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Self-determination in adolescent bilingualism.


This article describes a short-term immersion experience of an American teenager learning his heritage language (HL) in Japan. The learner's pre-test and post-test results indicated little linguistic gain in vocabulary and speaking from his 16-day experience. However, the post-test interview and journal report showed that the experience positively influenced the adolescent's determination for HL maintenance. This paper proposes a new approach to viewing adolescent bilingualism as the learner's self-regulated behavior in a natural setting.


Heritage language (HL) refers to the ancestral or home language of an immigrant family, including indigenous languages, yet distinguished from a foreign language learned in school setting. Successful bilingualism is said to depend on societal attitudes toward the maintenance of HL and the degree of community and family support for it (Fillmore, 2000; Harding-Esch & Riley, 2003; Hinton, 1999; Kirkness, 2002; Portes & Hao, 2002; Walzer, 2004).

However, even in the most favorable environment, there seems to be a wide variation in children's ultimate attainment of their native languages. In spite of constant parental efforts or community resources, not all HL children become active bilinguals (Kondo, 2003; Yamamoto, 2001). 'One-parent, one-language,' a widely adopted method of bilingualism recommended for parents (e.g., Cunningham-Andersson & Andersson, 1999) may become ineffective beyond middle childhood (Kondo, 1998; Kondo-Brown, 2000). The mother's insistence on speaking the HL at home can be contributive of the HL children's adherence to both languages (Kondo, 1998). Yet, such parental influence falls short of the ultimate attainment of active bilingualism even in the multilingual, multi-ethnic society like Hawaii because HL maintenance depends on the individual's self-motivation for doing so (Kondo, 1999).

Bilingual children and adolescents benefit from the resources (e.g., HL schools, tutoring) and opportunities (e.g., presence of HL speaking residents) only if their positive attitude toward their ethnic heritage is well sustained (Kondo, 1998; Kondo, 2003; Shibata, 7000). The nurturing of their inner motivation to learn the HL is as important as community and school support (Shibata, 2000). To account for the wide variation in HL proficiency among them, we must investigate how they manage to foster their own motivation for HL maintenance during up until adulthood.

Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a theory on the variability of human behaviors in achieving goals, posits that our own motivation as well as self-regulation must closely interact with larger, social needs in order to produce desirable outcomes through long-term commitments (Ryan and Deci, 2000). Of most importance in SDT are three innate needs that propel our self-regulation in adhering to the act: competence, autonomy and relatedness. Adopting the SDT framework, I argue that the home and community environment may more effectively support adolescent bilingualism if these three fundamental psychological needs are fully satisfied. In other words, HL teens must first feel confident, autonomous, and emotionally well connected with immediate caretakers (parents and other family members) and the local community. Using a case study of a middle-school American boy, I discuss the role of his self-determination in adhering to the goal of HL maintenance. The main purpose of this paper is to examine his linguistic and attitudinal changes after a three-week long 'taiken nyuugaku' (temporary school experience) at a middle school in a small town of Shiga, Japan.

The Learner and his Immersion Setting

The subject of this case study was SW, a 13-year-old junior high student, born to a Caucasian father and a Japanese-native mother, who was the researcher of the study. While growing up in Tucson, Arizona, he was raised predominantly in English. When he moved to Hawaii at age seven, his mother switched to speaking Japanese to him. However, SW persistently responded in English. He was extremely annoyed when his mother talked to him in Japanese in public (especially on school property) and often walked away abruptly from her saying "Speak English!" He strongly objected to the mother's suggestion for attending a local Japanese language school. However, he had a mixture of positive and negative attitudes toward his HL. He liked reading about current events and trends of Japan in English, watching anime and samurai films in Japanese, and eating a variety of Japanese dishes and snacks available in Hawaii.

The only occasions he replied in his HL were his bedtime talk with the mother. Because the family did not have access to Japanese TV shows, nor were they in constant communication with Japanese nationals in town, his mother was concerned about SW's not receiving enough input in HL. With the help of a Japanese friend in Shiga, Japan, a short experimental stay, or taiken nyugaku, was arranged with a public middle school.

At age 13, SW was enrolled in an 'ichinensee' (7th grade) at Koka Junior High, in June, 2005. During his 16-day attendance at the school, he stayed at the acquaintance's home, and the family communicated with him exclusively in Japanese. Without his family, SW was left alone to deal with communication needs in this Japanese-only speaking community by resorting to his limited (and mainly receptive) Japanese knowledge. He attended almost all subject classes, had lunch with his classmates, and practiced basketball in his 'bukatsu' (school club) daily until the last day. He was the only taiken nyuugaku student and the only 'gaijin' (foreigner) from the United States except for an American teacher-assistant at the school. All the teachers and students from 'ichinensee' (7th grade) through 'sannensee' (9tb grade) were very welcoming and supportive of SW's taiken nyuugaku. He was often invited to his classmates' houses and was also visited by some neighbors. SW enjoyed this temporary spotlight in this small town in Japan. His last day ended with a farewell party in the homeroom, gifts from the classmates, and a 'shooshooo-joo' (a certificate of completion) from the vice principle.

Research Questions and Methodology

Prior to SW's trip to Japan, the following research questions were raised:

Q.1 As a result of receiving 16 days of immersion experience, does the teenager make significant gains in both school-related vocabulary and speaking skills?

Q.2 After the immersion experience, are there any changes in the characteristics of his daily oral performance at home (e.g., switch to speaking Japanese to the mother) as well as in his attitudes toward the HL (e.g., willing to hear Japanese more often in public)?

It was hypothesized that SW would significantly increase his vocabulary in these categories due to his direct experience and daily exposure to those words. As for his home communication, a positive change was anticipated; that is, he would use Japanese more often in response to the mother. It was also expected that SW would become more favorable toward hearing Japanese both at home and in public or would, at least, express his appreciation of being exposed to the HL in his immediate surrounding. The data collection of this study consisted of a pre-test and a post-test on vocabulary and speaking, SW's journal, and observations of his attitudinal changes before and after the trip.

To answer Question 1, SW was given vocabulary assessment, a discrete test on school-related (e.g., textbook, eraser, dictionary) and home-related words (e.g., bedroom, stairs, answering machine) before and after his taiken nyugaku. These test items had been selected from a Japanese language textbook. His oral performance was assessed through a short interview in various tasks ranging from his self-introduction to talking about hobbies and activities of a daily schedule. These interview tasks were adapted from Kondo-Brown's (2003) oral elicitation tasks and supplemented with recommended interviewing techniques (Kondo-Brown, 2004). Both the vocabulary and oral tests were administered by a Japanese research assistant on June 1 (6 days prior to his trip) and July 1 (5 days after his return). Their interaction was audio-tape recorded and was transcribed by the researcher a month later.

To answer Question 2, the researcher recorded family conversations a few days before and after SW's trip to Japan. The researcher also documented his behavioral changes relevant to his attitudes toward Japanese back in Hawaii. Immediately after the trip, SW was asked to write a journal about his taiken nyuugaku experience. He documented specific events on Day 1 though Day 16, discussing when he felt difficulty or enjoyment and how he "fit in" at the school.


1) Pre-Test and Post-Test Results on Vocabulary and Speaking

Contrary to the first hypothesis, there was no significant difference between his pre-test and posttest scores on school-related vocabulary. Even if the house of his home-stay family shared many features with the target words (e.g., stairs, garden, bedroom), SW was unable to name them correctly in Japanese. The post-test results showed that the he only "learned" 'kaban' (bag), 'kami' (paper), 'kyookasho' (textbook) and the correct pronunciation of 'doa' (door). Surprisingly, SW even responded with "wasureta" (I forgot) or "wakannai" (I don't know) to a few items (e.g., electronic fan, pen) in the post-test, which had been named correctly in the pretest.

SW's progress in oral performance was also analyzed. His post-trip interview lasted much longer because he added a detailed description of his taiken nyuugaku in Japanese, including a wide range of his friends' nicknames and places he visited there. However, no significant change was detected at the discourse level, overall. There were several moments of his struggle with the words (e.g., neighbor and cousin) and expressions (e.g., have already graduated, was taking a photo) he had yet to learn in Japanese. The transcript also showed that he had learned to correctly express the basic times, days and monetary units (e.g., 6:00, 4:30, June 15th, 29th, 50 yen, 100 yen) but not yet the others (e.g., 4:06, 3:25, June 1st, 20th, 5,000 yen, 10,000 yen), and to correctly and culturally appropriately introduce himself by stating his name, school status and age, but not yet his (American) family and friends. He continued to place a strong accent on one syllable of some words (e.g., 'kinyoobi' 'sensee', 'takai') and to maintain the informal level of communication (e.g., "Nani iro suki?" "Shitteru?") even at the post-trip interview.

Unexpectedly, however, the transcript of SW's verbal interaction with the research assistant during the post-test indicated that he had learned some new words during his stay in Japan. For example, he inadvertently used several non-target words, such as 'shamoji' (rice scooper), 'kyoodan' (platform), and 'neru-heya' (room for sleep) to name the lexically similar objects (rice-cooker, classroom floor, and bedroom, respectively). The transcript of the post-trip interview also provided evidence for SW's newly acquired words and phrases, such as 'tsuri' (fishing), 'hanabi' (firework), 'densha' (train), 'kakkoii' (cool/fashionable), 'chuugaku ichinensee' (middle-school first-year students, equivalent of 7th grade in America), and 'tomodachi no heya' (friend's room) closely related to his daily experiences in Japan. The transcript also revealed the fact that his school friends had taught him Japanese slang and some regional dialect.

2) SW's Journal on Taiken Nyugaku and Attitudinal Changes

SW's taiken nyugaku appeared to have a positive impact on his attitude toward using his HL. His post-trip journal writing indicated his feeling of 'relatedness' to the Japanese youth who shared similar facial features, interests and food preference with him, and his boosted 'confidence' in using (although rudimental) Japanese to make friends and get along well with his school-mates and host family especially because of the Japanese' tendency for phrasal. (Excerpts from his journal will be available upon request.)

Other parts of the journal hint that SW was treated as a 'nihon-jin'(insider) rather than a 'gaijin' (outsider) by his classmates, host-family and neighbors. The sense of being included in their cultural/ethnic group probably satisfied his need for relatedness (being closely connected to his peers, care-takers etc.). Toward the end of his second week, SW had a chance to travel to Tokyo to meet with his auntie and cousins. This diary entrance appears to articulate his strong determination to use Japanese and his autonomous decision to manage interaction on his own (through a bit of creativity):

June 18 & 19, Saturday and Sunday (Days 10 and 11)

Yuki-chan (his Japanese auntie in the Tokyo area) tried to speak English to me. But I refused (to speak my native language), saying "Nihongo de iiyo." I made up that expression. Every time people spoke English to me, I would say this. Only when I misunderstood them, I allowed them to speak English. I insisted on their speaking Japanese because it would be a waste of money (i.e., the expenses of staying in Japan) to speak English in Japan... I did "tako-yaki" trick to Miichan (his Japanese cousin) and showed how much Kansai dialect I had learned...


SW's post-test and post-trip interview results demonstrated no dramatic improvement after the taiken nyuugaku in Japan. (The subject was not informed of the post-trip vocabulary test and interview until after his return.) One possible interpretation of 'no significant increase' in the vocabulary test may be the limited period (i.e., three weeks) of his experience. Another interpretation might be the subject's cognitive overload: SW had to absorb so much new information germane to his every-day life (e.g., new school schedule, host-family's and friends' names) that there was not enough room for gaining much vocabulary. Because the researcher was not present to document the type of input and interaction SW received in Japan, such a speculation needs to be validated in a future study.

Although the three-week might be simply not enough to help SW improve his vocabulary, he appears to have gained some new knowledge other than a few test items. This short-term experience also brought about some attitudinal changes in the teenage bilingual. After the trip, SW became much more positive toward the value of his dual language ability. For instance, upon his return, he volunteered in a school/community exchange program to welcome a group of intermediate students from Japan. He reported to his parents that he spoke both in Japanese and English to become a 'bridge' between his American classmates and the Japanese guests. When he discovered that the program would take the members to the Japanese guests' school in exchange in the following year, he was very excited. However, contrary to the researcher's expectation, SW continued to respond in English to his mother's Japanese. The family conversation style of "the mother-speaking Japanese and the child-answering in English" was never altered, contrary to his euphoric description of taiken nyugaku in the journal.

Regarding SW's use of HL in Japan, his psychological needs for feeling 'confident,' 'autonomous' and 'related' must have been fulfilled by the welcoming and supportive host-family, school staff, and students. The satisfaction of these needs probably promoted SW's greater internalization of self-regulation in adhering to bilingualism in the end. As his June 16th entry shows, SW strongly expressed his own voice on bilingualism, his determination for making use of his HL for interpersonal communication.


This study reports a HL learner's taiken nyugaku experience, using a recently proposed theory of psychology. In self-determination theory (SDT), autonomy per se does not suffice to induce intrinsic motivation and propel self-regulated behavior. In adhering to one's own goal, the adolescent has to have all the three basic needs (i.e., confidence, autonomy and relatedness) satisfied (e.g., Soares, et al, 2005). It is probably when these emotional needs are fulfilled that teenage learners are most likely to self-regulate their own desire and effort to pursue active bilingualism. This theory has not been well applied to the domain of second language learning or bilingualism. Therefore, further research is needed to examine the relevance of SDT pertaining to adolescent bilingualism.


My deep-felt gratitude goes to Professor Isoji Otani, the vice principal of Koka Junior High, Professor Saori Shirai, the homeroom teacher who assisted SW's taiken nyugaku, and Ms. Miki Azuma's family who took care of SW throughout his stay in Shiga, Japan.


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Yoshiko Okuyama, University of Hawaii at Hilo

Okuyama, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Japanese and Linguistics
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Author:Okuyama, Yoshiko
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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