Member's Profile: Chris Wharton

Chris Wharton


In this edition of Member’s Profile, Chris Wharton reflects on his observations of English use outside the classroom being hindered by issues of personality and how this may be remedied.


Chris Wharton

The effect of personality on authentic L2 use

After nearly seven years in Japan, teaching primarily at English conversation schools (eikaiwa), I recently began to examine the reasons behind the majority of communication failures described by, and observed in, adult eikaiwa students when traveling abroad.

The findings suggest that personality plays a significant, if not the most important, role in authentic second language (L2) communication. Many advanced level eikaiwa students return disillusioned from a trip to an English-speaking country or a chance encounter with a native speaker (NS) in Japan. They are understandably disappointed when they cannot communicate fluently in a real conversation or even engage in a meaningful exchange of information.

According to student interviews and direct observation, it was not a lack of grammatical knowledge or an insufficient vocabulary that was responsible for the letdowns; it was their personalities. Here are two examples:

Example #1: A middle-aged female student visited the United States to attend a Japanese friend’s graduation ceremony. She was seated at a table with other Japanese guests. The other tables were all comprised of NSs. Some would describe this situation as the perfect opportunity to practice authentic English conversation. However, although the female student was an advanced speaker, she lacked confidence and felt that she would be “bothering” the NSs if she tried to talk to them in her “broken English”. She also indicated that she felt she had “nothing in common” with the American guests.

Example #2: A young male student visited Canada for a one-week holiday. He came back to my class complaining of the treatment he received in fast food restaurants. He said the cashiers were always pressing him for his order, to the point where he often just quickly pointed to something on the menu, so as not to upset the cashier or hold up the line. Although insignificant to some, this resulted in an unsatisfactory dining experience which affected his overall travel experience.

How do we as English teachers address these seemingly nonlinguistic communication problems? Some students are simply introverted, a little shy, or just lack confidence. Does this mean that only outgoing language students will succeed in learning a foreign language? No, but perhaps the shy ones need an injection of “personality training” into their English classroom.

Attempting to alter an individual’s personality may sound like something out of Clockwork Orange, yet research has found that L2 speakers themselves often change their personalities when speaking their L2 (Grosjean, 1994). The two students described in the previous examples might have been helped by personality enhancement activities in the classroom. Of course, a good personality alone is not enough to communicate fluently, but the idea here is to add a personality dimension to the standard adult eikaiwa curriculum. Past research into personality and L2 acquisition has identified certain personality traits that, when present, enable individuals to better acquire an L2 (Krashen, 1982), yet not much has been written about actually trying to improve students’ personalities in order to make them better communicators.

Some ideas coming from this personality perspective include challenging students with unexpected situations. For example, adding time limits for certain classroom tasks, like impromptu speeches or oral summaries of readings, can provide beneficial stress or pressure. If students feel nervous about approaching a NS or ordering fast food, we should provide practice through classroom role-plays, where the “impatient cashier” role can be alternated between teacher and students.

Are eikaiwa teachers too soft on students? Are students successful outside of the safe confines of the eikaiwa classroom? I feel we need to shake things up and keep students on their toes. We should surprise our students in the classroom and always keep them guessing. This also includes the little things: Is it the teacher who always asks “Hello. How are you?”; Is it the teacher who always initiates exchanges with questions? If so, then perhaps the students would be better served by taking on these kinds of roles. Teachers could even have students come in with a lesson plan and run the class (see Wharton, forthcoming). As students feel more comfortable with unexpected situations and added pressure, they will hopefully take more risks and enjoy themselves more when traveling abroad and talking with NSs.

The interplay of personality and SLA is intriguing, as although I truly believe that a solid vocabulary is more useful than a deep understanding of grammar, I feel above all that a good personality will best serve eikaiwa students who wish to communicate comfortably in their L2 both at home and abroad.

Chris Wharton is the owner of CES English School in Sakata, Yamagata. His research interests include learner autonomy and vocabulary acquisition. He can be contacted at <>.


Grosjean, F. (1994). Individual bilingualism. In R. E. Asher (Ed.), The encyclopedia of language and linguistics. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. New York: Pergamon Press.

Wharton, C. (forthcoming). Realizing autonomy in a Japanese eikaiwa classroom: Learners teaching learners. In K. Irie & A. Stewart (Eds.), Realizing autonomy: Practice and reflection in language teaching contexts. Palgrave Macmillan.

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