Research on Motivation in Foreign Language Learning from a New Perspective

Ling Xiao Motivation has long been a concern in the context of second/foreign language (SL/FL) acquisition. Motivational research has shown.

Ling Xiao

Motivation has long been a concern in the context of second/foreign language (SL/FL) acquisition. Motivational research has shown that motivation affects a variety of aspects related to language learning. For example, it affects the use of SL/FL learning strategies – a major aspect of self-regulated learning, the effort that learners are willing to invest, their achievement in course-related assessments, the proficiency level they eventually achieve, and the likelihood of their continuing to develop competency in the target language (i.e. the SL/FL being learned) after they complete formal classroom study of the language (Ely, 1986; Gardner, et al, 1992; Noels, et al, 2000).

Theories employed in earlier motivational research in the SL/FL context prior to the 1990s have been primarily relied onGardner’s Socio-Educational Model. This model focuses on individuals’ desire to integrate with the people who speak the target language and their attitudes towards them. The theory is based solely on social psychology, thus limiting its explanatory power. Some more recent motivational research incorporated theories of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and investigated the effects of motivational factors on student achievement-related aspects in learning Chinese (Wen, 1997) and French (Keuneman & Sagona, 1992) as foreign languages.

The motivational theories employed in SL/FL research seem to be limited compared to what has been done outside the SL/FL context. Outside the SL/FL context, motivational research has extensively employed theories and concepts from general psychology, educational psychology and industrial psychology. Goal theory is an example of these theories. Goal theory claims that different goal orientations of individuals activate different cognition (e.g. thoughts, beliefs), emotions, and behavioral patterns in achievement settings (Dweck, 1986). Social cognitive theory is another popular theory employed in the motivational research. Perceived competence, or self-efficacy, is a concept derived from social cognitive theory. Perceived competence refers to individuals’ judgments of their capabilities for a particular type of task (Bandura, 1986). Research has shown that perceived competence influences achievement-related aspects such as the goals individuals set, and their perseverance in the face of difficulty and performance. Research has also indicated that goal orientations and perceived competence affect cognitive engagement, self-regulatory activities, task choice, task performance and persistence in times of difficulty (Elliot & Dweck, 1988). Goal theory predicted and laboratory research has indicated that there is also an interaction effect of the goal orientations and perceived competence. However, the findings have been inconsistent.

Self-regulated learning is a concept frequently examined in the motivational research outside the context of SL/FL learning (Zimmerman, 1990; Zimmerman & Martinez-Pons, 1986). The definition of self-regulated learning varies depending on from what theoretical perspective it is defined. For instance, from the perspective of behaviorism, it refers to forgoing existent behavior and acquiring new ones (Zimmerman, 2001). In the present study, this concept is adopted from the perspective of Social Cognitive Theory. It refers to a cyclical process that involves self-generated thoughts, feelings, and actions that are systematically directed towards achieving personal goals (Zimmerman, 1989).

The above definition indicates a close relationship between goals and self-regulation. Research has also shown that different goal orientations of individuals affect their use of cognitive strategies (McWhaw, & Abrami, 2001; Meece, et al., 1988; Miller, et al, 1993), a major aspect of self-regulated learnig. In SL/FL acquisition, similar concepts, such as self-accessed learning, self-instructed learning, self-directed learning, have been discussed (Oxford, 1989; 1996). However, this concept has not been systematically examined and has only recently been brought up as an issue that merits empirical research. On the other hand, although some descriptive studies have shown that successful language learners use a variety of self-regulated learning strategies (Oxford, 1990), it has not been examined whether training of strategy use affects self-regulated learning and achievement.

I have conducted a study in 2005 that examined how training of strategy use affect self-regulated learning and achievement. The study intends to make contributions to the research on SL/FL learning by incorporating goal theory and the concept of perceived competence and self-regulated learning from social cognitive theory into empirical research. It also intends to investigate whether self-regulated strategy training will have an effect on student use of self-regulated learning strategies and achievement in learning a foreign language.

One hundred seventeen undergraduates participated in the study. The students came from 8 introductory Arabic, Chinese, German, and Japanese classes, with 2 classes from each language. Students were categorized as either having task-involved goal orientation or ego-involved goal orientation. A median split method was used to categorize students into either with high perceived competence or with low perceived competence. One of the two classes of the same foreign language was randomly selected to receive self-regulated language learning strategy training. Students’ use of self-regulated learning strategies was measured by a strategy inventory for foreign language learning. Students’ achievement was measured by course-related tests. The results showed that students with task-involved goal orientation scored significantly higher than students with ego-involved goal orientation on self-regulated strategy use. This finding has a few implications. First, foreign language classroom instructions may need pay more attention to what may influence student goal orientation. For example, even though most foreign language instructors claim to orient students to focus on learning, normative grading at undergraduate level still prevails. Students are aware that the evaluation of their performance will depend on the performance of their peers. This evaluation method or policy may not be conducive to learning a foreign language because when students are orientated toward grades, their ego are involved, which is detrimental to sustaining their motivation in the long run. The evaluation method or policy may need to be improved in foreign language education.

            Second, classroom may need use more small group work so that students who are ego-oriented find their ego less threatened. This is especially necessary because making errors is inevitable in the process of acquiring foreign language knowledge and skills. Making mistakes in small group may be less threatening to the ego than making mistakes in front of the whole class. For ego-oriented students, small group activities may provide a learning environment where they can free the cognitive energy directed to ego to the learning task itself. Class activities or assignments may also need to be designed so that students can have more attempts in trying until they have successfully acquired the skill.

            Third, the finding indicates that competition, a common strategy used in classroom instructions, is detrimental especially to students with ego-involved goal orientation. This implies that classroom teachers may need to aware of students’ goal orientation in learning a foreign language and be cautious when using this technique to motivate students.

            Another interesting incidental finding from the study may be a topic of future inquiry. The data from my study indicates that there is a greater number of task-oriented students learning Asian languages (Chinese: 62%; Japanese: 76%) thanMiddle East(Arabic: 25%) and European languages (German: 39%). Future research can further investigate the motivational patterns in students learning other foreign language. Research can examine whether goal orientations, perceived competence, and strategy training differently affect student achievement behavior and achievement within predominantly task-orientated students learning Asian languages and within predominantly ego-oriented students learning other foreign languages. In addition, future research may experimentally implement an intervention of self-regulated strategy training and investigate how it affects strategy use and achievement. It is my hope that my study will inspire more research investigating the effects of motivational patterns on self-regulation in learning foreign languages and achievement from the perspective of educational psychology with an experimental intervention.


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