I was reviewing some literature for a paper on self-confidence of Japanese language learners and read this article again.
Macintyre, Clement, Dornyei and Noels (1998). Conceptualizing Willingness to Communicate in a L2: A Situational Model of L2 Confidence and Affiliation. Modern Language Journal, 82.
Noting that there are language learners who are quite competent, but avoid communication, what this paper proposes is that "willingness to communicate" (frightfully abbreviated as WTC-like the World Trade Center) ought to be the primary goal of language instruction rather than "competence". In other words, we shouldn't be only helping our students to be "able" to use English for intercultural communication, but to actually "want to" to use it. As the authors put it, "a program that fails to produce students who are willing to use the language is simply a failed program."
Their definition: Willingness to Communicate is "the probability that a learner will use the language in authentic interaction with another individual, given the opportunity."
Another interesting quote is "In the past, emphasis on grammatical skill produced students with rather high linguistic competence but did not concentrate on authentic use of the language. Current emphasis on communicate competence may pose a similar problem, producing students who are technically capable of communicating, particularly inside the classroom, but who may not be amenable to doing so outside of the classroom. We suggest that a suitable goal of L2 learning is to increase WTC. By engendering a willingness to communicate, language instruction may achieve its social and political goal of bringing cultures into contact and nations together."
I've had similar thoughts, but what exactly does this entail?
First of all, whether a person is willing to communicate or not in a L1 or L2 in a certain situation is influenced a large number of variables including personality, motivation or lack thereof for the communication, perceived competence (=confidence) in the language, and the interpersonal environment (group size, scary, judgemental people etc.). For example, if I attended a departmental meeting and had a chance to make a comment or ask a question, would I raise my hand and speak up in front of my colleagues? My willingness to do so would be based on many things.
However, for learning a language, the act of using the language is essential, so it makes sense to say that teachers should design their courses so that students feel motivated and willing to use the language, and that those opportunities to use the language are easily and abundantly available so that students who seek to communicate can do so. Instruction to improve competence in the language has to be combined with incentives and opportunities to increase willingness to communicate.
So, what does that mean in my teaching context? Do my students feel "willing to communicate"? Or do they feel unwilling? Fortunately, it seems that most of the students in my classrooms seem willing to try to communicate as well as they can.
A survey of students at ICU who just finished their 1st year of intensive ELP showed:
"I am more interested in learning English than when I started at ICU"
Strongly Agree =110 (30%)
Agree = 165 (45%)
Disagree = 75 (20%)
Strongly Disagree = 14 (5%)
So...75% of our students are MORE interested in learning English. That is good.
And...25% felt they became less interested in learning English. What does that mean?
Either it means they were already highly interested in studying English when they started, or their interest decreased due to some reason. Hmm...
Also, going back to my literature review on "confidence," how does willingness to communicate relate? Obviously, if language learners are confident (or comfortable) that they can communicate (=have L2 self-confidence), they are going to be more willing to try to communicate. And if they try to communicate and succeed, that builds their self-confidence. The two psychological states create a mutually reinforcing positive cycle.
Obvious? Perhaps. Easy to do? No. Due to differences among learners, it is not always easy to design learning environments and tasks that meet the needs of all in terms of supporting the positive cycle of willingness to communicate (want to do it), confidence (believe I can do it), and competence (can do it).
They survey mentioned above had a "confidence" question, so I'll crunch the numbers here:
"I am now more confident in my English ability than I was in the Spring term."
Strongly Agree =120 (33%)
Agree = 195 (52%)
Disagree = 41 (12%)
Strongly Disagree = 8 (3%)
Based on these results, which are difficult to interpret due to the lack of qualitative comments attached to them, 85% are more confident, but 15% are not. We could pat ourselves on the back for the results, but to me, it is somewhat baffling how 50 of our students could study English intensively at a rate of 10 class hours per week for 30 weeks (300 hours) and not feel more confident. Either they were already confident when they came in, or they were influenced in some way to make their confidence weaker. Next year, it would be nice to have a survey item that confirms which case it is.
So, what factors make students more confident or less confident in their English learning or usage? That is the paper I am writing right now...based on long interviews with 15 students at the end of their first year.