The European Union has declared the multilingualism of its citizens as one of its long-term goals. According to the EU objective, every European should speak two foreign languages additionally to his or her mother tongue.
The Erasmus program could contribute a lot to this goal since languages are learned best in the countries where they are spoken. However, it is commonly known that during Erasmus the students mostly make international friends, and get to know very few locals. So are Erasmus students really motivated to spend their time abroad learning a foreign language? This seems especially questionable concerning languages that are only spoken in one single country, for example Turkish. Students might think it is not worth learning those languages.
However, here in Istanbul I noticed that some of my fellow exchange students actually seemed very ambitious with learning Turkish while others were not. Some pay for private language classes and look for tandem partners while others do not even attend the Turkish course offered by their university. So I wondered: What are the respective reasons for putting more or less effort into learning Turkish? Besides, are there any characteristics of the typical motivated Turkish learning student? Is he German or French, is she studying social sciences or business? Luckily, this semester I was attending a seminar in Psycholinguistic, a field of study, which asks how humans learn languages – and why. So I decided to make this issue the topic of my term paper. I conducted a survey among Erasmus student in Istanbul – and found out some quite interesting things.
Let us start with the most crucial finding: According to my survey, the motivation for learning Turkish is quite high – at least among the 78 students who filled in my questionnaire. On a scale from 1 (meaning “not motivated at all”) to 10 (meaning “extremely motivated”), the average motivation value was 7.18. The students answered my questions between November 17th and December 2nd, so at this point they were in Turkey for two to three months. I also asked them to state how motivated they had been when they arrived. The average value was 7.83, so the motivation dropped by 0.65 point. Yet, by looking at the distribution, one not also recognizes that at the end of November, much less people where highly motivated – less people were not motivated at all, too. So the distribution came closer to the average value. (This is confirmed by the standard deviation, which decreased from 2.53 to 1.97.)
How can we explain this? Probably, many of us were pretty enthusiastic when we arrived. We wanted to make the most out of our stay, learn the language and make many local friends. During the first weeks, we encountered several problems, though. The language is quite different from the ones we learned before, by going to some Erasmus events we automatically found ourselves making international friends, and it is difficult to get to know Turkish people since many do not speak English. Moreover, time goes by so fast. We go to parties, we travel, soon we have midterm exams and half of our semester is over. Consequently, the expected value of learning Turkish diminishes. On the other hand, the ones who have not been so ambitious perhaps made some Turkish friends or are even in a relationship with a Turk. Or they recognized how helpful it is to know some Turkish if you want to get good prizes on a bazar. So their motivation rose.
However, my survey showed that the reasons for being motivated or not and also the reasons for a change in motivation are very hard to generalize. The best rated arguments for learning Turkish were pragmatic (“Because it is useful for daily life in Istanbul”), the desire for integration (“Because I want to communicate with local people”) and the perception of a moral duty (“Because as a guest in a country you should always try to learn the language”). Concerning the rather unmotivated students, the most common reason is as expected: “Because it will probably not be of any use for me again.”
Some unexpected results can be obtained by analyzing the motivation development of certain subgroups. More than half of my survey participants were German (which seems representative for the actual distribution of Erasmus students in Istanbul) and they are averagely higher motivated than the other students. Possibly, this is due to the big population of Turkish people in Germany, which might make it seem worthier to learn Turkish. A quarter of the people interviewed were social scientists and they tended to be extremely motivated when they arrived. Yet, their motivation decreased like no other group. Perhaps, social science students are very idealistic persons with high ambitions. This might possibly lead to unrealistic expectations and might result in frustration.
The same logic might be applied to those who do Erasmus with the very reason of learning Turkish. They also start highly motivated but cannot keep up this spirit. On the contrary, one of the groups with the most stable motivation is the one staying longer than one semester. They make up only 17 percent of the persons questioned but they seem to maintain their high motivation. Therefore, if the EU wants to foster foreign language acquisition, it should probably try to encourage students to stay abroad for a longer period.
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Erasmus at Marmara Üniversitesi from September 2014 until February 2015.
Photo Credits: Julia Manzerova