Discussion

One of our goals in this study was to uncover the criteria language learners develop in defining their ideal language learner. Results show that Chong and Fan focus on what a learner is capable of doing with the language, such as communicating in the target language without difficulty or giving correct answers in structural exercises; Pu, on the other hand, focuses on what a learner should do to learn, such as setting up a learning project and learning goals for oneself. Both of these criteria make sense, but since learning takes place in the target language environment, particular capacities of planning to learn and use the language in various communication situations may be more important than doing exercises in a language course. Furthermore, the view of the ideal language learner can affect learners' learning behaviour. This idea has found support in the examples of the interviewees' out-of-class learning activities.

Chong believes that a good language learner is someone who is competent in communication, and she actually uses authentic learning resources in order to increase her listening and reading skills and tries to develop contact with French people. These activities help her to become a competent communicator in French; she is also satisfied by the learning outcomes. On the other hand, Fan believes that a good language learner is someone who is good at doing language exercises. This view is confirmed by his use of conventional school-like learning strategies and resources in his out-of-class learning activities, such as memorising vocabulary and reading grammar book, and the fact that he does not engage in contact with French people. These strategies do not seem to make him progress much in his learning. Unlike Chong and Fan, Pu believes that a good language learner is someone who has a learning project and learning goals. Pu's goal is to acquire the knowledge required for his college major, and the mastery of French helps him to achieve this goal. At the same time, Pu learns French through his university courses; thus, his goals and his actual practice positively affect each other.

Wondering whether there are helpful or unhelpful representations of 'good' language learning, we are tempted to answer 'yes.' We were interested in the interviewees' motivations for learning French. The results show that Chong and Pu, who are satisfied with their performance in French, are motivated by the perception of usefulness of the French language in their university courses and by future job hunting, while Fan, who is not satisfied by his performance in French, does not display this type of motivation. We think that the perception of performance and learning motivations influence each other: good performance reinforces the learner's motivation; conversely, being motivated favours effort, which may lead to good performance, as schematised in the upper part of Figure 3.1.

In this first diagram, the learner has a learning intention at the beginning of the cycle; this intention is the expectation of success in language learning. During the process of learning, the learner (1) holds a positive attitude towards the target language or language learning, (2) is engaged in his/her learning and (3) perceives good performance in the target language. Chong and Pu match this description. The crucial point in the diagram is that there is no specific order among those positive attitude, effort and good performance; in other words, each element may constitute a learning motive or an entrance to learning. However, we think that all of them must be present at each stage of this virtuous circle to improve linguistic and communicative competence in the target language.

Otherwise, language learning may turn into a vicious circle, which is described by the lower part of Figure 3.1. In this diagram, learning intention is low because of negative attitudes, lack of effort, as well as perceived poor performance, so the learner stops acquiring linguistic

Dynamics of language learning in a successful/failing perspective and communicative competence

Figure 3.1 Dynamics of language learning in a successful/failing perspective and communicative competence. The starting point of this circle is also the learning intention, or the projection of a succeeding self. At this stage, the learner is supposed to start learning with some degree of positive attitude, willingness to make an effort, and expectations for some successful outcomes. But as difficulties appear during the learning process, the value of these elements will reverse: the learner will have the impression that his/her French language proficiency is decreasing and, as a result, dissatisfaction and feelings of failure will emerge; moments of discouragement will lead to a loss of effort. In our study, Fan represents this case.

Another aspect dealt with in this study concerns individual differences in language learning and learner autonomy, in the sense of taking responsibility for one's learning. Chong and Pu consider themselves as being autonomous learners, a capacity which has helped them in learning French; in contrast, Fan feels passive about learning French, which impedes his language development. The notion of autonomous learning was also explored by the appreciation of the role of the teacher in learning. Chong and Pu highlighted the importance of the teacher at the beginning of their learning, but this importance disappears with their progress in the language, whereas Fan always needs the teacher's assistance to learn or at least to get to work and make the necessary efforts.

Finally, examples drawn from our study indicate that the sense of being efficient in the French language and the feeling of success/failure at learning French seem to determine the interviewees' satisfaction with their life in France and their desire to learn the language in the future. In other words, learners' well-being and expectations, especially in relation to what they intend to do with in their learning, are constructed by how they see themselves in the present and in the future.

Another interesting and unexpected finding in this research is the reference to proverbs used by the interviewees to express their feelings and opinions about learning. In this case, the proverb most cited 'the master teaches the trade, but the apprentice's skill is self-made AAA)' outlines the greater responsibility of the learner over the teacher in the learning process, which is congruent with Chong's and Pu's learning behaviours, but not with Fan's, who also cites this proverb, while at the same time expressing his need for a teacher. By using these proverbs to put their experience into words, our three Chinese students provide an insight into some underlying cultural structures and norms in the field of language teaching and learning. These beliefs may influence their actual behaviour during the learning process, as suggested by various studies on metaphor in language teaching and learning (Cortazzi & Jin, 1999).

Throughout the analysis of our interview data, we became aware of the limits of our study. First, we questioned some Chinese language learners about their feeling of success or failure in the learning of French, but this feeling is difficult to determine, because it is dynamic and changeable. The feelings expressed by the interviewees at the moment of the interviews cannot be generalised to all the periods of learning, which are composed both of positive and negative emotions. Second, among the questions that we asked during the interviews, there were only 'what-questions' and 'do-questions'. We did not use 'why- questions.' Consequently, we obtained answers about what the interviewees believe and probably do, but not about the reasons for these beliefs and actions. Third, the answers that we obtained in the interviews are perhaps the results of a co-constructed discourse by the interviewees and the researcher. In research interviews, there is always a possibility that the researcher's discourse and reactions influence the interviewees.

 
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