Motivations for Language Learning

Leave a comment

June 14, 2013 by k. liz

Perhaps you’ll remember that I just finished my Master’s Degree. Well, in doing so, I had a four hour essay exam in which I had to answer three questions. I decided to share one of my answers with you tonight! I’d love to hear your thoughts!!


Motivations for Learning a Language

Several centuries ago, the only reason to learn a language was to contribute to your status as an educated, wealthy member of high society. Communication was not a goal of language learning, since it was highly unlikely that these elite members of society would ever encounter a speaker of Latin or whatever language they were acquiring. However, in more modern times, traveling and encountering new cultures and new languages has become less of a luxury and more of a normality. Common people now are able to easily travel and see new places and learn new things. It would be understandable, then, to assume that most language learners are learning a language in order to become a part of the target culture. This however, is not entirely true, and it is extremely important to understand in order to construct a classroom that will benefit students according to their intended goals.  This essay will look briefly at other motivations for learning a language, followed by how these align with teaching culture and what should be done to ensure that student objectives are met in an appropriate way in the language classroom.


First of all, students have many motivations for studying a language. Motivation can include seriously wanting to acculturate into a new culture. This is often the case with learners who have moved into a new culture, granted that the social distance (Schumann, 1980) between their culture and the host culture is compatible. For example, if a student’s culture is considered dominant, or is respected by the host culture, the student will have little problem learning the language in an effort to acculturate. However, if the social distance between the two cultures is high, and the student is part of the minority culture, their motivation to learn the language in an effort to acculturate is going to be much lower. This falls under the idea of what has been called Resistance Theory (Giroux, 1982; Willis, 1977). Resistance theory claims that students who have the opportunity to learn and grow through education, in the case at hand by learning a new language in the host country, will balk and resist learning because they feel that their identity and/or culture is being threatened by the dominant culture. This example shows that some students fear or shy away from acculturation in language learning.


IMG_7393A second example, however, is not that students are averse to acculturating, but rather they do not have the opportunity or need to do so. This is because English has become known as the modern lingua franca, the language most used in intercultural communication around the world. This is easily demonstrated by Kachru’s (1985) idea of Inner/Outer circle English. Inner circle English is spoken in the countries where English has traditionally been the dominant language. Outer circle English is spoken in countries that were colonized or settled by English speaking countries, thus bringing the English language and incorporating it into society. Today, there are also expanding circles of English in countries such as Japan and China, which use English widely for business or other purposes, even though English has little historical connection with that country. Because this is true, and more and more countries are joining the expanding circle, learners may be studying a language that will be used only with other second language speakers (L2s). This phenomenon decreases their need or desire to learn to acculturate into an inner circle culture, because they do not intend on living there. This motivation for language learning is known as instrumental motivation. Rather than learning for the purpose of cross-cultural communication, the learner is studying in order to do a task or fulfill a job. How can all learners, those who want to acculturate, the anti-acculturation and the neutral learner, be taught in a way that best fits their language and cultural needs?


Is it even important to include culture in language learning? It has been posited that language and culture are inherently linked. Whorf (1956) posed his famous Whorfian Hypothesis which asked the question of whether or not a language determined a culture or a culture determined a language. Whorf was of the disposition that language and culture had a direct bearing on each other. Others, such as Pinker (1994), have criticized his ideas claiming that language is strictly mental and has no relation to culture. He termed this mental language mentalese. Both views are rather extreme, and while neither can fully account for the link between language and culture, it is fair to say that there is indeed a link. This can be seen in the pragmatics of language, how people interact, tone of voice, body language, and more. Pragmatics, or a better term, Discourse, varies widely from culture to culture. Gee (2005) introduced the concept of D/discourse. Capital “D” Discourse refers to all of the extralinguistic things which contribute to meaning in communication. Even among Inner circle English cultures, it is clear that Discourse varies, and therefore, it is easy to state that there is a link between language and culture, and it is an important aspect for students who are learning a language.


Having established the fact that language and culture are indeed connected, it now is important to address how to incorporate language into the classroom of students who are not interested in acculturation. Acculturation is the end stage of cultural adaptation. Many models of cultural adaptation have been developed, one of which is Hoopes’ (1970s) model. Hoopes’ model shows the steps that a learner takes as he enters a new culture. This model outlines the normal steps through excitement and then difficulty with the target culture. However, the second to last step of Hoopes’ model is that of “appreciation”. Following appreciation, students can choose to assimilate, acculturate, or add the culture into their identity thus creating a multi-cultural identity. Whether or not learners intend to acculturate, appreciation is still important for the creation of world citizens and successful language learners that students reach and master the step of appreciation.


This step of appreciation is critical for learners because an important goal of language education is helping learners to attain intercultural competence. Intercultural competence started to become popular in the 1970s as Dell Hymes (1972) was developing the idea of Communicative Language Teaching and the competencies required within this field of teaching. According to Hymes’ ideas, and outlined by Canale and Swain (1980), successful learners should achieve grammatical, discourse, sociolinguistic, and strategic competence. The first two competencies relate to linguistic ability and are context-reduced, meaning that they are strictly within language. Teaching prior to the 1970s often only realized the first two competencies, and thus learners were capable of identifying and manipulating grammar parts and sentences, but they had little communicative ability. This communicative ability, which includes the final two competencies and is context-embedded, according to Moran (2001) and Corbett (2003) needs to be connected to culture. Culture is not a fifth skill to follow reading, writing, speaking, and listening as many textbooks have attempted to make it. Rather, culture is the context in which language makes sense.


What does this mean for language teachers? Not all students want to acculturate, but still culture is inherently a part of language and must be involved in language teaching, and the goal is to arrive at a level of appreciation. Intercultural competence is more than just knowing about a culture and the products, practices, and people in that culture. Culture also includes perspectives, the implicit side of culture which informs the explicit aspects of culture (Moran, 2001). By teaching students how to find and learn about perspectives, teachers allow students to grow in their ability to think critically and understand cultures in a new way rather than just stereotyping or generalizing. Teaching students to observe perspectives is part of Kramsch’s (1993) idea of getting students to a “third place.” This third place is where the students are able to objectively view what is happening not only in the target culture, but also in their own culture. An intercultural approach to teaching focuses just as much on getting students to this place so that they can develop the ability of understanding and navigating cultures as it does on actually examining cultures themselves. By teaching this skill, of finding this “third place” and objectively analyzing a culture, teachers are preparing their students to be able to communicate and use the language that they are learning in a wide variety of scenarios. Intercultural competence is not culture-specific, rather it is a way of teaching that prepares students for their encounters with any culture, and ensures that students will be able to navigate and explain both their target and native culture objectively.


Teachers can foster this skill in the classroom by following Moran’s (2001) learning cycle which encourages learners to find out “about” the culture, “how” the culture works, “why” the culture works that way, and then to reflect back on “oneself” to see how this new knowledge affects them. Regardless of a students’ desire to acculturate or not acculturate, this is a skill that will allow them to be successful around the world. Students with an instrumental motivation for learning a language will need these skills to interact with others wherever they are, and students with an aversion to acculturation need these skills to be able to find the positives in their new host culture. Also, with students who resist culture and language learning, following Moran’s cultural knowings framework allows for them to relate the new information back to themselves, therefore validating their home culture at the same time as informing them about the new culture.


Incorporating an intercultural approach of teaching into the classroom would include activating and utilizing students’ prior knowledge, much in the way that Galloway (1992) encourages in her model for reading. Students should first think about the topic at hand, and if necessary, learn about the topic if they do not know about it. Next, they should actually read or interact with the information that is being presented, and finally, they should reflect. It is during this reflection stage that students have the ability to see how they and their culture is similar or different from the target culture, and what they think about it. It is important to encourage students to critically examine and explain what they like or do not like about the target culture. It is through activities such as this that students will learn how to objectively view a culture, and they will be able to develop an appreciation if not an affinity for the target culture.


Culture is a topic that is laced with difficulty and nuances, but it is important as teachers to equip our students to be able to communicate with the world, wherever they may be and with whomever they may be communicating.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 845 other followers

My other blog

%d bloggers like this: