Academic journal article International Journal of English Studies

The Nature of Language Learners' Beliefs: A Half-Told Story

Academic journal article International Journal of English Studies

The Nature of Language Learners' Beliefs: A Half-Told Story

Article excerpt


Language learners' beliefs about language learning have received an increasing attention in SLA in recent years (Kalaja & Barcelos, 2003; Mercer, 2011; Zhong, 2012a, 2014). This interest in learners' beliefs reflects the shift in focus in SLA to learners and their contributions to language learning along with other individual factors, e.g. learning strategies, motivation, aptitude, personality, etc. (see Ellis, 2008). The last few decades have witnessed substantial amount of research in this area. Some belief patterns have been identified among learners from different backgrounds (Bernat & Gvonzdenko, 2005; Horwitz, 1999). Learners mostly endorse the concept of language aptitude, the language difficulty hierarchy, and the importance of learning new words.

In more recent years, researchers have moved beyond identifying the strength of language learner beliefs to examining the relationship between learners' beliefs and other learner factors. It has been found that learner beliefs underlie learners' choice of learning strategies (Park, 1995; N. Yang, 1999; Zhong, 2008) and influence their levels of learning autonomy (Cotterall, 1995; Zhong, 2010; 2013a), their learning outcomes (Tanaka, 2004) and their oral participation in classrooms and language proficiency (Zhong, 2013b). These findings provide some useful information to researchers and to classroom teachers. However, studies on learners' beliefs are fairly marginal compared to studies of other individual learner factors, such as motivation, aptitude, learning strategies and personality (Ellis, 2008). Many issues have yet to be investigated. For example, the majority of early studies examine learner beliefs as a static trait (e.g. Horwitz, 1988, 1999; Wenden, 1998). Although recent studies (e.g. Mercer, 2011; Peng, 2011; Zhong, 2014) investigate the evolution of learner beliefs over a prolonged period of time, little is known about the factors contributing to changes in learner beliefs. A review of the literature also indicates that apart from a handful of studies (e.g. Mercer, 2011), empirical studies investigating the nature of learner beliefs are surprisingly fewer in SLA. Hence, understanding of the nature of learner beliefs is not balanced, either emphasizing its stability or dynamism.

The current study seeks to fill the gap, attempting to examine the nature of L2 learners' beliefs by observing the development of two language learners' beliefs over an 18-week period. Theoretically, the empirical evidence provided by this study will help deepen our understanding of the nature of learner beliefs, the role they play during an individual's learning process. More practically, findings from the study will help language teachers make better sense of beliefs that their students bring to the learning context and make informed decisions regarding their classroom practices and curricula development.


2.1. The BALLI-based studies

Studies on learner beliefs in SLA started in the mid-1980s when it was first introduced into the field by Elaine Horwitz (1985; 1987; 1988). Early studies defined learner beliefs as "the relatively stable information human thinkers have about their own cognitive processes and those of others" (Wenden, 1998: 516). This conception of learner beliefs as static, mental representations has seen researchers use quantitative methods to measure the strength of learners' beliefs in different populations of learners and compare beliefs among them. A typical research instrument employed is Horwitz's Beliefs about Language Lear ning Inventory (BALLI) questionnaire (Horwitz, 1987; 1988) which is designed to examine learners' beliefs in five major areas: (1) difficulty of language learning; (2) foreign language aptitude; (3) the nature of language learning; (4) learning and communication strategies, and (5) motivations and expectations. Since its development, the BALLI has been used with learners in various parts of the world, including Australia (Bernat 2006), Korea (Park, 1995; Truitt, 1995), Lebanon (Diab, 2006), China (Su, 1995), Taiwan (N. …

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