Motivation as an Important Factor in Chinese Learning

Motivation is crucial for second language learning because without it even the most talented teacher would fail to share their knowledge with students, while highly motivated students can work miracles even with modest abilities. That is why the understanding of what motivation is and how it works can help both teachers and students to use their time in the classroom more effectively and achieve greater results. In this regard, every age has its own motivating factors and whereas the teacher can create an atmosphere of eagerness to get a candy or a good grade in preschoolers, it does not work for middle school students and adults. Another important issue is how much motivation depends on the teacher and whether the teacher is able to influence the motivation of students. The current paper will examine both intrinsic and extrinsic types of motivation and what types of motivation exist in Chinese language learning.

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Every teacher may have witnessed that a student acknowledges that he/she understands that he/she needs to study the language but for some reasons he/she is reluctant in speaking and cannot remember new words. In the study “Motivations, Beliefs, and Chinese Language Learning: A Phenomenological Study in a Canadian University,” Xuping Sun says that motivations in studying Chinese can be singled out as communication with friends and relatives, job opportunities, studying as a cultural interest, travel, and finally heritage and language advantage. Many of these motivations are perceived by Sun as intrinsic. However, in the book Teaching by Principle Douglas H. Brown points out that there is a difference between motivation and orientation and the two should not be confused. Brown writes that a desire to learn a language in order to have better relations within the community is “integrative orientation” and allows an individual to be better integrated in another language-speaking society. Meanwhile, career and educational opportunities are instrumental orientations for a language learner. Thus, Brown emphasizes that when people say what they need a new language for, it stands for the purpose and refers to orientation, whereas “motivation refers to the intensity of one’s impetus to learn”. Therefore, the ultimate goal is irrelevant and the most important issue is how strong the student’s desire to learn is.

Furthermore, Brown explains that the two types of orientation show the context of learning and purpose, as mentioned earlier. Meanwhile, the two types of motivation mean a wide range of “possibilities of intensity of feeling or drive, ranging from deeply internal, self-generated rewards to strong, externally administered rewards from beyond oneself”. Basically, it means that teachers should not reward students other than with a kind word. It topples down the whole system of grading. Students should find their own reward in learning a language. The fact that their knowledge expands should be rewarding enough. Students should engage in class activities not because it will get them a good grade but because they want to practice the language. The emphasis should be placed on “feelings of competence and self-determination”.

In this regard, I think that preschoolers and young children can be taught with the use of a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. To put it better, young children can start learning a language when being attracted by external rewards and then they find that it is pleasant to learn new things and their extrinsic motivation ultimately turns into intrinsic. Learning a language requires discipline and hard work, which especially refers to Chinese, just like any other Asian language with a difficult system of hieroglyphs, the tone system and numerous dialects. Therefore, rewards may come in handy, especially when teaching children. Sometimes children do not want to do homework, and sometimes they are reluctant to fully participate in class. In such cases, a system of rewards will capture their attention and will allow them to do what they are told just to stay on the level with the rest of children.

However, the teacher should remember that sometimes students do something only to avoid punishment, such as a low mark, or because they want to get prizes or other positive feedbacks that the teacher offers. In this regard, for those who have developed a strong intrinsic motivation, the teacher’s praise can be a highest reward and it is intrinsic because the student gets their reward through the acknowledgement of their progress proclaimed in front of the others. At the same time, one should remember that the two types of motivation do not necessarily intensify each other. Brown refers to the experiments on a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations and reports that when in the middle of doing a fascinating puzzle the students were informed about a reward, the speed slowed and the students started making mistakes. In another example, the first group of teenage girls was given a task to teach young children new games with no promise of a reward, while the second group with an identical task was said that they would be rewarded with free movie tickets. As a result, the second group came second and reported less pleasure in performing their task. Therefore, concerning children, even at the initial stage extrinsic motivation may be unnecessary because children are eager to study without any extrinsic rewards.

I agree that at some stage it can be difficult to develop intrinsic motivation because an individual may see how much they should learn and they will feel discouraged. Many educators are aware that incongruity and imbalance can be a powerful motivating factor. Human brain is constructed in such a way that it can be inspired by imbalance and be willing to correct it. It can serve as a driving force for education. One sees the other’s imperfection and is motivated to straighten it. However, Brown remarks that it should be “optimal incongruity” because if the imbalance is too significant, it stops being a challenge and becomes an unavoidable problem that no one will be brave enough to tackle. Therefore, it can be useful for students if their Chinese teacher is able to help them take off mental blocks that they may have developed because they know that Chinese is difficult and it takes many years to learn it.  

Obviously motivation is not the only component necessary for language mastery. However, it is obvious that students need some degree of autonomy in the classroom and then their motivation may be higher. For example, one of motivation theories is the self-control theory that says that when students are able to make their own choices they get more motivated to continue. If students are allowed more freedom in classroom, they can navigate the context of their learning. If they automatically do what they are told, motivation is reduced. Simply speaking, students may not know or forget why they learn the language. But if they are somewhat autonomous, they feel more in control and they realize that they will really benefit from what they do and it is not a waste of time.

The problem of schools and language courses is that usually they follow a rigid curriculum. Students feel motivated when they see that they will be able to use this knowledge in their everyday life. Therefore, if students are reluctant to study the factory vocabulary, it would be great if the teacher could agree and go along with their demands and suggest them to learn pop music terms or cinema vocabulary or something that is more valid for young students and more relevant for their everyday life. After all, they learn Chinese in order to use it in communication, work environment and while travelling. Chinese is not a dead language like Esperanto or Latin that is needed only in writing and is ascribed to a narrow range of topics.

I believe that it is normal for teachers to be engaged in negotiations with students regarding the content of the language course. In the study “Motivating Chinese Students by Fostering Learner Autonomy in Language Learning,” Zejun Ma and Ruixue Ma suggest to involve students into negotiations to find out what they need the most in Chinease learning. The autonomous students will feel very liberated and motivated. In this respect, assessment and methodology will remain the same because it would require an educational reform to change all that needs to be changed in education. Additionally, Chinese as a second language is a much regulated subject and every school has a pre-determined plan. Therefore, the teacher has to navigate between the state requirements and their desire to motivate students. It seems to me that the very fact that students realize that they can have their say in Chinese learning will set their mind in motion and they will have to think about it in order to come up with their own ideas. It can be very stimulating for students’ thinking because even if little is changed in the way their classes are held, students may feel empowered to do more at home and find other ways to talk about the topic they choose.

Overall, motivation is an integral part of Chinese language learning and both teachers and students should work in order to keep their intrinsic motivation high. As for teachers, it is their responsibility to do their part and provide some autonomy to students for them to feel more motivated. In any case, it is very beneficial for teachers to be flexible and open-minded. In this case, students will be able to negotiate and propose their ideas and the teacher will see how rewarding this collaboration can be and how fast students start learning the language once they feel that they are heard.

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