Critical Factors in the Broader Sociocultural Context

As our discussion in the preceding sections has highlighted, focusing on learners’ own cognitions and emotions in how they process negative learning experiences is important for understanding why some learners may succumb to demotivation while others may remain relatively resilient. Furthermore, as we have seen, this theoretical focus on learners’ cognitions in relation to demotivation is important for understanding how to design supportive pedagogical interventions to facilitate adaptive thinking and the internal capacity for remotivation. Returning to the question we posed earlier (Section 6.1) about whether the factors that trigger demotivation are always external to the learner, we can appreciate that the situation is rather more complex and nuanced than this, since learner-internal factors play a significant role too in whether demotivation is felt or not, and whether it is short-lived or not.

From a pedagogical and educational perspective, however, one can argue that there may be ethical concerns in partly locating the causes of student demotivation or disaffection internally - that is, in effect laying the blame to some extent on language learners themselves. This was the position taken by Terry Lamb (2009) over a decade ago, who maintained that we need to adopt instead a critical perspective in which the education system, rather than the students, should be viewed as the problem. Conceptualising disaffection as a “search for a voice in the context of disenfranchisement” (p. 68), Lamb discussed focus group data from motivated and demotivated young teenage language learners in a northern English school, who voiced a desire to be able to exercise choices about their learning and who talked openly about issues of control, power and responsibility in their relations with their teachers. Drawing on these learners’ voices, Lamb presented the case for developing participatory classroom structures through which learners can express their opinions and be heard as well as negotiate and compromise; through which they can resist the imposition of learning which is not perceived to be relevant or where the relevance is not made clear; and through which they can articulate appropriate and viable learning alternatives.



I take the position that locating the problem of poor motivation in learners themselves is socially unjust. Blaming the learners or their families for underachievement or lack of motivation is problematic, especially given the differential levels of achievement and engagement between children of different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. ... Rejection of such deficit theories leads to a more critical perspective, in which the education system itself (curriculum, structures, etc.) is construed as the problem, clearly failing particular sections of the population.

Lamb (2009, pp. 67-68)

Lamb developed his argument in the context of secondary education in England, a context where issues of declining motivation for learning foreign languages were, and continue to be, especially acute (e.g. Lanvers, 2017; Lanvers & Chambers, 2019; Tinsley, 2018). While part of the problem may reside in the educational system and structures as Lamb suggested, it is also likely that we need to look further afield to the attitudes, discourses and ideologies that prevail in the wider sociocultural context, and that may impact negatively on students’ motivation to learn foreign languages. This argument was put forward by Coleman (2009) in his incisive critique of why the British do not learn foreign languages, in which he drew explicit connections between school pupils’ declining motivation for foreign language learning and the discourses of British insularity, monolingualism and anti-Europeanism that were increasingly pervading political debate and policy-making as well as the popular print and broadcast media in the UK ten years ago. A decade later, in our current socio-political climate shaped by Brexit as well as voices representing anti-immigration and anti-globalisation, the negative discourses and ideologies have become even more pronounced, and have been linked to a further marked decline in young people’s motivation to learn languages in the UK (Tinsley &

Dolezal, 2018). Similarly in the United States, as Thompson (2017) discusses, the motivation to learn Spanish (the mostly commonly studied LOTE in the US context) has become subjected to increasingly negative discourses and ideologies for a number of reasons.

However, despite the non-supportive socio-political culture in many countries, not everyone will necessarily experience a decline in their motivation to learn foreign languages (especially non-global ones). In the UK educational context, as Coffey (2018) and Lanvers, Doughty and Thompson (2018) critically highlight, the upward or downward direction that language learning motivation takes may also interact with students’ social class or socio-economic status. Essentially, children from independent (i.e. fee-paying) schools are more likely to choose to study foreign languages beyond the age of 14 (when foreign languages cease to be compulsory in England) than those from state-funded schools, and especially from schools where a high proportion of children are entitled to free school meals (which is identified as a measure of social deprivation). As Lanvers and her colleagues discuss, this socially marked difference in children’s uptake of foreign languages can be attributed not only to differences in resource and opportunity (e.g. for travel, study abroad, intercultural experiences), but also to important differences in the value systems into which they are socialised. Using a Bourdieuan framework, they explain how “language skills are dominantly valued (as cultural, social, and economic capital) by privileged minorities” (p. 780); in contrast, children from lower socio-economic backgrounds, who have less exposure to the values of language learning that go beyond the merely instrumental, “are encultured into a monolingual mindset or habitus” (ibid). In this respect, as Coffey (2018) emphasises, beliefs about the value of language learning are highly situated, formed and reproduced in the local realities and culture through which young people are socialised. For those encultured into a monolingual mindset or habitus, wider socio-political or media discourses promoting nationalistic sentiments or devaluing the need for learning foreign languages in a world where English dominates may thus resonate strongly and be more likely to accelerate the decline in motivation to engage with L2 learning.

As Lanvers, Doughty and Thompson (2018, p. 788) comment, this “stark social segregation in language learning” constitutes a particular challenge for language education in the UK context. Yet in language learning contexts in other parts of the world too, we see growing critical discussion of a social divide between “elite” forms of elective bilingualism and multilingualism among the more privileged sectors of society, and “non-elite” or “grassroots” multilingualism among the more socially disadvantaged or marginalised sectors (e.g. Barakos &. Selleck, 2019; Ortega, 2019; Stavans &. Hoffman, 2015). In this respect, an important implication for researching, theorising and addressing demotivation in language learning must be to take into critical account these wider social perspectives that may impinge on how language learners from different sectors of society respond to negative experiences and setbacks in their motivational journey.

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