Adventures in Language

Science Behind Language Learning | Can you have a "great personality" for language learning?

October 19, 2022 Mango Languages
Adventures in Language
Science Behind Language Learning | Can you have a "great personality" for language learning?
Show Notes Transcript

You can probably think of someone who has a great personality. But can you have a great personality for language learning? In our latest episode, Kaitlyn Tagarelli (Linguist, PhD) takes a look at how all the little quirks that make us unique come into play when learning a second language.

If you want to learn more about the scientific research consulted for this episode, and how Mango guides learners, take a look at our blog post on this topic:

Here’s some other Mango content that can help you make the most of your language learning adventure:

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Wondering what languages were used in today’s episode? 

English | Recording language

Ukrainian | 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.

Norwegian | 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!

Kaitlyn Tagarelli (Ph.D., Georgetown University) 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.

George Smith (Ph.D., University of Hawai‛i at Mānoa) 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.

#languageteaching #languageEd #worldlanguageEd #languagelearning #languagelearners #languagelover

Kaitlyn Tagarelli, PhD: "Доброго дня (dobroho dnya)! Hallo (HAHLLoh)! Welcome back to Adventures in Language! I’m your guide, Kaitlyn. In this episode of the Science Behind Language Learning, we’re talking about personality. Personality is made up of several traits that impact language learning in different and complex ways, and we’re going to find out how! Are you ready? Let’s get started!

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.

What is personality?

But let’s be real — you know me by now, and you know I’m here to give you some answers. So here we go. Psychologists define personality as the “individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving.” In other words, how do you experience, reflect on, and act in the world, and how does that make you unique? Personality — like several of the other factors we’ve discussed recently in this series — is not a single, monolithic thing. Instead, 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 — you guessed it — five primary personality traits. These are: Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. For each trait, each individual person falls somewhere on a continuum from low to high. Let’s take a look at these traits, 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 other end of the spectrum are introverts – reserved, quiet, independent types. Introverts prefer spending time alone or with small groups. They also tend to be much more task-oriented, usually think things through carefully before acting, and prefer going with sure bets over 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 open to new experiences are very creative and willing to try new things. Those who are less open 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 and 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 with high levels of neuroticism are easily worried, experience dramatic shifts in their mood, and have difficulty coping with stress. By contrast, those with low levels of neuroticism are more relaxed, fairly even-tempered, and just don’t worry all that much.

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.

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 (so, they have higher motivation), and they 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 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, which is an important underpinning of language learning motivation.

Now, 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 isn’t really a 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.

Now let’s talk about extraversion. The relationship between extraversion and language learning is probably the one that  seems most obvious, but it turns out that extraversion is a particularly finicky character. 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 spell failure. In fact, introverts are hard-working, can learn a lot from solitary activities (like reading books and listening to music), and they 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 studying 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 the language is being used in: 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)

Ok, so each of the Big 5 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 — they fall somewhere on the spectrum for each of these personality traits, and it’s the combination of all five of these traits that makes up someone’s personality. 

Here are a few research-backed insights into how some of these combinations influence second language learning. 

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?

Can learning and speaking a new language influence your personality? Anecdotally, this does to be the case — many people testify to expressing their personalities differently depending on the language they’re speaking. Maybe you feel more serious and timid speaking English, but your carefree and fun side comes out when you’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 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!

Alright, that brings us to the end of our episode. Thanks for listening! Now let’s take a minute to recap what we’ve learned.

  1. Personality is a multidimensional aspect of behavior primarily made up of Extraversion, Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.
  2. Personality can impact language learning in interesting, complicated, and sometimes surprising ways. 
  3. On the flip side, 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 multilingual.

How do you think your personality affects your relationship with language learning? And do you feel like your personality changes depending on the language you’re speaking? We want to hear about it!

If you liked this episode and want to stay tuned for more episodes about the Science Behind Language Learning, make sure you subscribe to the Adventures in Language podcast! If there’s a topic that you want to learn more about, reach out to let us know!

Be sure to check out the description for this episode for some free materials on personality, including an interactive quiz to test your knowledge on the topic. Thanks for listening! До побачення (doh pobachenya)! Ha det (HAAHdeh)

Don’t miss our next episode in this series, where we’ll talk about the relationship between music and language! Next time on the Science Behind Language Learning."