Date of Award

Spring 5-10-2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Applied Linguistics and English as a Second Language

First Advisor

Sara Weigle

Second Advisor

YouJin Kim

Third Advisor

Eric Friginal

Fourth Advisor

John Murphy


Individual differences (IDs) in second language (L2) learning have traditionally been studied as separate, isolated variables (Dörnyei, 2005), but this reductionist approach has led to a fragmented and inconclusive understanding of how IDs influence L2 learning. The present study takes a different approach to IDs by starting at the level of L2 learning experience and identifying the most basic differences between learners. To do this, a new L2 experience methodology is introduced. Participants are 123 matriculated non-native English speaking students at two urban universities in the South. First, learners were interviewed following a strict interview protocol which ensured that all learners received the same input in the same setting. Next, the interviews were analyzed using the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count software (Pennebaker, Booth, & Francis, 2007), which provides quantitative output showing the types and frequency of psychosocial words each learner produced. These psychosocial semantic categories then formed the basis of a cluster analysis that identified groups of learners who use similar semantic categories. Learners who tend to use similar psychosocial words to describe their L2 learning experience are assumed to share a similar approach to L2 learning and are grouped together into L2 learning profiles.

Results show that these participants can be grouped into three types of successful L2 experiences: Doing, Thinking, and Feeling. An ANOVA and follow-up ad hoc statistical tests reveal significant differences in admissions TOEFL scores among these groups of students, suggesting that learners who describe their L2 experience differently do in fact show significant differential performance. Qualitative analysis of interview transcripts further suggests that the influence of family plays an important role in differential TOEFL scores, and that L2 learning experience may change in important ways over time. Based on the results of the study, a L2 Experience Model of Individual and Social Differences is proposed that accounts for life importance, effort, ability, and L2 experience. Implications of this new methodology and model are discussed, along with suggestions for future research, teaching, and L2 learning.