News & Stories

Complexity of motivation highlighted in language learning research

The complexity of what motivates school students to learn a second language is mapped out in a new book published by University of Tasmania Senior Lecturer Dr Mairin Hennebry-Leung.

Study | Research

Dr Mairin Hennebry-Leung of the University of Tasmania School of Education, and co-author Professor Xuesong (Andy) Gao from the University of NSW, explored the complex interplay of diverse factors shaping a learner’s motivation, looking at a range of issues affecting teachers including personality, teaching practice and the presence of supportive professional environments

Dr Hennebry-Leung said Language Learning Motivation in a Multilingual Chinese Context would be a useful resource for teachers seeking to better understand learners’ motivation for language learning, as well as for academics and students interested in the fields of language learning motivation and English language teaching and learning.

The research specifically looked at schools in Hong Kong where the first language of the majority of students was Chinese, and they were then learning English as a foreign language in school.

Some schools taught subjects through the medium of English, others through Chinese language and some through a mix of the two.

“English is very much a prestige language in China in that if you are able to use English you’re likely to have quite different life opportunities,” Dr Hennebry-Leung said.

In a context like Hong Kong, the kind of school you end up in can also impact on your motivation to learn another language; in this case your motivation for learning English. And your motivation for learning English has an impact on the sort of opportunities you envisage for yourself beyond school.

Dr Mairin Hennebry-Leung
Dr Mairin Hennebry-Leung

But Dr Hennebry-Leung said it was not just the institution that shaped a students’ motivations to learn.

“There has been a shift towards understanding motivation as emerging from a whole complex of different factors that exist at the socio-cultural level,” she said.

“And then there are factors at the language level, at policy level, and a range of learner and teacher factors and all of these interact in dynamic and complex ways to shape and direct motivation.

“We looked at teachers’ understanding of motivation. How did they think about language learning motivation? How did they think their practices motivated students? Were there differences emerging depending on whether it was an English or Chinese medium context? What strategies did they use in the classroom and how much of that was theoretically grounded?

Language learning motivation cover

What we found was teachers wanted to motivate students but tended to use verbal encouragement like pep talks, where what seemed to have a greater motivational impact was helping students to see success as a result of effort and effective strategies, rather than innate ability; encouraging self-assessment and relevant goal-setting; making sure that grades also reflect effort and improvement. In other words, helping students to see that their effort matters.

Dr Hennebry-Leung said the research could be used to develop a better understanding of how teachers think about their practice and how they relate to what they are doing in the classroom.

The book Language Learning Motivation in a Multilingual Chinese Context is available through Routledge publishers.