Current Perceptions and Beliefs among Incoming College Students towards Foreign Language Study and Language Requirements

Article excerpt

Abstract:

Opinions of foreign language study, as well as attitudes toward specific cultures and languages, influence student motivation and success. The purpose of the present study is to catalogue and report the perceptions and attitudes of recent incoming college students (freshman and transfer students) concerning foreign or second language (L2) study and foreign language requirements in a post-9/11 context. The results offer insights into students' evolving beliefs and concerns, which can be used to inform and subsequently improve the teaching-learning process through the development of timely, meaningful, and responsive language learning environments.

Key words: beliefs, culture, motivation, perceptions, requirements

Language: Relevant to all languages

Introduction

Growing popular support for foreign language study and international education has been recently documented among both students and the general public. For example, a 2001 Art and Science Group publication StudentPoll targeted 500 college-bound high school seniors and reported that students enter college with a strong interest in international education and that the majority of seniors want to continue foreign language study at the postsecondary level. It also found that virtually every college-bound student had studied a foreign language in high school (98%), more than half (57%) planned to take a foreign language in college, and nearly half (48%) planned to participate in a study abroad program. Moreover, 50% of the respondents planned on taking courses that focused on the history or culture of other countries and 37% planned on taking courses in international studies.

A 2000 survey by the American Council on Education (ACE) of 1,006 Americans aged 18 or older revealed similar reactions, wherein over 85% of the respondents indicated that knowledge of a foreign language was important. According to Hayward and Siaya (2001), this is a significantly higher percentage than was found in a Gallup Poll conducted some 20 years ago. The ACE survey also found that 85% of the respondents believed that knowing a foreign language would help them in the future, 75% stated that foreign language training should be mandatory for high school students, and over 70% were in favor of making foreign language study a requirement at the postsecondary level (Gascoigne, 2004).

Summarizing the results of both surveys, Hayward and Siaya (2001) concluded that the public presently "supports requirements for foreign languages and courses that include an international dimension and believes it important that students have access to international study and internship opportunities" (p. 6). Clearly, "students, parents, and the public are looking to higher education to provide strong international and language programs" (p. 6).

This recent sentiment, however, is in direct opposition to that expressed in two separate surveys conducted in the early 1970s. Walker (1973) analyzed 1,200 questionnaires completed by university students wherein the majority of respondents felt that the foreign language requirement should be abolished. Also targeting university students in the same year, the 265 respondents to Schotta's 1973 questionnaire overwhelmingly shared a desire to eliminate the foreign language requirement.

These beliefs about language learning and its importance are woven into the fabric of society. They are influenced by history and current events, as well as hopes and fears about our future. Indeed, "beliefs about language learning are prevalent in the culture at-large [and] foreign language educators must consider that students bring these beliefs with them into the classroom" (Horwitz, 1988, p. 283). To this end, researchers have begun to catalogue the types, and examine the effects, of student beliefs and attitudes toward second languages (L2s) and the second language acquisition (SLA) process.

Not surprisingly, these studies suggest that certain attitudes and beliefs can have a notable impact on the language learner's affective state and that this affective disposition plays a central role in SLA (Gardner, 1985; MacIntyre & Gardner, 1991; Tse, 2000; Young, 1991). …