Language, personality and choice

Over the last few weeks, at the British Council ELTons awards and at the BELTA Day, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting people I had got to know through their written contributions and posts to online spaces – blogs, Twitter, forums, Facebook. Many of them I hadn’t seen – other than in photos – or heard, but I had an idea of what they’d be like and whether I’d enjoy spending time with them. When I finally met them face-to-face, I was struck by how accurate that idea seemed to be.

From people’s online writing and written interactions, it would seem that we are able to read and find out about not only ideas, opinions and experiences, but also their personalities.  Recent studies have also found that personality can be perceived through writing as Lin Qui et al write:

“Previous research has documented accurate zero-acquaintance personality judgments made on the basis of writing samples, and identified the relationships between personality and language use in various contexts. The current study extends the existing findings by examining associations between microblogs and personality traits. We demonstrated that personality traits are associated with linguistic cues in microblogs and can be accurately judged by unknown others.”(Qui et al, 2012: 716)

Much of the research seems to have looked only at word choice. For example, Yarkoni (2010) in an analysis of 100,000 words from almost 700 different blogs showed that word choice and personality were related. It is likely that other aspects of the language will contribute to the representation of who we are, but it is probably easier to focus on words through text analysis software such as the Language Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) and studies such as these do support the impression that our personality comes across in our writing through the linguistic choices we make.

Roz Ivanič, introducing her book Writing and Identity: The Discoursal Construction of Identity in Academic Writing, suggests that “readers try to figure out who is speaking to them, even though they often have to do this by detective work: reading the texts around the text, and, less consciously, searching for the writer’s identity in the writing itself” (Ivanič, 1998: 2).  We will have all done this. We will have formed impressions of those we read online, making judgements about their expertise and understanding, their motivation, their personality. We can, I think, pick up on the small clues that indicate that someone might not be as friendly, helpful and open as they’d like us to think they are. Similarly, we can detect that someone is not as anti-social as they’d like to let on! We may think of a person as being fun, earnest, moody, intelligent, defensive, enthusiastic, dedicated, delusional, vulnerable or confident. We will decide if we like the person, if we are on the same wavelength, and if we’d enjoy spending time with them face-to-face – and all this from what they have written.

As we know, there is usually not just one way to communicate something. When we use language, in either its written or spoken form, we make choices. Those choices are significant in determining what is conveyed – about the topic, about our take on it, about our understanding of the world, about us. Michael Halliday’s work sees language as consisting of “a set of systems, each of which offers the speaker (or writer) a choice of ways of expressing meanings” (Bloor & Bloor, 1995: 2). We select – consciously or unconsciously – the word or phrase, the grammatical structure, the tone of voice, etc. best suited to our purposes in any situation. The more we understand the choices, the better we’ll be able to come across as we’d like and the better able we’ll be to help language learners find a voice – their voice – online in a second language.

Language learners and/or new writers can be very aware of not being able to express who they are accurately. Some of them aim for ‘perfection’, believing there to be one correct way to say something and that other options are sub-standard and to be avoided by proficient users of the language. Others may not know enough about the options available to them – grammatically or lexically. They might not yet be able to pick up on the implications of the choices they make or know how to create the nuances of meaning that they can in their existing languages. This awareness of the gap between who they are and what they can express can make them reticent to write (blog, tweet, or post) publicly if what they are currently able to produce does not allow them to present a version of themselves that they are happy with.

But everyone has something to say and share. We all have opinions, experiences, ideas and knowledge. All expression of meaning is an opportunity to move knowledge of a language forward, to show other ways of saying or writing something, to give choices. And, whether we are speakers of English as a first or a second language, we are always adding to the choices available to us. The more choices we have and the more we know and understand those choices, the more able we are to connect with and to influence those who read or listen to us, and the more power we have.


Bloor, T and Bloor, M. (1995). The Functional Analysis of English: A Hallidayan Approach. London: Arnold.

Ivanič, R. (1998). Writing and Identity: The Discoursal Construction of Identity in Academic Writing. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Co.

Qui, L., Lin H. Ramsay, J., and Yang, F. (2012). You are what you tweet: Personality expression and perception on Twitter, Journal of Research in Personality, 46(6), 710-18.

Yarkoni, T. (2010). Personality in 100,000 Words: A large-scale analysis of personality and word use among bloggers, Journal of Research in Personality, 44(3), 363-73.

Learning Awareness

Photo by Carol Goodey available on under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial licence, want to lose weight. My son wants to gain weight. (Oh, that it were the other way around!) So far, we’ve been succeeding and awareness of that success is motivating us to keep going.  Fortunately, it’s been easy to gauge our progress using the bathroom scales!

While I’m not going to try to say that weight-loss is like language learning, success in learning is similarly motivating. It is not, however, so readily measured and recognised by those doing the learning. Tests and assessments can help but, as Scott Thornbury points out in a comment after a recent blog post O is for Outcomes, “often even informal assessment seems to focus on what the learners can’t do – i.e. their distance from the target – rather than what they can do.”

Learners (or potential learners) can easily get turned off if they don’t perceive that they’re making progress, if they feel that they’re not able, or if they don’t believe they’re ‘good language learners’. Learners are often more aware of what they can’t do (yet) – “Oh, my English is not good!”, “There are so many words I don’t know!” – rather than what they have learned and what they are able to do now that they weren’t before. We need to help them see that progress.  It’s important to be realistic about our abilities but it’s also important to know that we are improving – and indeed that we can improve – and to be aware of the difference learning is making.  Learning a language is such a long and unpredictable process that we need to be able to recognise the progress we make and the things we are able to do that we couldn’t before to keep us going.  In my experience and from my observations of and discussions with learners, doing so boosts confidence and self-esteem, as well as increasing motivation to continue learning.

We could, as is often suggested, set SMART goals with our learners. As they accomplish these specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-related goals, their progress is clear. These can be useful for some aspects of learning and can help to break down a bigger task into smaller steps. But, I’ve never much liked SMART goals for language learning in general and as John Sutter writes:

“language learning, far from being SMART, tends to be CASUAL:

C Cyclical – language isn’t learnt step by step; items and skills need continual revisiting and review.
A Asymmetrical – different skills and aspects of language may develop at different paces. ‘Spiky’ profiles, where a learner might have, for instance, advanced speaking and listening skills, but only intermediate reading, and elementary writing skills, are the norm rather than the exception.
S Social – language learning is a social process rather than a measurable set of competences.
U Unpredictable – how exactly learning takes place, and under what circumstances it occurs is still very mysterious. Learners do not all follow the same path.
A Affective – language learning involves the whole person – their emotions and identities affect and are affected by aspects of the language learning process.
L Local – language learning is highly context-bound, both in terms of what is learnt, and how it is learnt.”

(Sutter, 2009: 208-9)

Tyson Seburn recently reflected on where and how learning occurs in a very interesting post and recognised that his deepest learning comes on his own terms, and does not match expected outcomes.

So, if we accept the CASUAL and very personal nature of language learning – which I do – how do we help learners to see that they are learning and that they are making progress towards their ultimate goal of being proficient speakers of English and of being able to participate fully in the English speaking world around them?

How do we see learning? How do we know it has happened?

Tessa Woodward, during a panel discussion at this year’s IH DOS Conference, said that you know that learning has happened when “you find yourself able to do something or be something that you weren’t or didn’t before.”

Learners need to be able to recognise this. Some do, without our help. Others can overlook it, particularly those who feel less able to do things, who are less confident or easily discouraged.

As Adrian Underhill emphasised during the IH DOS panel discussion, “it’s the learning we need to look at […]. That’s what we need to track. That’s what we need to grow antennae for.  The single moving part that we’re there for is the learning and that’s what we need to see.” And, I would add, learners need to see it too. We can’t assume that they do.

In class, we can highlight when learners are able to do more than they could last week, that they are successfully using language in ways they hadn’t been doing before, that despite the look of fear that flickered across their face when writing in class was mentioned, they’ve done well with X and Y, so now need to concentrate on Z.  By providing support and advice, we can gently push them beyond “I can’t” to “I didn’t think I could but now I see I can and I’m relieved and quite chuffed!” What you do and how you do it will depend on the individual you’re working with.  In a post about one-to-one teaching within a group, Adrian Underhill talks about close-up teaching where he is able “to follow an individual learner’s subtle inner moves, or at least to recognise them and to make them visible using a variety of interventions.”

We can talk to learners about their learning, their language use and the difference learning is making for them and encourage them to reflect on it. This is something I do regularly. After being asked to think about it and report on it, learners are more aware of what they do, how they do it, and what has changed. These changes are our outcomes. Outcomes will probably vary according to learning goals and contexts. In my current context, outcomes often include feeling more able and more confident about using English in different situations and with particular people, being promoted at work to a position that requires more English use, people commenting positively on their language use, being able to understand a whole film in English or read a more demanding book.  During one recent conversation about language use and learning, a learner told us, “I know I can speak English now! I am free!”

By reflecting on and recognising their achievements in ways that are personal to them, learners become aware of how what they do helps them to learn and how that learning helps them to do and become what they aspire to do and be. By discussing it with others, they gain insights into what works for other people and what might work for them. And, by instigating and being involved in these discussions, we learn more about learning too.


Sutter, J. (2009) Planning and Assessment: Reflection, Evaluation and the Learning Cycle,  in Paton, A. and Wilkins, M. (eds) Teaching Adult ESOL: Principles and Practice. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Language Use for Learning

This afternoon I was reading over one of my son’s assignments with him. I suggested an alternative way to say something, using specific subject related language. His response? “I don’t use words like that.” Essentially, “that’s not who I am”. Or, as I’d like to think, that’s not who he is yet!

This brought to mind how our tied our language use is to our sense of identity. Our perception of who we are in any interaction is reflected in how we use language and is influenced by other people’s language use. Roz Ivanič wrote about how identities are constructed through discourse:

by ‘address’ – the way we are talked to by others
by ‘attribution’ – the way we are talked about by others
by ‘affiliation’ – the way we talk like others
(Ivanič, 2005: 7; original emphasis)

The construction of a person’s identity does not simply lie with that person and the decisions they make but is also affected by others. What we feel we are capable of, what we are entitled to do, and the kind of person we are, can be influenced by others – family, friends, colleagues and teachers!

In an ethnographic study of L2 learners in a Canadian university, Naoko Morita found that the way the students were talked to and about in the classrooms influenced their sense of self and the way in which they constructed themselves as members of the classroom community. While an identity of a less competent member of the community was in part based on their actual difficulties with the language – in understanding reading materials, lectures or discussions – it was also based on how they were perceived by others. One student who, while initially acknowledging that she was a non-native speaker, understood this identity in negative terms as someone who has limitations and deficiencies in their use of the language. Over the course of the study, this student made a conscious effort to change her perception of herself and to see herself as an “English speaker in a more positive light” (Morita, 2004: 586). As the student describes in her final report “It took a long time to empower myself. Still I can’t say I’m confident… But I don’t feel comfortable calling myself a nonnative speaker anymore” (Lisa, weekly report, March 30, 2000, quoted in Morita, 2004: 586). Another student who received positive feedback for her contribution in class began to see herself as a competent and valued member which in turn “seemed to enhance her participation” (Morita, 2004: 584).

The way we talk to and about learners can have a significant impact on what they feel able to do, what they feel ready to do, and what they feel they have a right to do. This can be very subtle – ways we are not fully aware of and ways they are not fully aware of – but the way we talk to someone can communicate whether we value them as a person or not, whether we expect them to do well or not, and whether we think of them as speakers of English or not.

Unless someone feels that they are a member of a particular discourse community, they will be hesitant or resistant to using the language of that community. My son, as with many new students in an academic setting, isn’t yet comfortable using the technical language expected for his subject. I, living in and having been born in Scotland, don’t use language like a lot of the people around me because, having grown up in Ireland, that’s not who I am. My Saudi students from a few years ago could do a really good Scottish accent but chose not to use it when speaking English. ESOL Learners who can express their ideas effectively in an ESOL group shy away from doing this with neighbours and colleagues.

My son might one day see himself as someone who can talk the talk. The ESOL learners may start to see themselves as members of the wider community with something to contribute. Neither I, nor the Saudi students, will be speaking Scots any time soon. So, to what extent should we encourage and help learners to speak like others and how much should we let them be who they are and who they want to be in their new language?

In Teaching Unplugged, Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury suggest that we “make the classroom a discourse community in its own right, where each individual’s identity is validated, and where learners can easily claim the right to speak.” (Meddings & Thornbury, 2009: 11). And, as they write, a conversation mode would seem to be a good way to establish such a community.

But, to get the best out of our learners (and for our learners to get the best out of us) we may need to understand more about how conversation works, about how what we say, how we say it, the turns we take and the ones we leave open for learners affects people’s sense of identity as learners, contributors, and speakers of English and how this, ultimately, affects their learning.


Ivanič, R. (2005). Language, learning and identification. Paper presented at British Association for Applied Linguistics Conference, Literacies and Learning in Further Education. Bristol, September 2005. available at

Meddings, L. and Thornbury, S. (2009). Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teacing. Peaslake: Delta Publishing.

Morita, N. (2004). Negotiating participation and identity in second language academic communities, TESOL Quarterly, 38(4), 573-603.

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