What Motivates People to Learn Multiple Languages?

This month we published Motivation to Learn Multiple Languages in Japan by Chika Takahashi. In this post the author introduces the book and explains what inspired her to write it. 

I originally thought of writing this book when I was about to finish the last set of interviews with my two interviewees after nine years of data collection. I had started this motivation study in 2012, had published three papers on the earlier phases, and had unpublished data for the previous three years. What I felt was necessary at that stage was to put everything together to examine my interviewees’ long-term motivational developments to study multiple languages from a broad perspective. For that purpose, I felt that a book-length report was necessary.

We all know that it usually takes years to reach a certain level in any second/foreign language. We also know that it’s challenging to do so in more than one language, particularly when there is a strong social, political, or economic emphasis on one of the languages, in this case English. In a non-multilingual context like Japan, it may be even more challenging than in other contexts such as Europe. Yet I had these rich interview data to demonstrate that it is possible to be motivated to learn multiple languages even in a non-multilingual, exam-oriented context and to go beyond an instrumentalist view of language learning to see multiple language learning as a lifelong endeavor.

In the book, you will see that my interviewees experienced motivational ups and downs along the way, as they went from high school, to university, to graduate school, and into the working world. They had different approaches to language learning and went through distinct experiences even at the same schools, but they both showed compelling cases of persisting in learning multiple languages in their own ways. Readers may be particularly surprised that one of them ended up learning nine languages throughout the years. In an era when English functions as a global language and many learners question the necessity of learning another language when they can communicate in English, this is frankly quite amazing. I am sure that their motivational trajectories and perspectives on language offer valuable insights for our future language learning/teaching, no matter the context. I feel truly lucky to have met such wonderful learners, not only as a researcher but also as a language learner and simply as a human.

What I hope I have demonstrated through this book is that language learning is not just about gaining capital or a competitive edge in the job market. It is not something that happens only in formal education settings, either. My interviewees considered it a lifelong endeavor—an essentially human act that better connects us to other people—and showed that it can be so enjoyable and fulfilling if we have the right elements of motivation. I hope that readers both inside and outside Japan find these two cases illuminating and insightful for their learning/teaching of multiple languages in their given contexts.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Lessons from Exceptional Language Learners Who Have Achieved Nativelike Proficiency by Zoltán Dörnyei and Katarina Mentzelopoulos.

What is Authenticity in Language Teaching and Learning?

This month we are publishing Authenticity across Languages and Cultures edited by Leo Will, Wolfgang Stadler and Irma Eloff. In this post Wolfgang explains how the idea for the book came about.

The idea for the book came to my mind…no, this was much later. But it might have been there at the back of my head when I didn’t know (as a teacher of Russian as a foreign language = RFL) how to manage the balancing act between situations in the real world and situations in the classroom. I started teaching Russian in the eighties (last century!), no internet, no Russian native speakers on the Tyrolean ski slopes, communism, Cold War…Where to get authentic material? Soviet films? Colloquial audio material? No corpora, no social media…How to create authentic communication situations? Would learners/students have the chance to go to the Soviet Union? Where would they practice the target language?

Of course, at that time I was (not too) happy with the textbooks I had, and I used authentic material from my journeys to Russia (theatre tickets, metro jetons, coins, menus, photos of inscriptions on houses etc). Only when I started teaching at Innsbruck University, and very much later, did I think about the concepts of authenticity as presented in the literature. What did authenticity mean? Were there authenticities? Authentic teachers? Authentic materials? Authentic language? The Russian we read in newspapers and the Russian I heard in the kitchen of my Moscow friends were different. Russian in the hostel. In the streets. On stage. On TV. Confusing.

When the idea of the book was ripe as I wanted to get a grip on authenticity – WHAT IS AUTHENTICITY? – I thought that I would need editors, authors from other countries, other cultures. Was there something like intercultural/transcultural authenticity?

When I introduced the topic (also years ago) to my colleague at Humboldt University in Berlin, asking her whether to organise a joint seminar on authenticity and Russian language pedagogy, Leo came in. A colleague in Innsbruck told me that there was a guy in Munich who was doing his PhD on authenticity (albeit in English as a SL/FL). So, we invited Leo. And he came to Innsbruck for a talk in this joint seminar, telling us about the various forms of authenticity.

And when I was dean of the faculty, and involved in co-operations with South Africa and Canada, as well as with Israel, I thought of asking around who would be interested in joining my investigation into this mystifying concept. By then, I had learned that authenticity denoted more than certain text types (i.e. texts not purposely designed for language instructional purposes). Authenticity being deeply enmeshed with questions of self and identity, I wanted to explore how the dynamics of the concept play out in vastly different contexts of life and language learning.

My colleague Irma, from South Africa, had been invited to Innsbruck a number of times and we discussed the interplays of language and education on multiple occasions. South Africa has eleven official languages! This high level of language diversity provided interesting perspectives on language learning and the manifestations of authenticity which I had been pondering. When I mentioned the idea of a book on authenticity, she immediately responded with enthusiasm. When I introduced her and Leo to one another, there was a natural synergy between the three of us and the activation of our various networks commenced in order to issue invitations to potential chapter authors.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Complexity Perspectives on Researching Language Learner and Teacher Psychology edited by Richard J. Sampson and Richard S. Pinner.

How Do You Become Successful at Language Learning?

We recently published Lessons from Exceptional Language Learners Who Have Achieved Nativelike Proficiency and its companion volume Stories from Exceptional Language Learners Who Have Achieved Nativelike Proficiency by Zoltán Dörnyei and Katarina Mentzelopoulos. In this post Katarina introduces the books.

How do you become successful at language learning?

I will start with a disclaimer: the answer to this question highly depends on how you define success and what your own individual language learning goals are. But using one definition of success – nativelikeness – we asked 30 exceptionally successful language learners this same question. Without any heritage background or early immersion experiences, these individuals all learned an additional language to the extent that they could be mistaken for native speakers in that language.

So how does one become exceptionally successful at learning a language? It wouldn’t be an age-old question if it came with an easy answer. For decades, researchers have investigated the factors they think might affect ultimate attainment in language learning. They asked questions like: How far can language learning go? Does the amount of time you spend immersed in the language matter? What about your age when you start learning? Does the quality of language you are exposed to make a difference?

For us, rather than the environmental factors, what we wanted to know was the process behind the success. Why did these learners decide to learn the language? What was their experience like? What motivated them, and what sustained them when that motivation waned? Even more, what was it like when they reached the final stage of that journey? What is it like to be nativelike?

In 2020, we sat down with 30 gifted language learners and asked them to share with us their language learning (hi)stories from start to present. They proceeded to bring us on a journey through all manner of individual differences and learning factors:

  • Their individual personalities and talents, from their openness and international posture to their musical ability and deep emotional connection with their languages
  • The relationships they forged, the communities they took part in, and the role models that inspired them
  • Their trials and tribulations related to multilingual identities, legitimacy and ownership, as well as their successes with carving their own paths through these circles and developing their own linguistic voice
  • Their aspirations and goals, the strategies that saw them through, and how they managed to persist through any number of obstacles

These are just a few, and for every rule, there was always an exception.

So what’s the answer to our question? How do you become successful at language learning? We initially set out to write a single monograph to answer this, planning on analysing our learners’ narratives and drawing out specific lessons that could be learned. Yet it turned out that each of the stories was so distinctive with their own complexities that we felt their full narratives were just as important as the lessons we could distil.

Thus, readers can dive into each of our learners’ stories in the forthcoming volume, Stories from Exceptional Language Learners Who Have Achieved Nativelike Proficiency. Complementing this, the compiled lessons and research-related insights can be found in Lessons from Exceptional Language Learners Who Have Achieved Nativelike Proficiency: Motivation, Cognition and Identity. Both volumes can be read as standalones, but we highly recommend reading them together, as the overarching themes and the individual details complement each other in a way the lone books do not.

Ultimately, I regret to inform you that neither volume provides a single answer to our question, and there is a lot more to expand on in this burgeoning topic. Nevertheless, we hope that this duology contains a number of threads that provide learners, teachers and researchers alike a few drops of inspiration in your own respective journeys.

If you would like to get in touch to have a chat about the books or anything related, feel free to find me on Twitter (@KatarinaMentz).

For more information about Lessons from Exceptional Language Learners Who Have Achieved Nativelike Proficiency and Stories from Exceptional Language Learners Who Have Achieved Nativelike Proficiency please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Autonomy Support Beyond the Language Learning Classroom edited by Jo Mynard and Scott J. Shelton-Strong.

The Importance of Teachers’ Meta-Knowledge of the Lexicon

This month we published Advanced Students’ Knowledge of Vocabulary in a First and Second Language by Monica Karlsson. In this post the author explains why the book is important.

Despite a virtual explosion of research on vocabulary teaching and learning during the last few decades, there still seems to be a general consensus among teachers that whereas most L2 language areas need to be taught explicitly, the learning of vocabulary will take place implicitly, and, for that reason, does not require much time in the second language classroom. Admittedly, students may incidentally acquire knowledge of words while, for instance, reading and listening, learning thus occurring haphazardly, in a non-structured way. This book, however, originates from a strong belief that vocabulary too needs to be addressed explicitly, and that this can be done by providing teachers with more meta-knowledge of different areas of the L2 lexicon.

For instance, based on the results in Chapter 3, dealing with suffixation, it is clear that students would benefit from a teaching syllabus that considered the complexities and frequencies of the stem, the derivative form and the suffix, as well as discussions of the effects of these factors. For idioms, proverbs and multi-word verbs, addressed in Chapters 4 and 5, it would be useful for students to learn that these items of vocabulary are not equal in terms of transparency and commonality, and that these factors most certainly affect to what extent students are able to spot, comprehend, remember and ultimately produce such items correctly (see also Karlsson, 2019). It would also be valuable for learners to know that within the greater lexicon, there are smaller worlds of vocabulary where interconnections are formed in various ways. This phenomenon could, for instance, be exemplified by means of polysemous words and the process of layering, thus enhancing students’ knowledge of the meanings of high-frequency words. Finally, the results in Chapter 7 show that quite a few learners display a great potential for inferring word knowledge when provided with contextual clues. By dedicating time in the L2 classroom to discussions regarding such clues and what conclusions can be drawn based on them, this inherent awareness, most likely dormant in many students, could be enhanced further, even helping low-achievers come to grips with new word meanings much more quickly.

It is my sincere hope that my book will encourage L2 instructors to learn more about the lexicon, theoretically as well as practically, so that they may find the courage to approach vocabulary in a more structured way, and that it will inspire linguists to do more research that will support such a development.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like the author’s previous book, Idiomatic Mastery in a First and Second Language.

How do Individual Differences in L1 Skills Impact L2 Achievement?

This month we published Exploring L1-L2 Relationships by Richard L. Sparks. In this post the author explains how he came to write the book.

My research has addressed L2 learning from a different angle, namely that first language (L1) and L2 learning are similar. Given my background, my approach to research for L2 learning described in the book may not be surprising. I am a L1 educator whose specialties are learning disabilities, reading disabilities (dyslexia), language learning, and assessment. My study of L2 learning, and later L2 aptitude, was serendipitous and began when I encountered US college students with difficulties fulfilling their L2 course requirement. For several years, I conducted studies with secondary level students with L2 learning difficulties, but soon expanded my research to include both high- and low-achieving L2 learners. I speculated that there would be strong connections between students’ L2 achievement and their L1 achievement, an intuition that was quickly validated by my research. These findings encouraged me to continue this line of investigation for the simple reason that despite longstanding research by L1 researchers that had revealed individual differences (IDs) in all aspects of students’ language development by preschool age, there had been little or no research on L1-L2 relationships.

The book brings a new and different approach to the study of L2 learning, one that has been largely neglected by L2 educators and researchers – how individual differences (IDs) in students’ L1 skills impact their L2 aptitude and subsequent L2 achievement. Early on, my late colleague, Leonore Ganschow, and I developed a hypothesis which claimed that L1 and L2 learning have a common foundation – language ability. My book takes the reader on a journey over 30+ years in which our studies, some lasting 3-10 years, provided strong support for our hypothesis about L1-L2 relationships by showing that:

  • L2 achievement is reflected in students’ levels of L1 achievement
  • L2 aptitude and L2 achievement run along a continuum of very strong to very weak learners, just like L1 achievement
  • L2 learning problems are, first and foremost, language learning problems
  • L2 aptitude (like L1 ability) is componential and comprised of different language skills
  • L2 aptitude and L2 achievement are constrained (moderated) by L1 achievement.
  • L2 anxiety is largely determined by students’ levels of L1 achievement, L2 aptitude, and L2 achievement

A valuable section of the book introduces the reader to evidence for the strong relationships between students’ L1 and L2 reading skills in alphabetic languages through the use of the Simple View of Reading model. This research supports L1-L2 connections for reading and demonstrates how to evaluate students’ L1 or L2 reading skills in English and Spanish through the use of accessible assessment tools. Another important contribution for L2 educators is the discussion throughout the book of the concepts of inter-individual and intra-individual differences, culminating in a new, heretofore unpublished chapter in which I review the extensive literature on IDs in L1 ability and provide a tutorial on how to understand IDs in, and the connections between, L1–L2 skills. The tutorial explains that there is variation – often substantial variation – between and within individual learners, and variation in IDs profiles across multiple characteristics. The tutorial also shows how learners’ inter- and intra-individual differences in L1 are manifested in their L2 aptitude and L2 achievement. The book concludes with presentation of my model of future directions for L2 research.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Explorations of Language Transfer by Terence Odlin.