As someone who decided to study Japanese, French and Irish (not the most typical of language combinations), I have always been fascinated by the reasons why people choose to learn certain languages. Because they enjoy the food and culture of the country where the language is spoken? Because their family or friends speak the language? Because speaking the language will get them a better job?
I got the opportunity to formally examine the reasons why people learn languages, language learner motivation, while writing my MA thesis last year. I studied an MA in Conference Interpreting at NUI Galway and throughout the year-long course we were regularly visited by staff interpreters of the EU institutions who came as pedagogical assistants to give us advice and feedback. I was always fascinated by the different language combinations these experienced interpreters had and frankly, envious that the EU institutions encouraged them to learn more languages by providing language classes and leave for study abroad for priority languages. I started to wonder, did staff interpreters learn languages that they were really interested in, or did they learn languages that were in demand and therefore beneficial to their interpreting career?
In order to investigate this question, I drew on research in the field of second language acquisition and, in particular, learner motivation. According to Noels’ self-determination theory, learner motivation ranges from extrinsic orientations of motivation to intrinsic orientations of motivation. According to self-determination theory, there are two general types of motivation, one based on intrinsic interest in the activity per se and the other based on rewards extrinsic to the activity itself (Noels et al 2000, p. 38).
On the extrinsic end of the scale, learners are under external pressure to learn the language; because it is a compulsory subject, they need it for their job, they need to learn it to avoid some negative outcome, etc. On the intrinsic end of the scale, learners want to learn the language out a sense of personal interest and enjoyment. Various orientations of motivation are at work in the case of each individual language learner. However, according to research by Noels, successful learners are more likely to be those who display more intrinsic orientations of motivation.
A person who is intrinsically motivated to perform an activity does so because it is inherently enjoyable and satisfying. In the context of second language acquisition, the learner may be interested in the language and culture, enjoy the sounds and rhythm of the language or simply enjoy acquiring new knowledge and mastering a difficult task. This form of motivation is associated with greater success in second language acquisition (Noels 2001, p. 45).
I set out to test this theory, taking staff conference interpreters who have added another working language as models of successful language learners – after all, knowing a language well enough to interpret it is an example of highly successful language acquisition! I used a self-report questionnaire, which I distributed via email and social media, to gather information about staff interpreters at the European Commission’s DG SCIC who had added another language to their combination since started to work there, and asked them to rank and rate the factors that had influenced their decision to learn the language in question.
61 interpreters responded to the survey. The results of the online questionnaire show that a wide range of languages were added by the participants; 18 out of 24 official EU languages were added by the survey sample; Dutch, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, German, English, Swedish, Polish, Russian, Danish, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Croatian, Estonian, Lithuanian, Maltese and Romanian. Languages added range from very widely spoken languages such as Spanish and English, to minority languages such as Maltese and Irish.
In 87% of responses, interest in the language and associated culture were identified as being either a very important or important factor in the participant’s choice to learn a particular language.
When asked to rank various factors in order of importance, personal interest was ranked most important in 59% of cases:
In 68% of cases, respondents agreed or strongly agreed that enjoying visiting the country/countries where a language is spoken was an important factor in their choice to learn the language in question, and in 68% of cases, respondents agreed or strongly agreed that enjoying the culture of the country/countries where a language is spoken was an important factor.
The survey data showed evidence that the main factor affecting the participants’ decisions to add a working language was intrinsic motivation. However, this was not the only factor at play. Respondents displayed a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, with more motivation from the intrinsic end of the scale playing an important role in the decision to add a working language. Some respondents had an interest in the language they learned but also cited the benefit to their career of another language as a motivating factor. Some respondents chose to learn certain languages not only because they had an interest in the associated culture, but also because of similarities between that language and a language they already knew. High levels of externally regulated orientations of motivation were also identified among some respondents, and some reported feeling pressure to learn another language, but these respondents were a minority. The high level of intrinsically oriented motivation displayed by these successful language learners supports Noels’ theory that intrinsic orientations of motivation are more likely to result in successful language acquisition.
So what can we conclude from this? Well, if you are thinking of learning a language, learn one you are genuinely interested in! You’ll learn Chinese far quicker if you have passion for Chinese culture and an interest in the country, than if you are purely learning it for the career benefits. If you have lots of Croatian friends and you want to be able to speak their language, go for it! If you love travel and want to backpack around South America meeting new people and experiencing new cultures, why not learn Spanish? If you are genuinely interested and intrinsically motivated, learning a language is that little bit easier.
Interpreting Studies and Second Language Acquisition Terms
active language: language into which an interpreter is capable of interpreting (Jones 1998, p. 131).
A language: ‘The interpreter’s mother tongue (or its strict equivalent) into which they work from all their other working languages in both consecutive and simultaneous interpretation’ (AIIC, 2012).
B language: ‘language in which the interpreter is perfectly fluent, but is not a mother tongue. An interpreter can work into this language from one or several of their other working languages, but may prefer to do so in only one mode of interpretation, either consecutive or simultaneous’ (AIIC, 2012c).
C language: language ‘which the interpreter understands perfectly but into which they do not work. They will interpret from this (these) language(s) into their active languages’ (AIIC, 2012).
conference interpreting: interpreting in multilateral communication, for example in international conferences, using either consecutive and/or simultaneous modes of interpreting (Pöckhacker 2004, p. 16).
consecutive interpreting: the interpreter listens to the totality of the speaker’s comments, or at least a significant passage, and then reconstitutes the speech in another language with the help of notes taken during the original (Jones 1998, p. 5).
DG SCIC: Directorate General for Interpretation, also known as DG SCIC. the European Commission’s interpreting service and conference organiser (European Commission, 2013).
interpreting: immediate oral translation of an utterance from one language into another (Pöckhacker 2004, p. 11). 1.
L1 (Also referred to as ‘mother tongue’ or ‘first language’): language or languages that a child learns from parents, siblings and caretakers during the critical years of development, from the womb up to about four years of age (Ortega 2009, p. 5).
L2 (Also referred to as ‘additional language’ or ‘second language’): any language learned after the mother tongue (Ortega 2009, p. 5).
language combination (also referred to as ‘linguistic combination‘): ‘sum of an interpreter’s active and passive languages’ (Jones 1998, p. 133).
passive language: language out of which an interpreter is capable of interpreting (Jones 1998, p. 132).
simultaneous interpreting: the interpreter begins interpreting while the speaker is still speaking. The interpreter is speaking simultaneously to the original, hence the name (Jones 1998, p. 5).
working language: language which an interpreter can interpret into, or out of, or both (Jones 1998, p. 133).
AIIC (2012) Working languages (Online). Available at: http://aiic.net/node/6/working-languages/lang/1 (Accessed 07 July 2013).
Deci, L. et al (1991) ‘Motivation and Education: The Self-Determination Perspective’, in Educational Psychologist, 26(3 & 4), pp. 325-346 (Online). Available from: http://selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/1991_DeciVallerandPelletierRyan_EP.pdf (Accessed 24 July 2013).
Dörnyei, Z. (2001) ‘New themes and approaches in second language motivation research’, Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 21, pp. 43-59 (Online). Available from: http://journals.cambridge.org.libgate.library.nuigalway.ie/action/displayAbstract?fromfrom=online&aid=100729 (Accessed 4 July 2013).
European Commission (2013) About DG Interpretation. Available from: http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/scic/about-dg-interpretation/index_en.htm (Accessed: 03 June 2013).
Jones, R. (1998) Conference interpreting explained. Manchester: St Jerome publishing.
Ortega, L. (2009) Understanding second language acquisition. London : Hodder Education.
Pöchhacker, F. (2004) Introducing interpreting studies. London: Routledge.
Noels, K. (2001) ‘New orientations in language learning motivation: Towards a model of intrinsic, extrinsic and integrative orientations and motivation’, in Dörnyei, Z. & Schmidt, R. (eds) Motivation and Second Language Acquisition. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, pp. 43-68.
Noels, K. et al. (2003) ‘Why are you learning a second language? Motivational orientations and self-determination theory’, Language Learning, 53 (1), pp. 33-63 (Online). Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.libgate.library
Article written by Sarah O’Farrell, translator and terminologist at the Terminology Coordination Unit.