In his book Awaken the Giant Within, Tony Robbins suggested that a belief is like a table. If it’s working properly, all you really care about is its surface. But what’s really holding up that surface? Some legs, you would hope. However, when one or more of these legs is wobbly, the table is not as sturdy and its utility is compromised. If the table has no legs, well then it's not really a table, is it?
Building A Belief
When people tell me that they really want to learn Spanish, Chinese, or whatever language it may be, I wonder: What is propping up their belief that this language will be invaluable for them? Are the legs sturdy enough to withstand the tornadoes of work, family, sport and the slew of other commitments constantly threatening to upend the table and render it broken beyond repair.
Let’s use the following belief as an example:
“Learning Mandarin Chinese will be invaluable for me"
A sturdy belief of the value of learning a language ought to be propped up by multiple strong legs. For example, let’s say that Janice, 27, has developed some groundbreaking new gadgets, the legs of her belief, as stated above, may be:
- I want to be able to market my product to a Chinese consumer base
- I want to be able to contact Chinese manufacturers who do not speak English
- I would like to make my website available in Chinese
- I want to be able to interact with the Chinese population in my community - learn about their culture etc.
- My sister-in-law is Chinese and if I learn her native language it will give us something to bond over
(A five-legged table. That means one leg can fail and it will still hold up!)
Now, this imaginary person has convinced me that their desire to learn Chinese is genuine.
Let’s compare it to Steve, 20, full-time engineering student and weekend warrior who reckons he wants to learn Spanish.
“Learning Spanish will be invaluable for me” he thinks he thinks. What's under that table, Steve?
- I’d love to travel to South America
- I've always wanted to speak another language
- It would impress the ladies
Hmmm, I’m unconvinced, Steve. Is your desire to learn Spanish going to hold up during week 10 of Uni with four assignments due? You're already covering shifts left, right and centre at work and you just blew your 10-day DuoLingo streak yesterday. Why not just put it down entirely? Is it really worth the extra stress?
In this case, the answer is that it’s probably not.
And yet, despite the inevitable busyness of life, people manage to learn languages. Some people learn a lot of them, and some people learn them extremely fast!
The table analogy gets us some of the way to explaining why some people persist while others throw in the towel, however, we need to go even deeper.
For example, who are people such as Janice aspiring to be? How can they get their entire neural network to do the heavy lifting necessary in order to learn a language?
To answer these questions, I will draw from language learning motivation theory, which has existed within academia since the late 1950s. The theories developed here have become the backbone of how I understand what separates the 'Steves' of the world from the 'Janices.'
Language Learning Motivation Theory and the 'L2 Motivational Self
Let's first hop into our time machine and travel back to the 1960s where a pair of bright young academics named Robert Gardner and Wallace Lambert have just developed the first widely accepted theory of second-language (L2) learning motivation known as ‘integrativeness’. Their idea can be summarised as the following:
Integrativeness is when language learners are "willing to identify with members of another ethnolinguistic group and take on very subtle aspects of their behaviour” (Gardner & Lambert, 1962). This theory emphasised the processes of “identification and imitation” to a set of foreign social norms as essential to L2 motivation.
Seems like a pretty solid theory, right?
For its time, definitely. However, consider the present condition of the English language and you will see where Gardner and Lambert’s theory fails to fully translate to the contemporary global language learning landscape.
This is because English is a post-identity language; meaning that there is not only one or even a few specific cultural groups into which the learner aims to integrate as a result of learning English. Instead, English is often learned as a lingua franca in Europe and beyond, meaning that the speaking community into which the learner aspires to integrate stems from an extremely diverse variety of cultural and linguistic norms.
Because of this, it’s almost impossible for students to develop a sense of what the key components of ‘imitation’ of or ‘identification’ might be within the global English speaking community. It’s just too diverse.
Dörnyei puts forward a more personal and internal theory about motivation in L2 acquisition. Simply put, his idea is that an individual integrates towards a set of self-generated ideas associated with becoming a speaker of the target language, rather than towards a specific target community.
Not getting it fully? Here’s an example. A survey of high school English language learners in Indonesia by Dr Martin Lamb in 2004 showed that the most motivated students had a vision of an “English-speaking globally-involved but nationally responsible future self” (Lamb, 2004). These data align with Dörnyei’s theory - that students project onto themselves an ideal self which, through language learning, they can become. Having a clear vision of this is central to productive and motivating language learning.
Primary School Students and the 'L2 Motivational Self'
But, Jack, what about young learners? Those little rascals aren't thinking about the future, they're just living in the now, man.
Yes, that's true when talking about students in the first or second grade. However, at some stage, do students not start to produce sentiments like: "I'm never going to use this" or "when I grow up, I'm going to move to Australia and rescue orphaned baby kangaroos"?
Where do such 'dreads' and 'dreams' come from? I would suggest that these thoughts represent the formation of the child's ability to imagine his or herself in the future, based on their own knowledge of the external social world and their place within it. Nested within this future projection is the belief that language abilities may or may not be necessary for the child's ideal imagined future.
At primary school, I learned Italian for a whole 7 years and by the end of it I could say the numbers, the word 'bus', and I could tell you that you're ugly.
Why so little? Well, we were all pretty cynical towards the idea of learning Italian by the time we left primary school aged 12. Our curiosity dropped off at some stage and was replaced with the feeling that none of us were ever really going to need to know this language. And it was true (sorry Mr Merlino).
I can't say that I saw that cynicism towards English while teaching primary school-aged students in Spain. Far from it. In Madrid, there seemed to be a widespread acceptance between parents, students, teachers and administrators alike that learning English really is going to be important for their young people's futures as they grow up in an ever-more interconnected world.
So, then, let's go back to Dörnyei and his L2 motivational-self theory and ask - is it applicable to primary school students?
Part of my own Undergraduate University research sought to answer this question. While my data and time frame were too limited to draw any definite conclusions, the interviews I conducted with language teachers at various primary schools suggested to me that the 'L2 self' is not relevant when students enter primary school (aged 5), but it is relevant by the time they leave (aged 12). A majority of the teachers I interviewed noticed a change in behaviour around grade 4 or aged 10, at which age students began to question the utility of their language classes.
One primary school Mandarin teacher I interviewed in Melbourne, Australia remarked that many students deepened their motivation to learn Mandarin through initiatives such as study tours or performing songs or speeches at assemblies. Achieving such difficult language objectives - it could be hypothesised - strengthen the child’s level of identification with the person that they are becoming when they accomplish these impressive and challenging feats.
Why do I need to know all this?
The objective of this article is to demonstrate in some convincing way that Friedrich Nietzsche's famous line: "he who has a why can bear almost any how” is as relevant to learning a new language as it is to anything else.
If you are a language learner or somebody who would like to learn a language in the future, you may conclude from this article that establishing a clear vision of a future version of yourself who speaks the target language may be just as important, if not more so, than the methodologies and resources used to actually learn the language.
If you, like me, are a teacher of foreign languages, you may use this insight to emphasise individual goal setting within the classroom. This could be done by brainstorming with students the various benefits and opportunities which may arise as a result of learning the target language.
The students could then produce an individualised list of the reasons which appeal most to them, being encouraged to add their own unique flavour to the ideas generated by the class.
This is all to get each language learner to, in their own heads, answer the following question: who are you planning to become and how does acquiring this language help you arrive at that destination?
Once the course has been chartered, the sails are much more likely to catch wind as the journey unwinds.
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