Personality Type, Tolerance of Ambiguity, and Vocabulary Retention in CALL

Posted: December 23, 2010 in CALL related to Linguistics


Caroline Grace
Purdue University


Several studies have shown a correlation between learning strategies and personality and that certain personality types have varying degrees of tolerance of ambiguity. The goal of this study is to examine the effects of lexical ambiguity in CALL (operationally defined as whether or not the CALL context provides first-language sentence-level translations as a means for verifying meaning) on beginning second language learners. Specifically, it attempts to determine whether learners personality type as measured by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator have an effect on the retention of second language vocabulary independently of the translation issue and in an ambiguous CALL context. Analyses of vocabulary retention tests show that students of all personality types learned and retained a significant amount of vocabulary when verification of meaning was provided through the first language regardless of their tolerance for ambiguity. This case did not obtain for all types in a more ambiguous context. Findings support the need for beginning vocabulary learning software which renders meaning clearly while promoting deep processing.


Personality, Vocabulary Retention, Lexical Ambiguity, Translation, Software

INTRODUCTIONWhen developers, whether they are instructors for a specific second language course or professionals for mass marking, create computer assisted language learning (CALL) vocabulary software, they target users as groups rather than as individuals. However, it is ultimately individuals, not groups, that learn a second language. A number of theories hold that personality factors significantly influence the degree of success that individuals achieve in learning a second language (Gass & Selinker, 1994) based on the assumption that some features of the learner’s personality might encourage or inhibit second language learning (Cook, 1996) by enhancing certain facets of language learning while impeding others (Larsen-Freeman & Long, 1991). Unfortunately, the classroom teacher cannot change many personality factors. In fact, according to some researchers (e.g., Barron, 1981), much of one’s personality is genetically determined and never fundamentally changes. Whether personality traits change or not, it is generally accepted that different learners respond differently to the same input as a function of the ways in which their personality affects their perception and interpretation of the world. 

For second language learners to make maximum progress with their own learning styles, their individual differences must be recognized and attended to. In addition, the ways in which learners differ must be balanced with the features they share with others, and a methodology must strive to find common ground beyond the individual variations among learners (Cook, 1996). This goal may in fact be more attainable for software developers than for classroom teachers. Complete individualization is not always possible in the classroom but may be more easily realized in multimedia CALL. One advantage of multimedia CALL is its potential adaptability; when users control their learning environment, they can intuitively select the options best suited for their learning style preferences. If one of the goals of the software is to promote effective incidental vocabulary learning, users can determine when (or whether) to confirm their inferences of unknown or ambiguous words they encounter. Having such options seems indispensable in light of the correlation found between personality types and tolerance for ambiguity, a factor which significantly determines learners’ success in second language learning. (See Ehrman & Oxford, 1990; Chapelle, 1983; Naiman, Frohlich, & Todesco, 1975; Naiman, Frohlich, Stern, & Todesco, 1978; Chapelle & Roberts, 1986; Reiss, 1985.) What remains to be investigated is the impact of ambiguity on word retention for different personality types. One way to eliminate ambiguity is through first language textual translations of a second language text (Grace, in press).

The purpose of this paper is to shed light on the following two questions: (1) whether all personality types retain a significant amount of vocabulary when the CALL context is not ambiguous and (2) whether some types—especially those who might be less tolerant of ambiguity—retain less vocabulary than other personality types when the CALL context is more ambiguous (Ehrman & Oxford, 1990; Ehrman, 1993). This study contrasts a non-ambiguous CALL context with an ambiguous one; the non-ambiguous context providing sentence-level English translations of written French dialogues and the ambiguous context not including such translations.

This article begins with a review of the literature on second language learning, vocabulary learning, and tolerance to ambiguity in relation to personality types. It then describes an experiment which seeks to determine the effect of lexical ambiguity on personality types. The paper concludes with implications for second language software development as well as suggestions for future research.


The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

One measure of personality which has been used in a variety of educational settings is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) (Lawrence, 1984). This instrument is based on Carl Jung’s (1971) personality typology and his views on perception and judgement, later expanded by Myers (1962; 1987) and Myers and Myers (1980). Jung’s theory claims that much seemingly random variation in human behavior is in fact quite consistent and orderly, determined by basic differences in the way people prefer to use perception and judgement (Myers, 1962). Perception involves “all the ways of becoming aware of things, people, happenings, or ideas,” and judgement involves “all the ways of coming to conclusions about what has been perceived” (Myers & McCaulley, 1985, p. 1). The MBTI is a forced-choice self-report questionnaire and classifies individuals according to four scales bounded by polar opposites. It assumes that every person uses both poles of each of the four scales at some time but responds first and most often in a preferred style. The four bipolar scales are Extroversion-Introversion, Sensing-iNtuition, Thinking-Feeling, and Judging-Perceiving. Figure 1 provides descriptions for the four scales.

Figure 1

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

1. Extroversion—Introversion (Attitudes)

Whether to direct perception and judgment mainly on the outer world (E) or mainly on the world of ideas (I); a person’s basic orientation, attitude toward life. Extroverts tend to focus their perception and judgement on people and objects. Introverts tend to focus their perception and judgement on concepts and ideas.

2. Sensing Perception—iNtuitive Perception (Process of Perception)

Which kinds of perception are preferred when one needs or wishes to perceive; one may rely primarily on the process of sensing (S), which reports observable facts or happenings through one or more of the five senses; or one may rely more on the less obvious process of intuition (N), which reports meanings, relationships and/or possibilities that have been worked out beyond the reach of the conscious mind.

3. Thinking Judgment—Feeling Judgement (Process of Judgment)

Which kind of judgment to trust when one needs or wishes to make a decision; a person may rely primarily on thinking (T) to decide impersonally on the basis of logical consequences, or a person may rely primarily on feeling (F) to decide primarily on the basis of personal or social values.

4. Judging—Perceiving (Style of Dealing with the Outside World)

Whether to deal with the outer world in the judging (J) attitude (using Thinking judgment or Feeling judgment), or in the perceptive (P) attitude (using Sensing perception or iNtuitive perception). A person who prefers judgement (J) has reported a preference for using a judgement process (either T or F) for dealing with the outside world. A person who prefers perception (P) has reported a preference for using a perceptive process (either S or N) for dealing with the outside world.

Note. Taken from Myers-Briggs and McCaulley (1985, p. 2).

The four scales in Figure 1 combine to yield distinct combinations and thereby classify each individual as 1 of 16 personality types. The MBTI will be discussed in greater detail later.


Various studies have examined the relevance of the MBTI personality types to second language learning. In reviewing the distribution of MBTI types in university-level second-language learning, Moody (1988) found a disproportionately large percentage of intuitive and thinking types enrolled in courses. He pointed out that Jung’s theory would predict this imbalance since people with intuitive types of personalities like to manipulate symbols and words, i.e., language. This finding is consistent with research by Covner-Crockin (1981) who found that intuitive types generally outperform sensing types in second language vocabulary learning. These trends suggest that a relationship exists between learners’ personality profiles and their language learning performance, something that Ehrman and Oxford (1990) and Ehrman (1993) posited and explored in light of tolerance of ambiguity.

Personality and Tolerance of Ambiguity

Also referred to as language ego, ego boundaries, or cognitive flexibility (Guiora, 1981; Ehrman, 1993), tolerance of ambiguity is directly related to the study described here because various studies have shown that learners who can tolerate moderate levels of ambiguity are more likely to persist in language learning (Chapelle, 1983; Naiman, Frohlich, Stern, & Tedesco, 1978) and to achieve more than those who cannot tolerate ambiguity (Chapelle & Roberts, 1986; Reiss, 1985; Ehrman, 1993).

Because the concept of tolerance of ambiguity is applied to different aspects of language learning, individual definitions of the concept have varied in focus. In the context of reactions to specific language classroom events, Ely (1989) defined tolerance of ambiguity as one’s acceptance of confusing situations and a lack of clear lines of demarcation. Naiman et al. (1978) and Ehrman and Oxford (1990) more broadly referred to the concept as a facet of personality characteristics. Ehrman and Oxford (1995) specifically linked it to risk taking because those who can tolerate ambiguity are more likely to take risks in language learning, an essential factor for making progress in the language (Beebee, 1983; Brown, 1987; Ely, 1986; Stevick, 1976). Ehrman (1993, p. 331) provided a three part model of the concept which includes “the ability to take in new information … to hold contradictory or incomplete information without either rejecting one of the contradictory elements or coming to premature closure on an incomplete schema … [and] to adapt one’s existing cognitive, affective, and social schemata in light of new material.”

Ellis (1994) provided a description which may also have implications for the effect caused by the use of the learner’s first language in second language studies. In his summary of research by Naiman et al. (1975) and Chapelle and Roberts (1986), Ellis described tolerance of ambiguity as a dimension of second language learning which “entails an ability to deal with ambiguous new stimuli without frustration and without appeals to authority [e.g., the first language]. It allows for indeterminate rather than rigid categorization” (p. 518). Bringing together these perspectives and the specific CALL environment described above, the author defined tolerance of ambiguity for this study as a second language learner’s ability to construct and/or retain meaning given incomplete schemata from ambiguous stimuli, with no appeal to the first language as a means of verifying meaning.

Grace (in press) examined the effect of ambiguous contexts by comparing an environment which made use of first language translations to one which did not. To promote the correct guessing of second language words, both learning environments featured a “pregnant CALL context,” that is, an exclusively second language learning context which provides a second language text that focuses on a unifying theme supported by visuals, audio, and “pregnant” second language definitional sentences.1 Grace’s findings showed that although all beginning French students generally retained a considerable amount of vocabulary, those exposed to an ambiguous context retained significantly less vocabulary than those exposed to a nonambiguous context. Grace based her explanation of these findings on two positions on second language vocabulary learning which are traditionally viewed as incompatible: (a) inferring word meanings produces greater retention because it promotes deeper processing—largely based on research in human memory (Craik & Lockhart, 1972; Craik & Tulving, 1975; Jacoby, 1978; Jacoby & Craik, 1979; Jacoby, Craik & Begg, 1979) and (b) incorrect meanings are retained if wrong inferences are made (Bensoussan & Laufer, 1984; Bialystok, 1983; Grace, 1995; Haynes, 1984; Laufer & Sim, 1985; McKeown, 1985; Mondria & Wit-de-boer, 1991; Stip & Hulstijn, 1986). Grace hypothesized that sentence level translations might accommodate both positions because such translations require learners to infer the meaning of second language words encountered while reading. When deriving meaning from translations of this type, learners must search for semantic equivalents and focus their attention on structural differences between the two languages. This strategy diminishes, in turn, the risk of making incorrect inferences in an exclusively second language context and, consequently, committing the wrong meaning to memory since appropriate schemata are more readily triggered (Bartlett, 1932; Rumelhart, 1980; Rumelhart & Orthony, 1977). Although findings suggest that beginning second language learners generally retain the greatest amount of vocabulary when the CALL context is less (or not at all) ambiguous, the question remains whether these findings hold true for all personality types.

This question of personality types is pertinent in light of research that


has shown a correlation between personality type and tolerance of lexical ambiguity. In their qualitative study at the Foreign Service Institute on the relation between learners’ personality types and their purported strategy use, Ehrman and Oxford (1990) found that learners with sensing types of personalities manifested liabilities in language learning because of their relatively low tolerance of ambiguity and their dislike of guessing; learners with intuitive types of personalities claimed they relied heavily on guessing from context, did not require complete comprehension of texts to make progess in the language, and were comfortable experimenting and taking risks in language learning. Similarly, learners with judgment types of personalities tended to be inflexible, cited difficulty using compensation strategies, such as making inferences about meaning, and reported a reluctance to incorporate new information in their developing linguistic competence, especially when confronted with ambiguous situations in authentic reading passages. In contrast, perceivers claimed to be open to ambiguity and to the use of a variety of compensation strategies such as guessing or improvising. Also, thinkers indicated preferences for using metacognitive strategies much more than feelers and for having a greater degree of control over structures and content. Ehrman (1990a, 1990b) supported these findings and observed that thinkers tended to use more data analysis strategies than feelers. Ehrman (1993, p. 337) further hypothesized that “feeling students may tolerate certain kinds of ambiguity, e.g., about grammatical structure, more than their thinking classmates.”

Within this framework, one might expect sensers, judgers and thinkers to be less tolerant of ambiguity (i.e., learn less vocabulary) than their counterparts in CALL environments that do not provide ways of verifying their inferences. The actual performance of the different personality types in ambiguous or non-ambiguous contexts remains to be investigated. To the author’s knowledge, few (if any) studies have been conducted on the effect of such environments, specifically CALL environments, on personality types.


The study described here is part of a larger investigation in which the overall goal is to examine the effects of first language translations on beginning second language learners (see Grace, 1995; 1998; in press). The purpose of the study here is to determine whether subjects’ personality types, as assessed by the MBTI, have an effect on the retention of second language vocabulary. The study addresses two specific research questions.

1. Do beginning French students of all personality types retain a significant amount of French vocabulary when the CALL context is not ambiguous (i.e., when students have the option of verifying inferences via first language sentence-level translations)?

2. Do students with sensing, judging, or thinking types of personalities retain less vocabulary than their counterparts when they are placed in a more ambiguous learning context (i.e., when they do not have the option of verifying inferences via these translations)?



Subjects in the experimental group had the option to access English sentence-level translations of each French dialogue (between subject variable), while those in the control group did not.


All subjects completed receptive tests for short term and long term retention of the French vocabulary. Short term retention scores were calculated by subtracting the percentage of correct points on a pretest from those on a posttest administered immediately after the treatment (posttest 1). Long term retention scores were calculated by subtracting the percentage of correct points on the pretest from those on a posttest administered two weeks after the treatment (posttest 2).


Subjects attended two laboratory sessions in a computer laboratory reserved for the experiment and were permitted to spend as much time as they wished on any portion of the task. After being randomly assigned to a control group or an experimental group, the subjects took the pretest, completed the appropriate CALL lesson (the version of the CALL lesson designed for the experimental and control group, respectively), and then took a short term retention test. Two weeks later, the same subjects took a long term retention test, completed the MBTI, and filled out a questionnaire.


Students from 10 sections of first semester French, eight sections of second semester French, and one section of accelerated beginning French (a combination of first and second semester French taught in one semester) took part in the study at a major university (N = 181). All subjects participating in this study followed the same instructional program in the classroom, which emphasized proficiency oriented instruction and communication, and used the same textbook. All had previous experience using computers. Characteristics such as personality type, gender, age, grade point average, academic background, and contact with the French language were equally distributed between the two groups. The subjects were volunteers, and all who started the experiment subsequently completed it. All subjects were either native or near-native speakers of English.

Personality Type Self-Assessment

Subjects completed the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Form G self-scorable 94 item questionnaire (1987). Subjects’ selections reflected their preference for one of the MBTI poles: Extroversion—Introversion (EI), Sensing—iNtuitive (SN), Thinking—Feeling (TF), and Judging—Perceiving (JP).

The strongest poles of the MBTI are determined by summing up the number of points subjects accumulate for each pole.2 Sixteen combinations of personality types are possible when the poles are combined (e.g., ENTJ [Extroversion, iNtuitive, Thinking, Judging]), each with distinctive characteristics. When the sample size is not large enough to include all 16 types, it is possible to classify individuals by using information gained from a single pole (8 possibilities, e.g., E) or combined poles (24 possibilities, e.g., EN). According to Myers (1962) any of these approaches are valid.


Each subject completed either the experimental or the control version of the CALL lesson. The lesson was designed by the researcher and was derived from the French version of the reading and cultural comprehension CD-ROM Le Fils d’Astérix `The Son of Asterix’ (1993).3 The CDROM is based on the Astérix comic book series, and the episode featured in the lesson takes place in a village in Gaule where periodic skirmishes with the Gaules’ traditional enemy—the Romans—break out. The two protagonists are Astérix, a small but brave Gaulish hero-warrior who draws his strength from a magic potion, and Obélix, a menhir carrying strongman. This CD-ROM was chosen because it is representative of today’s multimedia CALL programs developed for beginning level French learners and makes use of such features as user control, text, hypertext, color graphics,


and sound.

Each lesson consisted of over 40 comic book screens with dialogues in which 48 French vocabulary items to be tested in the project were embedded. The vocabulary items included concrete nouns, abstract nouns, verbs, and adjectives. A set of navigational icons allowed the subjects to select the options best suited for their learning style and to control the amount of time spent on the lesson. The subject’s use of each option was measured and recorded throughout the lesson for future analysis.

Each graphic depiction served as an advance organizer for its corresponding options. The subjects in both groups were able to select a French written text of the dialogue. To further promote correct guessing of words, they were also able to access “pregnant” French definitional sentences of the target words in the French text.4 In addition, the subjects could call up the corresponding audio track with supporting background audio and voices of native-speaking actors. The subjects in the experimental group had the additional option of accessing the English textual translation of the French dialogue in each screen. (See the language components of the lesson in Appendix A.)

Pretest and Posttests

Three receptive vocabulary retention tests were administered by computer.5 The pretest was administered before the treatment and served to establish a baseline for the groups. As mentioned above, the first posttest was administered immediately after the treatment, and the second posttest was administered two weeks after the treatment. Both tests were programmed to record the total time spent on the whole test and on each individual test item. All three tests included the same 48 vocabulary items featured in the lesson. Each test item contained a stem and four multiple choice options; the stem consisted of the French sentence taken directly from the lesson in which the target word was embedded, and the multiple choice options consisted of English definitional sentences for the target word.6 Students clicked on the option which they thought best represented the meaning of the target word. (See the sample test item in Appendix B). The English definitional sentences were distinct from the translations of the dialogues in the experimental lesson. All items and multiple choice options were randomized to minimize transfer of learning between the pretest and the two posttests.


Subjects filled out a questionnaire in which they provided demographic


data potentially related to their retention test scores. Questionnaire items covered prior contact with French and other factors related to previous foreign language exposure, the first language, gender, grade in the present French course, overall grade point average, age, and enrollment status. Subjects also indicated which of the tested words they had seen or used between experimental sessions and how much experience they had had using computers.

Statistical Analyses

A mixed design, repeated measures 2 X 2 X 2 X 2 X 2 X 3 analysis of variance (MANOVA) was carried out to determine the effect of the treatment on the short term and long term retention of vocabulary by the different personality types over time.7 The analysis included five between subjects factors (treatment methods and the four MBTI personality type poles) and one within-subjects factor (the tests). The treatment methods had two levels: second language context with translation and second language context without translation. The four MBTI personality type poles had two levels each: E-I, T-F, J-P, and S-N.8 The tests had three levels: pretest, posttest 1, and posttest 2.


Personality Type and Vocabulary Retention

Analyses revealed that all subjects had essentially the same level of receptive vocabulary knowledge before the treatment and that subjects in both groups had positive gain scores on the two posttests. See Table 1 for the means of the translation and no-translation groups on the short term and long term retention tests.

Table 1

Short Term and Long Term Retention Gain Scores (Percentages) for the Translation and No-Translation Groups

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Note. In this table and subsequent tables, scores are rounded to two decimal places.


Tables 2 through 4 list the means of the short term and long term retention scores of the various personality types in the translation and no-translation groups.

Table 2

Short Term and Long Term Retention Gain Scores (Percentages) for All Personality Types by Group

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Table 3

Short Term and Long Term Retention Gain Scores (Percentages) for Combined Poles by Group

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Table 3 (continued)

Short Term and Long Term Retention Gain Scores (Percentages) for Combined Poles by Group

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Table 4

Short Term and Long Term Retention Gain Scores (Percentages) for Poles by Group

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A MANOVA was conducted on the raw scores of the retention tests. Table 5 shows the results of this analysis.

Table 5

MANOVA Summary for Treatment Methods (Meth), MBTI Personality Types, and Tests

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Table 5 (continued)

MANOVA Summary for Treatment Methods (Meth), MBTI Personality Types, and Tests

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Note. * p <.05, ** p <.001

Analyses revealed that the superiority of the translation group is constant for the sample in general, for all personality poles, and for the combined poles. The analyses of the significant interaction between treatment methods and tests reveal that, averaged over all personality types, the treatment method (translation vs. no-translation) had a significant impact on the subjects’ performance on the two posttests (p < .001). Comparison of the means in Table 1 indicates that the translation group had significantly higher short term and long term retention scores than the no-translation group (p’s <.001).

Posthoc contrast analyses of the significant methods by EI by FT by tests interaction (p < .05) revealed that the EF, ET, IF, and IT combined poles in the translation group demonstrated significant short term and long term retention scores (p’s< .001). 9 These contrasts verify the consistency of the finding that all subjects in the translation group, regardless of personality poles or combined poles, performed significantly higher on the posttests than those in the no-translation group. This situation was not the case for those in the no-translation group. Although the short term and long term retention scores for the EF and IT combined poles in the no-translation group were significant (p’s < .005), the analyses did not reveal evidence of significant short term and long retention scores for the ET and IF combined poles. It appears that extroverts retain a significant amount of vocabulary when combined with feeling (rather than thinking), while the inverse seems to be true for the introverts. For these two combined poles, the effect of personality type is not as consistent across the methods as the other poles and combined poles.

To determine whether the effect of methods was independent of time spent on task, a second MANOVA including lesson time as a covariate was performed.10 Results showed that the significant effect of translations found in the first MANOVA persisted in the second MANOVA. These additional results supply further evidence of the independent effect of the method on the different personality types.

In summary, these results show that the beginning French students of all personality types (single and combined poles) retained a significant amount of vocabulary when they had the option of verifying their guesses via first-language sentence-level translations. Conversely, there is no evidence of significant short term or long term retention of vocabulary for some of the combined types who did not have the translation option.

In order to determine whether the latter was the case for some of the remaining combined poles in the no-translation group, pre-planned contrasts were run. Results showed that there were significant short term retention effects for the IJ, FN, IT, NP, EP (p’s < .001), IN, EF, ST, and TJ (p’s = .005) combined types. There was significant long term retention for the IJ, FN, FJ, NJ types (p’s < .001) and IN, EF, EN, SJ, IT, NP, TJ, IS types (p’s < .005). There was no evidence of significant short term or long term retention for the remaining combined poles. No apparent clustering of poles or other patterns emerged for these combined types.

Vocabulary Retention by Sensing, Judging, and Thinking Types of Personalities

The second research question focused on whether learners with sensing, judging, or thinking types of personalities would retain less vocabulary than their counterparts when they were placed in a more ambiguous learning context. To answer this question, supplementary pre-planned contrasts were calculated. Results showed that while all poles retained the most in the translation group, there was no significant difference between intuitives and sensers, judgers and perceivers, or thinkers and feelers. These results held true for short term and long term retention scores of subjects in both the translation and the no-translation group. For example, as in the translation group, there was no significant difference between the short term retention scores of the intuitive and the sensing subjects in the no-translation group. In summary, all poles benefited from being in the translation enhanced CALL context and, regardless of their degree of intolerance for ambiguity, retained as much vocabulary as their counterparts.


Personality Type and Vocabulary Retention

The question of whether all personality types retain a significant amount of vocabulary when the context is unambiguous was asked in light of research indicating that learners’ tolerance of ambiguity is critical to their success in second language learning and that a correlation exists between different personality types and their tolerance of lexical ambiguity. Results of this experiment have shown that, as measured by a receptive bilingual vocabulary test, all personality types (single and combined poles) demonstrated significantly better short term and long term retention of vocabulary when they had the option of verifying their guesses via first language sentence-level translations. These findings indicate that whether or not a particular personality type is tolerant of ambiguity is irrelevant when learning environments provide cues that can help trigger the appropriate schemata necessary to ensure that learners make correct associations and commit correct meanings to memory. It was previously mentioned that Grace (in press) suggested that retention may be greater for learners who have access to first-language sentence-level translations because deriving meaning from these translations promotes deep processing by requiring learners to search for semantic equivalents and to focus their attention on structural differences between the two languages. The significantly greater retention of vocabulary by all the personality types in the translation group provides evidence in support of this hypothesis.

Other vocabulary instruction studies have similarly found that a combination of contextual (exclusively second language context) and definitional approaches (first language translations) is more effective than either one in isolation (Grace, in press; Laufer & Hadar, 1997) and that the inclusion of first language cues appears to be more effective than omitting these cues (Davis, 1989; Hulstijn, 1992; Hulstijn, Hollander, & Greidanus, 1996; Knight, 1994; Krantz, 1991; Lomika, 1998; Oskarsson, 1975; Scherfer, 1993; Watanabe, 1997). Though these studies did not focus on the effect of personality, they support the notion that cues which help learners construct a complete schema for unknown second language words lead to the retention of their meanings.

This study, like many other studies assessing receptive vocabulary knowledge, employed bilingual tests. The fact that both the CALL lesson with the translations and the tests contained English may have given an advantage to the subjects in the translation group over those in the no-translation group because of the similarity between the learning and testing contexts for the subjects in the translation group. In an attempt to control for this possible bias, the lesson and the tests did not use the same English words or sentences; the lesson provided translations of the dialogues, whereas the tests provided English definitional sentences.

The results of this project have also shown no evidence of significant short term and long term retention of vocabulary by some of the personality types when they did not have access to the first language. No apparent pattern emerged from the data analysis. What is most important is not so much which types showed no evidence of significant retention but rather that some personality types may find it less beneficial to retain the meaning of words when their verifications are not provided. These findings imply that not all learners can benefit from an exclusively second language context which does not make meaning clear, a situation that may also be explained in light of deep processing and schema theory. Though an exclusively second language context may stimulate learners to process information at a deep level (leading to durable retention of words), it does not necessarily provide cues that will trigger the appropriate schemata and ensure that the correct meaning is encoded. Should this be the case, the low scores earned by those types who performed poorly in the notranslation group may well reflect their commitment of incorrect word meanings to memory. Another possible conjecture suggests that some personality types were less tolerant of the incomplete schema provided by the exclusively second language context and consequently made less effort to commit their inferences about word meanings to memory. According to Naiman et al. (1975) and Chapelle and Roberts (1986), this need for appeal to authority is what determines one’s tolerance of ambiguity.

Vocabulary Retention by Sensing, Judging, and Thinking Types of Personalities

The second question posed in this study involved vocabulary retention by the sensing, judging, or thinking types of personalities compared to their counterparts in a more ambiguous learning context. The results of this study showed no significant differences in test scores between intuitives and sensers, judgers and perceivers, or thinkers and feelers in the notranslation group. The absence of significant differences was also noticed in the translation group. As previously stated, the claims made by the sensing, judging, and thinking types in Ehrman and Oxford’s (1990) study suggest they might be less tolerant of ambiguity. Surprisingly, the present study found that these three poles did not perform differently from their counterparts in the more ambiguous context.

Although the results presented here seem to be at odds with Ehrman and Oxford’s (1990) and Ehrman’s (1993) hypotheses, the two are not really incompatible. Several factors might contribute to the apparent differences between the studies. First, the purpose of this study was to determine the effects of ambiguity on vocabulary retention for personality types, while the goal of Ehrman and Oxford’s (1990) study was to describe the expression of various characteristics of psychological type by learners at the Foreign Service Institute and to explain regularities in their preferred learning strategies. Furthermore, the quantitative study presented here examined the effects of ambiguity in a CALL environment for beginning second language learners at the university level, whereas Ehrman and


Oxford’s qualitative study examined students’ tolerance to ambiguity in a classroom setting at the Foreign Service Institute.

Galloway and Labarca (1990) pointed out that learners’ perceptions on what constitutes ambiguity will vary according to the setting. The personality types’ estimations of their tolerance of ambiguity in Ehrman and Oxford’s study were intended for a formal classroom situation, a learning environment which is more apt to show the expected gap between the opposite poles. Ordinary classroom tasks often require interactive oral tasks in the second language (i.e., listening comprehension and spontaneous oral production) and are likely to trigger learners’ affective filters. The CALL context of this study gave learners control over their learning environment and was likely to put learners more at ease and to encourage them to go beyond their “comfort zone,” an apparent prerequisite to effective learning (Ehrman & Oxford 1990; Oxford, Ehrman & Lavine, 1991).


In the introduction to this article, the writer observed that for learners to get maximum benefit from a CALL learning context, their individual differences had to be attended to while balancing these differences against language learning features shared with other learners. Fortunately, the ability to meet unobtrusively learners’ individual needs is an inherent feature of multimedia CALL; it allows learners to select the options which best assist them in deriving correct word meanings. The findings in this study suggest that all personality types, regardless of their tolerance of lexical ambiguity, will benefit from software which makes meaning clear. First-language sentence-level translations are but one way to reach the goal of helping all personality types to construct complete schemata for inferred second language words.


This study is a step toward a better understanding of the role of personality and tolerance of ambiguity in vocabulary retention. It also sheds light on the role which translations play in helping learners construct correct word meanings. Because our goal as educators is to make learners less reliant on the first language as a means of triggering the appropriate schema, it is important that more research be conducted on finding effective ways to promote correct inferencing and to verify meaning in exclusively second language contexts. In addition, learners’ perceptions of what constitutes ambiguity will vary according to the language learning setting; further research should also examine the effect of personality in other lexically ambiguous CALL programs and classroom situations. Finally, to check for a potential bias with first language testing, it is recommended that this study be replicated with a monolingual test rather than a bilingual one.

In conclusion, the findings in this study stress the importance of making the meanings of words clear to beginning second language learners in CALL environments. The study supports Grace’s (in press) recommendation that instead of discussing whether deep processing or verification of meaning has the greatest impact on vocabulary retention for beginning learners in CALL environments, it might be more appropriate to consider the synergy gained from the combination of both strategies. Consequently, the challenge for software developers is to create second language CALL contexts which render meanings clearly without the use of the first language in order to promote deep processing in the language while ensuring that correct meanings are encoded.


Language Components of the CALL Lesson

French dialogue based text

—Mais … c’est pas vrai! … C’est une plaisanterie!

—Qu’est-ce que c’est?


French definitional sentences

Le comédien raconte des plaisanteries pour être amusant.

English textual translation of the French dialogue

—But … It’s not true! It’s a joke!

—What is it?



Sample Test item

C’est pas vrai, c’est une plaisanterie!

A. Something said or done to provoke laughter.

B. Something said or done to provoke sadness.

C. Something said when pleading for something.

D. Something said to appease someone.



1 Mondria and Wit-de-boer (1991) found that second language definitional sequences promoted correct guessing when those sequences illustrate a strong relationship among the subject, target word, verb, and language function.

2 In the study, this tally was first done by the subjects themselves to provide them with an incentive to choose items which best reflected their preferences. These results were later verified by the researcher. It was emphasized to each subject that the MBTI was not a test but a questionnaire for which there were no right or wrong answers. Subjects were of course assured that their individual results would remain confidential and that performance in the experiment would not affect their

course grade.

3 Permission to use portions of Le Fils d’Astérix for the purpose of this experiment was kindly granted by Gessler Educational Software.

4 Words whose meanings beginning French students would have to infer were avoided, and the French definitional sentences used only unambiguous language.

5 Knowing words receptively (i.e., recalling them) was hypothesized to be easier than knowing words productively (i.e., producing them orally or in writing). (See Stoddard, 1929.)

6 The English definitional sentences were distinct from the translations of the dialogues in the experimental lesson.

7 The analysis was conducted using the SPSS (1993) MANOVA procedure.

8 The analyses did not include the 16 MBTI personality types (e.g., INTJ) because not all types were adequately represented in the sample.

9 For these contrasts and subsequent ones, the overall alpha level was set at .05. To protect against inflation of alpha due to repeated tests, the Bonferroni procedure was used to adjust by dividing the alpha level by the number of contrasts and to determine the significance of the follow up contrasts.

10 Results from t-tests showed that the translation group spent significantly more time on task than the no-translation group (p < .05). Because the effects for method found in the first MANOVA still persisted when time on task was included as a factor, one may safely assume that the method had a significant benefit to the subjects, no matter how much time they spent on the lesson. No post hoc tests were performed for the remaining interactions since the significant effects of the first MANOVA persisted in the second MANOVA (i.e., the interaction between methods and tests and its subsequent contrasts were significant, p’s < .001).


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The results of this investigation were presented at EUROCALL (Dublin, Ireland) in September 1997 and as one of “Best of CALICO” presentations at the annual meeting of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (Nashville, Tennessee) in November 1997. I would like to express my deep gratitude to Mr. Jamie DeCoster in the Department of Statistical Consulting at Purdue University for helping me with the interpretation of these findings and to Professor Patricia Jones, head of Educational Statistical Consulting at the University Arizona, for helping me with the research design of this experiment. I would also like to thank Mr. Seth Levin, president of Gessler Educational Software for his kindness in permitting me to use portions of the CD-ROM Le Fils d’Astérix for the purpose of this experiment. Lastly, I thank Professor Valerie Orlando for reading an earlier draft of this paper and Professor Thomas Broden for his suggestions on a later draft. Any shortcomings or errors are my sole responsibility.


Caroline Grace (Ph.D. in Second Language Acquisition Theory, University of Arizona) is Assistant Professor of French at Purdue University, Indiana, where she is responsible for coordinating the lower division French program, developing curriculum, training teaching assistants, and teaching graduate courses in applied linguistics. Her primary research interests are in CALL and vocabulary learning. Her love for languages stems from having grown up in Spain, Morocco, and France. She has published in the CALICO Journal and The Modern Language Journal.


Department of Foreign languages and Literatures

1359 Stanley Coulter Hall

Purdue University

West Lafayette, IN 47907-1359

Phone: 765/494-3828

Fax: 765/496-1700



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