The Difficulty of Defining the ‘Asian Context’

This month we are publishing L2 Selves and Motivations in Asian Contexts edited by Matthew T. Apple, Dexter Da Silva and Terry Fellner. The book explores current motivational theories and models in Asian educational contexts. However, as the editors explain in this blog post, what exactly is meant by ‘Asia’ and ‘Asian context’ was extremely difficult to define.

L2 Selves and Motivations in Asian ContextsAfter our success editing our previous book Language Learning Motivation in Japan (2013), we were convinced that it would be a worthy goal to expand from one cultural context to another, or to several. Given the number of language motivation researchers in Asian countries who had expressed interest, we began to work with language teachers across Asia to compile an edited volume initially titled Language Learning Motivation in Asia. Yet even from the start, we found it difficult to determine precisely what we meant by ‘Asia’. Was this book about South Asia? East Asia? Southeast Asia? Were countries and cultures in those regions similar or different? Did they have anything in common other than places in which people learned second languages?

It became apparent to us that in a sense the title of our edited volume was a kind of oxymoron. As we write in the book’s opening introductory chapter, Asia is a geographic region, not a single culture or country. Saying the ‘Asian context’ would be just as nonsensical as the ‘European context’ or the ‘North American context’. Even adding an ‘s’ to make the plural ‘Asian contexts’ still did not entirely solve the uncomfortable feeling that we were in danger of characterizing all cultures represented in the volume as a single, monolithic entity. Despite this, the ideas, concepts, arguments, and data used by researchers in various countries across the Asian continent did seem to have one aspect of language learning in common; namely, English was a dominant, in some cases the only, second language taught as a required subject yet not used in daily life. Because of this commonality, the models and concepts currently in use by language motivation researchers did not quite fit the learners in these contexts.

Our previous volume featured many studies that relied on the idea of ‘possible selves’, and we had already seen some signs that that theory and other motivational theories might either have limited applicability to cultures in Asia or have led to confusing and conflicting interpretations. While each of the studies in the book was conducted in isolation by separate researchers, the results collectively support our suspicions that existing theories of language motivation, including theories regarding the ‘L2 self’, were not adequate enough to explain motivation. In nearly every context in the studies in this volume, English is viewed either as necessary for examinations for school admission or for job hiring or as something ‘useful’ for travel overseas. The exoticization of ‘native speakers’ of English and ‘othering’ of users of foreign languages by learners in certain Asian contexts could also be seen as a means of cultural or personal identity defense, and yet in other Asian contexts learning English is a monetary, cultural, and political means of rising in society. Even within one country the learning contexts, and therefore motivations, vary.

In the end, we may raise more questions than we can answer, but given the increasingly complicated and interrelated world in which we all live, Asian or otherwise, we believe this volume of edited studies provides a great starting point for expanding and creating new types of language motivation theories.

Language Learning Motivation in JapanFor more information about this book, please see our website. You might also be interested in the editors’ previous volume Language Learning Motivation in Japan.

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