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Language learning: what motivates us?

19 MAR 2014

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“Where’s your name from?”

I wasn’t expecting to be the subject of my interview with John Schumann, but the linguistics professor had picked up on my Persian surname. Talking to me from California, where he is one of the world’s leading academic voices on language learning, he effortlessly puts my own Farsi to shame.

Schumann learned Farsi in Iran, where he was director of the country’s Peace Corps Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) programme. He then went into academia, becoming a professor at the Univesity of California (UCLA), where he specialises in how we learn languages and its neurobiology.

Shumann’s work and that of his colleagues in UCLA’s Neurobiology of Language Research Group, is concerned with the processes that happen within the brain when we learn a language. Such work holds the answer to the holy grail of languages: what motivates learning?

In 2009, Schumann published The Interactional Instinct: The Evolution and Acquisition of Language. The work marked a crucial development in the study of language learning.

“We’ve developed a theory called ‘the interactional instinct’,” Schumann says. “We show that children are born with a natural tendency to attach, bond and affiliate with caregivers. They essentially have a drive to become like members of the same species. The child becomes motivated to learn their primary language through this innate interactional instinct.”

Could this interactional instinct, then, be the key to learning additional languages? Schumann argues that the situation is different in the case of foreign languages. “The motivation for second language acquisition varies across individuals, the talent and aptitude for it varies across individuals, and the opportunity for it varies across individuals,” he says. “Therefore we don’t get uniform success across second language acquisition as we do – generally – in primary language acquisition.”

For more than 50 years, two terms have categorised motivation in language learning: integrative and instrumental. Though distinct, these types of motivation are closely linked.

“Integrative motivation is the motivation to learn a language in order to get to know, to be with, to interact with and perhaps become like the speakers of the target language,” Schumann says. “Children have integrative motivation in acquiring their first language. Instrumental motivation alongside this characterises second language acquisition.”

“Instrumental motivation is language learning for more pragmatic or practical purposes,” he explains. “Such as fulfilling a school requirement, getting a job, getting a promotion in that job, or being able to deal with customers.”

So then, for an aspiring language learner, which kind of motivation might see them achieve the most success? “I wouldn’t argue for the supremacy of one over the other in second language acquisition,” Schumann says. “In most cases of language learning motivation, we have a mixture of integrative and instrumental influences.”

Closer to home, significant research into language acquisition and language learning motivation is taking place at the University of York. Its Psycholinguistics Research Group is a collaborative effort engaged with a variety of elements connected to language acquisition.

 

Read full article: The Guardian