Why We Should Reconsider the Importance of the Social Psychology of Immersion Students

The ACIE Newsletter, February 2009, Vol. 12, No. 2

by Pam Wesely, Ph.D. Candidate, Second Languages and Cultures Education, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN

Any of the modern research findings in immersion education, particularly those from the United States, focus on issues related to language acquisition and pedagogy more than the social psychology of immersion students. Characteristics of these learners, like language learning motivation, attitudes, and cross-cultural competencies, have been explored in some publications, but they are certainly deemphasized in favor of issues more relating to academic outcomes and procedures. This is borne out by the 2007 research report by Genesee, from The ACIE Newsletter (Vol. 10, No.3), which lists the top ten most consistent findings from research on foreign language immersion. Nine of the ten findings reflect findings about language proficiency and academic achievement; only one touches on the “understanding and tolerance of the other culture” (Genesee, 2007, p. l 10). We can also remark here that “understanding and tolerance of the other culture” is only one aspect of the social psychology of a language learner; other factors certainly are influential on how they experience language learning in the immersion setting.

It is time to reconsider the importance of the social psychology of immersion students, for a number of reasons. As Genesee’s article suggests, immersion programs have the goals of not only bi- or multilingualism, but also cultural pluralism and appreciation and affirmation of diversity, indicating that more research about students’ attitudes towards other cultures and languages may help educators to create more effective immersion programs. Additionally, studies in L2 learning motivation outside of immersion education have indicated that student motivation is consistently linked to success and persistence in the classroom (Dörnyei, 2003). Both qualitative and quantitative research about immersion programs has suggested that researchers need to look at more than academics and program limitations to understand attrition (Foster, 1998). Finally, only a handful of studies in immersion settings have addressed the social psychology of language learners in a comprehensive way; more commonly, researchers select one aspect of students’ attitudes and investigate that in detail.

What affects students’ motivation to learn another language?

Given these compelling reasons for expanding our understanding of the social psychology of immersion learners, language learning motivation is a promising path of inquiry. Since the mid-1980s, this research has most commonly defined language learning motivation according to the socio-educational model for language acquisition. In this model, students’ motivation is seen to be affected by their attitudes about other cultures, the attitudes of their parents, their learning anxiety, their practical desires like getting a job, their attitudes towards the class and the teacher, and their desires to become a part of the target community (Gardner, 1985). Clearly, this model for language learning motivation encompasses an important number of aspects of the social psychology of language students; exploratory qualitative research can expand this list of factors as well. More recent research on language learning motivation with post-secondary students who participated in an intensive summer long program, like the article by Goldberg and Noels (2006) in the Canadian Modern Language Review, has incorporated issues of ethnic identity, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, and other factors both during and after their language learning experience.

Ultimately, more research into the social psychology of immersion students could help add to the body of knowledge for teachers, parents, and administrators of immersion programs who seek to know more about how students experience immersion education. This, in turn, can lead to a better and more complete understanding of student achievement, program attrition, and how students think and feel in our classrooms on a daily basis.

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