Professor Cynthia White 

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Online language learning

What has emotion got to do with language learning?
How do people manage their emotions when learning another language?
And why is identity a factor in online language learning?  

Cynthia White, Professor of Applied Linguistics, has carried out research looking into the part emotion has to play in the success or otherwise of students learning a new language. She has a particular focus on online environments.

Although aptitude and motivation have traditionally been thought of as the critical factors for success in language learning, the emotional experience that comes along with it is also hugely important. How much learners engage and persist with the task depends a lot on their experiences while learning.

“People can be highly motivated to succeed, but may find that learning the language or trying to speak with other people is so stressful that they actually don’t want to carry on”, she says. “If people generate more positive emotions, however, they want to come back to it and keep going. Emotion is important for persistence.”

Along with a colleague in the US, Cynthia carried out a longitudinal study, following students learning Russian online across several semesters. The goal was to find out how their emotions related to the process of learning changed over time, and how they regulated those emotions.

“Almost everyone has strategies for regulating their emotions. Some of us talk to ourselves about how we’re going, or remind ourselves that we have successfully overcome similarly big challenges in the past. And sometimes you have to adjust your goals to make them more realistic.”

“One learner had a big goal - to be able to speak fluently in Russian.  Aiming for such a high goal was unrealistic and caused her to become very frustrated. But when she decided to also focus on smaller tasks such as the writing system and developing her vocabulary - and to see fluency as a much longer-term goal - she was able to become more positive about the learning experience again.”

Professor White is also comparing the differences in identity encountered by language teachers in online versus traditional classroom environments.

“Some teachers find it very stressful to begin to teach online, using new tools. Others may still prefer to be in the same classroom as their students and ‘see the whites of their eyes’. And others really love the online medium and find it very exciting, choosing to develop new skills and techniques to suit. Whether they love it or not, it does demand a shift in identity and that’s what we’re studying.”

Migration, identity and belonging

A further research area is about migration, identity and belonging.

“Currently I’m working on discourses of New Zealand identity and belonging in web 2.0 environments – including how Kiwis living overseas stay connected to their national home and keep a sense of belonging. Right now I’m looking at our national anthems on YouTube and the comments around them.”

Previously Professor White has been an adviser for the US National Middle East Language Resource Center on a project for Arabic distance language learning, and worked on collaborative online projects with the University of Nottingham, UK and the Open University UK. Her 2003 book Language learning in distance education (Cambridge University Press) is used widely.

Cynthia joined Massey University in 1983 and was Head of the former School of Linguistics and International Languages from 2009 to 2012.

View details of Cynthia White's research.

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