Innovations and Challenges in Language Learning and Motivation
Zoltán Dörnyei (2020), Innovations and Challenges in Language Learning and Motivation. New York: Routledge. ISBN: 978-1-138-59916-1. 178 pages.
As anyone with classroom experience can attest, motivation plays a dominant role in learning and teaching. It often seems to surpass cognitive ability in contributing to academic success. Having written on motivation and its impact on this success for decades, Nottingham University professor Zoltán Dörnyei’s phenomenal output has included not only books such as The Psychology of the Language Learner and Teaching and researching motivation, but also research papers on the various facets of motivation and language learning. This background helps to make Innovations and Challenges in Language Learning and Motivation up-to-date and relevant for the classroom teacher, though readers could have benefited from more practical classroom solutions.
The first three chapters address eleven challenges researchers face when trying to define the often-ambiguous concept of motivation. The first three challenges involve the basic definition and characteristics of motivation, including its dynamic nature and connection to affect and cognition. These chapters reflect Dörnyei’s care and precision in defining concepts.
Dörnyei’s integration of wider psychological terms and perspectives into SLA motivation provides fresh insights, even when this includes the review of his well-known concepts. Concerning personality theory, he evaluates how McAdam’s spin on trait theory provides insight into language students. This “three-tier framework of personality” can help language teachers appreciate our students as individuals, as the framework encompasses dispositional traits, adaptations, and “integrative life narratives” (6).
Such facets of personality emphasize the role of context. English teachers need to consider that students attend English class as part of a larger path in their lives, such as the goal to pursue education in a foreign country. How each student makes sense out of such plans impacts motivation. Given this emphasis on personal considerations and context, the discussion often prompts the reader to move from an “I teach English” to an “I teach people” perspective. Avoiding superficial definitions and perspectives on motivation helps readers see our students’ rich individual worlds.
Dörnyei identifies the task of distinguishing conscious from unconscious motivation as another fascinating challenge. Instead of getting lost in Freudian slips and Jungian archetypes, the author keeps things practical for the classroom. He describes, for instance, the limited nature of attention: “the conscious part of our mind is surprisingly limited in its capacity, as there are severe bottlenecks in our immediate memory and attentional focus” (77). We can only devote full attention to one thing at a time.
This limited consciousness contrasts with the “huge and powerful neural system that works in the background without any consciousness” (77). This leads to the issue of priming. Students are primed with a stimulus, such as a lesson’s vocabulary, without having their attention directed to it. This usually prepares them for tasks later in the lesson. Another issue is goal-setting, which may have conscious and unconscious elements. Overall, conscious and unconscious learning and motivation strongly affect the classroom. Given how unfamiliar the concept of unconscious motivation may be for many readers, this idea could have been related more directly to the classroom, including how teachers can tap into or develop this element of motivation.
Some aspects of our conscious lives, such as goal setting, obviously impact motivation. Goal setting is not always beneficial, as “multiple parallel goals” can interfere with each other (36). This once again highlights motivation’s complex, multifaceted nature. Sometimes learners become stymied when they take on more than they can handle in their lives or their English learning.
This failure to prioritize causes a loss of focus: “These multiple parallel goals inevitably interfere with each other in that focusing on one particular goal will limit the ability to make progress on other goals” (37). There is too much multitasking, in other words. Dörnyei continues: “This being the case, we cannot fully understand the motivational disposition associated with a particular course of action without considering the potential impact of competing options and preferences” (37). In other words, a student may seem unmotivated due to burnout or a host of other reasons that are unrelated to the immediate classroom. This suggests that the teacher does not always have meaningful influence over motivation. A learner’s drive to succeed may be impacted by variables that the teacher (or even the student) is unaware of.
Readers may get the impression that the labyrinthine nature of motivation makes it nearly impossible to address. The author does provide some tips for addressing motivation, but again, because he is not himself in the classroom, but is an academic researcher, he often gives us overly-abstract challenges such as “applying the principles of complex dynamic systems theory” (42).
This theory reinforces the impression that motivation is dynamic, multidimensional and multilayered, and challenging to address. Not only are there multiple factors, such as previous language learning experience and interaction with local speakers (for students immersing themselves in the language of a foreign country), but these factors actually interact with each other. This leads the author to wonder out loud about agency. With all of these interacting factors in a person’s life, many of which are unconscious at least some of the time, how much agency does the individual have?
One reason this book is so ambitious is that Dörnyei is unsatisfied with easy answers. He criticizes past SLA research for overgeneralizing. He also questions the “carrot-and-stick" approach to motivation, that is, reward and punishment. It is, in his view, overly simplistic and, in the end, perhaps unhelpful. It prompts too much focus on tangible and immediate rewards, including high grades, and less on learning itself. One possible solution is greater stress on student engagement. Engagement refers to the outward manifestation of motivation. Dörnyei could have expanded this discussion, perhaps with a separate chapter, to provide a tentative recipe book of classroom tasks or techniques.
Perhaps the greatest downside to writing such an ambitious, wide-ranging book filled with the latest research is the lack of depth on the various facets of motivation. Innovations and Challenges in Language Learning and Motivation provides a broad overview, but readers will ultimately be left with wanting more. Almost every topic could have been significantly expanded. Dörnyei has a habit of skipping swiftly from topic to topic. Perhaps the real strength of the book, then, is that it leaves readers wanting to delve even more deeply into the various dimensions of this intriguing topic.
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