'Where have all the flowers gone?' Motivating continuation of languages in secondary school.Abstract
In a period of renewed efforts to encourage language study in Australia, with a particular view to increasing the number of students completing secondary school and studying a language, consideration of the reasons behind retention and attrition of students becomes paramount. In this preliminary study, which surveyed nearly 200 students entering first-year university in a large metropolitan university, I explore the factors which facilitated or hindered continued language study during their high school years. The results of this survey are compared with the relatively small number of previous studies of motivation in languages education in Australian contexts.
motivation, retention, attrition, language study, high school
Pete Seeger's well-known song, cited in the title of this paper, evokes a nostalgic tone about by-gone days when things were better, sometimes referred to as the ubi sunt tradition. Reflecting on the current state of languages in education in Australia this is an apt metaphor. It has been repeatedly discussed in recent years that participation in languages in the final year of secondary schooling in Australia is unsatisfactory and ranges from 4.5-12% (depending on how students are counted), compared with historically much higher rates (for general discussion see Clyne, 2006; Go8, 2007; RUMACCC, 2007; Lo Bianco & Slaughter, 2009. For individual language perspectives see Orton, 2008; de Kretser & Spence-Brown, 2010; Kohler & Mahnken, 2010; Shin, 2010). We know that the loss of languages as an entry prerequisite to university in the late 1960s is partially responsible for this drastic decline as illustrated in the following quote.
The year 1968 is often invoked as a key date in language education policy. It refers not to students ripping up pavement stones and rioting in Paris, but to the date, actually spread out over several years, in which universities removed the requirement for school language study as a criterion for entry to certain tertiary programs. While in 1986 the total number of matriculants taking a second languages [sic] was 44 per cent ... in 1964, 75 per cent of secondary language students were studying French. Also present were German and Latin ... The effect of this removal was immediate: language candidates in Year 12 dropped precipitously, to about 10 per cent. (Lo Bianco & Slaughter, 2009, p. 20)
Over subsequent decades enrolment numbers continued to fall as the focus on language study was further eroded. Recent studies confirm that 90-95% of first year university students in Australia do not study a language. Of those who do, more than half are enrolled in ab initio courses (Nettelbeck, Byron, Clyne, Hajek, Lo Bianco & McLaren, 2007). It seems clear, then, that a good percentage of those students completing a language in secondary school do not continue languages study into university and that those who do study languages at university predominantly commence as beginners, or take up a different language than the one/s studied in school.
In considering language offerings in universities in Australia we find that in 2007 two of Australia's 39 universities provided no language programs. Across the tertiary sector, 24 languages were offered with most universities offering four languages (Nettelbeck et al., 2007). The top six languages in rank order in Australian universities in 2007 can be seen in Table 1.
In the latter part of the 20th century we also witnessed a squeezing of language programs in universities with a drop from 66 languages to the 24 languages offered in 2007 (Go8, 2007; Nettelbeck et al., 2007).
While there are obvious systemic reasons behind the offering of languages in tertiary education (e.g. Government funding and strategic priorities, individual institutional choices, etc.), we need to consider why from an entry level participation rate of 90+% in languages at the beginning of secondary education (Liddicoat, Scarino, Curnow, Kohler, Scrimgeour & Morgan, 2007) we end up with such parlous numbers of those continuing through to secondary school graduation. To this end, a preliminary research project was designed to interrogate this issue.
Immediately prior to the commencement of first semester 2010 (i.e. during the final months of February) and after securing appropriate ethics approval, an invitation to participate in an anonymous online questionnaire was emailed to students commencing study in the Faculty of Arts of The University of Melbourne. Due to the structure of the New Generation Melbourne Degrees (see http://futurestudents.unimelb. edu.au/courses/melbourne-degrees), students enrolled in Arts subjects are not necessarily exclusively from the Faculty of Arts as many students in other faculties choose Arts subject for the 'breadth' component of their study program. In this way, perhaps, the results of this study represent a broader view than that of students in a typical Arts Faculty. The questionnaire attracted 198 respondents. The questionnaire was designed using SurveyMonkey and included a consent question, a series of open-ended questions relating to language study, two questions ranking factors which affected decisions to continue or discontinue language study based on previous studies and demographic data questions. The questionnaire was available online between February and March 2010, a period which covered Orientation week and the first two weeks of semester 1. The analysis presented below represents an initial attempt to interpret the data using basic statistical modeling as well as qualitative analysis of open-ended responses.
Wilting and fading or growing and flourishing?
Of the 198 respondents, all but one studied a language at some point during their secondary school studies. An analysis of the data reveals that a further 101 had abandoned language study by their final year of high school. These numbers reveal that the cohort under examination is somewhat exceptional in that the number completing a language in Year 12 is around 52% (some students in the cohort were studying more than one language and had had to drop all but one language for Year 12--this accounts for the slightly higher percentage), well above the national average. I would suggest that this is related to the student body of the university in question which attracts high achieving students, predominantly from elite private schools. Some literature shows a clear relationship between bilingualism and academic achievement which, to some degree, supports this hypothesis (Lutz & Crist, 2009).
Table 2 provides a snapshot of the language education background of the respondents. Notably, the most studied first choice languages reflect the top six languages found in universities across Australia. Curiously, Spanish only features as a second language in three cases and as a third language in two cases, with Latin having a stronger showing. Again, I would suggest this is strongly related to the cohort of students surveyed and the type of school they would have attended. Further confirmation of the cohort effect is the position of French as lead language studied in secondary school.
In the latter half of the 20th century considerable effort was dedicated to the study of the impact of motivational factors on learning. With specific reference to languages education, we can cite the lasting contribution of Zoltan Dornyei, currently Professor of Psycholinguistics at the University of Nottingham, whose seminal contributions in this area date back to the early 1990s. Initially, growing out of psychology, motivation in relation to language learning was characterised in terms of dichotomies like intrinsic and extrinsic motivation or instrumental and integrative motivation--the seminal work in this area is Gardner & Lambert's (1972) study. More recently, 'L2 motivation is currently in the process of being radically reconceptualised and retheorised in the context of contemporary notions of self and identity' (Dornyei & Ushioda, 2009, p. 1; see this volume for an in-depth discussion of these developments). Essentially, this new research direction recognises that the context of contemporary language learning has been reshaped irrevocably by the combined forces of globalisation, mobility and technological advances. All three factors impact on individuals to shape their identity through greater contact with linguistic and sociocultural diversity.
The current study considers motivation in relation to three studies of language learning motivation in Australian contexts:
* Hajdu (2005) which looked at Year 8 students' attitudes to language learning in Melbourne with a focus on the boys in the study
* Curnow & Kohler (2007) which focused on secondary students studying languages in South Australia
* Ren (2009) which described the decisions to continue or discontinue Chinese in a boys secondary school in Melbourne.
Each of these studies considers a range of factors affecting motivation. Hajdu (2005) and Ren (2009), in an approach similar to the present study, used a questionnaire to gather student feedback on motivation while Curnow & Kohler (2007) conducted interviews. Table 3 outlines the top five motivating factors for the different cohorts of students in these three studies, as well as in the current study. What is clear from this summary is that a series of clearly identifiable factors seem to cut across the different students groups, namely:
* the benefits of language learning for future career options
* the importance of travel as a motivating factor for language learning
* the centrality of human relationship (either familial or between students and teachers) for successful engagement with language learning
* the integration of culture into the language program as a key element of motivation to continue language learning
* the possibility of using the language outside the classroom context as a stimulus to continue with language study.
Hajdu (2005) notes that the Year 8 students in her study 'recognised themselves, their parents and their teachers as the prime influences on their language learning' (2005, p. 24) but questioned whether a survey of later year students 'may reveal the effect of maturity on students' language learning experiences' (2005, p. 24). Examining the top five factors in Table 3 and comparing the factors for my cohort of students, I would tentatively suggest that there is, indeed, a 'maturity' effect on motivation. Of interest, the students in the current study did not rank any significant personal relationships (either with friends, family, or teachers) as having an impact on their continuation of language study in Year 12. Instead, we find instrumental motivation (travel, career, use) or intrinsic motivation (culture, enjoyment, use).
Turning now to a comparison of the stated causes of discontinuation of language study, perhaps unsurprisingly, Table 4 reveals just how crucial the teaching and learning environment is. Hajdu's (2005) study did not touch on the issue of attrition of students so Table 4 compares only the three studies which did.
Across all three cohorts, the explicit mention of either poor learning environment or poor teaching/poor quality teachers accounts for a significant demotivating factor and provides us, as language educators, with reason to pause and reflect. Notably, students are making a nuanced distinction between teaching--the activity--and the teacher. This is something which perhaps should be explored in future research. We can also identify structural impediments to continuation in languages such as a lack of availability of desired languages. Students also rate certain instrumental or intrinsic factors as leading to discontinuation, such as
* a perception that language learning will not contribute to future career paths
* a notion that languages are of no immediate benefit
* a fundamental lack of interest or enjoyment.
'She loves me, she loves me not ...': deconstructing motivation
In the current study, students were asked to list the two most significant reasons for completing Year 12 language study or discontinuing language learning before Year 12. As a language teacher, I found looking at these data to be a little like that childhood activity of picking the petals off the flower one by one to work out whether you are loved or otherwise. The student comments support the summaries in Tables 3 and 4 but, crucially, add a number of other details which, as language educators, we should carefully consider.
1 For this cohort of students (i.e. generally high achieving students studying in school contexts characterised by strong support) we can identify both a strong intrinsic motivation (e.g. enjoyment) to continue with languages plus certain clear extrinsic motivators (e.g. VCE score/career) which lead to continuation. In Victoria, language subjects are typically 'scaled up' in moderation of the final exams of the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE)--this is what students mean when they refer to the benefit of language study on their VCE score.
2 Many students reported having travelled overseas, often on formal exchange or school trips. There is a very clear positive effect exerted by this in-country experience on motivation to continue. This links well to the motivating ability of travel on language learning seen in Table 3.
3 Negative effects are related to the conditions under which the language program operates (often, in the form of the timetable or lack of availability of desired languages), the capacity to deal with learner diversity (i.e. classrooms characterised by wild variations in student ability), teacher quality and relationship with students and a lack of intrinsic motivation on the part of the students themselves.
Table 5 provides a representative sample of student comments on the motivations behind continuing or discontinuing language study. Comments are labelled by question number first then the number of the response as per the report generated by SurveyMonkey. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the 1 in 7.1 and 8.1 refer to the response number not the student concerned.
Discussion, limitations and implications
For the cohort of students under examination in the present study, in terms of motivation, I would like to suggest that there are two opposing tendencies at play. Motivation to continue language learning until the end of secondary school appears to be firmly rooted in individual intrinsic factors. The effect of other people, described in the previous studies on more junior students' motivation considered above, seems to have faded by the time students approach the end of the secondary schooling and begin making decisions about their future and its relationship to their studies. In contrast, personal relationships, often in the form of the teacher-student or the teaching-student nexus, play a big role in students' choices to discontinue their language learning during secondary education. The other predominant negative impact students described was related to the inflexibility of school structures to accommodate their needs or desires in relation to languages. I would suggest that this is a clear case of inadequate program standards. The AFMLTA program standards articulate in detail what is needed for a quality languages program in terms of recognition within the school context, curriculum, timetabling and frequency of lessons, staffing and class size, accommodation, budget and learner diversity (DEST, 2005). The absence of such standards in schools obviously has a deleterious effect on students and directly affects their motivation to continue with language study. This point has implications for Government, jurisdictions and schools seeking to retain and grow language programs and student participation in languages education.
Clearly, the cohort of participants in this study represents a particular type of student: those who are generally at the higher achievement end of secondary learners and, due to the self-selecting nature of participation in the survey, those who, we can surmise, have some interest in the issue. Therefore, some of their motivations may not necessarily be readily generalisable to a wider and more diverse student body. I would suggest, however, that we need to consider carefully the impact that we, as languages educators, have on our students' progress, particularly in light of comments on teacher and teaching quality. To conclude and continuing with the flower metaphor, if conditions are right, a plant will grow well without much human intervention and will bloom and flourish as it should under its own steam. Sometimes, the intervention in the flowerbed of those without a so-called green thumb actually does more harm than good--even more so, if the soil conditions are inadequate. In light of the commentary provided by the students in this study, we should perhaps be asking ourselves how green our language thumb is, whether our 'garden' can support healthy growth and where our responsibility lies in relation to the disappearance of almost all the flowers.
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Matthew Absalom is a university teacher and researcher, professional linguist, Italian language coach, translator and published author. He is currently employed in the Italian Studies program of the School of Languages & Linguistics at The University of Melbourne. He holds qualifications in music, education, languages and linguistics, and his research interests cover Italian linguistics, computer assisted language learning and languages education. He has a strong background in teacher professional development and is a regular speaker at professional learning events around the country. He is the outgoing Editor of Babel and the President-Elect of the AFMLTA.
Table 1: Language programs in Australian universities in 2007 Number of Language universities Japanese 34 Chinese 27 French 24 Italian 23 German 20 Indonesian 20 Table 2: Languages studied during secondary school First Second Third Fourth language language language language French 72 24 7 Japanese 34 14 9 Italian 32 15 2 Chinese 14 14 1 1 German 14 12 5 English 10 2 Indonesian 8 13 2 Greek 2 1 Arabic 1 Latin 1 6 3 Norwegian 1 Sinhala 1 Turkish 1 Croatian 1 Finnish 1 Maltese 1 Persian 1 Spanish 3 2 Vietnamese 1 2 Table 3: Top five motivating factors for continuing language learning Hajdu 2005 Curnow/Kohler Ren 2009 Absalom 2011 2007 Self Academic success Family Travel Parents Personal Teachers Culture relationship Teachers Background Culture Career Career/Friends Travel Career Enjoyment Travel Career Language use Language use Table 4: Top five reasons for dropping languages Curnow/Kohler 2007 Ren 2009 Absalom 2011 Language not available Lack of Interest Lack of interest Heavy workload Poor learning Language not environment available/prefer other languages No immediate benefit Poor quality teachers Poor teaching Poor learning Poor teaching No enjoyment environment Career Poor resources Poor quality teachers Table 5: Selection of two most significant reasons for continuing languages in or discontinuing languages before Year 12 Why continue? Why stop? 1 I thoroughly enjoyed the 1 I was only allowed by my school language and culture to select one language to continue with. 2 I've always felt a need to be 2 I felt I had other recourses to able to speek [sic] in at least study this language outside of one other language (7.1) school (8.1) 1 Loved learning the language and 1 Moving overseas being able to speak it 2 Not enough subjects once uni 2 Felt I was good at it and would prerequisites were filled (8.3) score well (7.2) 1 Love languages and French 1 Too difficult culture 2 Enjoyable subject plus bonus 2 Not interested (8.9) marks (7.36) 1 Possible high scores, since it 1 Too much time commitment with gets scaled up by at least 10 language classes marks 2 It will be important in the 2 My school didn't stream so as a future (in terms of career weaker member of the class I fell opportunities), as China behind and felt overlooked (8.8) overtakes USA (7.47) 1 Challenge 1 Bad teachers. 2 Enjoyment (7.128) 2 Not intensive enough. No pathway made. (8.2) 1 Enjoyed learning the language 1 I moved schools to one that did and the cultural studies not offer Indonesian and I did not feet like beginning again 2 Exchange to France in year 11 for six weeks enhanced language 2 The previous teacher of the skills and desire to become subject was irritating and I competent (7.156) would have been unlikely to continue anyway if she had been teaching the class (8.60) 1 I knew that one day I wanted to 1 I dropped Chinese because it become bilingual and so I pursued was a compulsary [sic] subject my languages through to the end for which I had no interest of VCE 2 I also really enjoyed studying 2 The teacher ignored those who them and wanted to make sure I didn't understand the language did subjects I enjoyed during the and concentrated on the more able stressful time of VCE (7.188) students, leaving the rest of us like me confused and even more bored (8.109) 1 Love staying with a host family 1 I stopped studying Italian in in Switzerland and wish to return my third year of secondary school there because of poor relations with the teacher 2 Help with VCE score (7.2) 2 Conflicting timetables with other electives (9.105) 1 Enjoyment 1 Poor teaching quality 2 Prospects of travel/work 2 Lack of connection to culture overseas (7.6) (8.31) 1 I was getting excellent results 1 Bad teacher, I enjoyed the in Year 10 so I thought that this subject beforehand but being trend would continue with ample educated about why the 'English work on my part later on, i.e. language is pointless and previous positive experience obsolete against French' got annoying after the first four 2 The teacher was excellent and hours of discussion everything made so much sense. So I decided to drop advanced maths 2 We weren't really taught that and opt for French (7.109) it was for anything, it was just another subject. The fact that it could be quite advantageous to us wasn't really stressed (8.38)