Anyone who has ever tried to learn a new language will almost certainly agree that it is a long and daunting task. Students from a Linguistics class at Cedarville University were granted only four months to accomplish this intimidating mission. Over the course of a semester, they attempted to learn a new language and documented their efforts in essay responses. Some of the students found benefit to this assignment, while many felt that their language acquisition attempts were unsuccessful. When their essay responses were analyzed, it became clear that each language-learning experience will be unique and different. This essay analyzes the students’ essay responses and seeks to find pattern in the many attitudes, pitfalls, useful practices, and benefits experienced during their language acquisition processes.
One of the most important factors during any language acquisition process is one’s attitude and motivation for learning this new language. Oftentimes, the person learning this new language is interested in the country and the culture that is associated with it, but not always fully driven to learn the new language. Learning a new language is no easy task, and lack of proper motivation makes this task even harder. In their reflection essays, many of the students propose that they did not successfully learn the new language as much as they would have liked. A lack of motivation is the most commonly cited reason for the students’ failure. For example, in essay 10, the student promotes the idea that “…it is easier for someone to learn a language out of necessity than for leisure. Whether it be the person is submerged in a culture and needs to understand the language to go about daily life, or the person is planning on going into a culture of different language, both are equally more motivated than a person who is not planning on using the language they wish to learn.” This idea is supported by every one of the reflection essays analyzed. While the students had a desire to learn a new language, they simply did not have the right attitude and motivation to learn it due to the lack of necessity. Many of the students also complained that they did not have enough time to learn the language because of their busy schedules. These students felt pressured into learning the new language and, in result, lost much of their motivation to continue the learning process. Ultimately, many of the students approached this assignment by choosing a language that they simply had a small interest in. In essay 12, the student states, “I think that the only problem that I had issue with was because I lacked the motivation to learn it and wasn’t as devoted to learning it as I could or should have been… Although I like the language, I do not plan on ever visiting a country that speaks Portuguese.” Although many of the students expressed an interest in a new language and the culture accompanying this language, they did not have the right attitude and motivation to fully acquire this new language.
All language acquisition methods will have their pitfalls. As previously stated, negative attitudes and lack of motivation seem to be the largest pitfalls to language acquisition. Another pitfall experienced by the students was the difficulty of learning individually. In five out of the six essays, the authors mention the difficulty of learning a language without a teacher or learning group. The author of essay 10 states, “It’s… hard when you’re not being taught the language but must teach yourself.” This student goes on to explain how he or she had an instructor for their entire experience in public school and was not used to learning in an isolated environment. “I grew up in public schools all of my life, and my teachers would teach me all the information, and if I didn’t understand it, I would ask them for help.” One of the students who felt the most successful about their experience was the student who wrote essay 9; one reason that this student felt so successful was because someone in the student’s learning group was more experienced with the German language and helped along the way. This student says, “While German was frustrating, it became easier as LL became my teacher.… We made the experience more positive and beneficial for me by making LL a kind of teacher for me.” This student saw the benefit in having a tutor when learning a new language. Many of the other students, however, did not find a tutor and experienced difficulty as a result. It is clear from the students’ essay responses that the difficulty of learning in an isolated environment is a definite pitfall during language acquisition.
Despite pitfalls, the students discovered useful practices to aid them in the learning process. The writer of essay 13 says, “I had developed a systematic way of learning language because I had taken the methods that I had usd to learn Spanish and applied them to learning French.” This student knew what methods were beneficial in the language acquisition process and was able to use that knowledge to enhance the language-learning experience. As this student discovered, a proper understanding of one’s unique learning style is necessary for success. In addition to discovering one’s personal learning style, one of the most useful practices used by the students was group learning. As mentioned previously, one of the biggest pitfalls experienced by the students was the difficulty of learning in an isolated environment. The author of essay 9 combated this difficulty by effectively meeting with a small group. The author says, “A big part of our success… came from the accountability of the meet-ups.” The authors who met with groups regularly and had accountability during the learning process felt more successful learning their chosen language, as opposed to those who didn’t meet regularly. Another useful practice discovered by the students was incorporating the correct type of motivation into their study. The author of essay 13 describes the two types of motivations: integrative motivation and instrumental motivation. The student says, “Integrative motivation is the motivation that results from the learner wanting to incorporate himself or herself into the language’s community or culture and comes simply out of the desire to learn more about the language and culture.” This is the type of motivation that will provide the greatest drive for a learner to be successful. In this particular instance, integrative motivation is, essentially, wanting to learn the language for the sake of gaining the knowledge and using it in the future. The author then continues to describe the second type of motivation: “instrumental motivation, which results from wanting to learn a language in order to get some sort of practical benefit from it, such as getting a higher salary or fulfilling an academic requirement.” Neither of these motivations are necessarily bad. The author of essay 13 even states that he or she had both types of motivation. However, integrative motivation will drive one to learn for the sake of gaining practical knowledge and accomplishing something useful, while instrumental motivation largely lacks the drive to learn and stems from simply wanting a benefit. The students all agreed that, even if they had both types of motivation, the instrumental motivation was usually stronger than the integrative motivation, causing them to not be as successful as they could have been. Students generally experienced more success in their efforts if they incorporated the useful practice of seeking to have more integrative motivation.
While many of the students experienced failure, the also experienced various benefits from their experience. The author of essay 10 states, “I was not successful in my attempt to learn the Russian language due to my lack of motivation, but I did learn some things about the Russian language in the process.” All of the papers had a similar ring to them with failure in the forefront and benefits finishing last, but nonetheless, each student admits that they gained beneficial knowledge in some area despite their failures. For example, in essay 10, the benefits may not have outweighed the failure, but there were, nonetheless, still benefits. The student still knows more now about Russian language than he or she did before, which is quite a benefit. The author of essay 9 describes some of the benefits of this experience by saying, “overall the experience was very eye-opening and I feel like I learned more about the process of how someone acquires a language as a second language.” This student took on the daunting task of learning German and felt as if he or she failed. However, this student grew through the task. This experience became more beneficial when the student made his or her partner LL more of a teacher than a peer, or when the student realized the amount of work that goes into learning a new language. A similar situation occurs in essay 12, where the student discusses how learning another language was a good experience, because it revealed that learning another language wasn’t impossible. This student found benefits in growing closer to women in her unit who were also trying to learn Portuguese. In particular, there was one essay where the benefits most outshined the negative aspects: essay 13. A positive vibe flows through this essay with success thick in every line: “I was able not only to dive into the Russian language but also learn a little about the language’s rich culture and its people as well.” The benefits of learning a language are not limited to simply learning the vocabulary words and rules of grammar: rather, learning a language opens one up to new experiences such as learning about another culture or expanding one’s view of the world. It is clear from the students’ essays that, no matter how their experiences turned out, there were indeed positive benefits that bloomed from the experience of learning a new language.
Language is necessary for life. These students took on the task of learning a new language to gain a new experience and expand their repertoire of communication. Each student that undertook this task experienced different attitudes, encountered pitfalls, applied useful practices, and uncovered benefits to get to their intended destination. Some students felt empowered through their attempts while others felt defeated, but each student undoubtedly came out of the experience with something unexpected yet valuable: a new perspective on a new language.