Well, I have a knack for languages, but attitudes towards the language/speakers do matter!

By Mansour Ahmed:

In school, Arabic, namely Arabic grammar, which constitutes a chronic headache for most students of Arabic, was my favorite subject. I especially looked forward to sentence parsing and assigning the proper cases and diacritical marks to lexical items. In grade 7, I started learning English. Surprisingly, I enjoyed it just as much, English grammar in particular. Motivated by some German friends, I once decided to learn German all by myself. In three months, I learned so much. My pronunciation was almost native-like, according to them. A few years ago, I decided to add French to the list. Initially, my knack did not fail me (but it began to falter, see below for whys). Perhaps, this is genetically determined because my kids do outstandingly well in languages (Arabic, English, and French) in school. Hence, it may be possible to say that some people have a knack for languages while others don’t. Besides this special gift for languages, which to date has not been fully accounted for and understood by SLA researchers (to the best of my knowledge), it is argued that how well and how fast a second language can be acquired depends on a number of factors/variables, such as motivation, L2 instruction, and attitudes (among others). I will endeavour to tersely illustrate the role of attitudes in L2 acquisition (NB: the attitudes I am talking about here is slightly different from those in VH chapter).

Undoubtedly, L2ers’ views of the people who speak language X as well as their culture determine or limit their progress in second language competence (Gardner and Lambert, 1972: as cited in Brown 1999). In their socio-psychological theory, Gardner and Lambert underscore the importance of the L2ers’ tendencies and attitudes towards the people who speak the second language. That is, for successful language acquisition to occur, the L2ers must be psychologically prepared to adopt various aspects of behavior which characterize members of another linguistic-cultural groups. It is apparent that there is a significant correlation between L2ers attitudes towards speakers of the target language and success in L2 acquisition; that is, positive attitudes L2 and its speakers speed up the rate of acquisition, while negative attitudes impede acquisition. To illustrate, some newcomers to Quebec take too long to become proficient in French. This could be partly attributed to how much they desire to understand and empathize with the Quebecers. Put differently, if they were to acculturate faster, and subsequently modify their attitudes, their level of motivation would have been significantly higher, and the acquisition of French could have been faster, easier, and more enjoyable.

Another type of attitudes that I want to highlight is the attitudes molded by the instructional setting, namely by teachers’ personalities and pedagogical approaches and the teaching materials. I think this type of attitude formation and its consequences on learning is applicable to all instructional settings, whether linguistic or non-linguistic. L2ers who are satisfied with their teachers are normally more motivated than those who are not. Their attitudes towards learning and the target language change accordingly. As alluded to above, my learning of French was not as gratifying as that of other languages. The primary reason behind this was the way the language was taught—very traditional and lacks the spirit of communicative language teaching. Being a language educator and knowing a great deal about the approaches and techniques that could make learning more fun and create a class atmosphere that is conducive to learning, I attempted to give the teacher(s) some hints on how this part could be taught, but in vain. Eventually, almost everyone in those classes ended up saying ‘I hate learning French.’ I wonder if any of you had a similar experience with respect to learning French here in Montreal. What’s worse, the curriculum was so focused on grammar and lack the most fundamental features of interactive language learning.

I think it is a high time teachers employed better teaching approaches—more communicative, student-centered, and collaborative. Had this to be the case, I think the learners’ attitudes towards L2 learning would change significantly, and subsequently their level of motivation would be boosted considerably.

Reference:

Brown, D. (2000). Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. White Plains, NY: Addison Wesley Longman.

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3 thoughts on “Well, I have a knack for languages, but attitudes towards the language/speakers do matter!”

  1. Hi Mansour,
    I was very impressed reading about your many successes with language learning. Indeed, you seem to have a knack for languages! Thank you for sharing how teacher’s attitudes towards language learning (and how those shape their pedagogical approaches) can encourage learners to either invest in the practices of the class or becoming very unmotivated and discouraged.
    I wanted to comment on one example you shared about newcomers to Quebec and why it might take some longer to become proficient in French. I agree that part of it is related to their motivation and desire to integrate. Yet, you’re sharing a bit of a chicken and egg scenario (i.e., which comes first, the French, or the acculturation?). The picture, as we have discussed in class is more complex than the individual’s motivation or attitudes. We have seen that highly motivated classroom learners can nevertheless experience being minoritized outside the class (due to how they look, their accent, etc.), and this can impact their investment in their identities as language learners. So, to really understand why some people take a long time (however that is defined, and by whose measuring stick), we should also consider how societal attitudes and ideologies are influencing how newcomers are being positioned (through discourse, explicit actions, language teaching practices, interactions in the grocery store…) as they go about their days.
    ~Alison

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  2. Xiaoke #5

    Hi, Mansour!

    This is indeed a very powerful post! Thank you for sharing!

    I totally agree that attitude and motivation considerably influence the effectiveness of L2 learning. They play an even more crucial role for students at beginner level specifically. I have noticed that learning a new language influences how students see themselves while using the language, and how they shift identities while using different languages. I will demonstrate this point by my personal experiences.

    I started learning English at 6 years old. I was very reluctant to speak English at that time because I did not think I had a good pronunciation. Once, I walked with the English teacher. She asked me to help her with bringing the notebooks to the classroom and her said, “Thank you”. I replied, “you are welcome”. Such a short reply in English made me nervous because I excitedly expected her compliment to my reply in English. However, disappointingly, she said nothing. I felt heartbroken and cried for a long time. Even more, I thought I was a loser in learning English because the teacher did not say “your English is very good”.

    This experience made me think for quite a long time. First of all, for language learners, especially children, they have an extremely high expectation for the encouragement from the teacher than learners of any other ages. A brief encouragement, such as “good job” or “excellent” could make their day! That is not saying that children L2 learners lack L2 learning motivation. It, however, emphasizes that children’s learning motivation is largely based on teacher’s positive feedback. In addition, children L2 learners are highly vulnerable in learning the new language. They want to call all teacher’s attention while they speak L2 because teacher’s encouragement could make them feel linguistically superior to other peers.

    Reflected by this experience, as a language teacher, I currently pay a lot of attention to give feedback and encouragement to children. Also, I noticed it significantly enhances student’s positive attitude and motivation in L2 learning. The same principle could also apply for adult learners.

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  3. Yerim Lee (comment #6)

    Thank you for sharing this, Mansour!
    There is a friend of mine who learned Korean only by watching Korean dramas, and now she speaks Korean very fluently. But your language knack s is also very impressive! I wish I had the ability like you do!

    This summer when I learned French, I realized how teachers can hugely effect on learners’ motivation or attitude in language learning. The teacher of my class did not allow open-discussion about our confusion of grammatical rules or instructions of the teacher among peers, and sometimes spoke English to the students while she was forcing us to speak only in French. These behaviors of the teacher caused complaints from the students and conflicts of the relationship of the students and the teacher, thus there was not enough rapport which could help learning and teaching in classroom.

    As you mentioned, learners need motivation or desire to learn a language. With my experience as mentioned above, I think being aware of not only the learner’s attitudes or motivation which can be molded in the instructional setting but also rapport or relationship with the teacher and the learners is very important. Therefore, as language education practitioners, I think it is required for us to explore more diverse ways in order to develop and improve the relationship with learners for more effective teaching and learning.

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