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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Communal (Native Speaker) Norms
  4. Learners’ Future L2 Selves
  5. Method
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

This study explores the ways first-, second-, and third-year college students (n=352) perceived their likely attainment of 19 morpho-syntactic, phonological, pragmatic, and lexical features of German. Analyses further differentiated perceptions by the learner variables of year of enrollment, gender, achievement, motivation for language study, focus in class, experience with native speakers, and travel abroad. Results indicate experiential variables, particularly achievement and authentic experiences, to be of primary importance in shaping learners’ expectations. Grammatical features, especially nominal morphology, subjunctive, and passive were considered particularly difficult to attain, and more advanced learners were overall more optimistic than their less experienced peers. Learners’ belief in their eventual ability to use language in a socially appropriate manner was associated with actual or desired authentic experiences. The study concludes with a discussion of how learners’ imaginings of their future, more proficient selves can benefit from connections with a language-using community.

This study investigates how college learners of German rated the attainability of nineteen morpho-syntactic, phonological, pragmatic, and lexical features of German. The seven learner variables under investigation were: (a) year of enrollment, (b) gender, (c) achievement (as measured in terms of most recent final course grade), (d) experience with native speakers (NSs), (e) time abroad, (f) primary motivation for language (German) study, and (g) primary focus in language class. The data under discussion represent the quantitative component of two complementary data sets that capture learners’ beliefs about the relative difficulty and communicative relevance, respectively, of select features of German. The second, qualitative component will be described in a separate article.

In practical terms, how learners envision their ultimate attainment will influence at what point they are satisfied that they either cannot or need not further improve their language skills and can or should cease their formal language studies. Moreover, as Dörnyei (2005) asserts, the outcomes that learners want to achieve will influence their learning efforts. It stands to reason that a similar connection develops between learners’ behaviors and what they believe they can achieve. Fernandez (2007), for example, found that foreign language learners who, in comparison with their peers, considered language learning to be more difficult and themselves to be less capable had no intention to continue.

Before describing the results of the investigation, I would like to review recent research on two issues that inspired the present study. They are: (a) how learners connect their final attainment within communal, particularly NS, norms; and (b) how learners imagine their Future L2 Selves.

Communal (Native Speaker) Norms

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Communal (Native Speaker) Norms
  4. Learners’ Future L2 Selves
  5. Method
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

Research offers no conclusive answers to the question of what type, if any, community norms learners orient towards when they imagine their final attainment. However, the notion that L2 learners want to become as native-like as possible has remained an implicit and common but little explored and less often contested (e.g., the collaboration of Hedgecock and Lefkowitz, e.g., 2000) assumption in both foreign language pedagogy and SLA research. Smith (2009), for example, in her investigation of persistence in foreign language study, takes the achievement of native-like proficiency as the ultimate goal of a long-term process. In scholarly debates, the full standing of learners- or, at least of their future incarnations- among native-like speakers has been elevated to both a privilege that requires defending (V. Cook, 1999; Kramsch, 1997) and an elusive prize forever beyond reach (e.g., Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam, 2009). Generally speaking, the social branch of SLA research has been sympathetic to the former, the cognitive branch to the latter position.

The theory of Community of Practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991), in which experts at the center of a community are hypothesized to gradually induct novices on the periphery into practices that will eventually grant them full community membership, has served as a guiding theory to a growing body of research (Haneda, 2006; Swain & Deters, 2007). This view unambiguously casts language learners as aspiring members of the native-speaking community. One of the theory's particularly attractive concepts has been that of legitimate peripheral participation, i.e., the idea that even newcomers can take on meaningful tasks on the path to full membership (e.g., Back, 2011). Implicit to the adoption of this model into language pedagogy is the idea that learners indeed want to leave the periphery and achieve full membership, i.e., that native-like competency is, in fact, the projected endpoint for all learners. However, some scholars (e.g., Haneda, 2006) have raised the possibility that some learners may be seeking neither achievement of native-like competence nor full (or even partial) membership in the community of NSs. Whether such an attitude may be due to a simple case of disinterest or an inability to see a path toward full membership remains unclear.

Moreover, the answer to the question of how learners can achieve full membership in the NS community hinges on who can grant it and based on what criteria. G. Cook (2005) offers an excellent overview of conceptual challenges in SLA research, with notions of the NS among them. V. Cook (2007), argues vigorously for a community of language users that no longer distinguishes between perpetual learners and natural-born native speakers. Even cognitivists whose approach to research relies heavily on NS judgments and baselines have encountered their definitional crisis. In a study by Abrahamsson and Hyltenstam (2009), NSs were asked to judge bilinguals who identified themselves as L2-native-like. They were much more likely to identify as native-like those NNSs who had begun learning the language before age 12. However, rigourous cognitive, computer-aided testing revealed that even among the early learners who had passed as native-like in the perception of the NSs, very few met measureable NS standards. In essence, NNSs, NSs, and computer analyses applied ever more stringent criteria of inclusion. Perhaps more importantly, the supposed gold-standard perceptions of NSs failed to be confirmed when subjected to machine testing. It appears that NSs cannot accurately assess who is and who is not like them. In view of this failure, the definition of what constitutes full acquisition of a language and, by extension, membership in the NS community, becomes tenuous at best. A search of the internet and library databases also came up short, with all attested definitions dealing with acquisition as a process, not a product.

In sum, an investigation into how learners project their final attainment needs to consider that the learners’ judgments may neither appeal to (real or imagined) NSs norms of accuracy nor reflect aspirations of membership in NS communities. Indeed, there is no definitive way of telling what would be required of learners for them to either pass as native-like and/or be accepted into a native-speaking community. Since hypothesized NS norms apparently cannot provide sufficient theoretical support to define language learning success, research has sought recourse with the learners’ own imaginings of their future selves.

Learners’ Future L2 Selves

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Communal (Native Speaker) Norms
  4. Learners’ Future L2 Selves
  5. Method
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

Most basically, recent motivational research into learners’ self projections divides into the strand that focuses on self-determination and self-efficacy, on the one hand (e.g. Graham, 2006; Noels, Pelletier, Clement, & Vallerand, 2003), and, on the other hand, a strand that deals with so-called L2 selves (e.g., Dörnyei, 2005).

Graham, in a qualitative study, described how high achievers (as reported by their teachers) separated into two groups according to their self-efficacy beliefs (high vs. low). With regard to students with low self-efficacy beliefs, Graham concludes that “Success in earlier language learning does not seem sufficient to […] maintain a view of themselves as a ‘good language learner.’ Many are unclear as to how they can improve their learning and retrieve this “lost image.” (p. 305). Noels et al. (2003) were able to place learners on a continuum from amotivation to less to more self-determined motivation. They then concluded that feelings of comfort and an inclination to persevere aligned mostly with a high degree of self-determined (internal) motivation. Csizer and Lukacs (2010), drawing on Dörnyei's Motivational Self System (2005), examined how learners envision their learning trajectory as it projects future incarnations of their selves. They described a three motivational forces (pp. 2–3): (1) the Ideal L2 Self, i.e., “the person who wishes to become a competent speaker of an L2”; (2) the Ought-to-L2 Self, i.e., “referring to the attributes that the learners believe they ought-to possess to avoid possible negative outcomes”; and (3) L2 learning experience, “which concerns executive motives related to the immediate learning environment and experience.” In related earlier studies, learner variables, such as age (Kormos & Csizer, 2008), the target language (German as compared to English; Csizer & Dörnyei, 2005), and gender (Henry, 2009) had been found to account for differences in how L2 Selves are constructed. Hsieh (2009) brought together elements of self-determination and L2 Self theories to document how learners’ goals and attitudes changed as a result of study abroad experiences.

In summary, learners’ beliefs in their own abilities and the goals that they want to and believe they can achieve are embedded in a complex web of experiential and environmental variables. They all have consequences for persistence in language study and for that reason alone influence actual learning outcomes.

The present study deals with the following three research questions (RQs) that all focus on the same 19 grammatical, lexical, pragmatic, and phonological features of German, which can be viewed in Table 2.

Table 2.  Features of German, by Relative Ease of Attainment, as Rated by Learners in Year 1, Year 2, and Year 3
 Year 1 Learners N = 99–106Year 2 Learners N = 158–171Year 3 Learners N = 70–75
RankFeatureMean ScoreFeatureMean ScoreFeatureMean Score
1aForms of address2.16Forms of address1.85Forms of address1.75
1bVerb placement2.16NANANANA
2aNANAVerb placement1.94Subject-verb agreement1.94
2bNANANANANANA
3Subject-verb agreement2.35Nominal word order2.11Verb placement1.99
4Nominal word order2.39Sounds2.52Nominal word order2.20
5aVocabulary precision2.55Subject-verb agreement2.54Verb tense2.31
5bNANAVerb tenses2.54NANA
6aSituational appropriateness2.61NANAPossessives2.41
6bNANANANASituational appropriateness2.41
7aPlural endings2.67Possessives2.57NANA
7bNA NANANANA
7cNA NANANANA
8aVerb tense2.69Personal pronouns2.58Sounds2.46
8bNANANANANANA
8cNANANANANANA
9aConjunctions2.71Sentence melody2.59Conjunctions2.49
9bNANAWord stress2.59NANA
9cNANASituational appropriateness2.59NANA
10Word stress2.73NANAPersonal pronouns2.58
11aSentence melody2.78NANAPlural endings2.61
11bNoun gender2.78NANANANA
11cPersonal pronouns2.78NANANANA
12NANAConjunctions2.70Word stress2.68
13NANAVocabulary precision2.75Sentence melody2.73
14Sounds2.79Plural endings2.77Vocabulary precision2.76
15aCase endings2.80Noun gender3.06Noun gender3.08
15bPossessives2.80NANANANA
16NANACase endings3.08Case endings3.10
17Adjective endings2.81Adjective endings3.13Adjective endings3.34
18Passive3.13Passive3.21Subjunctive3.42
19Subjunctive3.18Subjunctive3.29Passive3.45

RQ 1: Are the learner variables of gender, primary motivation for language study, primary focus in class, experience with NSs, time abroad, and achievement associated with significantly different ratings of the attainability of the 19 features of German taken together?

RQ 2: Which features of German do Year 1, 2, and 3 learners, respectively, consider to be particularly difficult to attain?

RQ 3: How do learner variables other than year of enrollment, such as learner gender, primary motivation for language (German) study, focus in language class, contact with NSs, time abroad, and achievement, account for differences in beliefs about the attainability of specific features of German?

These three research questions were explored using the following method.

Method

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Communal (Native Speaker) Norms
  4. Learners’ Future L2 Selves
  5. Method
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

Participants

The initial group of respondents contained a total of 369 students enrolled in first- (106 students), second- (171 students), third- (75 students), and fourth-year (17 students) language courses at a large Midwestern research university. The university under investigation has a 3-semester college (or 3-year high school) graduation requirement in foreign language courses for most B.S. degrees and a 4-semester college (or 4-year high school) credit requirement for B.A.s. A good portion of students have already satisfied the graduation requirement upon entry into the university.

The ultimate objective of this study was to measure differences in responses by attitudinal and experiential learner variables as well as gender, an undertaking that required a large participant pool. It was therefore deemed desirable to bring together students from each year of study to compose one larger study population. To verify the appropriateness of this procedure, the average aggregate scores (ratings of all 19 features taken together) of students in each of the four years of study were compared. These preliminary statistical analyses showed Year 4 students to have assigned average scores (taking all 19 language features together) that were significantly different from those given by Year 1 (t = 2.15; p =. 032*) and Year 2 (t = 1.968; p = .05*) learners. Specifically, at an aggregate mean score of 2.30, Year 4 learners were more optimistic about their final attainment than Year 1 (2.68), Year 2 (2.64), and even, but not significantly, Year 3 (2.62) learners. No other significant between-group differences emerged. Year 4 students, many of whom have studied abroad, thus need to be considered a separate population. They were therefore excluded from the present study and for RQs 1 & 3, students enrolled in the remaining three years were treated as one (larger) sample. The final sample included a total of 352 students. Due to decisions by the university's Human Subjects Research Committee, participation rates relative to the total number of students enrolled in a given year spanned from 55.21% (Year 1) to 57.69% (Year 2) to 81.43% (Year 3).

Table 1 focuses on the breakdown of student respondents by umbrella variables. They were gender; primary motivation for language study; primary focus in language class; contact with NSs (not necessarily abroad); time abroad (which most likely but not necessarily includes contact with NSs); and achievement as measured in the most recent final grade in a German course. Since many students, even in Years 2 and 3, had entered the program from high school or another university program, many students did not report their achievement. The six umbrella variables were further distinguished by sub-groupings. Table 1 reveals the criteria by which the sub-group labels (e.g., “minimal” as compared to “extensive” contact with NSs) within each umbrella variable were defined. It also shows ranges of respondent numbers because not all respondents rated all 19 features. Last, Table 1 shows each sub-group's mean score on the attainability ratings of all 19 language features taken together. The higher the mean score, the more difficult this sub-group considered the 19 language features. Statistically significant differences between sub-groups under each umbrella variable will be discussed under RQ1.

Table 1.  Participant Umbrella Variables, by Subgroups and Attainability Mean Scores
Subgroups N Range Mean Score
Gender
Male150–1552.65
Female180–1852.64
Total 330–340 
Primary Motivation for Study
Requirement69–702.79
Intellectual Challenge19–222.65
Love of Language84–852.60
Contact with NSs73–772.55
Professional Uses67–682.60
Total 312–322 
Primary Focus in Class
Grammatical Accuracy48–512.62
Vocabulary Precision50–512.64
Fluency60–612.45
Complexity212.56
Meaning99–1022.77
Amount of Production46–482.67
Total 324–334 
Contact with Native Speakers
None74–752.73
Minimal (1–3)88–922.73
Extensive (⊵4)172–1792.54
Total 334–345 
Time Abroad
None164–1682.69
In Passing (<1 week)172.44
Short Term (1 week–3 months)122–1282.58
Long Term (>3 months)252.55
Total 328–338 
Achievement (Most Recent Final Course Grade)
A & AB242–2432.61
B & BC41–432.54
C & D6–83.17
Total 289–299 

Materials

As they rated each of the 19 features of German, participants responded to this specific question, “How difficult do you think it would be to reach at least 90% accuracy in feature X?” The 90% mark of accuracy was set as the top category because of its anticipated connotations to the learner raters, that is, it signalled a very high rate of accuracy that nevertheless did not pretend to an unrealistic (for either learners or NSs) standard of 100% accuracy. The response options were arranged on a 5-point scale and included: very easy (1); rather easy (2); neither really easy nor really difficult (3); rather difficult (4); and very difficult or impossible (5). In short, in the phrasing of responses, projections of attainability were taken to be synonymous with perceptions of the feature's relative difficulty.

In the original questionnaire, the list of features was accompanied by examples so as to clarify for students the meaning of a given term. At the time of administration, all participants had at least seen or heard examples of all the features they had to rate. The program under investigation follows a self-described communicative approach to teaching and testing that seeks to accommodate the objectives set forth in the National Standards for Foreign Language Education (2006).

Results

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Communal (Native Speaker) Norms
  4. Learners’ Future L2 Selves
  5. Method
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

Results for each RQ will be discussed in turn. Quantification methods, including inferential statistical tests, will be described as appropriate for each presentation of data.

RQ 1: Are the learner variables of gender, primary motivation for language study, primary focus in class, contact with NSs, time abroad, and achievement associated with significantly different ratings of the attainability of the 19 features of German taken together?

RQ1, different from RQ3, looked at aggregate scores (taking all 19 items together). It was answered by performing oneway ANOVAs as an omnibus test, followed by post-hoc Scheffe tests for all non-bi-variate variables, that is, all variables but gender. The alpha level of statistical significance, as with all statistical analyses in this paper, was set at p < .05, although, as appropriate, instances of marginal (near) statistical significance will also be discussed.

Results showed only one variable to yield unambiguously significant results, namely achievement. Initial ANOVAS had yielded a p-value of .021* (F, 3.892) and post-hoc Scheffes pinpointed the differences to be between learners with the most recent final course grade of C or D on the one hand and, on the other, both learners with a final grade of A or AB (p= .033) and learners with a final grade of B or BC (p= .022*). The weakest students perceived the 19 features of German to be much less attainable. Contact with NSs accounted for an initial statistically significant difference, as assessed in the oneway ANOVA (F, 4.214; p= .016) but post-hoc Scheffes showed only a marginal significant difference (p=.056*) between students with minimal and those with extensive contact with NSs. Students with extensive contact with NSs had given the most optimistic assessments of their expected final attainment of the 19 features under investigation. Orientation in class was associated with only marginal statistical significance in the one-way ANOVAs (F, 2.234; p= .051*). The post-hoc Scheffes showed no statistically significant difference among the groups although there seemed to be a trend toward a divergence between students with a meaning and those with a fluency orientation in class (p= .062). Students with a meaning orientation had given the highest mean scores, indicating a lesser belief in the attainability of the 19 features; students with a focus on fluency had given the lowest mean scores, that is, were the most opimtistic group.

RQ 2: Which features of German do Year 1, 2, and 3 learners, respectively, consider to be particularly difficult to attain?

RQ 2 was approached using both descriptive (Table 2) and inferential (Table 3) statistics. Table 2 shows the mean scores and relative ranks of each of the 19 features of German as rated by Year 1, Year 2, and Year 3 students, respectively. The order progressed from forms that were considered to be the most easily attainable (and received the lowest mean scores) to those that were considered the most difficult to attain (and received the highest mean scores). In keeping with the objective of RQ 2 and different from RQs 1 & 3, results displayed in Table 2 distinguish among the three years of enrollment.

Table 3.  Features of German for Which Learners in Different Years of Study Judged Attainability Differently
Feature (Item) Initial (omnibus) ANOVA Post-hoc Tukey HSD  
 F p Groups implicated by Tukey HSD p Mean difference
Case endings3.023.050*NA (no between-group differences found)  
Possessives3.021.050*Year 1/Year 3.047*.390
Forms of address3.815.023*Year 1/Year 3.036*.415
Adjective endings6.328.002**Year 1/Year 2.031*−.322
   Year 1/Year 3.002**−.530

All three student groups considered subjunctive, passive, and adjective endings and other nominal morphology, such as noun gender, case endings, and, with the exception of Year 1 students, plural endings, the most difficult to attain. All learner groups further determined forms of address to be the easiest to attain, followed by verb placement and subject-verb agreement. In terms of phonology, Year 1 learners considered segmentals (sounds) easier to attain than prosodic features (word stress, sentence melody) while the opposite was true for their Year 2 and 3 peers.

The already low scores assigned to forms of address and verb placement were lowest among Year 3 learners and, conversely, relatively highest among Year 1 students. However, Year 3 students assigned even higher scores (signalling a greater belief in these features’ difficulty) to forms that were generally considered more difficult to attain (i.e., held a lower rank and received overall higher scores), such as case endings, adjective endings, the passive voice, or subjunctive. As a matter of fact, Year 1 students were more optimistic than Year 2 or Year 3 students about their ability to eventually acquire these very difficult forms. In other words, as they advanced, learners began to draw greater distinctions among the relative difficulty of forms and also became more reluctant to believe they would ever acquire all—including the more difficult — forms of German. To accommodate the different spreads of mean scores across the three years of study, subsequent explanations refer to the relative rank of a feature in a given learner group (Year 1, 2, and 3 learners), not the feature's attached mean score. That is, although features may be associated with similar mean scores, they could nevertheless occupy very different ranks across two or more groups.

Table 3 provides an overview of statistical tests that compared the responses of students in the three years of study under investigation. Post-hoc Tukey HSD tests followed omnibus ANOVAs. The alpha level, again, was set at p < .05. The difference in means is phrased from the perspective of the group mentioned first. Since the between-group tests were repeated for each of the 19 language features, Type I error cannot be ruled out. Therefore, it is important to appreciate results as exploratory (not definitive) and pay attention to patterns of findings. Moreover, different from the discussion based on ranks (above), the comparison of means does not take into account the degree to which scores spread (or did not spread) across the 19 features within each learner group.

Overall, results shown in Table 3 coincide with trends revealed in the inferential statistics that were displayed in Table 2. Statistically significant between-group differences (a) occurred in a manner that set apart Year 1 students, mostly from their Year 3 peers; (b) foremost concerned grammar, particularly nominal morphology; and (c) involved the one non-grammatical feature among the 19 total features (forms of address) that is heavily emphasized in the first-year curriculum and, perhaps most importantly, is explicitly linked to the choice of certain grammatical forms. Last, perhaps in a demonstration of ignorance being bliss, Year 1 learners, who in other regards were less optimistic about their final attainment, were more certain than either Year 2 or Year 3 learners that they could eventually acquire adjective endings.

RQ 3: How do learner variables other than year of enrollment, such as learner gender, primary motivation for language (German) study, focus in language class, contact with NSs, time abroad, and achievement, account for differences in beliefs about the attainability of specific features of German?

As was done for RQ2 with regard to the learners’ year of enrollment, individual items were also compared by the variables of achievement, contact with NSs, time abroad, primary motivation for German study, and primary focus in class. For that purpose, learners from all years of enrollment were taken together and then repeatedly divided by each of the variables under investigation. As for Table 3, initial omnibus ANOVAs were followed by post-hoc Tukey HSDs and the possibility of Type I error pertains so that results need to be evaluated with caution.

Initial analyses, as discussed under RQ1, had identified achievement (last final German course grade) as a predictor of differences in beliefs about final attainment. Still, analyses for RQ1 had relied on agreggate means (taking means from scores for all 19 features together) and could have buried differences that pertained to individual items. Indeed, analyses under discussion here confirmed that achievement accounted for significant differences in a number of language features (Table 4). Apart from signficant differences attested for the variable of achievement, results for RQ1 had pinpointed contact with NSs and, to a lesser extent, orientation in class, to be associated with marginally significant differences. As Table 5 (further below) demonstrates, contact with NSs remained a productive variable in item-by-item analyses, orientation in class less so. Instead, experience abroad and primary motivation for language (German) study entered the picture. In the discussions of Tables 4 and 5 below, respectively, primary attention will go to how items associated with significant differences patterned and how contrast or overlap across learner variables manifested.

Table 4.  Features of German for Which Learners with Different Final Course Grades Judged Attainability Significantly Differently
Feature (Item) Initial (omnibus) ANOVA Post-hoc Tukey HSD Difference in means
 F p Groups implicated by Tukey HSD p  
Nominal word order5.485.005**A&AB/C&D.004**−1.138
   B&BC/C&D.004**−1.205
Verb placement5.180.006**A&AB/C&D.005**−1.052
   B&BC/C&D.006**−1.091
Sounds4.877.008**A&AB/B&BC.020*.478
   B&BC/C&D.041*−1.011
Word stress4.464.012*B&BC/C&D.015−1.011
Sentence melody4.651.010**A&AB/C&D.041*−.867
   B&BC/C&D.009**−1.136
Table 5.  Features of German for Which Attainability Was Judged Significantly Differently by Learners Distinguished by …
Feature (Item) Initial (omnibus) ANOVA Post-hoc Tukey HSD Difference in means
 F P Groups implicated by Tukey HSD p  
… the Extent of Their Contact with Native Speakers
Nominal word order5.454.005**None/Extensive.006**.419
Personal pronouns4.245.015*None/Extensive.024**.371
Possessives6.400.002**None/Extensive.004**.466
   Minimal/Extensive.039*.326
Verb tenses3.878.022*None/Extensive.031*.349
Situational appropriateness9.337.000***None/Extensive.019*.362
   Minimal/Extensive.000***.505
… the Duration of Their Experience Abroad
Possessives3.446.017*None/Long Time.042*.592
Conjunctions3.482.016*None/In Passing..033*.707
Noun gender2.673.047*None/Long Time.035*−.625
Situational appropriateness2.673.047*None/Short Term.032*.329
… Their Primary Focus in Class
Verb placement2.403.037*Fluency/Meaning.025*−.474
… their Motivation for Studying German
Verb tenses2.939.021*Requiremenl/Professio nal Uses.014*.543
Situational appropriateness5.301.000***Requiremenl/Love of Language Learning.000***.655
   Requiremenl/Communication with NSs.009**.528

Table 4 shows that significant differences between student groups with different final grades concerned their beliefs about the ultimate attainment of nominal word order and verb placement. Whereas, on average, these two forms were considered relatively easy (ranks 3–4 and 2–3, respectively, as seen in Table 2), less-successful learners considered them to be relatively difficult to acquire. Significant differences also emerged for all questionnaire items that had to do with phonology (sounds, word stress, and sentence melody). With one exception, all apparent differences involved students who had earned a most recent final course grade of C or D. As a rule of thumb, C & D students were less optimistic about their ultimate attainment in these features. The most prominent exception to this pattern emerged in the context of B & BC students, who declared themselves more optimistic about their attainment of German sounds than their A & AB peers. Although a unique and perhaps aberrant result, it gains importance in light of the prominence that phonology seemed to play in the beliefs of weaker as compared to stronger students. With middling (B & BC) students apparently more optimistic than either their A & AB or their C & D colleagues about their ultimainte attainment of German sounds, it seems possible that learners framed their expectations of success in phonology both in terms of learning difficulties (C & D students) and a more acute awareness of the precise demands (A & AB students). To summarize Table 5, below, (a) learners with no contact as well as, to a lesser extent, learners with minimal contact with NSs tended to be less optimistic than learners with extensive contact with NSs about their ultimate attainment in 5 listed features of German (nominal word order, personal pronouns, possessives, verb tenses, situational appropriateness); (b) similarly, learners with no time abroad were less optimistic about 3 features of German (possessives, conjunctions, situational appropriateness) than learners who had spent some time abroad but more optimistic about their final attainment of noun gender; (c) students whose focus in class was fluency were more optimistic than students who were concerned with meaning in terms of the acquisition of 1 feature (verb placement); (d) learners who took the class to satisfy a requirement were less optimistic than learners who studied German for the love of language learning, professional uses, or communication with NSs in 2 features (verb tenses, situational appropriateness); and (e) gender, different from Henry (2009), did not account for any between-group differences at all, which is surprising considering the productivity of the variable in analyses that concerned students’ beliefs about comprehensibility and pleasantness and that are not reported on here but reported (Chavez, in press).

In sum, between-group differences overall developed in the expected direction as the following types of students expressed lesser optimism than their peers about the attainment of at least one feature of German: (a) weaker students; (b) students who had not experienced authentic contacts; (c) students who emphasized fluency; and (d) students who took German primarily to satisfy a requirement. There were no consistent patterns in the specific features of German that were particularly prone to differential assessments although greater authentic experience appeared to be associated with greater confidence about the attainment of (a) possessives and, less consistently, personal pronouns, two forms that occur frequently in natural speech; and (b) situational appropriateness of language use, an objective that is difficult to achieve within the institutional speech patterns of the classroom (Seedhouse, 2004).

Discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Communal (Native Speaker) Norms
  4. Learners’ Future L2 Selves
  5. Method
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

To distill the essence of the data, I will review findings from the study as organized into themes and, at the same time, point to suggestions for future research and teaching.

Theme 1: Progress through the Language Program

What the study showed. More advanced learners, who probably represented a select sub-group of former beginning learners, were overall more optimistic about their final attainment (for Year 4 learners, significantly so) than their junior peers. However, the optimism of advanced learners was not unbridled as they showed themselves to be less confident in their ability to acquire the forms of German that were generally considered to be more difficult. Year 1 learners showed greater optimism than their peers about eventually acquiring select features of German. Overall, inexperience was associated with less certainty about learning outcome. Beginning learners distinguished least clearly in the attainability scores they gave the 19 different features of German.

Future research and implications for teaching. Beginners’ uncertainty about learning outcome and an attendant inability to distinguish clearly between relatively easy and difficult forms, point to a need for guidance. The connection between a desire to continue with foreign language study and the belief that one can become proficient in two years of classroom learning (at one hour a day), as shown in Fernandez (2007), strongly suggests the potential for frustration. As students progress, they need encouragement to work through their increasing awareness that certain components of learning German are not as easy as they first seemed and that, quite possibly, some features of German will never be learned with native-like proficiency.

From a theoretical perspective, research should inquire how learners go about mapping their Ideal L2 Selves relative to NS norms. Although second language aquistion research (Belz, 2002; G. Cook, 2005; V. Cook, 1999; Kramsch, 1997) has earnestly contested the privilege of the NS, the NS has probably persisted as the standard of comparison in the minds of many learners. Nevertheless, some learners for whom the NS is not a viable norm—in this study, learners who studied German to satisfy a requirement—may be guided less by the assertion of their identities as legitimate L2 users than by their lack of intention to ever use German in authentic contexts.

Theme 2: Experiential Differentiation

What the study showed. Among the learner variables examined, the most recent final German course grade accounted most unambiguously for differences in expectations about attainment. The weakest learners (C & D students) had the overall lowest expectations of attainment, and they were particularly pessimistic about their acquisition of (nominal and verbal) word order. Remarkably, these weakest of students did not regard the language features that constituted the core of “difficult” features any differently than their more successful peers. Moreover, although weaker students generally were less optimistic than their peers about the attainment of phonological features, B & BC students expected higher final attainment of German sounds than their A & A B peers.

Extensive contact with NSs made a difference in overall optimism (all 19 features taken together) as well as in believing in the eventual attainment of specific features of German. The motivation to interact with NSs (as compared to taking German to satisfy a requirement) and time abroad contributed to differences of opinion about the eventual attainment of at least one language feature, invariably including pragmatics (situational appropriateness).

Several specific points are noteworthy: (a) The separation between the variables contact with NSs and time abroad in research design appears justified in that only the former was associated with a significant difference in general levels of optimism. In short, having contact with NSs was not necessarily synonymous with going abroad and it is the former more distinctly so than the latter that seems to go hand in hand with students’ positive outlook on their final attainment. (b) Differences in the attainability ratings of features of German often occurred after only very brief periods of time abroad whereas only extensive contact with NSs (taken to mean 4 or more NSs) was associated with similar results. The exact implications are unclear but perhaps immersion into an authentic L2 environment makes a very immediate impression whereas, when remote from a target language environment, a learner's NS social network needs to reach a certain size before it stands to alter a learner's outlook. (c) Especially when looking at overall differences in optimism, experiential variables, particularly achievement and authentic experiences, appeared to play a greater role than learner internal variables, such as motivation for language study (with the exception of taking German to fulfill a requirement), orientation in class (with the occasional exception of a focus on fluency), and, most surprisingly, gender. As explained earlier, the study reported here is part of a larger project. In other analyses (Chavez, in press), gender was a very productive variable in distinguishing among learners’ evaluations of how necessary accuracy in these 19 features is to please NSs and the teacher but not, which was also remarkable, to please themselves. In short, gender appears to be a variable that matters mostly in terms of orientation toward others but not oneself, that is, neither one's personal satisfaction nor one's expectation of success. (d) The attainability of pragmatic proficiency (situational appropriateness) was a constant in variation of beliefs measured by experiential variables, which suggests that authentic experiences interact not only with cognitive but also social expectations.

Future research and implications for teaching. Teachers might find pathways toward greater optimism among their students by increasing their opportunities for contact with NSs or encouraging their students to regard authentic experiences as worthwhile goals. Kormos, Kiddle, and Csizer (2011) found that regional and ideological (national attitudes, age) alignment accounts for differences in the motivational disposition of learners and may also distinguish among attitudes toward specific L2s. In other words, the specific influence of experiential variables on learners’ assessments of their ultimate attainment in German may vary depending on whether a German-speaking social support network is available to the learners and how the learners position themselves relative to it. As observed by Magnan (2008), teachers sometimes downplay the Communities aspect of the National Standards (2006) because, as Magnan, Murphy, Sahakyan, and Kim (2012, p. 173), in reference to Thorne (2009) further surmised, teachers may consider students’ contact with Communities to transcend the institutional walls and therefore also their responsibility. Most significantly, Magnan et al. (2012) also determined that the Communities Standard is the one that coincided with the goal orientation of the largest percentage of students (83%).

Learning success (grades) also played a remarkable role in this study. In short, learning outcome related to learners’ beliefs about the nature and trajectory of the learning process. Future research should follow in the footsteps of Graham (2006) and Noels et al. (2003) and explore in greater detail the interplay between achievement (grades) and learners’ beliefs in the relative difficulty of forms. What is more, the role of instruction, testing, and evaluation in how students develop their beliefs about the relative difficulty of forms requires further investigation.

Theme 3: The Core of Difficult Features of German

What the study showed. Despite some differences between Year 1 learners and their peers in the more advanced years of study, learners overall resembled each other. The forms that were regarded as the most difficult (adjective endings, cases, subjunctive, passive) were (a) all grammar-related; (b) with the exception of case endings, come late in most introductory textbooks; and (c) were not subject to differential ratings by learner variables other than year of study. The forms that drew differential ratings from different learner groups (a) were not among those regarded as the most difficult; and (b) included non-grammatical features. For example, less successful learners (most recent final course grade of C & D) considered phonology to be more difficult to attain. One may conclude that weaker students’ imaginings of what is difficult to attain contains all of the standard features, such as nominal morphology, subjunctive, and passive, yet additionally encompasses word order and phonology. Although pragmatics was not generally considered difficult, it is noteworthy that actual (contact with NSs, experience abroad) or desired (motivation for language study) authentic experiences were associated with learners’ even stronger beliefs that the ability to judge the situational appropriateness of language use is quite easy to acquire. Last, word order, an area tapped as most emblematic of German grammar and as most puzzling by student respondents in an earlier study (Chavez, 2011), did not rank among the features that learners (with the exception of very weak ones) considered difficult to attain.

Future research and implications for teaching. Research gives no clear answer as to whether either L2 phonology or L2 grammar are more difficult to attain. Abrahamsson (2012) found that in late-onset learners (past the age of 16) of Swedish, ultimate attainment of grammar and phonology were not related. Moreover, Year 1 students’ focussed on the acquisition of sounds over that of prosodic features may set them up for learning difficulties in other areas. O'Brien (2004) showed the communicative importance of prosody and Jackson and O'Brien (2011) demonstrated far-reaching consequences (e.g., for reading comprehension) to follow from learners’ inability to take prosodic cues from German syntax. Research on the acquisition of L2 pragmatics in classroom settings is underdeveloped but a recent study by Dykstra (2012) showed more advanced learners to be no more capable than beginners of understanding the social implications of formal and informal pronouns of Russian, although females performed significantly better than males. Research and teaching should take note of the apparent cognitive and social limitations of classroom learning when it comes to the acquisition of pragmatics.

Teachers and textbook writers & publishers may wish to examine closely what their presentation of the German language implies to students about what is and is not difficult. The message that many students seem to take away is that the most difficult features of German have to do with grammar and not phonology, the lexicon, or pragmatics. Previous research (e.g., Jabbari & Fazilatfar, 2012) indicates that teachers favor grammatical over phonological (and lexical or pragmatic) errors when they give corrective feedback. A meta-analysis of studies on corrective feedback (Lyster & Saito, 2010, pp. 276–277) also confirms the superior regard in which corrective feedback on grammar is held in both teaching practice and research. Classroom teaching may emphasize grammar in the expectation that other areas of language, such as phonology or pragmatics, will be fostered elsewhere, for example, in interaction with NSs. Whether one agrees with the viability of this viewpoint or not, it is useful to raise to our explicit understanding its existence and consequences.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Communal (Native Speaker) Norms
  4. Learners’ Future L2 Selves
  5. Method
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. References

According to the findings of this study, experiential variables (progress in the program, achievement, actual or desired authentic experiences) contribute more strongly than internal variables (e.g., motivation, gender) to learners’ projections of their final attainment. As a matter of fact, it is not clear whether without formative experiential influences, or the demands of participating in a study such as this one, learners ever even think about their final attainment or, in Dörnyei's terms, their Ideal L2 Selves. Indeed, projections into their future as language users (V. Cook, 2002) do not seem to come naturally to learners, as shown by the degree of uncertainty displayed by beginners.

For an SLA researcher, the overall lack of variation in respondents’ takes on their final attainment is intriguing, too. For one, it is noteworthy that the types of experiences that accounted for the bulk of differentiation among learners (extensive authentic experiences, poor final course grades) simultaneously were rare among learners in this study. Although this rarity certainly is a good thing when it comes to low grades (which also accounted for, some may say, justifiable pessimism), it is a pity in terms of contact with NSs or study abroad, variables that were associated with a more positive outlook on the attainment of a variety of features, including pragmatics (situational appropriateness). In terms of beliefs about final attainment, variables that had proven productive in other motivational studies, such as gender (Chavez, in press; Henry, 2009) or motivation (Graham, 2006; Kormos, Kiddle, & Csizer, 2011; Noels et al., 2003)—even in light of the lack of significant differences in aggregate scores between learners in Years 1, 2, and 3, classroom instruction—seemed to make no inroads into learners’ stagnantly generic projections of their Future L2 Selves.

So, what are teachers to do? Ideally, teachers would increase and broaden the language use opportunities that students have inside and outside the classroom, particularly with a view toward the building and joining of available communities. Without a language community, the individual speaker, particularly a nascent learner-speaker, will not be able to form a proper sense of self, either in its present or future incarnations. For learners to be able to think of their Future L2 Selves in concrete and optimistically realistic terms, they need to experience their current L2 Selves against the backdrop and support of a present and perceptible community.

This study strongly suggests that learners need to establish authentic (i.e., purposeful) contact with speakers of the target language. Although results emphasized the positive influence of so-called authentic experiences, that is, contact with NSs or travel abroad, a broader definition of Community may be called for. This study (as reported in Theme 2) suggests that a local community (as compared to a community situated in a German-speaking country) needs to reach the momentum of a certain minimal size before it becomes associated with changes in students’ expectations of their attainment. In other words, teachers need to make a concerted effort to help students build their German-speaking social networks expansively. I would propose that learners can experience themselves as members of a larger community in at least four interlocking ways: (a) with their classmates, as fellow legitimate users of the language; (b) with NSs, resident in the physical or virtual community or abroad, as ambassadors of learners’Possible Selves; (c) with themselves at various stages of language using, reaching into their own future; and (d) with the language itself as an organic, community-supporting medium. However, teachers will need to take on an active role to help their students weave together the disparate resources that already exist into experiences of true community.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Communal (Native Speaker) Norms
  4. Learners’ Future L2 Selves
  5. Method
  6. Results
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. References
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