What happens in the brain when we try to learn a language can tell us a lot about what drives us to learn it in the first place. Lauren Razavi unpacks the science.
"Where's your name from?"
I wasn't expecting to be the subject of my interview with John Schumann, but the linguistics professor had picked up on my Persian surname. Talking to me from California, where he is one of the world's leading academic voices on language learning, he effortlessly puts my own Farsi to shame.
Schumann learned Farsi in Iran, where he was director of the country's Peace Corps Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) programme. He then went into academia, becoming a professor at the University of California (UCLA), where he specialises in how we learn languages and its neurobiology.
Shumann's work and that of his colleagues in UCLA's Neurobiology of Language Research Group, is concerned with the processes that happen within the brain when we learn a language. Such work holds the answer to the holy grail of languages: what motivates learning?
In 2009, Schumann published The Interactional Instinct: The Evolution and Acquisition of Language. The work marked a crucial development in the study of language learning.
"We've developed a theory called 'the interactional instinct'," Schumann says. "We show that children are born with a natural tendency to attach, bond and affiliate with caregivers. They essentially have a drive to become like members of the same species. The child becomes motivated to learn their primary language through this innate interactional instinct."
Could this interactional instinct, then, be the key to learning additional languages? Schumann argues that the situation is different in the case of foreign languages. "The motivation for second language acquisition varies across individuals, the talent and aptitude for it varies across individuals, and the opportunity for it varies across individuals," he says. "Therefore we don't get uniform success across second language acquisition as we do – generally – in primary language acquisition."
For more than 50 years, two terms have categorised motivation in language learning: integrative and instrumental. Though distinct, these types of motivation are closely linked.
"Integrative motivation is the motivation to learn a language in order to get to know, to be with, to interact with and perhaps become like the speakers of the target language," Schumann says. "Children have integrative motivation in acquiring their first language. Instrumental motivation alongside this characterises second language acquisition."
"Instrumental motivation is language learning for more pragmatic or practical purposes," he explains. "Such as fulfilling a school requirement, getting a job, getting a promotion in that job, or being able to deal with customers."
So then, for an aspiring language learner, which kind of motivation might see them achieve the most success? "I wouldn't argue for the supremacy of one over the other in second language acquisition," Schumann says. "In most cases of language learning motivation, we have a mixture of integrative and instrumental influences."
Closer to home, significant research into language acquisition and language learning motivation is taking place at the University of York. Its Psycholinguistics Research Group is a collaborative effort engaged with a variety of elements connected to language acquisition.
Danijela Trenkic is a member of this group and a senior lecturer in the Department of Education at York. She highlights the importance of socialisation in staying motivated to learn a language. "The social relevance and social aspects of learning seem hugely important for sustaining motivation and so determining the outcome of learning," she says.
Alongside Trenkic, student Liviana Ferrari conducted a study into language learning motivation as part of her PhD. Her research investigated what kept adult English learners of Italian motivated during a beginners' course. Though the students joined the classes for a variety of reasons and were taught by different teachers using different approaches, it quickly became apparent that maintaining motivation was closely connected to the social elements involved.
"We found that those most likely to stick with it were the ones who developed a social bond within a group," Trenkic explains. "For them, learning Italian became part of their social identity: something they do one evening a week with a group of pleasant and like-minded people. For both groups [in the study], social participation was the driving force for sustaining motivation."
Native English speakers continue to be notoriously bad at mastering foreign languages. This example of integrative motivation at work could demonstrate a way that learners might see more success in their language learning efforts. But the English language is different from other languages.
Both Trenkic and Schumann believe that native English speakers are at a unique disadvantage in trying to learn other languages. The key issue in motivating English-speaking language learners is the prevalence of English as the world's lingua franca, an issue that has been explored and debated by experts for more than a decade.
"We speak natively the language that the world is trying to learn. For us, it's never clear that we need to learn a second language, and if we decide to, it's hard for us to pick which one," Schumann asserts. "It's also very difficult to maintain a conversation with a German if your German isn't good, because they'll quickly switch to English, and they're often more comfortable doing so."
"One of the main reasons there are more successful learners of English than of other languages is that there's more 'material' out there, and it's more socially relevant in the sense that people you know are likely to share your enthusiasm for the material – films and music, for example," Trenkic adds.
Does this mean that all hope is lost for native English speakers learning foreign languages? Not necessarily. Schumann argues that many European states are successful in cultivating bilingual societies because of active societal support and the national-level importance placed on it.
"In countries like Holland and Sweden, the society has realised they have to learn a more international language. They start teaching English very early but with no magic method," Schumann says. "The Dutch put on a lot of television in English with Dutch subtitles. In the entertainment media, they give a preference to English. Nationally, they give their communities a language they can use in the world."
English's role as a global lingua franca might make foreign language acquisition more of an effort, but the motivation – as Schumann puts it – "to get to know, to be with, to interact with and perhaps become like the speakers of [a] target language" remains intact. For English speakers, the focus must be on the cultural and social benefits of learning languages – on the symptoms of integrative motivation, which go beyond employment prospects and good grades.