Students’ Motivation in Learning Mandarin Chinese Research Paper

Students’ Motivation in Learning Mandarin Chinese Research Paper


“Chinese is in. Latin and French, it seems, is out.” (Robelen, Education Week). According to the U.S. Department of State, Foreign Service Institute (FSI), and ACTFL, Chinese is one of the most critical and difficult languages to teach and learn. Yet, despite the difficulty, learning Mandarin Chinese as a second language continues to grow. A comparison of the 2004-2005 enrollments with 2007-2008 by the Education Week site shows that Chinese increased 195 percent to 60,000 learners, which is a substantial increase from previous decades. Even though the Chinese language is one of the oldest in the world, about 5000 years, only recently has China emerged as a world economic power, and it is not surprising that little research and few studies have been done on how to teach and prepare our students with the linguistic skills and cultural understanding necessary to interact with people who speak Mandarin Chinese.

Having personally taught the language to American students in both public and private schools, this researcher often struggles with how to actively engage students in learning and in constructing meaning in real-world contexts in a way that will enhance the motivation to learn the language. The National Standards feature five Goal Areas, known as the “Five Cs,” which provide a rationale for language education: Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities. Each goal area delineates two to three content standards that describe the knowledge and skills that learners should demonstrate as a result of their language study. Communication is depicted in terms of three modes – interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational – and it places primary emphasis on the content and purpose of meaningful communication.

This study is focused on how interpersonal activities affect student motivation in learning Mandarin Chinese. Interpersonal activities were implemented in Mandarin 2 & 3 in 10-12 grade classes in a private catholic high school in a suburban area. The study employed a quantitative and qualitative (Mixed Method) design in looking at how the class engagement affected students’ motivation. The data were collected using a Likert scale survey and open-ended questions. Results indicated that interpersonal activities provide unique opportunities to motivate students to learn Chinese. The study provides specific examples of how effective use of interpersonal activities affects student motivation and lists recommendations for teachers and further research.

Introduction: The Many Obstacles in Studying Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin Chinese is definitely not among the easiest languages to learn – it belongs to a different (Sino-Tibetan) language family and presupposes that, unless a learner has had any previous experience with the language and its use, they have to start from scratch. As a result, the students learning Mandarin as their second language bump into a range of obstacles, which often leaves them disappointed about their own abilities and unwilling to continue studying Mandarin.

However, students’ motivation can be enhanced once the reasons for the learners’ passionless attitude towards the process of learning Mandarin Chinese are located and dealt with. It is suggested that with the help of the so-called “five Cs,” i.e., “Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons and Communities,” and a well thought out strategy for conducting class activities, a competent teacher can make a difference in a student’s attitude towards studying Mandarin Chinese. As the results of the survey carried out among the students have shown, most learners feel discouraged as they realize that not only do they have little to no connection with the Chinese culture, but also have to engage in the activities that they find pointless and unentertaining. It is quite remarkable that, according to the survey results, a lot of the students find the Chinese language and culture rather enticing, at the same time acknowledging that they do not like some parts of it, as well as some of the activities carried out in class. It can be assumed that the students need to be trusted with more autonomy in the process of the Chinese language learning, thus, contributing to their development of stronger bonds with the Chinese culture and, therefore, being interested in acquiring the skills necessary for speaking and understanding Mandarin Chinese.

Background: Key Reasons for Conducting the Study

Increasing students’ motivation is an extremely hard task since it involves a very thorough analysis of both external and internal factors that may have affected the student’s attitude towards the subject. In other words, it is crucial to analyze both the student’s family background in order to figure out whether the student knows anything about the subject matter or has any emotional luggage concerning the Chinese culture in general and Chinese language in particular and the school environment, in which the student in question learns the language. More to the point, the two environments specified above expose a student to a variety of factors, starting with the technique chosen by the teacher, which may avert a student from studying the subject, and up to such factors as the influence of the family (e.g., the parents’ insistent attempts to make the student learn the language, which may have a reverse effect).

The students of a local high school have shown disturbingly low scores on their Chinese language tests. An observation carried out among the students of high school, sophomores and freshmen, for the most part, has shown that the students display little to no interest in studying Mandarin Chinese. The survey designed to identify the root causes and develop a strategy to fight them has provided rather upsetting data regarding the students’ motivation. Though a lot of the students used to be interested in studying Chinese, as the answers to some test questions show, and, in fact, are still curious about the subject, the strategies chosen to teach the students the Chinese culture and the Chinese language seem to fail in their attempts to teach the students the basic skills of speaking Mandarin Chinese.

Literature Background: Analyzing the Related Studies

It should be noted that the problem of students’ motivation is not new – a range of scholars have devoted their researches to defining the avenues of raising students’ interest in ing languages. A range of theories regarding improving students’ motivation have been developed, including Intrinsic Motivation Inventory (IMI), which is based on a Likert-type assessment, the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire, also based on a Likert-type scale, The Revised Two-factor Study Process Questionnaire (R-SPQ-2F, also based on a Likert scale assessment) (Fryer, Ginns, Wlker & Nakao, 2012), and Approaches and Study Skills Inventory for Students (ASSIST, which is defined as a 1–5 Likert type scale) (Biggs, 2001). More to the point, numerous tools for measuring students’ engagement have been created. Among the most popular and the ones that are most commonly used in the U.S. education establishments, NSSE (National Survey of Student Engagement) (NSSE, 2009), Ecobehavioral Assessment Systems Software (EBASS), School Engagement Measure (SEM), School Engagement Scale/Questionnaire (SEQ), Student Engagement Instrument (SEI) and Student School Engagement Survey (SSES) must be mentioned.

The lastLastfinitely not least, the Integrated Performance Assessment (IPA) deserves a mentioning as well. Though IPA is traditionally applied to English language studies and rarely to Spanish ones (Davin et al., 2011), because of its relatively general assessment tools, it can also be applied to the Chinese learning environment. Evaluating students’ engagement, however, is only part of the solution; to address the issue of students’ engagement rapid drop, the tools for increasing motivation must be provided. Recent studies have shown that numerous methods for increasing students’ motivation have emerged over the past few years. At present, there are interpersonal mode activities, metacognition tools, student-centered learning style, technology-based instruction, classroom game simulations, especially the classroom game simulations devised by students (Navidad, 2012, p. 14), interactive technological tools, parent involvement, and many others. Apart from the aforementioned tools, a range of newer ones have been created with the introduction of information technologies into the realm of education; however, in contrast to the aforementioned tools, the new instruments lacking veracity and reliability since they have not been tested fully yet.

Of all the instruments for enhancing students’ motivation mentioned above, such tools as the interpersonal mode activities should be given a closer examination. Its efficacy, which is predisposed by the fact that, unlike other tools, this one allows for improving the students’ motivation through facilitating the interaction between them, is bound to have a strong effect on the students’ motivation. Once engaged in the communication process, the students will feel enticed enough to be motivated for the further learning process (Sung, 2011).

It should also be mentioned that understanding the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation plays an important role in enhancing students’ enthusiasm. While not all scholars approve of the dualistic approach towards defining the phenomenon of students’ motivation, and some theorists stress the necessity to apply the multifaceted approach towards studying the nature of students’ motivation, it is still traditionally considered that in most cases, the factors affecting students’ enthusiasm can be split into the ones that are linked to self-reward (intrinsic motivation) and the ones that are connected to the realization of the supposed use of the subject (extrinsic motivation).

Therefore, to approach the problem in question, it will be necessary to come up with a tool that will address both types of factors. The interpersonal mode activities, in their turn, seem to concern the intrinsic aspect only. It could be argued, though, that once the students are engaged in the process of studying, they will be able to understand its extrinsic value. More to the point, the study of students’ motivation from the perspective of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation types creates the premises for students developing metacognition skills. By understanding the mechanisms of their learning process, students will be able to manage it more efficiently, thus, acquiring more information and training new skills in a more efficient manner. The chosen tool, which presupposes active participation of all members of the class, will be even more efficient once planted into the realm where students will be capable of both cognizings their learning process, navigating it, and shaping it so that it could be more fruitful.

Finally, the fact that enhancing students’ enthusiasm for studying Chinese requires developing the strategies that will tie in the specifics of Chinese teaching methodology and the traditional approaches to improving students’ motivation presupposes that a complex strategy should be developed. Tricking English speaking students, most of whom have little to no connection with the Chinese culture, into being interested in the subject is quite hard. Recent studies have shown that the paradigm of learning Chinese for English speaking students includes teaching and learning with the help of tables (Zhang, 2007), as well as utilizing the tools provided by the modern media and information technologies (Cai & Zhu, 2012).

The fact that motivation needs to be supported and maintained at the same high level throughout the curriculum is also crucial to enhancing students’ engagement in the subject in question. It would be wrong to assume that, once raised a few notches, the students’ motivation will stay just as high. To make sure that the learners will be just as excited about learning to communicate in Chinese several months after the introduction of interpersonal mode activities, a teacher will have to use additional motivation tools. It can be suggested that to maintain and protect motivation in class, the teacher will have to use the tools for encouraging learners’ autonomy.

Speaking of which, it could be argued that introducing a set of activities for a Chinese language lesson and based on the interaction of the group and allowing all students to participate in the discussion of something that they find relevant can be considered a solid start for enhancing students’ autonomy. The recent studies claim that seeing how the students get involved in the learning process easier, they will keep each other engaged on their own, with minor directions and commentaries from the teacher (Zhang, 2012). Thus, the strategy of including interpersonal mode activities can be regarded as an acclaimed and innovative method of keeping the rates students’ motivation going upwards and at the same time giving the teacher enough room for making the necessary changes to the course of the lesson. Contributing to the development of students’ independence as learners, the chosen strategy has a strong theoretical basis and an even stronger range of pieces of evidence showing its doubtless efficacy.

Research Questions: What Needs to Be Investigated

In the course of the research, one major question has to be answered to provide teachers with adequate strategies for raising students’ motivation. It is necessary to find out how interpersonal mode activities could possibly enhance students’ engagement and help the learners become more involved in the studying process.

It should be pointed out that a range of different objectives needs to be met for the questions mentioned above to be answered. First and foremost, it is required to analyze the answers provided by the students in the school surveys. Next, key external and internal factors affecting the students’ attitude towards the studying process must be identified. As soon as the aforementioned objectives are met, the research question can be answered.

Methods: Survey as the Key Data Collection Tool

As it has been stressed above, the results of the survey designed to specify the reasons for students to have low motivation for learning Chinese will be used as the key to developing the strategy, which will help address the issue concerning their lack of motivation. The survey is split into several key parts, which allow evaluating various environments in which students live (e.g., the social one, the family one, the academic one, etc.), thus, distilling the factors that may have been having an adverse effect on the students’ motivation and, therefore, affecting their performance negatively. For instance, the first set of questions allows finding out the most general information about the students, thus, helping the teacher develop a background on each learner and approach the issues that each of them faces individually.

Part I suggests that the students should provide their own evaluation of the classroom activities; thus, it becomes possible for the teacher to spot the areas that the learners may find tedious and uninteresting. The given part of the test will prompt the teacher to structure the lesson in a slightly different way and introduce new types of activities, i.e., the interpersonal mode activities, as well as define the areas, which these activities will revolve around (e.g., current issues discussions, personal interviews, etc.). The validity of the results can be considered moderate since there is a risk that students will try to provide the answers that will pose them in a favorable light.

Class Engagement V.S. Motivation Survey.
Table 1. Class Engagement V.S. Motivation Survey.

Speaking of the basic methodology for the paper to be based on, the aforementioned IPA method was used as the fundament for the study to take place. The Integrated Performance Assessment is not an entirely new approach – the method has been around for a while, developing as a branch of a rather well-known hourglass approach. According to the existing definition, an hourglass approach presupposes that the assessment should start with general questions, narrowing down to more detailed ones in the middle of the assessment, and finishing the evaluation of a student by asking several general questions again.

Results: Defining the Problems in Learning Mandarin Chinese

The results of the study have shown that most of the students do not display an obvious prejudice against learning the Mandarin Chinese language (only three answers out of the possible twenty appeared in the “Strongly Disagree” section of the survey; the rest were in between the “Strongly Agree” and the “Neither Agree, Nor Disagree” sections of the survey results assessment). However, by far, the most valuable information can be found in the fields that the students were supposed to fill in with their own answers. The main common theme of the answers seems to concern the lack of interactions between the students in the course of the lesson and the lack of the tasks requiring practical application of the rules learned.

The results have shown that students need more independence in their learning process. With the specific teaching style adopted by the teacher, which focuses on individual tasks, for the most part, the students have little to no means to train the skills acquired in the course of the lesson. With no opportunity of communicating in Mandarin Chinese through completing different class activities, the students are losing their interest in the language in general and the class activities related to learning this language in particular.

The data acquired with the help of the survey has also shown that the students have not yet lost their motivation towards studying the language completely; in fact, the balance between the answers indicating a strong motivation, a standard one, and a neutral attitude towards the language has been split into 37, 34 and 36 correspondingly. Thus, it can be assumed that, by introducing an entirely new activity mode, which will be based on interpersonal interactions and will encourage students’ communication in Chinese, the teacher will be able to deliver rather impressive results in raising the students’ engagement and encouraging classroom activity.

The fact that very few students have any background related to the Chinese culture should also be taken into account. Only one student has reported his connection to the Chinese culture by stating that his mother was Chinese; hence, it will be reasonable to suggest that the rest of the students know little to nothing about the Chinese culture and need to explore it more.

Analysis and Conclusion: Using Interpersonal Activities to Enhance Motivation

The results show that the teaching strategy needs to be changed. Seeing how the students are not exposed to any other factors that may have possibly affected their attitude towards studying Mandarin Chinese, it will be required to change the learning mode, which is currently used throughout the classes. Apart from providing students with individual tasks and assignments that do not require communication, the teacher will have to facilitate the environment for students to train their communication skills in, therefore, focusing on making lessons both effective and entertaining.

The interpersonal mode activities will help the students realize that the knowledge of Mandarin Chinese will open a plethora of opportunities for them in terms of conversing with others and acquiring new information. In addition, interpersonal mode activities will create real-life scenarios, which will plant the students into the realm of the Chinese culture, therefore, contributing to their understanding of the latter, as well as triggering students’ interest and enthusiasm. Once the students are able to navigate simple topics, they will feel more confident about themselves and their skills. Thus, a positive experience of learning Mandarin Chinese will be imprinted in their memories, which will enhance their learning process.

Seeing how the tests have proven the students’ readiness towards being motivated for learning more, the strategy described above is bound to have a positive effect. As soon as the students realize that learning languages and the Mandarin Chinese language, in particular, can be fun despite the lack of background knowledge on the subject matter, they will be able to acquire new skills and train them both efficiently and readily.

Appendix A: Class Engagement V.S. Motivation Survey.

Appendix B: The Questionnaire (Sample)

The Questionnaire (Sample)

Reference List

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