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Brendan Bartram, School of Education, University of Wolverhampton

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Brendan Bartram, School of Education, University of Wolverhampton

“The lessons don’t influence me:” societal influences on pupils’ attitudes to foreign language learning in England, Germany and the Netherlands

Research report based on one aspect of author's PhD study (2005)


Whilst a host of educational variables (teachers, pedagogy, school/national policy) and factors related to pupils’ immediate social environment (peers, family and parents) have been established as important influences on language-learning attitudes, the literature also identifies the effects of wider society on orientations to modern foreign language learning (MFLL). These “larger social and cultural contexts of second language development which have a tremendous impact on second language learning” (Walqui, 2000:2) are, as macro-frameworks, perhaps all the more important given their potential to influence the micro-elements mentioned above. Drawing on the results of a qualitative survey, this article aims to examine these frameworks by describing and comparing pupil perceptions of societal attitudes to learning French, German and English in three different European countries. It additionally aims to provide some insight into the extent to which such perceptions influence language-learning attitudes in different national settings, using the comparative lens as an indicator of importance.

Society and attitudes

Oskamp (1977: 132) describes the important connection between society and attitude formation, stating that “the overall cultural context within which we live can provide a set of assumptions and salient ‘facts’ which determine the attitudes we will develop.” Many authors (Young 1994a, Williams et al 2002, Chambers 1999) link this wider socio-cultural context directly to language learning. Chambers, for instance, refers to language learners entering “the learning situation with positive or negative attitudes derived from the society in which they live” (p. 44). The resultant social status enjoyed by a particular language is often claimed to be a key influence on learners’ attitudes, as Dabène (1997: 22) comments:

Le statut d’une langue a un effet direct sur les attentes et les attitudes des

apprenants, et par conséquent sur leurs conduites d’apprentissage.

(The status of a language has a direct effect on learners’ expectations and attitudes, and consequently on their learning behaviours.)
Where a society’s attitudes to MFLL are perceived as predominantly positive, Young (1994b:47) discusses how the individual’s need for self-esteem may provide the link between high social status for language learning and positive attitudes – “if foreign language learning is accorded high status by society, a desire to learn in order to gain the esteem of others and increase one’s own self-esteem may be generated.” Negative social perceptions may equally prevail, however, with a negative impact on attitudes to learning. Gardner (1985) discusses some of the complex factors which might be responsible for the low status accorded to MFLL by American society. Key amongst these are, in Gardner’s analysis, such diverse issues as negative attitudes towards immigrants, feelings of American superiority, and the melting-pot ideology which have all conspired to elevate the status of English and negate the relative importance of foreign languages.

The status of languages in England

Though the extent to which the status of language learning can be generalised across a whole society is questionable, the reading reflects a wide consensus on the nature of this status within the UK. Saunders (1998:65) talks of a national “indifference to modern languages” while McPake et al (1999) and Watts (2003:v) refer to “a climate of negativity” surrounding MFL in Britain. Interview data from Watts’ research led her even to speculate that English awareness of this negative climate may depress ‘national’ motivation, operating almost as an English self-fulfilling prophecy. Chambers (1999:83) ascribes the low status of languages to Britain’s geographic isolation:

In the context of an island nation, it is possible that pro-French/German/Spanish etc, attitudes may be outweighed by apathy, ignorance or in some areas negativity. This will do little to enhance the individual’s perception of social pressure to perform.
This “lack of shared motivation within our society” (McPake et al 1999: viii) is argued by certain authors to arise from the de-motivating effect occasioned by an acknowledgement of the international status that English enjoys. Hawkins (1996:18) discusses how increasing recognition of this status has lulled the British into a national “acceptance of monolingualism”, which in turn affects attitudes to MFLL. McPake et al (1999:19) elaborate:
…if the population of a country generally allows itself to develop a mind-set which perceives monolingualism as the norm (especially in English), this is less than conducive to learning other languages.
Leighton (1991) refers to the ways in which history, geography and modern technology have conspired to create a general perception that language learning in Britain is superfluous. He describes how this perception is “buttressed by attitudes rooted in Victorian imperial supremacy, sheltered by our island situation and given a spurious validity by the use of American language in modern technology” (p.51). Though the extent to which this statement is true is debatable, it is certainly likely that the relative rarity of foreign languages in the English environment does little to bolster their status. Court (2001) and Leighton (1991) refer to such issues as media voice-overs in English during foreign interviews, the Internet reinforcing British “complacency by spreading English as a world language” (Court 2001:1), the lack of interest in non-English-speaking film and music, etc, whilst other authors such as Vasseur and Grandcolas (1997:221) comment on the simple fact that:
en Angleterre on entend rarement parler d’autres langues sauf si on habite une région avec une forte population d’émigrés.
(foreign languages are rarely heard in England unless one lives in an area with a high immigrant population.)
It is interesting to note in this connection the relatively low status accorded to MFL as foundation subjects in the English school curriculum, which may arguably be a symptom or a cause of social perceptions of status.

The status of languages in Germany and the Netherlands

Given the relatively higher status of languages in the German and Dutch school curricula (in terms of compulsory length of study, number of languages commonly studied, time allocations), it is perhaps unsurprising that the literature indicates that MFLL are of higher standing in both these societies. Whilst several authors link the paucity of MFL in the UK environment to their low social status, the conspicuous presence of MFL is held responsible for their relatively higher status in other European countries. McPake et al (1999:19) refer to this very issue whilst highlighting the huge challenge facing MFL education in Britain:

Continental students’ out-of-school exposure to a modern language is often self-initiated since it reflects their own perceptions of their needs, enthusiasm and interests and hence their individual identity is engaged at a level of intensity that could not reasonably be expected to be equalled in contexts where the exposure to the language occurs almost entirely at school.
The authors argue that a greater awareness and understanding of the importance of languages in educational and professional contexts is key in producing this higher status which is further enhanced by a stronger sense of cultural commitment to European citizenship. Though one might question how generally this greater sense of European identity is shared within and between EU countries outside of the UK, some commentators note that the status of MFLL in a country such as Germany seems firmly allied to an acknowledgement of its (geographical) place within a united Europe, where multi-lingualism is regarded as being of great significance in both cultural and economic terms (Schröder 1996).
While there may be some legitimacy in talking of the general status of MFLL in any society, it must also be remembered that this status may vary at the level of particular languages within a cultural community. The reading suggests that English enjoys an almost universally high status across Europe. Hoffmann (2000:8) explains that a number of diverse factors have conspired to elevate the standing of English in the Netherlands and certain other countries in particular:
In Scandinavia, Belgium and the Netherlands, the English language has acquired a higher profile than anywhere else in Europe, due to their relatively small size and their dependence on international trade and collaboration; and also […] to the predominance of sub-titled rather than dubbed English programmes on their television channels.
She argues that English has not yet perhaps reached this standing in Germany, but acknowledges all the same that using English accrues a number of prestige advantages in German society. Such advantages might not necessarily be offered by French in the Netherlands and Germany or German in the Netherlands, however. Discussing the standing of French across Europe, for example, Gosse (1997:159) refers to cultural, political and historical associations which have brought about a decline in the language’s status:
Le français a beaucoup moins les faveurs du public européen qu’auparavant et l’hégémonie de l’anglais n’en est pas la seule responsable. L’image dont il est porteur repose essentiellement sur des considérations historiques, politiques et culturelles.
(French finds far less favour with the European public than before and the hegemony of English is not solely responsible. The image which it carries is based essentially on historic, political and cultural considerations.)

The media and youth culture

Research suggests that images portrayed via the media and youth culture are particularly important in the construction of teenagers’ perceptions of language status. Oskamp (1977:133) describes how the media play a part in shaping attitudes in general:

By selecting, emphasising and interpreting […] they help to structure the nature of ‘reality’, […] which in turn impels the public to form attitudes.
In a sense, the media can be seen as an element of youth culture, described by Young (1994b:247) as “a non-specific term usually deemed to include music, fashion, cinema and television. There are variations in youth culture between societies and different sections of those societies. Yet certain aspects of youth culture such as popular music and television transcend all classes and cultures, at least within a European context.” Osborn (2001:128) echoes this view, referring to the “internationalisation of adolescent peer culture”. Several authors (see Clark and Trafford 1995) refer to youth culture as a significant influence on attitudes towards MFLL. Young (idem) explains how this is partly responsible for positive attitudes towards learning English in particular:
The idolizing of popular music artists and movie stars is a common phenomenon among adolescents. Given that many of these stars are from English-speaking countries, a positive association between the person and the language spoken or sung by that person may occur, which may in turn influence attitudes towards the learning of English as a foreign language.
Woordward (2002) and Gosse (1997:158) reiterate this point, Gosse adding that recent technological developments, such as the advent of the Internet with its English language bias and appeal for adolescents, have done much to secure the high status of English abroad. Such developments might again be argued as undermining the perceived need for MFL among English teenagers, whilst raising their importance for continental adolescents. McPake et al (1999:19) cite the specific example of Dutch teenagers in this regard:
In Holland, […] less time is spent in learning a modern language at primary school than we spend in Scotland. Yet Dutch children who go to secondary school have learnt at least half of their modern language outside the school system – they pick it up from music, magazines, films, television.
The pupils themselves would certainly seem to agree that youth culture is an important attitudinal influence, and Gardner (1985:111) discusses how older teenagers in particular tend to see film and television as more influential than their parents. Given the important attitudinal connection between pupil perceptions of the target-language speakers and MFLL (see Gardner 1985) the media portrayal of the Germans, French and English would thus seem to be of particular importance. In her research on the reasons for the decline of post-sixteen language learning in England, Watts (2003:15) identifies a general “climate of negativity” surrounding MFLL, as previously mentioned. Interestingly, all the subjects she interviewed perceived that this climate was “dictated largely by the negative portrayal of ‘Europe’, ‘foreigners’ and ‘all things foreign’ in all aspects of the British media and particularly in the popular press”.
Many authors have singled out the particularly stereotyped and negative portrayal of Germans in the British entertainment and information media (Benkhoff 1998, Krönig 1999, Tenberg 1999). Theobald (1999:36), for example, cites examples of British television programmes where typical Germans are presented as “goose-stepping Nazis, and arrogant, humourless, domineering little Hitlers.” Though there are arguably more positive portrayals of Germany elsewhere in the media, questions about the influence of such portrayals on English teenagers’ attitudes towards learning German inevitably arise. Across the North Sea, Dekker (1998) similarly attributes the negative attitudes of many Dutch pupils towards German and Germany to negative media coverage.


The pupils participating in the survey were fifteen and sixteen-year-old volunteers from across the ability range at mixed comprehensive schools. This age group was chosen since learners would by this stage possess several years’ language learning experience and, it was hoped, the maturity to reflect on these experiences. The pupils were drawn from six schools (two in each country) located in the English Midlands, Central Holland and Central Germany, i.e. at some distance from national borders as it was thought that proximity to other language groups might skew attitudes and perceptions. All the schools were located in semi-urban regions, close to the conurbations of Birmingham, Frankfurt am Main and Amsterdam, and were broadly similar in terms of their size, social intake and educational attainment.

Given my interest in the pupils’ own interpretations of societal perceptions and influences, I decided to begin the study with a method that would allow a freer response than the attitude batteries and questionnaires based on fixed-category options much used in studies influenced by Gardner and Lambert (1972) and Gardner (1985), and devised a word-association task listing prompts (e.g. “my German teacher”, “French people”, “German lessons”, etc) based on themes identified by the literature as important in terms of attitudes towards language learning. The following findings are based on the responses of 408 pupils (around 30 pupils per language per school) to items concerning impressions of prevalent social views relating to the learning of French, German and/or English, the target language speakers and their perceived media portrayal. Pupil responses were subsequently transcribed onto single sheets to allow a clear overview and to facilitate categorisation. Critical friends were enlisted in this process of inductive category building in an attempt to establish a degree of analytical dependability and plausibility (Hammersley, 1990).
A sub-set of around 200 volunteers participated in the second stage which invited pupils to comment in writing on themes that emerged during stage one. Asking pupils to produce such reports allowed them the luxury of reflection and detailed articulation – something not always possible under the instant response pressure of an interview. Once the data were coded, the codes themselves were fitted into an organising scheme based around the attitudinal dimensions under examination. Group interviews were used as a final instrument (one interview per language per school) in an attempt to secure a degree of methodological triangulation by probing and verifying the emerging patterns underpinning the enquiry strengthen its relateability. Comments by the German and Dutch pupils appear below in English translation.


The English pupils

All three stages of data revealed a dominant view of societal attitudes to German marked by impressions of little use or interest (cf. Saunders, 1998, Watts, 2003). During the interviews, pupils stressed its inferior employability value in relation to the core National Curriculum subjects (cf. Lee et al, 1998), and there were suggestions that an awareness of such widespread attitudes and of English society’s acceptance of mono-lingualism was of little motivational advantage:

I feel that the fact that many English people can only speak English doesn’t help when trying to encourage people to learn German. (English girl)
Responses for French reflected a similarly negative impression of attitudes in England, with most comments underlining the lack of status French possessed (observed also by Gosse, 1997). Such sentiments were reiterated in the pupils’ accounts, where learners commented on exclusively negative perceptions, often bolstered by a widespread view that English is enough, as noted by McPake et al (1999) and Watts (2003). In the interviews too, the pupils spoke of prevalent negative attitudes towards the French, which some felt even extended to “an anti-anything-foreign culture” (cf. Theobald, 1999), though others suggested “it’s more anti-French than any other nationality.” For some, such attitudes were more pronounced among the older generation but the potential of such views to influence language attitudes was still acknowledged.
As for the media’s role in the construction of these perceptions, it is worth noting the broad agreement among the pupils that the Germans in particular fell foul of the English media. 59/68 responses from stage one revealed perceptions of negative German portrayals (cf. Theobald 1999). Typical responses here could be categorised on the basis of either war associations or negative stereotypes (Nazis; dictators; always in war films; murderers; war films – very unfair; as enemies; as evil; bad sense of humour). Of the 17 English pupils who commented on the media in their accounts, 16 somewhat surprisingly indicated that the media in no way influenced their perception of the target-language speakers. This lack of influence was ascribed to a lack of media coverage, which seems slightly at odds with the responses given in stage one. This might suggest that the pupils were aware of stereotypical media associations (“I think we’re given a bad image of them to be honest” – pupil interview) but felt that actual information reporting is rather more limited. Other pupils were explicit about their perception of German/French invisibility in the media/youth culture domain:
There are few pop stars, TV shows, films, etc from Germany so I don’t think there’s much incentive to learn the language.
The media/television and music doesn’t influence me at all because in England we don’t get much French music, etc
It may be this commonly perceived lack of media exposure that affects their attitudes and in fact undermines the utility of French and German in some pupils’ eyes (cf. Leighton, 1991). One girl illustrated that this may well be the case for her:
I don’t need French to understand music or anything so I don’t need it at all!!!

The Dutch pupils: German and French

Dutch responses indicated that learning German was perhaps viewed as more useful in the Netherlands than in England (“it’s your neighbour, so you have dealings with it”). For some pupils, easier access to the German media seemed responsible for this perception of greater utility. 7 Dutch pupils used their accounts to elaborate, mentioning familiarity with German pop music and German programmes on Dutch television.

Conversely, 11 pupils discussed how they disliked and actively avoided German media, often because of an aesthetic rejection of the language (“I can’t stand German television and pop music, mainly because I think the language is ugly”). This constitutes a difference between some of the Dutch and English pupils: several English comments suggested the scant media exposure was regrettable, whilst several Dutch students felt that the greater exposure in the Netherlands actually eroded their attitude to German. It is worth noting that most of the Dutch pupils who reject the German media also discuss an un-enjoyable German-learning experience, and that their negative subject orientation might be transferred more generally to other associations with Germany (cf. Chambers, 1999).
Whatever the case may be, the majority of the pupils certainly agreed that the Dutch media presented the Germans in a poor light, with 34/58 responses from stage one echoing English comments (a lot of people are still seen as Nazis; beer bellies-, stupid, aggressive, miserable). 18 pupils refrained from comment here, perhaps because of a reluctance to engage in (negative) generalisation. The extent of influence here is of course difficult to gauge, though it seems unlikely that such negatively perceived media portrayals will do much to enhance positive attitudes towards learning German, and it may even be the case that the very negative attitudes of some Dutch and English pupils towards the Germans/learning German might be exacerbated, if not constructed, by these images.
As for French, the Dutch pupils presented an equally unflattering impression of societal attitudes. There were very few positive responses in stage one data (only 8/52), while several pupils referred to negative social attitudes in their accounts, largely because of a dominant perception of the greater utility of English eclipsing French. In the interviews, some learners referred to rather prejudiced views of France in the Netherlands (cf. Dekker et al, 1998), impressions which some felt to be unfair, whilst others speculated that common views of France as a beautiful country conflicted with more negative attitudes towards the people, thus generating mixed attitudes towards the language.

The German pupils: French

The German responses indicated a more positive impression (25/57) of societal attitudes than had the Dutch pupils and English participants (8/63), and though many suggested French was seen as enjoyable or useful, some acknowledged this was not a universal perception and referred to its inferior status vis-à-vis English. Certain pupils associated more negative views with age, the older generation perceived as being less inclined, whilst others suggested during the interviews that negative attitudes to the French were occasionally responsible for negative language attitudes:

There are people who think the French are totally arrogant, and because of that they’re against the language, I think.

Some German pupils believed such views were generated by negative media treatment (46/76 responses), though the 30 responses to the contrary contrast sharply with the very few Dutch and English responses describing positive media representations of the French in their societies (7/56 and 10/95 respectively). In the written accounts, German pupils distinguished themselves from the English and Dutch students by remarking on exclusively positive media influences. 13 German pupils revealed how French media had entered their interest domain, and commented on their enjoyment of French pop music and television. One boy explained how the effect of this was to enhance his perception of language utility:

Knowing French can be really useful - on television and in music there are more and more French songs.

The German and Dutch pupils: English

The Dutch and German pupils’ impressions of societal attitudes to English were, however, by far the most positive to emerge in the survey. Stage one data revealed dominant impressions of positive orientations based on a belief in the currency and utility of English in their present and future (only 11/125 negative responses), impressions which were corroborated by the accounts and interviews. The comments of a boy at Donau Schule appear typical, and underline the firm link between English and youth culture:

Learning English in Germany is really very popular, I feel, as it’s the language of young people.
A girl at the same school indicated that learning English has become an integral and unquestioned aspect of life in Germany:
I think it’s just taken for granted in Germany that everybody learns English, because everybody has to, so I’ve never even really thought about whether I want to learn this language or not.
Her comments are powerfully echoed by another girl, who seems almost to equate a lack of English knowledge with social disadvantage:
Learning English is just a totally normal part of life in our country. People who can’t speak it are seen as outsiders.
These attitudes appear to be bolstered in the Netherlands by a high level of exposure to English, and a perception of greater need given the minority status of Dutch, as suggested by Hoffmann (2000) and supported by some of the pupils’ comments. One boy explains:
Dutch people don’t think negatively about English because they know themselves that they need it for work and other things.
It would appear that these impressions are convincingly endorsed by the media in Germany and the Netherlands. Stage one data revealed only 19/138 responses concerning perceptions of unfavourable media coverage and in the pupils’ accounts, the media and their influence emerged as the most important issue for the vast majority of pupils (cf. Hoffmann, 2000). 25 of the Dutch pupils and every German pupil commented on the important effect of the media on their attitude towards learning English. The connection between English and modern youth culture in the forms of pop music, the Internet and television/film again appears key in this regard, and dovetails with positive learning attitudes and behaviour. One German girl remarked, for example:
When I listen to songs, they’re usually in English, and I think it’s really great when I can translate some of the lyrics and understand what they’re singing about.
A Dutch girl provides a slightly more detailed account of media influence, echoing McPake et al (1999):
I think that TV, music and other media have influenced me a great deal to learn English. Even when I was seven I used to watch BBC1 and 2 and translated songs into Dutch. This gave me a very large vocabulary for my age, and soon enough I was just watching BBC1.
The comments of another girl are not unusual when she explains that “music has influenced me the most because there’s such a lot in English”. For some pupils, exposure to English via the media is even perceived to be more influential or indeed effective than school, engaging their interests and providing immediate and regular opportunities for use in their daily life, thereby enhancing its perception as useful (cf. McPake et al again, 1999):
These days you can learn English from songs as well, in fact learning English this way is often much easier. (German girl)
The teachers, lessons etc haven’t influenced me to want to learn English. The reason I’m good at English is the Internet. I’m always on English sites and I take part in games on a server with more than 2000 English people, so I speak English with them then, and I want to know it better to be able to communicate with them better. (Dutch boy)
Songs and television influence me because I watch some English programmes on TV or listen to songs and I want to be able to understand them, so English is important for me. (German boy)
The lessons don’t influence me, I just learn it in everyday life, games, TV, music. (Dutch boy)
During the interviews, pupils elaborated on how positive identification with English-speaking media idols added further to this influence (cf. Young 1994b). Time and time again in fact, the pupils referred to the media as the motor of their positive orientations. The broad alignment in response patterns between pupil perceptions of media portrayals and influence, and their own attitudes to English speakers (only 14/129 negative stage one responses) is also worth highlighting, and though it would be questionable to argue that there is a direct causal relationship between English media exposure and pupil attitudes, it seems permissible to suggest that there is certainly an association here.

Discussion and conclusions

The findings suggest that young people do not necessarily perceive a uniform societal attitude towards language learning in general. The Dutch pupils’ responses indicate, for example, that English, French and German are viewed differently by society, with attitudes to English clearly emerging as most positive, and attitudes to French and German appearing more negative but reasonably similar. However, the German pupils reflect fewer differences in their perceptions of society’s views of French and English (though English admittedly emerges more favourably) and the responses from the English students also reveal more uniform social perceptions of French and German, in spite of their more negative overall patterning. Though this arguably lends some legitimacy to Watt’s description of a climate of negativity surrounding language learning in Britain, it is worth noting that social perceptions of French and German are broadly similar in the Netherlands, and that perceived German views of French cannot quite match the glowing impression evoked by English. This perhaps underlines the special role that English enjoys in continental Europe and resonates with Hoffmann (2000:14):

It should be remembered […] that the learning of English for Europe’s schoolchildren is different from learning any other foreign language because of the presence of English in their environment in the form of pop songs, the youth and drug cultures and, most importantly, television and the Internet.
Though this may be true, and though the data here do reflect a greater between-country correspondence in terms of social perceptions of French and German, it would still appear that the English pupils have a particularly negative impression of societal views on language learning, given that their responses are consistently more negative overall than the German and Dutch pupils’. It may be that the positive climate apparently surrounding English in Germany and the Netherlands contributes to some extent to fostering positive language learning attitudes, from which other languages might also benefit. The absence of such an attitudinal motor in England may thus be a partial explanation for the more negative picture revealed, all the more perhaps when an awareness of the international status of English might undermine social motivations to learn other languages, as suggested by Hawkins (1996) and evident in some of the English pupils’ comments here.
This can nonetheless only partially account for the widely divergent English and German pictures that emerge here, and the greater social status attached to MFLL in Germany described in the literature and evidenced by the data may be more important in accounting for the more favourable German impressions. There is certainly room to argue that the media play a significant dual role in helping to construct this higher status in Germany, by presenting more positively perceived portrayals of the target-language speakers and communities, and by constructing accessible connections between language learning and youth cultural interests. The perceived failure of the British media in both these respects may contribute to the scenario that emerges from the English responses. The question remains, however, as to the extent to which perceptions of societal attitudes, whatever their nature, influence learner attitudes. Though it is difficult to gauge this influence in precise terms, a number of tentative points can be made. Although space prevents further examination of other findings here, it is worth noting the broad alignment between perceptions of wider social views and the attitudinal patterns evidenced by the pupils in the larger survey. Though it may be that pupils take their own attitudes as starting-points for wider generalisations, the broad correspondence here is suggestive of an association that implicates an awareness of wider social views in the construction and legitimation of particular attitudes. Though an examination of educational and other socio-cultural variables should not be neglected, the influence of the wider social context is certainly underlined here, and questions about the ways in which national media operate to construct conceptual and discursive frameworks that support or inhibit the development of positive language learning attitudes inevitably arise. Large-scale efforts supported by appropriate political involvement would seem timely if the climate surrounding languages in England is as widely negative as the data here and other commentators suggest. The scale of challenge involved may be too great for MFL teachers alone:
English pupils need really to be aware of a need to succeed with languages. This continues to present a significant challenge to modern language teachers in the British context. (Stables and Wikeley, 1999:31)


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