Sunday, July 20, 2008

Cultural factors

Do cultural factors need to be discussed separately or do you think they can all be subsumed under ‘individual differences’? Present your case.

Brown (2000, p.177) defines culture as “a context of cognitive and affective behaviour, a template for personal and social existence” which establishes how a cultural group defines the world, and determines what is valued in terms of behaviour, relationships, and attitudes. Brown (2000, p.179) points out that, “cross-cultural research has shown that there are indeed characteristics of culture that make one culture different from another” (see also Wierzbiecka, 1991). Since “language is a part of a culture, and a culture is a part of a language” (Brown, 2000, p.177) cultural factors affecting SLL need to be considered in their own right, and not simply as they relate to individual learner difference. Since any ascribing of cultural values is necessarily normative, cultural factors should not be used to stereotype individual students; rather the impact of cultural factors on SLL is valuable for both teachers and students to consider in a spirit of enquiry rather than as a simple explanatory mechanism. This essay will explore three types of impact:

1) Effects on SLL of the L1 culture’s attitudes towards the target language and culture

Attitudes of a particular culture/language group towards another can influence the integrative and instrumental motivation of target language learners. The high status of English is reflected both in the growing number of people around the world who are motivated to become proficient English users because of its necessity “in the world of work and in practical communication” (Chambers, 2000, p.71), and in the declining interest of English native speakers in learning an SL (see e.g. Graddol, 2006; Clyne, 2005), so that SL teachers in Australia now need to advocate proactively the benefits of SL learning to counteract community disinterest.
However high status languages are not universally appealing. Minority groups in countries or cultures that have been colonised (e.g. Australian indigenous peoples), due to a “history of brutal subjugation and denigration of their way of life”, may reject “the values of the dominant group and … its educational system” (Mangubhai, 1997, p.39), and consequently also its language.

2) Effect of learners’ understanding of culture on SL proficiency

For many learners, SLL involves exposure to how the embedded cultural values, behaviours and norms of the L2 culture differ to those of their own. Misunderstandings, disorientation, frustration, and anxiety are all possible features of ‘culture shock’ (Brown, 2000; Schumann, 1986) and, as Mangubhai (1997) writes, if the issue of cultural differences is left unaddressed, it may lead to a decrease in learners’ motivation and a possible rejection of SL learning.
Cultural similarity or congruence between two cultures can facilitate SLL through increased social contact (Spolsky, 1989) and positive transfer from the L1. For example, the formulae for beginning meals in German and French (Guten Appetit; bon appétit) emphasises that “eating is fundamentally a social event and an event to be shared with others” (Crozet and Liddicoat, 1997, p.10) and the lack of such a formula in English may make cause French or German people to think negatively towards the seeming lack of politeness in English-speaking cultures. Even when similar phrases exist in different languages, their pragmatic meaning may differ. Although all the above countries use a greeting followed by a health inquiry (Hello. How are you?/ Hallo. Wie geht’s?/ Allo, ça vas?), Crozet and Liddicoat (1997) point out that while it has a ritual function in Australian English, in French and German it is used as a genuine inquiry and as such can cause upset or confusion when not used sincerely.

The scope for misunderstanding is exacerbated when two cultures are very different. For example, Scollon and Wong-Scollon (1991, p.113) conclude that the Asian use of “inductive, or delayed, introduction of topics leaves Westerners confused about what the topic is”, while Western ‘deductive’ ways which “introduce topics early in a conversation” strike Asians as “abrupt or rude”. Western style academic writing, which as Mangubhai (1997, p.26, citing Matalene, 1985) points out, “values authentic voice, self-expression, stylistic innovation, …directness…, a stance, and the citation of evidence to prove one’s case” can also cause problems for students from cultures where critically evaluating ‘expert’ texts can be seen as self-promoting criticism “contributing to disharmony” (Mangubhai, 1997, p.26).
If such conflicts are not explicitly addressed in the classroom, and students gradually encouraged to adapt to and incorporate new behaviours, values, ways of thinking, and patterns of expression, students may have negative experiences (e.g. social isolation, low marks, failure to progress) which will negatively impact on their motivation to continue SLL. More positively, the SL classroom can serve as an excellent place for the exploration of the target culture, one’s own culture, and the demarcation of a ‘third place’ from which to negotiate meaning across cultures (Lo Bianco, Liddicoat and Crozet, 1999). The teacher is instrumental in assisting students to be able to “function in the new environment” (Crozet & Liddicoat, 1997, p.4) without abandoning their own cultural values and identity.

3) Effect of cultural factors in teaching and learning

Hofstede (1986) suggests four categories of cultural norms that may impact on teaching and learning. I find the first two most useful and convincing but that may reflect Australia’s position at a polar end in these two categories (see The examples given have been observed in my ESL classes in Australia:
- Individualism versus collectivism – students from countries with a tendency for collectivism (e.g. Japan, Korea, China) may speak out less in class than students from countries where individualism (e.g. Australia, Italy, France, Germany) is valued, so I need to be aware not to let the European students dominate in class and ‘teach to’ them. Debates and discussions have to be framed and organised carefully to encourage participation.
- Power Distance - students from countries with high PD (e.g. Malaysia, China, Indonesia) may be accustomed to teacher-centred classes and resist ideas of self-directed and peer learning. I came across this in delivering a TESOL teacher training course to Chinese teachers that I had constructed around the notion of us ‘exploring’ topics and learning with and from each other. The Chinese teachers resisted this saying that I was the teacher so I should teach them. After changing the structure of the course to include more ‘lectures’, I found, somewhat paradoxically, that they became more receptive to asking and answering questions and offering personal observations.
- Uncertainty Avoidance is the extent to which people are threatened by a lack of structure or by uncertain events. Students from countries with high U.A. (e.g. Japan, France, Korea) may prefer more structured classes and activities and expect teachers to provide them with ‘right’ answers.
- Masculinity versus femininity depicts the degree to which ‘masculine’ traits such as competition and the importance of success in work and academia, are preferred to ‘female characteristics’ such as cooperation and negotiation. Japan is supposedly the most ‘masculine’ country but this value is not particularly observable in the Japanese students I teach – possibly because of their youth or the fact that they are outside of (and perhaps outsiders within) Japan. This shows the importance of neither considering nor presenting cultures as monolithic, static, and stereotyped, as variations within and across cultures need to be recognised and explored.

From this brief discussion, it can be seen that cultural factors impact on SLL in a sufficiently wide range of ways to make them necessary of consideration in their own right and not simply in the context of individual learner difference.

Is motivation the best answer for explaining the success or failure of second language learning?

Is motivation the best answer for explaining the success or failure of second language learning?

Motivation has been recognised by teachers and researchers as “one of the key factors that influence the rate and success of second/foreign language (L2) learning” (Dörnyei, 1998, p.117). It can be said to be the key to success in learning a second language for the following reasons:
· Motivation is needed to start and continue the “long and often tedious process” of SLL and other individual factors generally ‘presuppose’ some form of motivation (Dörnyei, 1998, p.117)
· It is possible for a teacher to influence students’ motivation in a positive way whereas other determining factors such as intelligence, aptitude, and age are less susceptible to a teacher’s influence.
· Even the most able learners will not succeed without motivation, while high motivation on the other hand, can make up for deficiencies in aptitude and learning conditions (Dörnyei, 1998).

Recent research into psychological theories of action-control, expectancy-value, self-worth, goal orientation and setting, self-determination (see Dörnyei, 1998, for an overview) emphasises the complex character of motivation as a individual factor that is not static or stable, but rather a dynamic, cyclic process of continuous change with “at least three distinct phases” (Cohen and Dörnyei, 2002, p.140). This three-phase taxonomy (pre-actional, actional, and post-actional) will be used to discuss the centrality of motivation within the various stages of the SLL process.

Pre-actional phase or choice motivation

This relates to the initial motivation of why someone is learning an SL and also includes learners’ beliefs, perceptions, ‘linguistic self-confidence’ and goal direction (what they think they can achieve, or how they will cope). Attitudes towards an SL community, its people and language, may initiate, increase or inhibit integrative motivation SLL (Gardner, 1985). Instrumental motivation (i.e. to learn the language as a means to an end such as career advancement, academic research etc) may be more important in certain contexts (Lukmani, 1972, cited in USQ LIN8001 Study Book, 2008), so it is important for teachers to be aware of, and encourage, both integrative and instrumental motivations of students. Some students begin with a strong integrative or instrumental motivation, some develop this over time (revealing the importance of actional phase motivation), and some never develop either, nearly always resulting in them fossilising or dropping out of study. It is therefore important to get to know my students so that I can find ways to encourage the development of both integrative motivation (e.g. by organising language exchange conversation classes; using interesting authentic materials; presenting different aspects of the culture through music, movies, discussion topics etc. that fit with learners’ ages and interests), and instrumental motivation (e.g. pointing out opportunities for them to further their goals, working with them to break down larger goals into smaller more easily attainable goals, and incorporating learning activities that fit with their goals).

Actional phase or executive motivation

Dörnyei (2001, p.116) agrees with Keller (1983) that motivation is the "neglected heart" of our understanding of how to design instruction, with the teacher bearing primary responsibility for motivating or demotivating students. Even students with high initial motivation can lose their motivation if the actual learning process does not provide the following (using criteria from Crookes, 2003, citing Keller, 1983):
1) Interest – Crookes (2003) emphasises the importance of providing variety, stimulation, and explanatory mapping when beginning lessons and framing activities, and avoiding too-regular patterns of classroom routines, so that “learners’ curiosity is aroused and sustained” (p. 130).
2) Relevance – a “prerequisite for sustained motivation requires the learner to perceive that important personal needs are being met by the learning situation” (Crookes, 2003, p.130). These are not only instrumental needs, but also needs for “power, affiliation, and achievement” (Crookes, 2003, p.132). Although different cultures value these needs differently (see Q. 5), cooperative learning structures appear to reduce anxiety and increase self-confidence and motivation compared to competitive or individualistic structures of learning (Dörnyei, 2001). It is also important that learning occur within a relaxed and supportive atmosphere (Good and Brophy, 1994), with sufficient structure to ensure that the environment feels safe and non-threatening.

3) Expectancy – learners who think that they are likely to succeed and who attribute success or failure to their own efforts are more highly motivated (Crookes, 2003). Learner autonomy seems “to foster intrinsic goal orientation, task value, and self-efficacy, all of which are critical components of ‘continuing motivation’” (Garcia & Pintrich, 1996 p. 477). As Cooke (2003, p.130) writes, “(i)ntrinsic motivation can be closely related to expectancy, meaning that the teacher should ensure that materials and how they are used are pitched at the level of the learners so as to be sufficiently challenging without being frustrating and de-motivating.

Post-actional or motivational retrospection

This relates to how learners “evaluate how things went” (Cohen and Dörnyei, 2002, p.175), which influences their future actions and motivations in SLL. In an educational setting this self-evaluation may largely be determined by marks/grades, feedback or praise. Dörnyei (2001) suggests the importance of:
· fostering the belief that competence is a changeable aspect of development (e.g. by connecting students with students/community members who have successfully achieved similar goals; dialoguing with students regarding learning strategies)
· providing regular experiences of success to promote favourable self-conceptions of L2 competence (breaking large tasks down into more easily achieved smaller tasks; having students set and record weekly or even daily goals in their language learning journals so they have a sense of moving forward)
· promoting attributions to effort rather than to ability (“I can see that you’ve really been working to build up your vocabulary and you’ve been able to express more complex ideas as a result – well done” cf. “You’re good at writing”)
· providing motivational and specific feedback
Crookes (2003, p.133) adds that “teachers may need to discourage a concern with grades because otherwise unsolicited participation and risk taking will be low”.

In conclusion, it can be seen even from this very condensed discussion of its varied and interconnected impacts, that motivation is central to learner success at all stages of the SLL process. Teachers may appreciate the student who is intrinsically motivated to learn, but they cannot rely on all students possessing such motivation, nor that any initial enthusiasm for SLL will continue if students find the process itself boring or unrewarding. It is therefore essential for an SL teacher to recognise and nurture the diverse motivations learners bring to and develop both in and outside of the SL classroom.

Reference List

Cohen, A. D., & Dörnyei, Z. (2002). Focus on the language learner: Motivation, styles, and strategies. In N. Schmitt (Ed.), An introduction to applied linguistics (pp. 170-190). London: Arnold.

Crookes, G. (2003). A practicum in TESOL: Professional development through teaching practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dörnyei, Z. (1998). Motivation in second and foreign language learning. Language
Teaching, 31, 117–135.

Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Teaching and researching motivation. England: Pearson Education Limited.

Garcia, T., & Pintrich, P. R. (1996). The effects of autonomy on motivation and performance in the college classroom. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 21, 477-86.

Gardner, R. C. (1985). Social psychology and second language learning: The role of attitude
and motivation. London: Edward Arnold.

Good, T. L., & Brophy, J. E. (1994). Looking in classrooms (6th ed.). New York: Harper Collins.

University of Southern Queensland. (2008). LIN8001 Principles of second language learning study book. Toowoomba: USQ.