Beyond Words - Language Blog

English May Discourage Students from Learning a New Language

What are the factors that both motivate and impede us from learning foreign languages? A recent study by Alastair Henry at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden examines Swedish students’ decreased interest and success rate in learning languages besides English.

According to Henry, many students in Sweden prefer to use English on a regular basis, and they often use it as a resource language when learning other languages. Henry’s findings show that this negatively affects students’ motivation to learn other languages, and it can affect their actual abilities to learn foreign languages as well.

The Lack of Motivation

Henry developed a system of questionnaires and interviews for his (successfully defended) thesis to gain insight into the effects of Swedish students using English as a resource language when learning French, Spanish, and German.

Much of his work involved the development of motivational trajectories, gender differences, and whether a lack of motivation was related to processes in which a student’s Spanish-speaking self-concept is compared to another’s English-speaking self-concept.

Henry discovered that while English can be extremely useful in cases where a student either reads, listens to, or writes in a foreign language, many students also become less motivated and make significantly less progress in their studies.

English and Self-Concepts

According to Henry:

Students recognize similar words and phrases in English, and teachers often encourage students to use their English skills when learning French, Spanish, and German. However, using English in this way activates the student’s so-called English-speaking self.

As a result, the student will inevitably compare his or her different language self-concepts – a comparison that most likely will make the student less confident about his or her future skills in the studied language and therefore less motivated in the classroom.

Avoiding the Reliance on English

The interviews that Henry conducted during his study reveal that some Swedish students who successfully learn another language often use strategies to block the negative influence of English. Henry stresses the importance of teachers strengthening their students’ language self-concepts. He suggests that teachers be made aware that using English as a resource may have a negative impact on students’ motivation to learn a third language.

Henry even offers a noteworthy tip: “The language self-concept can be enhanced by using a method common in sports psychology. Coaches often ask their athletes to visualize themselves as successful in the future, and this can be done in the language classroom as well.”


Photograph by sujoykchatterjee