In preparation for a Pro D session next week around the differences between L1(first language) and L2 (second language)learning, I’ve been reading a really interesting chapter from the Cambridge University TKT Course book.
The chapter dives into a discussion which highlights the major differences and similarities between how we learn our first language, and how we learn additional ones. In the end, it suggests the importance of recreating L1 conditions for L2 learners.
One of those conditions is that of motivation. L1 learners are usually very strongly motivated to learn. They "want and need to communicate." (Spratt, Pulverness, & Williams 48)
It’s about survival. It’s about interacting with my family, my friends, my world. It’s something that I must do, or I simply won’t survive very well.
But as I was reading this, I began to wonder about something: L1 motivation doesn’t seem to be a state of being that the learner switches on or off. He/she is just naturally in the "on" position.
I’m thinking here about my 3 year old son. We don’t need to pump him up to take in Spanish, which is his first language. He just soaks it in, or at least seems to, without any artificial goading or encouragement to be "turned on" to learning. He just does it. The motivation is internal…and seems to be quite automatic.
Is this because of his learning environment? Is it because the world around him is almost 100% Spanish? Is it because of survival that he is strongly motivated to learn and produce Spanish?
On the other hand, English, which is his second language, does not come so easily. My wife and I try to speak English as much as we can with him at home, and he understands most everything we say to him. However, compared to L1, the L2 process has not been the same.
His motivation to learn English is much different, and doesn’t seem to regularly come from within. Most of the time, my wife and I need to strongly encourage him to speak in English. It doesn’t seem to just come naturally.
In fact, at times there is even active resistance to producing and exposing himself to the language. He usually wants to watch his movies in Spanish. He specifically asks us to stop speaking in English, and speak Spanish with instead. He listens and understands you speaking to him in English, but responds in Spanish. (That happens a lot, and causes quite a stir when we’re in public.)
So what’s going on with the motivation? The times when he has willingly used English has been during play.
The other day, we were sitting on the stairs outside our apartment. In fact, we were locked out, and were waiting for Mommy to return with the keys. To fight boredom we started a game of "I spy with my little eye."
He already knew the game in Spanish, so when I started it in English, he was instantly engaged with the activity. He recognized the tune of "I spy with my little eye, something that is…" and became a willing participant. We played this game for a good 45 minutes, all in English. He even learned how to say the whole "I spy" bit, and with nearly perfect pronunciation.
I have also tried to insert English into playing with his toys. Sometimes I sit down and play along with him. Cars, horses, dinosaurs, Spiderman, and Batman. Instead of interacting with him in Spanish, I try to use the toy to talk with him in English. Most of the time he naturally responds in Spanish, to which I reply: "What did you say? I don’t understand Spanish Mr. Horse!" It’s quite funny. He thinks for a moment, then tries to use his English to interact with my toy.
But it’s only for a small block of time. The motivation quickly vanishes, and Spanish is back in force.
Perhaps this is what the TKT book refers to as the "silent period." (p.48) A period of many months where the L2 learner simply soaks in the language, but rarely produces it.
Then, and again I’m happily shocked with how timely the blogshere seems to be, I came across this post by Christopher Sessums:Notes on Learning and Motivation
He voices some ideas that I had rolling around my head as I read through the TKT course book.
1. A teacher can only do so much to motivate their students. In the end, true and lasting motivation comes from within the learner. Sessums says it best: "Since learning is a self-regulated process, educators can only influence student learning, they are not the cause of it." (Notes on Learning and Motivation Sessums)
I would say this is true of motivation as well. Teachers can influence learner motivation, but we are not the sustaining cause. That, I think, must come largely from the student. We must inspire, and fan into flame, but I don’t think we can sustain the motivation to learn.
Sessums goes one to detail five main areas of influence where the teacher can organize a learning environment, and I think draw out student motivation:
"Educators thus are responsible for five major aspects of the learning environment’s organization: level of participation by the actors (in this case, the educator(s) and students), the context within which learning and interaction takes place externally (which can have internal consequences), the content and intended outcomes (goals), and the strategies used to direct learning."(Notes on Learning and Motivation, Sessums)
Many classrooms treat students as passive. They "sit and get" to borrow from Wes Fryer. Effective classrooms are just the opposite. There are moments for "sit and get", but we all know that moments don’t last forever.
I think this is true in the ESL classroom too. Students must actively use the language, and not be stuck listening to the teacher. It’s about meaningful interaction.
Context: Maybe I misunderstand Sessums here, but I’m taking that to mean the classroom. What’s the learning environment like? Does it welcome experimentation with the language? One thing I noted from the TKT prep book, was a comparison between the context and the L1 and L2 learner.
L1 learners are usually inside a family context when they are learning the language. Under most circumstances, this environment is safe. It welcomes language play and interaction. The child feels secure to experiment with their first language.
L2 acquisition usually takes place in a much different context. It happens at work, in a meeting room or classroom. It happens, sometimes, with coworkers who you may or may not be close friends with. It happens with many others, who may or may not be supportive of your language experimentation.
How well the teacher crafts the context will have a big influence on how well the student engages with L2.
I wonder how much attention ESL teachers pay to this. Content can kill classroom motivation. Sadly, I think we tend to stick to the book, no matter how well it matches with our students. The content becomes the king. The great firehose that we soak our students with. Sometimes it fits perfectly, but most of the time I think students find themselves having to fit into content spaces that simply are not interesting and meaningful to them. And teachers wonder at the rampant lack of interest in English class.
So this has gone on longer than I had expected, but the issue of motivation is an important one.
The TKT course book states that "Motivation is very important in language learning, so we (teachers) should do all we can to motivate learners." (p. 49)
But I think there is something more here: We need to also craft experiences, context, and content that allow for student motivation to bubble up from within. What do you think?
Spratt, Pulverness & Williams. The Teaching Knowledge Test Course. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.