The Roles of Motivation, Affective Attitudes, and Willingness to Communicate among Chinese Students in Early English Immersion Programs

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Early English immersion in China has been studied from many angles, but no research to date has investigated affective variables, which may have a profound relevance to successful English acquisition. The present study examines the roles of motivation, attitudes towards learning English, willingness to communicate, perceived competence, language anxiety, and parental support among upper primary immersion and nonimmersion students. Results indicate that immersion students used in this study had significantly higher levels of willingness to communicate and perceived competence and exhibited less language anxiety than their nonimmersion peers. In addition, willingness to communicate and perceived competence were the strongest predictors of English reading and oral proficiency for the combined sample.

INTRODUCTION

After the success of early French immersion programs in Canada, immersion education has been instituted in many settings and cultures throughout the world. A plethora of studies have examined the first language (L1) and second language (L2) performance outcomes of immersion students for many decades; the studies indicate that immersion students score significantly better than their non-immersion peers on academic achievement tests in the target language without any detrimental long term effects on their L1 mastery (Genesee, 1987; Swain & Lapkin, 1982; Knell, 2010). Performance in the target language to linguistic measures such as oral expression or reading comprehension has been the focus of many studies, but relatively little research has investigated the role of nonlinguistic variables.

Nonlinguistic variables include learner characteristics related to motivation, affective attitudes associated with the learning situation, and personality trait dispositions such as confidence or anxiety. Past research has shown that these nonlinguistic characteristics strongly correlate with a broad range of second language achievement indices (Domyei & Skehan, 2003; Gardner, 1985; Gardner & Clement, 1990), and other researchers have illustrated the interrelatedness and influence of these nonlinguistic variables through path analysis and structural equation modeling (SEM), which suggests causal links between a variety of linguistic and nonlinguistic characteristics ( Gardner, Tremblay, & Masgoret, 1997; Noels, 2003; Yashima, 2002). Nonlinguistic variables indisputably play a meaningful role in L2 performance, but that role needs to be clarified and refined in relationship to contextual factors. Immersion education in a Chinese culture is such a factor, and a study of educational outcomes would not be complete without a research agenda that includes an investigation of affective variables present in the context of language immersion.

English language learning in China takes place in a foreign language context where students' exposure to English occurs almost entirely in the classroom. The learning of English has become a national priority in China, and, as a result, in 2001, the Chinese government lowered the mandatory age for English instruction from Grade 5 to Grade 3 (Liu, 2007). Additionally, many schools, particularly those in large urban areas, offer English instruction earlier than Grade 3. In this study, English immersion classes began in kindergarten.

In addition to lowering the age for English instruction, Chinese educators have mandated an emphasis on communicative language instruction in China (Lee, 2007). Traditionally, Chinese instruction has followed traditional teacher-centered approaches in which students do not actively participate in the classroom. In an effort to increase communicative competence for students who have little opportunity for authentic language input or interactive practice, the early immersion program was begun in Xi 'an. Very few studies have investigated factors related to communicative language learning in elementary school children in China (Yang, 2002), and a study of affective variables that relates to communicative propensities may provide useful pedagogical applications for educators and administrators. …