TESL: A Case Study


Learning about Carl Learning English

April 28, 1999

The subject of this case study is a male Vietnamese student at Oral Roberts University.  For the sake of anonymity I will refer to the subject as “Carl”.  Carl is 40 years of age and has been in the United States for 23 years although he has been studying and practicing English over a period of 26 years.  His English studies began in seventh grade while still in Vietnam.  Carl is right handed and worked very intently on the tests I asked him to take.  He seemed very systematic and patient with the material even when he did not understand part of it.  At the time of our interview, he had his watch set 10 minutes faster than real time.  Yet, despite his apparent attempt to be on schedule he arrived about that many minutes late to our meeting.  In this case study I will discuss Carl’s learning styles and strategies, his personality factors contributing to learning, and sociocultural factors involved in learning.

Styles and Strategies:


Carl took Christopher M. Ely’s Second Language Tolerance of Ambiguity Scale test and evaluated himself to be on the less tolerant of ambiguity side of the scale.  As I have gotten to know Carl over about a year’s worth of time and the time I observed him taking the test, I found this to be fairly accurate at least according to my own observations.  Once, I was helping him with a paper he needed to finish; he continually wanted me to give him direct answers on what he should write.  I had him say the things he wanted to write as if he was just describing them to me, but when I told him to write that down, he again wanted me to tell him what to write.  He does not like the ambiguity of what I felt was obvious when I said, “OK, Now write what you said.”  As Carl took the tests he carefully read each word and was very intent on understanding what they said before answering the questions.  This made for a long interview but gave me the opportunity to observe him in a near-studying situation.  As I watched, Carl would look off into space to think about his answer then after thinking for a moment he would immediately answer the question on the test.  He seems to be in the habit on being intent on whatever project is at hand.  Whether it was for tests, papers, or projects; I’ve seen Carl intent and even a bit frazzled at times as he tries to complete his work.  Carl has a reflective personality which deals with input very systematically.


Somewhat in opposition to his score of less tolerant on the Ambiguity Scale, Carl scored 5/7 on the Auditory/Visual scale.  It would seem that hearing ambiguous statements doesn’t cause as many learning difficulties for Carl as visual/reading ambiguity causes.  This tendency toward the auditory side of learning also shows up in his joy for music which is discussed below.  Although Carl does continue to have an accent and as he said, Carl is “still learning;” he seems to do well with verbal messages but struggles with ambiguity in written English.  This makes me wonder about the stereotype of Asians as being the ones to excel in the written word but have more difficulty with the spoken.  I guess Carl doesn’t run with the herd.  In Lynn O’Brien’s Learning Channel Preference Checklist, Carl tested 40 percent visual, 28 percent auditory, and 21 percent haptic or hands-on learning

Left- / Right-brain Dominance

Concerning Carl’s left- or right-brain dominance, I would suggest a tendency toward the left-brain but this is probably due to the fact he that he is trying to understand the things around him analytically.  Yet, Carl seems to find great enjoyment in music and the arts.  So much so, that he is studying music as well as theology at Oral Roberts University.

Personality Factors:


To discover more about Carl’s personality, I had him take the on-line Keirsey Character Sorter .   Results placed Carl in the Artisan temperament and the variant temperament of Composer.  The Keirsey web site says Composers are very attentive in their social roles and make up about 10 percent of the population.  According to the Keirsey web site, Composers are talented in tactical movement and use of the five senses.  With Carl’s enjoyment of music, this seems to be quite accurate.  Carl seems to know where he fits into society and how to act in that position to receive acceptance from others.

These charts show Carl’s tendency toward a reserved social attitude yet tenderminded towards those he is familiar with and a strong temperament in the area of art.

After 26 years of studying English and 23 of those spent in the U.S., Carl says he is more comfortable speaking in English since he has forgotten much of his native Vietnamese.  I asked if Carl dreams in English or Vietnamese and he said his brother told him that he had been sleep-talking in English on night.  He has spent enough time immersed in English that he uses English even in the subconscious.



I asked Carl what motivated him to study English and he told me that, at first, it was just part of his education in Vietnam but then he came to the U.S.  “I have to learn [English] to be good at anything here.” Carl said.  From that statement I suggest that Carl’s motivation is a mixture of instrumental goals he wants to accomplish in school, his career, etc. and a desire to integrate with the people around him.

Sociocultural Factors:


As Carl adapted to American culture he took on a new identity.  Rather than continuing to use his Vietnamese name he goes by an American name.  This coincides with Guiora’s language ego concept.  According to Guiora, this second identity is used by the student to identify with the new culture and language when the original identity struggles with acculturation.  I suggest that Carl has taken on this identity long enough that it has become an intimate part of him and actually more “him” than the Vietnamese 14-year-old who came to America 23 years ago.

Another part of acculturation is culture shock which Carl said he experienced.  Carl said at the beginning of his stay in the U.S., he wanted to go back to the familiarity of Vietnam and sought out the things he was familiar with.  Eventually, Carl made himself talk to American friends and learn the culture of the U.S.  Early in his stay in the U.S., Carl hung out with other international students but he said now he is around Americans more often than with other international students.  I can see that Carl has done well to adapt to the culture of the U.S.  He says he is still learning, but the learning of a culture and language is a lifelong experience even for a native.


Social Culture and Distance

Carl said he prefers to work by himself although he has had few opportunities to work in group settings.  Carl said he prefers to converse one-on-one with someone rather than be in a group of people talking.  Carl focuses on the task at hand and said he prefers to be alone when he has things he needs to do but enjoys being with others when he has leisure time.  However, Carl admittedly has little experience with group projects where a number of people are working together.  I suspect that if the group would be patient enough to work with Carl, he would really enjoy the experience.  The reason I suspect this is because Carl comes from a background where team and group success is held more desirable than individual success.  He has adapted to the individualistic society here in the U.S. and has to put a lot of effort into each project he completes.  I think he would enjoy the group experience.

Carl seems to have thrown himself wholeheartedly into the activities and classes around him.  He has minimized the distance between himself and U.S. culture and language.  In the process he seems to have distanced himself more and more from his own Vietnamese culture.  After thinking for a while, Carl said a difference he sees in American and Vietnamese culture is the systematic and individualistic work that is in the U.S.  Apparently in Vietnam  work is more of a group or family effort.  Contrary to popular practice in the U.S. such things as “employee of the month” would be highly irregular in Vietnam.  They see success as a team effort not as an individualistic goal of being better than others.


The subject of this case, Carl, has successfully joined U.S. culture and continues to learn more about the culture as he increases in his proficiency of the English language.  In accordance with the Critical Period Hypothesis, I suggest Carl will never truly gain complete proper pronunciation, but he can be well understood, so I don’t think his pronunciation becomes a communication problem.  Case studies like this make people aware of the thoughts and learning styles of a person who has experienced difficulties, overcome them and continues to work toward better understanding of the English language.

Teachers should consider the things learned about Carl and look for ways to contribute to better learning and comprehension for the “Carls” in their classrooms.  Consider things like one-on-one vs. group activities.  Working on speaking and listening activities as well as writing and reading activities.  Are the students advancing in their reading or just struggling?  Consider additional texts for variety and encourage general comprehension of each sentence rather than every word.  By observing and looking for ways to improve teaching techniques as well as students, teachers will be much better at reaching their students with the information they need.