Motivation and Being Foreign

As I have been going on about lately, I think the current view of motivation in language learning is too narrow and still too influenced by early research that came out of a specific time and place and was not really applicable to other situations, especially in the modern Internet-connected world.

An article in a recent edition of The  Economist looked at the experience of being foreign and it began by stating that , “it is becoming both easier and more difficult to experience the thrill of being an outsider” because so many people are going to live in other countries or cultures different from the one they were born in. They continued: “The desire of so many people, given the chance, to live in countries other than their own makes nonsense of a long-established consensus in politics and philosophy that the human animal is best off at home.” (December, 2009). According to a Gallup poll cited in the article, as much as 16% of the world’s population share a desire to move permanently to another country. Many are looking for economic milk and honey, but many are interested in just being someplace that is not so very familiar. The attraction to “foreignness” is becoming increasingly complex, I believe. Many people who follow this path are looking for others who are special, or unique, or queer, or passionate, or obsessed in ways that are also interesting to themselves. Many people leave home for that attraction–some permanently and some just for a jaunt–and millions of people travel to such different cultures regularly via the web.

This new world of culture-hopping opportunities marks with a great big neon highlighter pen the problems–no let’s be fair, limitations–with Gardener et al’s early motivation in language learning research. Clearly language learning is not only about kids in institutional settings, like in Ontario and Quebec in the 1970s, being forced to learn each others’  languages.

Sometimes it is, though. A lot of institutional language learning, in Japan at least, is sort of similar. Kids are learning a language they have almost no chance to use out of class at a school where it is a required subject. Attitudes toward the L2 culture may be more or less positive (though usually they are vague) and there is the distant notion that someday language success might facilitate employment success. Before that can happen, however, there are entrance tests in this universe that largely do affect future opportunities. And so people study, some diligently, many not so enthusiastically, following a curriculum that is questionable,  listening to grammar explained as equations, completing piles of workbooks and worksheets, flipping thousands of word cards, filling in the blanks of mostly incomprehensible songs their teachers choose to try to help them enjoy learning more, songs familiar to someone somewhere some time ago.

Japan is a country that abounds with examples of people who have gone beyond their own culture and immersed themselves in another culture, making it their own. Go to a good Italian restaurant in Tokyo or listen to a Japanese country and western band if you doubt this. So why is it that when it comes to English education the world always seems so far away from that Internet doorstep? That is really the question. Framed another way, how can educators help learners to more often cross into other cultures meaningfully so we can get beyond the days of trying to get one group of homogeneous learners to learn a loaf of content generally connected to a distant and vague culture? The world is open. Who’s got the key?

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