to know more about the scientific research underlying this episode? Here’s some of the research we consulted and/or mentioned:

About the authors

George Smith is a Linguistics Content Writer at Mango Languages. He holds a Ph.D. in Second Language Studies from the University of Hawai‛i at Mānoa, and conducts research on second language listening, speaking, and vocabulary learning. He is a lifelong teacher and learner who enjoys gabbing about language with his family and friends.

Kaitlyn Tagarelli is a linguist and the Head of Research at Mango Languages. She holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics from Georgetown University, specializing in how the mind and brain learn languages. Aside from geeking out about all things neuroscience and linguistics, she loves hanging out with her family at their Connecticut home, trying to convince them to speak French with her.

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Kaitlyn Tagarelli

Kaitlyn is a Linguist and the Head of Research at Mango Languages. She holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics from Georgetown University, specializing in how the mind and brain learn languages. Aside from geeking out about all things neuroscience and linguistics, she loves hanging out with her family at their Connecticut home, trying to convince them to speak French with her.

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