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Theories of Motivation for Second Language Acquisition (SLA)

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 5503 words Published: 14th Dec 2017

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This paper is an attempt to understand the complex relationship between Second Language Learning (SLA) and motivation. The paper first develops some common theories in SLA and attempts to show the difficulties L2 learners have when learning a new language. The paper highlights these difficulties in relation to language acquisition and motivation. Motivation is discussed with reference to SLA learning and shows how our understanding of motivation can lead us to better equip the learner for success. The paper develops some language Learning strategies, used in relation to motivation, and how we can measure them for a better outcome in the classroom.

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There are many reasons why somebody would learn a new language. This paper attempts to show that the relationship between Second language learner and motivation plays a key role in this desired success for learner. The paper discusses some common themes in Second Language Learning (SLA) and shows how learners face their own difficulties according their decision as to when to start to learn a language. With these difficulties recognised the paper goes on to show how early theories of motivation and its relationship to SLA provided a foundation for language learning strategies to develop. These developments, it will be argued, have lead to a greater understanding of the effects motivation have on the L2 learner. The paper moves on to discuss some common learning strategies theories that equip the teacher to provide better motivational strategies within the classroom. The strategies for the teacher are discussed in relation to different kinds of motivation.

The importance of motivation and SLA:

Many researchers have used, to some extent, a social-psychology model of learning in conjunction with the Second Language Acquisition model. The cognitive Social Learning Theory (SLT), which stems from the Social Cognitive Theory was extensively cited and empirically tested by Bandura (1989). Bandura’s work focused heavily on behavior and methods that stimulated behavioral change. His theory has three guiding principles: understand and predict individual and group behavior, identification of methods where behaviors can be modified or changed, and the development of personality, behavior, and health promotion (Bandura, 1997). The aspect of self-efficacy and self-perceptions led to the understanding of self-regulation when it came to adult modification of behavior (Zimmerman 1990).

In a study of second language learning, Prinzi (2007) explained the importance of motivation. He posited that there is a very close relationship between motivation and second language learning. “With low motivation, students may idly sit by and miss valuable learning experiences. This may limit their success and that can lead to increased frustration and in a loss of even more motivation” (3). Motivation in second language learning was defined by Gardner (1985) as “referring to the extent to which the individual works or strives to learn the language because of a desire to do so and satisfaction experienced in this activity” (10). Motivation is not a simple concept to explain. Motivated second language learners exhibit many other qualities in addition to effort, desire, and positive effects. Motivated individuals have specific goals to achieve. They show consistent effort, strong desire, and effects. They also may “experience satisfaction when they are successful and dissatisfaction when they are not” (Gardner, 2001: 9).

Second Language Acquisition:

The second language acquisition classroom is unique in that it emphasizes oral and written communication, strives for authentic information and cultural interaction, builds vocabulary, and focuses on comprehension (Brecht, 2000). It is unique in comparisons to other classrooms in that the student learns and acquires information in a language other than the primary language. However, in order to grasp a better understanding of second language acquisition, a definition and an understanding of how acquisition occurs is required. There are various definitions of Second Language Acquisition. The definitions stem from many cross-disciplinary fields: applied linguistics, social psychology, educational philosophy, behavior psychology, and so on. The terminology for second language acquisition stems from the field of applied linguistics, the rationalist way of describing language learning (Brecht, 2000).

Acquisition of a second language requires an individual to process subconsciously the sounds and utterances of the target language (Krashen, 1985). In language acquisition, the learner concentrates on the communicative act and not on the form or correctness of the language (Krashen, 1985). According to Krashen, acquisition of a language is very similar to the way children learn their first language and constitutes a simple but natural way of language acquisition. According to Chomsky (1986) and Krashen (1985), people are born with the ability to learn their first language. The first language learned as a child or your primary or “mother tongue,” is considered Language one (LI). In Universal Grammar, children are born with an inborn code to learn LI from birth, which is called the innate Language Acquisition Device (LAD). This device is believed to play a significant role in adult acquisition of L2 (Chomsky, 1986; Krashen, 1985).

On the other hand, second language learning requires the formal instruction of language, and is comprised of a conscious process of factual knowledge about the language. Learning differs from acquisition in that the individual makes a deliberate and conscious effort, focusing on the correctness and accuracy, to speak the language; thus, at times, hindering fluency. Therefore, when one is introduced to a language at an older age, it is first learned, coupled with comprehension, and then acquired. Acquisition of a second language by adults occurs similarly to children if the adult student is not fixated on correctness of the language and accepts errors (Krashen, 2004). The acquisition of a language requires one to feel through a language and allow for trial and error. When trial and error occurs, the student may not be in conscious awareness of it but feels his/her way through the language, sensing correctness, thus birthing comprehension in the language (Krashen, 1985; Krashen, 2004). Krashen’s second language acquisition theory (1985) is comprised of five hypotheses: the Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis, the Monitor Hypothesis, the Natural Order Hypothesis, the Input Hypothesis, and the Affective Filter Hypothesis.

The Acquisition-Learning Hypothesis, as described in the previous paragraph, makes a distinction between the conscious learning process and the subconscious learning process. According to Krashen, what is consciously learned through the teaching of grammar and rules does not become acquisition of the target language. Krashen views second language acquisition as an informal venue, focusing on the input of messages, which can be understood in L2 and then acquired. By contrast, Ellis views language learning as an integral, important aspect of second language acquisition (Ellis, 1985).

The Monitor Hypothesis claims that learnt material acts as a monitor device to edit output materials. According to Krashen, we acquire language through trial and error. When we attempt to transmit a message and fail, we continue through trial and error until we arrive at the correct utterance or form. The conscious learning of a language, through formal instruction, provides rule isolation, which can only be used as a monitor or an editing device, which normally occurs prior to output (Krashen, 1985, Krashen, 2004).

The Natural Order Hypothesis states that we acquired the grammar rules and regulations of a language in a natural order (Krashen, 1985). To truly acquire a language, individuals must comprehend the message being sent or received, which is known as “comprehensible input.” Comprehensible Input (CI) is seen as the central aspect of Krashen’s Input Hypothesis (IH). Krashen believes that IH is the key to acquiring a second language because it is completely embedded in CI. Input plus the next level along the natural order equates CI (i+1) (Krashen, 1985, Krashen, 2004). Krashen views CI as the road to acquisition. Many other second language acquisition theorists agree with comprehensible input but do not completely agree with Krashen’s model of Input Hypothesis, which places Learnt Knowledge towards the end or after CI. Ellis (1985) found Krashen’s model posed some theoretical issues pertaining to the validity of the “acquisition-learning” distinction (p. 266).

When input or instruction is just above the level of the student, coupled with instruction rooted in a meaningful context, it invites modification, interaction and collaboration. Input is not to be construed as intake. Input is what the teachers are contributing; intake is what the students take in from the teacher. Comprehensible input can be blocked by Affective factors-factors that deal with an individual’s emotion (e.g. fear, anxiety, self-perception) (Erhman & Oxford, 1990). Lastly, Affective Filter Hypothesis is viewed as blockages for CI to occur. The learner may not be able to use CI if there is a block that prevents the full use of profiting from the comprehensible input.

Yet, once the comprehensible input hits the LAD and is then processed, the knowledge of the language is acquired. The conscious aspect of the language starts to act as a monitoring device before the output occurs. Krashen sees focusing on the conscious aspect of language learning (specifically grammar accuracy) as a hindrance to the acquisition of a second language (Krashen, 2004). Krashen believes we have an innate ability to acquire language with involvement from our surroundings, thus enhancing the utterances and nuances, which develop children’s language into adulthood. Yet, many researchers feel that acquisition doesn’t occur or occurs less, in young adolescents and adult second language learners (Felder & Henriques, 1995).

McLaughlin (1992) explained the difficulties adults face when trying to acquire a second language, and why children seem to learn a second language more easily than older learners (McLaughlin, 1992). First, adolescent and adult second language learners are not placed in situations where they are forced to speak the target second languages, unless they are in the target language country. Second, the requirements to communicate for children are different than those of adults. Adult and adolescent language-learners have difficult words to communicate and a richer, more developed language vocabulary than do children. According to McLaughlin (1992), once these issues are addressed it is possible for an adult to acquire a second language, and to achieve competence and fluency in a second language.

Motivation and Language Acquisition

A number of factors have been shown to influence performance in the second or foreign language classroom. Gardner (1985) found motivational components such as attitudes towards learning the language, motivational intensity and desire to learn the language had a positive influence on performance in the language-learning classroom. Researchers have confirmed motivation as an influence on performance in the second or foreign language-learning classroom, with attitude as a situational support (Gardner, 1985; Gardner, Masgoret & Tremblay, 1997). The motivational construct, which is derived from the two types of motivation, are motivational intensity, the desire to learn a language and the attitude one has towards learning the language (Gardner, 1985).

Gardener’s motivational propositions, which is comprised of intergrativeness, attitude towards learning the language, and desire to learn the language, instrumental orientation, refers to an interest in language learning for pragmatic reasons, and language anxiety, referring to the anxiety reaction of the individual when called upon to use the target language (Gardner, 1985). These propositions have been shown to have an effect on second language learning. These constructs were shown to have an affect on second or foreign language achievement (Gardner, Masgoret & Tremblay, 1997). The socio-educational second language acquisition model was a catalyst for the development of the Attitude Motivation Test Battery (AMTB), which was created to assess various individual variable differences within the second or foreign language-learning classroom (Gardner, 1985; Gardner, Masgoret & Tremblay, 1997; Hashimoto, 2002).

The model described by Gardner was seen as a good start to understanding motivation within the second language acquisition classroom (Dornyei, 2005; Hashimoto, 2002). Although Gardner’s proposition have been used, cited and extensively supported, it has practically gone unchallenged until the 1990s (Dornyei, 2005). In addition, the many facets of motivation within a second language acquisition classroom was suggested to be very robust to be limited to just intergrativeness and instrumentation (Dornyei, 2005). Researchers find that Gardner’s model excludes some variables, and that limited concepts of cognition, and self-efficacy are mentioned (Dornyei, 2005; Maclntyre, MacMaster & Baker, 2001).

One study to test Gardner’s propositions was conducted by Gardner et al. (1997), who conducted an exploratory/explanatory study about the predictive validities of different measures to determine the underlying dimensions of the relationships among constructs used such as language attitude, motivation, anxiety, self-confidence, language aptitude, learning strategies, field independence, and measures of achievement in the target language. Although many of the relationships between some of these constructs had been investigated, there had not been a study that considered all of these constructs together (Gardner et al., 1997). The literature review consisted primarily of empirical studies testing the relationship between each of the above-mentioned constructs and their effect on language-learning achievement (Gardner et al., 1997).

Gardner et al. (1997) identified a shortage of empirical studies concerning the relationships between the constructs and L2 achievement in terms of a causal model and the predictive validity of those constructs on second language academic achievement (Gardner et al., 1997).

A random sample of 102 (82 females and 20 males) university students enrolled in introductory French was studied. Participants were tested in two stages; the first stage was a questionnaire containing the constructs of attitudes, motivation, achievement and self-rating scales of French Proficiency, and the second stage was a short language history questionnaire (Gardner et al., 1997). Data collection procedures were clearly described. There was no indication of whether or not the study was IRB approved. Reported Cronbach’s alphas for the three subscales that make up the Motivation construct were .86 for Attitudes towards Learning French, .78 for Desire to Learn French, and .76 for Motivational Intensity (Gardner et al., 1997). To investigate the factor structure of the instrumentation, Gardner et al. (1997) conducted exploratory factor analysis, and specified an eight-factor varimax factor analytic solution.

Eight values were required to be more than 1.0. Regardless of the different theoretical models, they grouped together into five independent clusters. These five factors were identified as: Self-confidence with French, Language Learning Strategies, Motivation to Learn French, Language Aptitude, and Orientation to Learn French (Gardner et al., 1997). Results indicated that some of the variables were more highly related than others to indices of achievement based on measures of specific skills taken more or less at the time when these other variables were assessed. Furthermore, most measures demonstrated comparable correlations when criterion was a more global measure, such as French grades, that reflects competence in a number of characteristics over a long period of time. Nevertheless, most of the variables in this study (except for the measures of Learning Strategies and Field Independence, and to some extent Language Attitudes) were found to be significantly related to measures of L2 proficiency (Gardner et al., 1997).

These results led Gardner at al. (1997) to conclude the following: 1) there are some functional relationships among the measures, and that even these categories are not mutually exclusive; 2) when achievement is assessed by relatively objective measures taken at the same time as the other measures, indices of language anxiety, self confidence, and can-do evidence much higher correlations with achievement than do indices of Language Aptitude, Motivation, or Language Attitude (Gardner et al., 1997). Results provided strong support for the causal model, suggesting that the model permitted a way to understand how variables interrelated and complemented one another (Gardner et al., 1997). The authors suggested that further research might benefit from investigating the possible confounds of all the variables, with self examination of French proficiency, as well as feelings of anxiety, which might further assist language educators in developing new ways to improve L2 achievement (Gardner et al., 1997).

Language-Learning Strategies and Second Language Acquisition

According to O’Malley and Chamot (1990), much of the prior research in second language acquisition focused on the teacher creating information that would enhance comprehensible input. Very little research actually focused on the process of the learner intake or what goes on with the learner. The focal point was placed on how information is stored and retrieved for future use but not on the enhancement of learning. To arrive at a definition for learning strategies, Chamot and O’Malley (1990), thought to identify the process by which strategies were stored and retrieved. Thus, the definition used for learning strategies stemmed from Anderson’s (1983) cognitive theory, which focuses on how information is stored and retrieved (Chamot & O’Malley, 1990). The cognitive model of learning indicates that learning is active and presents learners as active participants in the learning process. In the cognitive model learners select information from their environment, organize it, relate it to prior knowledge, retain what is important, and retrieve it when necessary (Anderson, 1983; Chamot & O’Malley 1994). According to many experts in the field of language acquisition, active learners are better learners than those who do not actively participate in their own learning processes (Chamot & O’Malley 1994; Krashen 1985).

Metacognitive strategies have been seen as the most important and extensively studied of all the strategies due to the need for students to gain some control of their second language acquisition process. Metacognition has been used by many in the field of second language acquisition to refer to knowledge about cognition or the regulation of cognition (Chamot & O’Malley, 1990). Metacognition is very much needed in order for students to understand what their cognitive processes are and to guide their learning processes (Chamot & O’Malley, 1990; Zimmerman & Risenberg, 1997). A branch of metacognitive strategy, which social psychologists and educational researchers call self-regulated or self-directed learning, involves goal setting, regulation of efforts to reach a goal, self-monitoring, time management, and physical and social environment regulation (Zimmerman & Risenberg, 1997).

Since students need to learn to manage the knowledge they receive, it has been noted that students should become more aware of their cognitive learning processes and strategies in order to use and apply metacognitive strategies. Metacognitive strategies aid in providing the learner with self-guidance towards the learning processes, which requires manipulation of the cognitive aspect of learning. Cognitive strategies operate directly on incoming information, manipulating it to further enhance learning (Zimmerman & Risenberg, 1997; Chamot & O’Malley, 1994). Thus, teaching strategies within the academic foreign language classroom, or any content, supports the learner in gaining an important perspective on learning, seeing the relationship between the strategies used and his/her own learning effectiveness, and planning and reflecting on learning, to gain greater directedness or autonomy as a learner.

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Language-learning strategies are techniques or steps taken by the student to improve their own learning. The term language-learning strategies is used extensively in Oxford’s research study to involve naturalistic practice that facilitate the acquisition of language skills, noting guessing and memory strategies are equally useful to both learning and acquisition (Chamot & O’Malley, 1990; Oxford, 1990). Many researchers sought to classify the language-learning strategies in general, but Oxford (1990) created the most comprehensive classification assessment of strategies called the Strategy Inventory for Language Learners (SILL), which contains six types of strategies, classified into two sub-groups of direct and indirect. The three sub-scales classified as direct language learning strategies are Memory, Cognitive, and Compensation, and the three sub-scales classified, as indirect language-learning strategies are Metacognitive, Affective, and Social strategies.

Oxford’s development of the Strategy Inventory for Language Learning (SILL) was originally developed to assist with the improvement of foreign language learning for the department of defence and other governmental institution. The original development of the SILL consisted of 121 strategies. The strategies were revised and the current of 80 and 50 items, version 7.0, is the most comprehensive and widely used language-learning strategy inventory to date (Oxford, 1990). Oxford’s language learning strategy theory is embedded in the SILL. The two main parts of the SILL consist of direct and indirect strategies. The direct strategies are strategies that deal directly with learning mental processes such as Memory, Cognitive and Compensatory strategies.

The first mental process of Memory is a strategy used to assist the learner in retrieving and storing information for later use (Oxford, 1990). This strategy works along with the Cognitive strategies, which are skills that involve manipulation or transformation of the language in some direct way, such as the following: note taking, functional practice in natural setting, reasoning, analysis, formal practice with structures and sounds Oxford, 1990). Cognitive strategies tend to be linked to individual tasks. Learners, who use Cognitive strategies, use many methods to manipulate information mentally through elaborating, image making, or taking notes and physically grouping (Chamot & O’Malley, 1990; Oxford, 1990).

The next three strategies are described as indirect strategies, which are Metacognitive, Affective, and Social strategies. These indirect strategies are behaviors and techniques used to assist the learner with acquiring the second language. Metacognitive Strategies are seen as higher order executive skills that involve planning, monitoring and evaluating the accomplishment of the learning objective. Metacognitive strategies are also seen as actions used for centering, arranging, planning, and evaluating one’s learning (Chamot & O’Malley, 1994; Oxford, 1990). According to Chamot and O’Malley (1994) and others, such as Oxford (1990), models can be created for assessing strategies that request metacognition. This strategy is important if learners desire to gain executive control over the learning process and understand their own learning approaches (Oxford, 19990).

Affective strategies and Social Strategies are significant in second language acquisition, as presented in Krashen’s model “The Affective Filter,” due to its focus on cooperative interaction and control over affects (Krashen, 1982). These strategies are further described, categorized and classified together in the CALLA handbook by Chamot and O’Malley (1994). The Affective and Social strategies are not as developed as the other categories in the context of foreign language acquisition due to the nature of individual emotions and attitude towards the topic. This normally falls under the research of social psychologists that look at the affective factors as a possible predictor or hindrance of foreign language achievement (Chamot & O’Malley, 1990; Krashen, 1985; Oxford, 1990).

As a driving energy or reason for someone’s action or behavior, motivation is “an important factor in L2 achievement” (Norris-Holt, 2001). Masgoret and Gardner (2003) stated that in the case of second language learning, people understand that motivation inspires language learners’ goal-directed behavior. One can use a number of individual features to measure motivation. In his study, Song (2002) showed that motivation for foreign language learning involved two further components: the need for achievement with goal-directed behavior and attributions regarding past failures. If heritage students have goals or reasons for learning the language, such as communication with non- English-speaking family members, recognition of their identity, and better career building, they can expect to learn at a higher rate of proficiency.

Learner-centered Education

One of the most effective educational theories for heritage language education is learner-centered education. According to Tran (n.d.), learner-centered education is a philosophy based on a fundamental change in orientation from the traditional teacher or content centered education. This teaching method focuses on the following characteristics:

  • Goal of learning focused on production rather than knowledge conservation;
  • Focus on learners’ needs, skills, and personal interests;
  • Focus on individual processes and on personal and interpersonal relationships, beliefs, and perceptions that are affected or supported by the educational system as a whole; and
  • Focus on balance of personal domain, content domain, organizational domain, and technical domain.
  • Focus on self-evaluation and reflection of teaching and learning process

In other words, students’ personal needs are the focus of the learning procedures. Teachers need to maximize learners’ productivity, knowledge acquisition, skills, augmentation, and development of personal and professional abilities. To accomplish these educational goals, teachers utilize various instructional strategies and educational tools. The educational efforts of learner-centered education facilitate the exploration of meaning and content knowledge through personal and interpersonal discovery.

Chickering & Gamson (1991) stated the following seven principles of good practice in learner-centered education:

  • Frequent student-faculty interaction should occur
  • Cooperative learning activities should be interspersed among other engaging instructional formats.
  • Students should be actively involved with learning.
  • Instructors should provide prompt, constructive feedback on student performance.
  • Instructors must keep students focused on learning, not on the fear of embarrassment or other distractions.
  • Teachers should communicate high expectations.
  • Teachers must respect diverse talents and ways of learning. (4)


Constructivism, one of the basic educational theories, is a good and effective paradigm for teaching and learning in this language-learning model. Developing a proper definition of constructivism is the first step to understanding the constructivist learning theory. Hein (1991), defined constructivism as

“the term [which] refers to the idea that learners construct knowledge for themselves-each learner individually (and socially) constructs meaning-as he or she learns” (1).

In the constructivist model, learning or education is constructed. This concept is the main characteristic of constructivism. In the actual field of education, constructivism posits that students come to the educational setting with their previous knowledge or experiences and existing ideas. Students can build up a new structure of knowledge with existing information and previous experiences because these are the raw material. In other words, students can construct their own understanding from formulated knowledge and previous experiences.

According to Thanasoulas (2004), constructivism in the field of education usually emphasizes students’ active attitudes in learning. In the constructivist classroom, learning activities require the student’s full support and active participation. The most important part of the learning process is students’ reflection and discussion of problem solving methodologies. Notably, reflection is one of the major characteristics of constructivist learning. Students have the ability to control their own learning process to solve the problem, and they lead the way by reflecting on their previous knowledge and prior experiences.

While constructivism heavily stresses students’ own opinions, it also considers integration or collaboration an effective strategy for developing students. In a practical setting, constructivist learning depends upon collaboration among students. The major reason constructivism uses collaboration so extensively is that students learn from their classmates, who have different ideas and experiences. When they share, review, and reflect on their subject together to solve the problem, they can adopt ideas and specific strategies from one another.

According to Jaworski (1996), in a constructivist setting teachers try to help create situations where students feel safe questioning and reflecting on their own learning process, in a private or group setting. Teachers also support students with activities for reflecting on their existing knowledge from education and experiences from the past. Constructivist teachers usually have their own roles, which are to coach, facilitate, suggest, and provide the student space to think, criticize, experiment, ask questions, and attempt new things that may or may not work. Teachers encourage students with challenging ideas when they ask for help to set their own goals and means of evaluation or assessment.

Constructivist teaching requires inquiry-based activity for problem solving. To encourage students, teachers need to use inquiry methods to start solving the problem. They also need to investigate a main theme or topic and use a variety of materials to find answers. Students may sometimes have incorrect answers, inaccurate solutions to the problems, or unsuitable ideas to explain. These educational procedures are valuable temporary steps to integrating knowledge and experience through exploring the problem.

Vygotsky (1986) stated that constructivist teachers also encourage students to constantly assess how an activity is helping them gain understanding of the contents, because teachers believe that students can build up their own comprehension and construct knowledge of the world through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences. In other words, constructivist learning requires students to take duty and responsibility for their own learning by using questions and analyzing answers (Carvin, n.d.).

There are many different understandings and definitions of motivation. Donoghue and Kunkle (1979) described it from three different perspectives – behavioristic, cognitive, and constructivist:

The behavioristic point of view of motivation is understood in matter of fact terms. This perspective places emphasis on reward. Driven to acquire positive reinforcement, and by previous experiences of reward for behavior, we act accordingly to


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