The M that trumps your method, materials, & madness
Shall we talk labor and delivery a moment?
I suspect I have your attention! No worries, I’m not going to get gross. I don’t think so, anyway. But you will get to know me a little bit better.
When I was pregnant with my third child, some family friends were visiting, a couple and their 17-year-old son. The subject of the upcoming birth came up and as 17-year-old boys are so knowledgable about this sort of thing, he made an offhand comment about drugs (the pain-relieving kind) and childbirth. I mentioned that I was planning to have another natural childbirth and well, we had to explain a bit about what “natural” actually means in the context of childbirth. He asked the burning question that came to his mind:
But, why? Why would you do something like that if you don’t have to?
There are lots of answers to that question but if you really want to discuss it, there are other forums for you to do so. (Or, you could email me if you really want to.) Usually, though, the underlying answer is simple: Because I want to. I told this young man,
People run marathons all the time, and that’s no picnic in the park. It hurts. So why do they do it? Because they find the process and the result more rewarding than the pain and effort.
He stopped and thought and acknowledged the point. People do put themselves through pain or a lot of effort pretty frequently, on purpose, simply because they want something from the process or the result. It’s all about motivation.
Except, perhaps it’s not. Someone tweeted a link to me recently, an article in which famed input-hypothesis researcher Stephen Krashen announces “the end of motivation as a relevant factor in language acquisition.” I was stunned. I’ll admit that my admiration of Krashen has been steadily declining for years. On the one hand, no one could overstate his importance as perhaps the single researcher who most forcefully impacted the direction of world language teaching in the past forty years. The last time I saw him speak in person, he had been wrapping up some important research on pleasure reading and the results and implications were intriguing and enormous. Between that and his usual demonstration of how he can get you to understand some German in 2 minutes, everyone in the room was spellbound. But on the other hand, even then, he asked the big question that should have been in everyone’s mind – how can we possibly replicate language acquisition in the classroom when we don’t have the time? – and answered, well, that he didn’t have an answer.
I’ve had the sharpening, thought-provoking privilege of interacting with Krashen a couple of times since then, and each time I thought, no, he truly thinks he can generalize X research (insert a highly specific case study here) that has nothing to do with a language teaching situation and apply it to language teaching. And then I read what he wrote about motivation and I couldn’t swallow a line of it. Spectacularly, he repeatedly uses the phrase “our students” while spinning his announcement around two boys who, where I am, do not reflect our students in almost any way.
So my head has been spinning with questions. I mean, I can’t overstate the influence Krashen had in the total professional revolution that was my graduate school experience.
But what do I do with my other favorite researchers who show that purely extrinsic motivation hinders education but there’s almost no stopping what a kid will do when she is intrinsically motivated through autonomy, mastery, and purpose?
What about the forty years of research on how motivation actually affects language learning, where whether motivation affects language learning is not even a question?
Can you hear my stunned disbelief? The ripples of my shock bouncing off the research from everyone and their brother and sister that says that motivation is perhaps the key factor in predicting L2 success from issues like whether students will ever continue in the language (not a big question that faces us at all, right) down to whether or not their very pronunciation will improve?!
I mean, what does Krashen say when he sits in a room with Dörnyei? With Gardner?
Who’s right? Is Krashen right and motivation has no effect on whether people acquire language, it’s all input? Am I right and motivation is the most important factor in student success, bar none? I’m certainly nowhere near as educated and experienced as Krashen in the field, right? How dare I even compare my opinion to his, right? I mean, doesn’t he have an army of student researchers at his beck and call while the time I used to spend reading research for fun is now spent baking fish sticks and singing ABC’s (also fun)? Does this seem so very crazy to me because in my shadowed ignorance I’m just completely missing something? Am I missing some obvious sarcasm since it seems to me that his whole brief essay is really about motivation after all? I mean, isn’t the claim that we need to make the message more compelling just another message that we need to access motivation?
Perhaps we’re both right. Perhaps the answer is that Krashen is just narrowly focused on pure acquisition as it can be defined the first time around, and doesn’t actually care how we can access this sort of brain process in a classroom. Or perhaps it’s that he is talking about motivation and just talking around it at the same time. Steve wondered with me,
I wonder if the simplicity of his message is what makes it appealing. Is it too “clean”?
(You will learn a lot in a hurry by reading Steve’s post on theory underpinning language and acquisition, the whole series really.)
Yes, perhaps it is the simplicity of Krashen’s message that attracts us, that still has state and regional language teaching associations calling him up as the keynote speaker. We want an easy answer. But it is the simplicity of his answers that make them difficult to accept in the mess that is second language learning in the classroom. Perhaps if I thought we could ever even come close to reproducing first language acquisition in the classroom, the simple message would mean more to me. But there’s no chance. We can’t.
In case I haven’t communicated to you a clear enough picture of the muddy mess that motivation in second language acquisition can be, check out Matt’s posts on motivation and the comments on them by his readers.
Whether your methods include grammar drills, vocab lists, or goofy stories; whether your materials include Realidades or Sing, Dance, Laugh & eat Tacos or Kahoot!; whether a particularly disrespectful group of immature freshmen is driving you to madness, let me propose that the m that trumps them all is motivation. Because while whether or not they actually acquire anything in this week’s lessons is important, whether or not they are doing something communicative with it ten years from now is a much messier question:
Do they want to?