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Mixed motives for language learning?

Melanie Butler talks to Hayo Reinders

It was a white paper from Oxford University Press called ‘Using Technology to Motivate Learners’ that first bought Hayo Reinders to my attention. The paper is an excellent and timely response to the questions thrown up by the rush to online teaching during Covid, with a myriad of good evidence-based ideas on how to use technology effectively.

Yet, I as I read it, I found myself asking the question: Why just look at motivation?

I decided to interview one of the authors and looked up Hayo, a Dutch professor with university chairs in the US and Thailand who lives in New Zealand. Reading up on his background, I realised that, while we were both multiilinguals, our motivations for learning languages are miles apart.

Hayo is intrinsically motivated. He fell in love with languages as a child. At four, his favourite TV programme was Sesame Street in German, at 11 he was thrown out of a restaurant for correcting the French on the menu. He’s a language nerd who made his hobby a job.

I am extrinsically motivated. The child of a peripatetic family, my father believed in learning the language of the countries we lived in and sent me to local schools where nobody spoke English. I didn’t choose to learn languages, I had to – though losing my languages would be like losing a leg.

“There is nothing wrong with instrumental motivation,” Hayo consoles me on the phone from his father’s home in Holland. People who urgently need to learn a language – immigrants, refugees, people in love with a foreigner – are, given the right support, likely to learn.

The main problem is extrinsically motivated students with no obvious need to learn: three-year-olds in China in English-medium kindergartens forced to speak only in English, for example, or Asian students in classes of 40 made to learn a language which might, in some distant future, help them get jobs.

One quote from the paper stays in my head: ‘Achieving fluency in a second language requires learners to stay motivated for years’. But isn’t that also true of many school subjects, I ask Hayo. Maths, science, music? You need to stay motivated for years.

“Yes, and you need not only to be motivated, but also engaged,” he says. “Sometimes engagement can be more useful.“

If, as one definition has it, ‘motivation represents initial intention and engagement is the subsequent action’, then motivation is a necessary condition of language learning, but not, on its own, a sufficient one.

What about other affective emotions, such as anxiety? Hayo and I are both fans of the work of Jean Marc Dewaele, who investigates using positive psychology in language teaching. He has trialled a variety of teacher behaviours and methodological interventions, and measures their impact on both motivation and foreign language classroom anxiety (FLCA). Many interventions – from telling jokes to using more L2 in the classroom – have a positive impact on motivation, but no impact on FLCA. You can be more motivated, but no less anxious.

Classroom anxiety is not just limited to language learning. I confess to physics anxiety. For Hayo it was maths. “I spent the whole of high school figuring out ways to avoid it. I did my first degree in Arabic and Hebrew, then I switched to applied linguistics for my higher degree and my first course was… statistics!”

I can hear his anguish. Technology, I point out, is proven to help with maths anxiety. Why not with FLCA?

Hayo agrees. “I did a project with engineering students in Thailand where we said, ‘We’re going to let you play as much of your favourite game in English as you like on condition you log onto the international server, play in English and fulfil certain tasks’. It was very successful.”

But technology is not the only answer to FCLA. “We ran a recent project which deliberately challenged learners with anxiety problems. With support they got through and their anxiety levels fell.” In cognitive behavioural psychology they call this desensitisation.

However, you have to acknowledge the existence of a problem like FLCA, I point out. You have to recognise when students have it. Motivation, engagement, FCLA – using technology can help students with many affective elements of learning – so why the focus on motivation?

“When we first met as a panel, we had a freewheeling discussion,” says Hayo, “and we asked the publishers: why motivation? They told us that in surveys of thousands of teachers, motivation was given as the main reason for using technology.”

There is nothing wrong with teachers using technology as a motivator and there is nothing wrong with publishers researching it. But in my view, other aspects of positive psychology are also important.

Hayo also argues the case for Positive Computing, a movement which aims – accoring to two of its founders – to create a “digital environment that can make us happier and healthier, not just more productive”. As Hayo adds, “It is about designing technology which helps human beings.”

So, the message from two differently motivated multilinguals is simple: think positive.
To find out more about Hayo Reinders, visit innovationinteaching.org

Image courtesy of Brendon O'Hagan
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Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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