Student Motivation, Parental Attitudes, and Involvement in the Learning of Asian Languages in Elementary and Secondary Schools


Instrumental/Integrative Motivation

What emerged clearly from the analyses is the fact that female students at both the elementary and secondary levels reported greater integrative/instrumental motivation to learn Asian languages than did their male counterparts.

Ethnic Heritage-Related Motivation and Parental Involvement

An interesting feature of foreign language classes is that students may select a particular language for study because it is their ancestral language. However, little research has been conducted to establish the role that ethnic heritage-related motives play in studying a foreign language in school. Our results show that elementary school students had significantly higher scores on the "Ethnic Heritage-Related Motivation" scale than did high school students in either the Chinese or Japanese language programs. Further, students in the Chinese programs scored higher on this variable than did students in the Japanese programs. However, this finding is likely attributable to the fact that there were many more students of Chinese ethnic descent (61.2%) than students of Japanese ethnic descent (26.8%). It is perhaps not surprising to note the further finding that ethnic (Chinese or Japanese) students in both language programs reported more ethnic heritage-related motivation than non ethnic students.

It is also interesting to note that ethnic heritage-related motivation was higher among elementary than among high school students. We interpret this finding to mean that an ancestral language as communicated by parents to children was given greater importance in the younger children's rationale for why they study either Chinese or Japanese than was true for the older learners. This is also likely a result of the fact that parents and students reported greater parental participation in the foreign language study of elementary school age respondents. An important consideration that puts this finding into perspective is that the elementary schools studied were magnet schools rather than neighborhood public schools. Thus, most parents who elected to enroll their child in an elementary language program did so consciously and with the understanding that such a school placement might make extra demands on their time. On the other hand, only one of the six high schools in this study was a foreign language magnet program.

Our findings suggest the importance of parental involvement for student motivation in learning Asian languages at the elementary school level, especially by ethnic parents. Motivation is also fostered by the students' interest in learning their ancestral language. Parental encouragement to learn either a foreign language (Gardner, 1985) or an ancestral language (Baker, 1992) has been acknowledged in the literature, but the influences of grade level and language type are new considerations. Unfortunately, we had no information regarding elementary students enrolled in Korean language classes. However, among our high school sample, the vast majority of students in Korean classes were of Korean descent and reported strong parental involvement.

Personal Interest-Related Motivation

In addition to reasons involving ancestral language motivation, students often reported other personal reasons for studying a foreign language (e.g., wanting to go to a foreign country as a "study abroad" student). Gender played a role, as female students scored significantly higher than male students on the "Personal Interests-Related Motivation" subscale. In addition, students in the Japanese language programs reported that they were more motivated by personal interests to learn Japanese than were students studying Chinese or Korean. This fact is interesting to note in light of the large number of non ethnic Japanese students learning this language. However, it is not clear why this pattern of gender and language program type difference would appear in our findings on "personal" motives for studying Japanese. It may in part reflect female students' greater overall interest in foreign language study and American students' greater accessibility to Japan and the Japanese people than to China or Korea and their inhabitants. More research is needed in order to understand the personal factor in second language learning.

Beginning- versus Advanced-Level Instruction

We examined the question of whether the number of years of high school instruction influenced students' motivation to learn a foreign language by dividing students into beginning-level (first and second year) and advanced-level (third and fourth year) students. As reported, advanced-level students scored significantly higher in instrumental/integrative motivation to learn a foreign language than did beginning-level students. Although there were interesting interaction effects between language level and program type, the fact remains that, in general, the longer students study a foreign language, the more motivated they appear to be.

The preceding finding leads us to ask whether student persistence in advanced foreign language study occurs because these students have a stronger motivation to learn the language in the first place or whether motivation increases with advanced study. We could speculate on one or two possibilities: (a) students who enroll in advanced foreign language classes enter high school with a level of motivation that is already very high; or (b) students enrolled in advanced classes show increased motivation because they are doing well, which reinforces their interest in foreign language study. In addition to these possible explanations, our data show that the factor of ethnic heritage must also be considered when examining differences in motivation between beginning- and advanced-level students in foreign language programs. Although there is no way to determine which of our explanations is the more plausible or how they might interact with ethnic heritage students learning their ancestral language, they are worth pursuing in future research on less commonly taught languages.

Gender Differences

The importance of gender differences in motivation to learn less commonly taught languages requires additional study for several reasons. Our analyses consistently revealed that female students at both the elementary and secondary levels and across the different language program types reported higher motivation to learn a language than did their male counterparts. Although similar gender differences have been reported previously (e.g., Baker, 1992; Burstall, 1975; Gardner, 1985; Samimy & Tabuse, 1992), the differences have not been nearly as enduring as in the present study.

We do not know whether the gender difference can be attributed to a type of socialization that predisposes females to have a positive attitude toward languages or to the fact that all of the teachers in the various foreign language programs included in this study are female. We are inclined to believe that the advantage of female students in motivation to learn a new language has more to do with gender role modeling than with any female predisposition to learning languages. This is possibly supported by the related finding that there was no gender difference between fathers' and mothers' attitudes toward foreign language study. However, there is a paradox regarding any gender differences that needs to be addressed here. That is, more male students were enrolled in high school Japanese classes than were female students. This pattern of greater male enrollment in Asian language (especially Japanese) classes at the high school level has also been reported by Moore et al. (1992) and by the California Basic Education Data System (1996). Why females demonstrate greater motivation but lower enrollment patterns than males in less commonly taught languages is a question in need of further study.

Parents' Attitudes toward and Involvement in Foreign Language Study

Finally, parents on the whole demonstrated positive attitudes toward their children's foreign language study. This finding is encouraging because it was coupled with strong student perceptions of parental involvement, especially at the elementary school level, in the Japanese language program, and by female children. Further, unlike the gender differences that emerged with student respondents, there was no difference between mothers and fathers on their attitudes toward or their involvement in their children's foreign language study. Our findings suggest that language educators of less commonly taught languages need to find ways to incorporate parents into the instruction of their children. Many of the parents discussed in this study are native speakers of the languages and, consequently, have the potential of adding an important dimension to schools' foreign language programs if ways can be found to involve them.

In summary, our findings are important for the information that they provide regarding how Asian languages are perceived by students and their parents. As we continue to see an increase in the enrollment of students in Asian languages in our schools, it is important that we understand the motivation that students have for enrolling and continuing in Asian language programs. It is generally acknowledged that Asian languages are more difficult for English speakers to acquire than are European languages. If we hope to increase the numbers of U.S. students capable of communicating effectively in Asian languages, then we must orient our language instruction toward students' personal reasons for learning these languages (Brecht & Walton, 1993). This rationale goes beyond language pedagogy and addresses concerns of intrinsic motivation and the need for greater numbers of people ready to engage in communication using the languages of Asia.


1 The study described in this article was part of a larger project funded by the California State Department of Education for the development of model foreign language programs in less commonly taught languages (Japanese, Chinese, Russian, and Korean). An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 5th International Conference on Cross-Cultural Communication held in Harbin, China, August 1995. The authors would like to thank the following members of the project for their support and cooperation: Juan C. Aninao, Duarte Silva, Elizabeth Mostafapour, and David Duran. We also would like to thank Kathryn J. Lindholm for her careful reading of the earlier manuscript and for her insightful comments.


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