“Talking Points,” April 2014

Kay Irie and Rachelle R. Meilleur discuss issues and events of interest to the LD SIG

Imagination and Motivation in the Language Classroom

Rachelle: Hi Kay! I hope you have enjoyed the break and are ready to get back to teaching. It’s hard to believe that April is already here. As for myself, I am quite excited to be starting at a new university this year with a completely different group of students to what I have been teaching before. I have so many teaching and research ideas that I would like to implement, but of course the key is narrowing it down to a few manageable ones. With that in mind, I thought we might talk about one of the research projects that you have been involved with over the past few years.

In particular, I was interested in the presentation you gave with Damon Brewster, “Capitalizing on life experiences for L2 motivation and autonomy”, at 5th Independent Learning Association conference based on the project that you have done with him (Brewster & Irie, 2013). Although I know this is a brief summary of a larger project (Irie & Brewster, 2013), I found the description of Makio’s experiences that led him to create an ideal L2 self quite inspiring. As a novice researcher myself, I thought we might begin with a little background about the initial stages of this project. What provided the impetus to focus on the ideal L2 self? How did you choose the students that participated in the project? Were there any difficulties in maintaining contact with the students over the four years?

Kay: Congratulations, Rachelle, on your new job. I’m also starting at a new university from this April and I am very excited about it. And thank you for asking about the research I have been carrying out with Damon. This is an ongoing longitudinal multi-case study that started in the spring of 2010 at the university where Damon and I used to work together developing the first-year English program. Since all the first-year students had four komas of English in the same class throughout their first year, the English classes functioned as their “homeroom.” As teachers and curriculum developers, we were simply curious as to how the students would continue and discontinue studying English after the first year, how they would manage their learning on their own, and how the first-year courses would affect the decisions they made regarding language learning. So we decided to follow— or tag—a group of students for four years to see where they ended up.

Since we were interested in their motivation to continue or discontinue their learning of English and their ways of doing that, we turned to an L2 motivation theory, Dörnyei’s L2 motivational self system (Dörnyei, 2005, 2009) as a framework. L2 motivation has been my research interest ever since graduate school and I looked into junior high school students’ motivation using Gardner’s integrative and instrumental orientations of motivation, but I could personally relate to the concept of ideal L2 self as a learner myself – I always had a pretty clear image of myself speaking English fluently although my grades in English at school were not necessarily great. Ideal L2 self is the future image of yourself as a successful target language learner and user that you wish to become and the theory holds that when the vision is challenging yet plausible and vivid, it is likely to function as a guide for the learner. Damon and I decided to explore how our students developed or did not develop ideal L2 selves and how this concept of themselves affected their learning.

We chose the participants from the same level of first-year class Damon and I taught by what is known as purposive sampling in which we identified three types of motivational orientations using a survey and selected two willing students from each group. So we started with six students initially. As you correctly guessed, only three out of the six stayed in the study from the second year on, and now the project has entered unexpectedly into its fifth year. One student graduated in March, another has transferred to a university in US, and the third one has just returned from a one-year study abroad program in Canada and is starting her final year in Japan. We had no idea that the students, including those who left the study, would end up choosing such different paths when we started four years ago.

Rachelle: That’s really interesting Kay! I am also quite interested in motivation, both as a teacher and as a language learner myself. Perhaps my lack of a strong ideal L2 self has contributed to my poor achievements in learning not only Japanese, but French as well. I have always been curious as to why some students seem to become more motivated as time goes by, while others seem to lose their motivation to study English. With regards to your study, how much did the ideal L2 self contribute to the motivation of the students who decided to continue their learning and those who decided not to and drop out of the study? If the ideal L2 self is a contributing factor to the ongoing motivation to study English, is there a way to develop and nurture it with other students?

Kay: Yes, we have seen a clear case in which it exerted a motivating function. One of the students had a clear vision of starting up a sustainable business in developing countries and imagined that he would be speaking English with locals and government officials of the countries. He took the earliest opportunity to study abroad in his first year to accelerate the rate of learning English and ended up transferring to a university in US in his second year. Of course, it is actually rare to see first-year students with such a clear ideal L2 self, and yet that does not mean that they are not motivated. Another student in the study liked English and was motivated in a typical self-disciplined-good-student way, if you know what I mean? But she did not have a clear image of herself as a successful language user in the future like the first student. Her motivation was partly intrinsic in a sense that she simply enjoyed learning a language and also extrinsic as she felt a sense of achievement by doing well on the tests and getting good grades. So she was doing well without having an ideal L2 self. However, it was interesting to observe her renewed motivation in the third year. She joined a seminar class where she met many students who were better speakers of English and had experiences abroad. She started to imagine herself not only as a successful learner of English but also a person who has a broader perspective. This vision might not have been as fully developed and detailed as ideal L2 self is proposed to be in Dörnyei’s model, but it was certainly encouraging for her as her imagined L2 self was immediate, concrete, and plausible.

I don’t think teachers can “give” motivation to students. Motivation has to come from within students themselves, and it comes in all shapes and forms. But we can always try to stimulate their imagination by presenting examples, showing new perspectives, and providing opportunities to stop and think about what they want to do with English or any other foreign languages in the future. And of course how they can realize it. I feel imagination should be an important part of classroom and language education (Ryan & Irie, 2014). Magid and Chan (2012) report highly encouraging results of their intervention program in UK and Hong Kong by adapting a counseling program for underprivileged African-American high school students in the United States to enhance their ability to imagine successful future selves. The program consists of a series of activities such as listing goals, developing a timeline, coming up with action plans and discussing feared selves. Another reading that may be of interest to you is Murray (2011) in which he discusses the role of imagination in self-directed learning at a Japanese university, and how students find their possible L2 selves in movies and TV programs they watch, and how ideal L2 self can be used as students’ own criteria for assessment. Finally, I would also recommend to anybody interested in this topic Motivating Learners, Motivating Teachers: Building Vision in the Language Classroom (Dörnyei & Kubanyiova, 2013) in which they extensively discuss the power of imagination—vision—and present many classroom activities that may work in language classrooms.

Rachelle: Thanks Kay! I agree with you that it is not the teachers who give the students motivation, but that it comes from within. I guess, as you say, the key here is encouraging them through their imaginations. I really appreciate all the resources you’ve listed here—I’m definitely going to read them and hopefully find a way to motivate not only my students to think about their future, imagined L2 selves, but myself as well. In addition, I hope to incorporate elements of the idealized L2 self into my own research that looks at how students use and access ICT resources in developing their own language learning autonomy.

As always, please let us know about your own experiences with this, or any comments you may have, on our blog. Welcome to a new school year everyone!


Brewster, D., & Irie, K. (2013). “Capitalizing on social networks, life experiences, and technology: A case study of autonomy development.” In M. Hobbs & K. Dofs (Eds.), ILAC Selections, 5th Independent Learning Association Conference, at Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand (pp. 104-106). Retrieved at http://www.independentlearning.org/uploads/100836/files/ILA_2012_Proceedings.pdf

Dörnyei, Z. (2005) The psychology of the language learner. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Dörnyei, Z. (2009) “The L2 motivational self system.” In Z. Dörnyei & E. Ushioda (Eds.), Motivation, language identity, and the L2 self (pp. 9–42). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Dörnyei, Z., & Kubanyiova, M. (2013). Motivating learners, motivating teachers: Building vision in the language classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Irie, K., & Brewster, D. (2013). One curriculum, three stories: Ideal L2 self and L2-self-discrepancy profiles. In M. Apple, D. da Silva, & T. Fellner (Eds.), Foreign language motivation in Japan (pp.110-128). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Murray, G. (2011). “Imagination, metacognition and the L2 self in a self- access learning environment.” In G. Murray, X. Gao, & T. Lamb (Eds.), Identity, motivation and autonomy in language learning (pp. 75–90). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Ryan, S., & Irie, K. (2014). “Imagined and possible self: Stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.” In S. Mercer & M. Williams (Eds.), Multiple perspectives on the self in SLA (pp. 109-123). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

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