Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Is there such a thing.....

...as a linguistic hierarchy of needs?
This is following on from the last two posts, and I'm just trying to formulate ideas behind motivation, or perhaps more accurately, demotivation in language learners. This also, I think, segues rather neatly into a piece of research I did last year, namely a brutal piece of statistical number crunching I did with ESOL students' results that showed how people moving from intermediate to upper intermediate experience a far greater drop-out rate than should be expected. It also churned up the shocking stat that nearly two-thirds of ESOL students fail the Adult Literacy exam at Level One in their first attempt, a real indictment of its efficacy and usefulness. If you want to read it, it's over here on Scrib'd.
OK, my thinking goes like this. Just as Maslow has the different needs, so do language learners. So far, so no brainer. Well, what about 'peak experience'? What do students consider to be their aim? If you look at the questions I asked my two groups last week, you'll see that this was something I was trying to tease out of them, albeit not to any great extent. What is also signifcant is the fact that the learners felt inhibited about talking in a 'deep'/'satisfying' way about subjects that they felt deeply about, and about which they could communicate highly effectively in their own languages. In other words, they perceived a disparity between what they wanted to express and what they felt they could communicate. OK, well, duh, obviously.
But is this perceived disparity a genuine, objectively measurable one, or is it in fact a highly subjective thing? When we talk about things that genuinely interest us, what we should notice is that the language is arguably highly descriptive, but not necessarily grammatically difficult.
Let's go back to Maslow. Now, here is what I propose to do: I'm going to match the type of functional language and grammar forms we might expect to teach our students onto the hierarchy of needs, then compare it to what we actually teach people at elementary level etc. What I suspect this to show is that, for a student who lives in an English-speaking country, they actually need to be far more proficient in certain grammar forms in order to express their most basic needs, than they would do to express 'peak experience' ideas. In other words, in order just to fulfill their simplest physiological and psychological needs, an adult requires language skills far above what they actually would need to express themselves fully in a 'deep' conversation.
This disjuncture, I would argue, leads to a profound sense of demotivation. Indeed, I would say that it is a leading reason for a typical ESOL/ESL student becoming essentially 'diminished' in a way that an EFL student (who is studying the language as a subject, rather than as a medium through which things are learned) does not experience.
This may suggest that they way in which English is taught may need a rethink, certainly for ESOL students. While the Skills for Life materials do, in some respects, attempt to do this, they are rather feeble.
This also suggests that we may be able to talk about a 'hierarchy of language needs' - that is, optimal levels at which a student requires particular things and ways to express him/herself. This, though, would look very different from the mapping of language skills mapped over the Maslow hierarchy, as to some extents it would be informed by the student's own perception of need. What I would would then like to do is map it against statistics for achievement and levels of achievement against exam results and learner progression, in order to see if the hypothesis matches real-world results.
Could be interesting.

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