The question has come up already: what motivated me to try and rehabilitate my Spanish? Or, more precisely, what was my motive? That is to say, what is it that I want to be able to do with my Spanish? What is my goal?
And why am I motivated now, when I wasn’t before? What – if anything – has changed?
First of all, it has to be said that, living in Spain, I don’t lack a motive to speak Spanish. But why has this not translated into motivation? In his case study of the Japanese Wes, living in Hawaii, Schmidt (1983: 141) hits the nail on the head: ‘It seems necessary to recognize a distinction between the motivation, desire, or drive to communicate and motivation for studying the target language in a classroom situation or for doing certain types of self-study. The first does not necessarily imply the second.’
There has always been a need to communicate in Spanish, but this alone has not been sufficient to propel me into the classroom, or to instil good habits of study, such as using word cards or embarking on a program of extensive reading. Why was it, then, that, having experienced humiliation on a daily basis because of my poor Spanish, I wasn’t motivated to do something about it?
The theory of motivation that seemed, at the time, to best explain this reluctance to make an effort, this lethargy even, is what is known as Expectancy-Value theory, which argues that the effort you put into an activity is a function of what you expect to get out of it. Once I had achieved a modicum of communicative competence, it was clear to me that the effort involved in improving any further (such as memorizing thousands of words) would be out of all proportion to the expected gains, i.e. a barely perceptible increase in fluency.
This ‘law of diminishing returns’ is dramatically (and depressingly) demonstrated in the statistics on vocabulary acquisition: while familiarity with the 2000 most common words (in English, at least) confers coverage of something like 83% of text, the addition of another 2000 words represents only a pathetic 5% increase, and another 2000 even less than that, to the point that 10,000 words covers just 94% – a long way from the benchmark of 98% that some scholars (e.g. Nation) argue is the minimum for comfortable reading fluency.
The expectancy of value (also known as ‘bang for the buck’) is so low that it is hardly worth getting out of bed, let alone learning verb inflections.
I needed another theory of motivation that offered more hope. Dörnyei’s ‘motivational self system’ (2009a, 2009b) seemed to fit the bill, since it replaces the vague notion of ‘goal’ (or ‘value’) with the more fully elaborated notion of ‘self’, or at least ‘possible self’: ‘Possible selves act as “self-guides”, reflecting a dynamic, forward-pointing conception that can explain how someone is moved from the present towards the future’ (Dörnyei, 2009a: 213).
It seemed that I needed to envisage a Spanish-speaking version of me, an ‘ideal self’, the realization of which should be within my grasp. ‘If the person we would like to become speaks an L2, the ideal L2 self is a powerful motivator to learn the L2 because of the desire to reduce the discrepancy between our actual and ideal selves’ (Dörnyei, 2009b: 29).
Unfortunately, the person I used to want to become was far too idealized to be realistic: I had this image of myself as the voluble, sociable, totally integrated party person: engaging, witty, knowledgeable, and so on. An impossible goal, since (apart from the fact that I’m not like that in my first language), there’s no realistic way I can achieve that degree of fluency and idiomaticity, not at my age, anyway. Moreover, anything short of that goal would be way too short. That is, you can’t be half engaging and witty: it’s all or nothing. (In Harder’s  memorable formulation, rather than being a wit in my second language, I would simply come across as a half-wit).
I needed to lower my sights. Native-like competence was never going to be achievable. Nor necessary. What I want to achieve is not mastery of Spanish, per se, but mastery of my Spanish, that is, the Spanish that fulfils my communicative needs. As Widdowson (1994: 284) pointed out, ‘You are proficient in language to the extent you possess it, make it your own, bend it to your will, assert yourself through it rather than simply submit to the dictates of its form […] so in a way, proficiency only comes with non-conformity.’
So, even if I’m never going to be able to internalize a fully operational version of a proficient speaker’s knowledge of Spanish, maybe I can bend it to my will, and build my own minitiuarized copy, a scale model, if you like – one which is systemically entire and internally cohesive, and works like a Hornby model train: it’s a perfect copy of the original but a fraction of its size. Not the territory but the map.
But I still needed a vision of myself at home in this reduced Spanish. I needed to see myself owning it. But doing what?
One of my teachers unwittingly supplied the answer. In the second week of the intensive course, she set us the task of preparing a short presentation on a city of our choice. (Cities was the coursebook topic). This was a challenge I could really rise to, since I spend half my life giving presentations. Moreover, it is something that I am occasionally asked to do in Spanish – but which I always (regretfully) decline. I am in awe of my non-Spanish colleagues (like Ben Goldstein) who can do this.
Here, then, was my vision of my ideal Spanish self: standing in front of an audience of Spanish speakers, talking (fluently and intelligibly even if heavily accented) about teaching – IN SPANISH!
Having identified my ‘ideal self’, I now need to start to ‘substantiate my vision’ – to use Hadfield and Dörnyei’s (2013) formulation. Which means identifying the sub-set of Spanish that I need to help me articulate this self.
Then I need to find someone who can help me realize it.
Dörnyei, Z (2009a) The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dörnyei, Z. (2009b) ‘The L2 motivational self system’, in Dörnyei, Z. & Ushioda, E. (eds.) Motivation, Language Identity and the L2 Self, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.
Hadfield, J. & Dörnyei, Z. (2013) Motivating Learners. London: Routledge.
Harder, P. (1980) ‘Discourse as self-expression— on the reduced personality of the second-language learner’, Applied Linguistics I (3): 262-270.
Schmidt, R. (1983) ‘Interaction, acculturation and the acquisition of communicative competence,’ in Wolfson, N., & Judd, E. (eds.) Sociolinguistics and Second Language Acquisition, Rowley, MA: Newbury House.
Widdowson, H.G. (1994) ‘The ownership of English’, TESOL Quarterly, 28/2.
Next week: The formulae for success.