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Psychology Research 02 (2011) 1838—658X
Contents lists available at SEI
Psychology Research
journal homepage:
A Brief Analysis of Psychological Factors in SLA
Qian Chen 
School of Foreign studies, Henan Polytechnic University, Jiaozuo, Henan, P.R.China, 454003
Psychological factors,
Second language acquisition is a very complicated process. Learners are influenced by many
factors, such as the learners' age, linguistics aptitude, individual differences and
psychological factors. This paper analyzed the function of motivation and other
psychological factors in SLA with the theory of linguistic psychology. It also emphasized the
importance of emotion with the Affective Filter Hypothesis of Krashen. Then made
suggestions to help teachers teaching and form learners' interest in the learning process, and
enhance the learners' SLA level.
The second language acquisition (SLA) usually refers to any other language learning after native language acquisition. As an
independent discipline, Second language acquisition research probably formed in early 1970s in 20th centuries. It focuses on features
and changes during the development of SLA, the common features and individual differences of SLA learners, and analyzes the
internal and external factors in the process of SLA. Generally speaking, it is for the systematically explores of the essence and the
procedure of SLA, and to explain how to obtain a second language and how learners can get a second language. So far, the SLA
research includes linguistics, psychology, psychological linguistics, pragmatics, social linguistics, etc.
1 Different Factors in SLA
SLA is an extremely complex process. Learners are easily influenced by many factors while learning a second language, as well as
age, cognition, language, society, environment, etc. Learners’ individual differences have been a hot topic among linguists in recent
years, various factors are proposed by different schools of linguistics. Because of individual differences, personal emotions, cognition,
physiological aspects, and living environment, learners achieve to different levels after a period of study. In the learning process,
various factors interact with each other. One change is likely to affect other factors, which directly affects learners’ SLA level. Thus,
both the social factors and the psychological factors must be involved, to create a favorable environment of SLA.
Among the factors mentioned above, the psychological factors are very important. Learners are influenced by motivation, attitude
and emotion and restraints inevitably. Here, according to the general teaching experience, try to analyze the psychological factors of
motivation, attitude and emotion in a simple way.
2 Psychological Factors in SLA
Corresponding author.
E-mail: [email protected]
English edition copyright © ST. PLUM-BLOSSOM PRESS PTY LTD
DOI: 10. 5503/J. PR. 2011.02.008
2.1 Motivation
Motivation is an internal process to inspire people to meet their needs. Jakobovits’ research shows the percentage in SLA: motivation
accounts for 33 %, aptitude accounts for 33 %, intelligence accounts for 20, and the other factors accounts for 14 % [1]. Therefore,
motivation has been regarded as the key to teaching. It is impossible to achieve the desired results if learners’ motivation cannot be
inspired. The classification of motivation is various because of the different linguistics schools. The most influential experts are
Lambert and Gardner. They classified motivation into two kinds, namely “integrative motivation" and "instrumental motivation".
According to their definitions, learners with integrative motivation have a real or a special interest in the target language. They wish
they can communicate with people who use the target language, expect to participate in social activities organized by those people,
even become members of them. Learners with instrumental motivation have particular purposes, to get a job to improve their social
status by passing some qualification test, or in order to acquire new information of the target language countries by reading science
and technology literature, etc [2].
Before that the instrumental motivation is the main orientation for most of the second language learners. Students rarely have the
opportunity to communicate with foreigners, and the original foreign languages materials are electronic video publications. But with
the quickening pace of globalization, China's comprehensive national power strengthened. Lots of international conferences held in
China, in addition, the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo proved the increasing international
exchanges. Thus the emphasis of SLA study is turning into the integrative motivation and learners’ facility. So in the SLA process,
teaching groups shall change their ideas, emphasize their guiding status and student's subjective role, cultivate students' active
learning ability vigorously. Change the learning motivation into integrative motivation to increase learners’ knowledge and improve
their qualification. Furthermore, encourage learners to study according to their own level and interest, and ready to provide
consultation when learners choose their learning material or reading books, newspapers and magazines. This is helpful to cultivate
learners' interest and strengthen internal learning motivation and thus cultivate the integrative motivation.
Another famous motivation category is "intrinsic motivation" and "extrinsic motivation"[3]. The former generate the joy and
satisfaction from language learning activity itself, it does not require external conditions or participation. The latter is caused by the
external activities and to promote the power of learning but not learning activity itself. In the long-term of the SLA process, intrinsic
motivation and extrinsic motivation are necessary; both of them interact with each other and may change into each other. In SLA,
interest, expectation and satisfaction are intrinsic motivation. Interest refers to curiosity and passion which make learners to get
experience from the target language. Expectation refers to success and failure desired in the process of SLA. Satisfaction refers to
external rewards, like praise or high grades, and relevant emotions such as joy, self-esteem. Characteristics of Extrinsic motivation
are mainly embodied in the will of selection and engagement in SLA, the insistence and the effectiveness of SLA, namely, whether
learners can insist in a higher level of activity.
2.2 Attitude
Language attitude means speakers of different language or language variants hold various attitudes toward their native language or
other languages. To society and individuals, the position and the importance of language comes from the attitude people treat this
language. Although attitude is just a kind of psychological condition, but it do affect human language learning. The second language
learning attitude refers to learners’ cognition, emotion, behavior in the learning tendency. Attitude is usually includes three parts:
cognition composition, that for the faith in the target language. Emotional part, that for the positives and negatives in the target
language. Dynamic composition refers to the intention and action in learning the target language. In the middle of the 20th century,
Gardner and Lambert launched a series of investigations between attitude and the SLA achievement relations with other experts.
Three aspects were involved in the investigation: attitudes toward the target language and people in the target language; attitudes
toward relevant matters to the target language, and attitudes toward language and language learning. Results show that the positive
attitudes help learning SLA by raising the efficiency, Negative attitudes hinder SLA.
Schumann (1978) points out: social distance and psychological distance are the main factors to keep learners making progress.
Negative attitudes will make learners do not wish to contact the target language people and culture, have a low motivation to adapt to
this culture. That makes SLA is not an easy thing, thus anxiety appears. For example, learners who take Russian as a second language,
their attitudes toward Russian changed after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Because Russia and counties which use Russian quit
world dominant position gradually and the economic development slows down, therefore learners lose their interest and change their
attitude. Their negative attitude causes the majority of students lose confidence. Although it is necessary to take it as second language,
learners still perform in a negative way and make less progress.
Different language learners treat the target language, the target language society and culture, and other relevant matters with different
attitudes. Larsen mentioned some important factors that affect learning attitude; they are parents, friends, learning environment,
teachers and ethnic emotions. Ellis (1994) figured out that attitude affect achievements in SLA, and also gets affected by the success
made in the process of SLA. In many cases, attitude and motivation are key measure to predict the success in SLA. We know,
positive attitudes are helpful to learner in SLA and the negative attitudes will hinder it. Therefore teachers should pay attention to
develop learners' positive attitudes, for instance, positive attitudes in the target language culture. Teachers can strengthen cultural
introduction in class, to enhance the mutual understanding, in order to help learners develop positive attitudes. After all, as a
psychological factor, attitude is important to the concrete implementation and final success of SLA.
2.3 Emotion
Emotion is another important psychological factor, language learners inevitably influenced by individual character, anxiety or other
emotional factors. Krashen took emotional factors into his monitoring mode and put forward affective filter as an important influence
in SLA. Affective filter can control the input and absorption of the second language. The strong affective filter causes less language
input. The emotional factor has been a controller with great influence besides the comprehensible language input [4]. "Emotional
factors are a complex array of psychological factors, the combination with uncertainty and flexibility, so there is more judgment than
argument on many years of study, and it has theories but lacks operability." [5] In recent years, researchers pay more and more
attention to the emotional factors in the study of SLA. Human beings are emotional creatures. It is extremely important to understand
human beings’ feelings, react, beliefs, and values for SLA. From the educational point of view, one of the biggest psychological
factors is the learners' emotional control. For second language learners, emotional factors are the engine and might become resistance
sensor; emotional factors affect the effectiveness of SLA directly.
There are many kinds of emotional factors influencing language learning, including self-esteem and self-confidence, suppression and
adventure, empathetic, outgoing, imitation, anxiety. Anxiety is the main topic here. In the process of SLA, anxiety refers to learners’
tension, worry, fear and other emotional experience and anxiety states emerged in the process of SLA. It is a collection of unpleasant
emotional reactions and psychological discomfort, and caused by self-doubt, stress, tension or other bad feelings. Anxiety might be
the largest emotional obstacle in the process of SLA. For all the learners, anxiety can bring motive power or difficulties. On the one
hand, certain anxiety could make learners produces the courage to meet the new task, and that is one of the important factors in SLA.
On the other hand, extreme anxiety could make learners avoid the study task. According to the causes, there are personality anxiety
and environmental anxiety classified by the researchers of SLA. Personality anxiety determined by learners’ individual characters, it
is a long-term and stable factor. Environmental anxiety caused by different environment, it is a short-term and changeable factor.
In the SLA process, learners’ anxiety could be classified in these kinds: (1) Class anxiety. In class, some students are afraid of making
mistakes in front of teachers and students. (2) Test anxiety. This emotional factor might lower the normal level of learners. If
Learners are not afraid of test, then his second language learning results are likely to be normal. (3) Communication anxiety. Learners
are afraid of using the target language to communicate with other, because they couldn't express themselves well. Scientific research
shows that, emotions and feelings will influence and adjust learners’ cognitive process. Relaxed and optimistic learners can
concentrate, memorize, think well, and improve the learning efficiency.
Learners’ anxiety are generated in different ways, hence they treat their anxiety with different manners. Teachers are key factors to
cause environmental anxiety in the SLA process, their behavior and attitude affects learners’ participation enthusiasm. Teachers shall
make sure that the students have enough sense of security, encourage students with appropriate material. In this way, learners can
keep their self-confidence, avoid harming their self-esteem. Teachers shall create comfortable and harmonious SLA environment, in
order to achieve the purpose of overcoming anxiety.
3 Conclusion
We can see psychological factors in SLA could result in both positive and negative function. Therefore, it is important to make use of
the favorable factors and try to transfer the unfavorable factors to the favorable ones. Teachers should stimulate learners' learning
motivation, cultivate their language interest and help them to form correct attitude towards the target language culture. So learners
can learn with the positive attitude and eliminate their anxiety. At the same time, a relaxed atmosphere, encouragement, proper
strategy and positive guide are quite helpful in SLA process. SLA process is a very complicated cognitive process, psychological
factors are particularly important ones compared with other factors. Perseverance is the master helps learners to continue and changes
negative psychological factors into active ones.
[1]. Jakobovits L. Foreign Language Learning: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of the Issue〔M〕.Rowley, mass: Newbury House, 1970.
[2]. GUI Shichun. Psychological linguistics [M]. Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press, 1995. (In Chinese)
[3]. Deci Edward L, Richard M Ryan. Intrinsic motivation and Self - Determination in Human Behavior (M). New York: plenum,
[4]. Krashen, S. Second language acquisition and second language learning [M]. New York: Pergamon Press, 1981.
[5]. DAI Manchun. Emotional Factors and Definitions [J]. Foreign Language Teaching and Learning, 2000, 6: 470~474. (In