Motivational Attitudes of an SL Student

Senem Donancı Büyük, School of Languages, Sabancı University, Istanbul, Turkey

Background and Objectives

SenemDonancıChomsky (1975) suggested that motivation is irrelevant in the context of first language acquisition as “learners can no more choose to learn languages than certain cells in an embryo can choose or fail to choose to become an arm or leg” (cited in Crookes and Schmidt, 1989: 26). However, in the context of SLA (Second Language Acquisition), many aspects of learning are determined by active choice (Crookes and Schmidt, 1989), such as whether to study at an English-medium university or not, and it is the association between these reasons of choice and the level of success or failure, which have caused the researchers and practitioners to attach such central importance to motivation.

Motivation has been perceived as a ‘key factor’ by teachers, researchers and practitioners, which correlates with the success rate of second language acquisition and which “provides the primary impetus to initiate learning the L2 and later the driving force to sustain the long and often tedious learning process”, taking it for granted that all the other relevant factors assume motivation to a certain extent (Dörnyei, 1998: 117, 2005: 65). Yet researchers have not been able to agree on a common definition apart from its responsibility for “determining human behavior by energizing it and giving it a direction” (Dörnyei, 1998: 117). This diversity and the broadening of the theoretical scope which followed have both shed new light on motivation research and given it “an aura of eclecticism and confusion” (Dörnyei, 1998: 117).

On the whole, motivation is a multifaceted phenomenon and no theory has been able to fully explain and represent it, which requires researchers to cautiously approach the analysis and assessment of motivation variables (Dörnyei, 1998).

This piece, which has been adapted from a paper based on a small-scale empirical research I carried out some time ago, is an attempt to analyze the role of attitudes in the motivation of one of my tutees who studied in the Upper Intermediate level of the Intensive English Program of the School of Languages in Sabancı University. In order to carry out the research, I chose to interview one of my students to find out about her reasons for learning English and to analyze the factors and attitudes that contributed to her motivation. To do this, I devised an interview schedule by referring to the five variables from Gardner’s socio-educational model (1985) to investigate the relationship of second language achievement and this model, and by adding another possible variable; i.e. language learning background. My objectives in carrying out this research were:

• To investigate the reasons why my students learn English and what factors contribute to their motivation while doing so
• To investigate the role of attitudes in my students’ motivation
• To see whether my perception of a ‘motivated’ student corresponds to those put forward by prominent researchers in the field (i.e. whether this particular student whom I would define as ‘motivated’ is motivated in theoretical terms; (i.e. integratively or instrumentally, intrinsically or extrinsically motivated, etc.)
• “To investigate the relationship of second language achievement to the five attitude/motivation variables from Gardner’s socio-educational model” (1985 cited in Masgoret, A.-M. and Gardner, R.C., 2003: 168)

1. Method

1.1 Participant

CA (18, female) was one of my students in the Upper Intermediate level of SL (broadly equivalent to level B2 of the global scale of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages). She is a native speaker of Turkish and had studied English for almost 12 years first in a private secondary school, and then an ‘Anatolian’ high school.

There were 17 students in this class and CA was chosen as she responded first to my request for an interview among the five students I had approached. The choice was made with a view to selecting students who seemed to be eager speakers of English, and whom I had so far observed to be participating well, simply for the ease of carrying out the interview in a relatively comfortable atmosphere on the part of the participant.

For the past 11 weeks of 20 hours’ tuition time (totaling 220 hours), CA had not missed a single class, received full grades for both of her TAs (teacher assessment based on homework and participation), scored 78% in the ‘in-class writing exam’ (with a class average of 69.90), 73,02% in her mid-term (with a class average of 67.17) and 88% in the ‘text-based-essay’ (with a class-average of 74).

The type of syllabus in CA’s course is learning-focused and the emphasis is on learning processes. The aim of the program is to implement a content-based approach where the teaching is organized around cultural, geographic, historical, political and literary themes.

1.2 Procedures

The choice of devising the interview questions developed around the five variables from Gardner’s socio-educational model (1985) was made simply because it was “readily available and used a fairly standard set of concepts and measurement operations” (Masgoret and Gardner, 2003:168) and because it is so often referred to in the literature.

I also looked at similar studies (e.g. König, 2006) to get ideas about how they have exploited the model in their context, after which I sketched out the interview questions.

I then approached five students whom I had so far observed to be relatively more at ease with speaking in English. I sent out a choice of interview dates and times to all five (via e-mail), and CA was the first to reply to my e-mail and agree on the specified date and time.

1.3 Data Analysis

Ellis (1994) defines self-report as one of the major types of data in SLA research, which can be obtained by means of written questionnaires such as those used by Gardner and his associates (1985), by means of oral interviews such as those used by Wenden (1987 cited in Ellis, 1994), and through think-aloud tasks. This type of data is useful in bringing to light some affective and cognitive factors in SLA which may not be so “readily observable in language behavior” (Ellis, 1994:674).

For this research, the second method of identification has been attempted, but because the interview questions were developed around and adapted from the first, and because of the overlapping nature of some items, it has been somewhat challenging to categorize and analyze the data.

2 Results and Discussion 

Senem2CA’s language learning background is not so much different from the rest of her classmates, typifying encouragement and support from family members who usually do not speak a foreign language themselves, but recognizing the growing importance of learning foreign languages in a globalizing world, and thus doing their best for their children to achieve what they were not able to, which is also symbolic of the developing awareness of the significance of foreign languages (especially of English) in Turkish society for reasons which will be discussed later.

For CA, her family’s support and encouragement has been very important. She especially mentions her mother’s support without which she says she could give up studying when she receives lower grades than she expected.

CA’s reasons for choosing an English-medium university are representative of her being instrumentally oriented, i.e. academic and career-driven:

I thought that I should study in English because after my academic career such as master or PhD, I’d like to study in abroad, so I think it makes … has advantages to study in English courses, I mean in maths or physics… and also I think, improve my English, and to understand what’s happening around the world, to have a world-wide vision. For example, in my business life, I’d like to look at BBC websites or these kinds of things… and I should be aware of what’s happening around if I’m going to be studying chemist or physic, I should be aware of what other scientists do or… if I am going to be a business woman (from transcription)

CA does not seem very willing to interact with speakers of the target language, nor does she seem to be willing to find out more about their culture which in fact has been mentioned four times during the interview. This finding contradicts with the relationship that Gardner and his associates made between integrative motivation and achievement as well as with Schumann’s Accultural Model (Schumann, 1978, 1986 cited in Crookes and Schmidt, 1989).

This has surprised me, I must say, as CA never seems to be indifferent to what we do in class, most of which make references to English and other cultures. This then might be an indicator of her being goal-driven and persistent to the task at hand even when she is not so much interested in its content.

Perhaps on the other hand , the reason why CA does not seem to have too positive an attitude toward the language group is because she has “not had enough contact with that community to form attitudes about them” in the first place (Dörnyei, 1990 cited in Masgoret and Gardner, 2003:179).

CA seems to have a genuine interest in learning foreign languages in general, though, which seems to agree with what Masgoret and Gardner have hypothesized about interest in learning foreign languages: that some learners may not have a particular interest in the target language group, but may simply be open to all groups (2003).

On the other hand, CA seems to place a great emphasis on ‘speaking’ and being able to express herself well, and on ‘listening’ which she defines as “the main” activity she likes to do in class, possibly as she recognizes the importance of effective communicative skills in a competitive business world.

CA feels strongly about grammar-focused courses which she has come across during the course of her language learning process. In fact, CA has emphasized her resentment for grammar activities especially fill-in-the-blank types of exercises which she calls “some stupid grammar things”. The extent to which she dislikes grammar can easily be identified as grammar associated with negative feelings came up nine times during the interview. In her attempt to explain why she felt so negatively about grammar, I came to sense a possible fear of failure stemming from uncertainty leading to anxiety (Horwitz, 2001):

… I always confused if it’s going to be past or present, how can I be sure about it is past and I always talk with my teacher and she always explained to me, but I always objected (laughs) it can be like that… (from the transcript)

CA’s responses regarding her grades have been somewhat confusing (and together with ‘mistakes’ were mentioned six times). At one point she said she reviewed exam papers with a view to improving her mistakes. Not the exam grades, but the mistakes in her exam papers she said, have been effective in improving her grades. However, at a later stage of the interview, CA also expressed concerns about receiving lower grades than she expected and how that “disappointed” her, and that she would give up if it were not for her mother’s encouragement not to. This point is also important in understanding the degree to which CA is instrumentally oriented and that grades are important for her as they pave the way to success in her future life and career.

From a different viewpoint about grades, CA, like some of her peers might be thinking that events are under her control and “effort will lead to academic success: locus of control” (deCharms, 1984 cited in Crookes and Schmidt, 1989:36). There is a danger of this in that if the learner attributes low grades to her own ‘inability’ rather than to other possible problems, this may lead to her low risk-taking and developing other behaviors negatively correlated with success in SL learning (Crookes and Schmidt, 1989). It is therefore desirable to try and prevent or modify such ascriptions by, for example, “using cooperative rather than competitive goal structures” (Ames, 1984, 1986 cited in Crookes and Schmidt, 1989:36).

CA also identifies the teacher’s role as important which is apparent in the frequent mentions of teachers. Despite its significant impact among all learners, however, teacher motivation has only recently attracted researchers’ attention (e.g. Jacques, Kassabgy, Boraie and Schmidt, 2001, and Masgoret, Bernaus and Gardner, 2000 cited in Dörnyei, 2001).

Crookes and Schmidt (1989) suggest that teachers can foster intrinsic motivation by ensuring that the tasks pose a reasonable challenge, provide opportunities for group work, create tasks on the wants and needs of learners, and provide variety in activities (cited in Ellis, 994). Above all, they should try and establish a good rapport as it is primarily the teachers who nurture the feeling of motivation in the learning context (Finocchiaro, 1981 cited in Ellis, 1994:516).

CA recognizes the textbook/materials as an important factor and draws up on the element of “interest”. Although Crookes and Schmidt claim that there is no direct finding yet which suggests that interesting materials aid learning in SL instruction (1989), most students would rate interest amongst their top factors. What is contradictory here though is the relativity in the perceptions of what is interesting, varying greatly among students as well as among teachers.

CA studies about 2-4 hours a day, does homework regularly and systematically revises. She uses grammar reference books, dictionaries and keeps a vocabulary journal. CA makes good use of feedback and incorporates it in her revised work. She always volunteers in class and participates well. She monitors her own progress and adopts strategies to aid her in achievement. It can therefore be concluded that CA displays actions of self-determination; i.e. engaging in SL learning “with a full sense of wanting, choosing and personal endorsement” (Deci, 1994:44 cited in Dörnyei, 1998:121).

CA also displays goal-directed behavior in that she expends effort, is persistent, experiences reinforcement from success and disappointment from failure, makes use of strategies to aid her learning process and thus exhibits many behaviors and feelings that an unmotivated learner would not (Masgoret and Gardner, 2003).

As for the level of proficiency she wants to achieve, CA is only interested in sufficient achievement in the areas which will lead her to her goals. In fact, she often divides language learning-related activities and tasks into categories such as useful, useless, important, interesting and uninteresting. Anything which she does not find to be within the scope of her goals and needs (e.g. socializing with people from TL culture) is “irrelevant” for her, once again emphasizing the overriding effect of instrumental motivation for CA over integrative motivation.


As mentioned before, CA recognizes the importance of foreign languages (especially English) in Turkey. It should perhaps be noted here that English proficiency has implications in Turkish culture in many levels. Socio-culturally, competency in English is regarded as a prestige symbol. For political and economic reasons, too, this ‘trend’ is meaningful especially when the country is attempting so hard to become a member of the EU. English is regarded as a key to westernization and modernization, a tool for commerce and trade and as a vehicle to advertise and promote the secular and modern face of Turkey. Socially on the other hand, a good command of English is considered as one’s belonging to a higher class; a well-educated and usually more well-off one. Considering all these ‘meanings’ attached to English, we can perhaps arrive at the conclusion that it would be more difficult to remain ‘unmotivated’ and indifferent to learning English in such a context.

These associations perhaps explain why CA is so instrumentally motivated.


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