Motivations and Attitudes Affecting High School Students' Choice of Foreign Language

Article excerpt

There are some foreign languages that enjoy great status in the United States, while other foreign languages are rarely represented at the high school level. As Draper and Hicks (1996) indicated, 42.2% of high school students were enrolled in foreign languages in 1994. Of those students enrolled in a foreign language class, 64.3% took Spanish, 22.1% took French, 6.5% were enrolled in German, 3.7% were enrolled in Latin, 0.87% were enrolled in Italian, 0.84% were enrolled in Japanese, and 1.69% were studying other languages. The present study examined the following questions: Why do students choose to take a particular language? Do students gravitate toward it because it is widely thought to be the easiest language to learn or because they perceive greater career opportunities with proficiency in this particular language, or is it simply because there are more classes offered? As long as foreign language study is elective in high schools and as long as a variety of languages are offered, the answers to these q uestions will remain important for foreign language educators, especially in schools where the various language programs compete with one another for student enrollments and the programs' ultimate survival. Only by understanding the motivations and attitudes of students can educators begin to construct effective approaches that foster the study of foreign languages in general, and encourage the study of less commonly offered foreign languages in particular.

METHOD

Subjects

The subjects attended a high school in a medium-sized city located in western Washington. They were surveyed during the 1997-98 academic year. During that time, 17% of the students at this high school were receiving free or reduced-price lunch. The school had a graduation rate of 96%. One hundred fifty-two surveys were returned, and 86% of these were from Caucasians. Eighty-one (54%) of the surveys were from females, while 69 (46%) were from males. Students of Spanish comprised 51% of the sample, 21% were students of French, 26% were students of German, and 2% were students of Russian.

Instrument

The survey was first developed during a graduate research course. It went through several revisions, and the final version was given to the participating high school principal for approval.

The survey consisted of three sections. Students were first asked to identify their gender, their family heritage, their grade level, and which foreign language they were taking. The second section of the survey consisted of a list of eight factors that could be instrumental when making a choice about which foreign language to pursue: interest in language/culture, family heritage, career advantages, friends in class, parents' preference, like teacher, perceived ease, and counselor's advice. The next section of the survey (Likert-type format) consisted of nine statements about students' general attitudes toward learning foreign languages. The students were asked to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement with each statement: strongly agree, agree, not sure, disagree, or strongly disagree.

Procedure

After approval of the final revision by the participating high school principal, the survey was distributed to all five foreign language teachers at the high school. The foreign language teachers were instructed regarding how to administer the survey to the students. These teachers administered the survey in class during the last week of the academic year.

The students rated the importance of eight factors influencing foreign language selection. For each factor, rankings 1, 2, and 3 were grouped together as "most important"; rankings 4 and 5 were grouped together as "moderately important"; and rankings 6, 7, and 8 were grouped together as "least important." Survey results were tabulated for the entire sample and for girls and boys separately.

RESULTS

As shown in Table 1, "interest in the language/culture" was the factor that most influenced students' choice of a particular foreign language, with 61% of the students marking this factor as first, second, or third most important. …