Utilitarianism in China’s English Learning: English as A Sheer Tool, Not A Language

By Zhuohan Chen


Utilitarianism dominates China’s English education, with English (L2) being viewed as a sheer tool for gaining advantages. The dearth of lingual identity results in rising tedium towards L2 and limited L2 proficiency. Thus, the study explored two questions: 1) what utilitarian motivation do Chinese L2 learners have?; and 2) What factors bring utilitarianism? Through questionnaires and semi-structured interviews, the article qualitatively analyzed that L2 utilitarianism stems from over-strong extrinsic motivation and the lack of intrinsic one (insufficient L2 lingual identity and cultural identity). Suggestions were made to help reduce L2 learners’ prejudice against foreign languages.

Key words: Utilitarianism in language learning; English education in China; Motivation; Lingual identity

1. Introduction

L2 learning entails understanding and identifying the culture of the language community. For a clear definition of the identity towards a culture-embedded language, this study uses lingual identity to separate the inner desire and acception for L2 from utilitarian goals. However, such lingual identity falls short of enough in China.

This research asks questions including 1) what utilitarian perceptions do Chinese L2 learners have? 2) What factors bring utilitarianism? Hypotheses were: 1) Chinese L2 learners generally lack lingual identity; 2) The raging utilitarianism stems from the absence of culture elements.

The article falls into: 1) literature review; 2) methodology; 3) key findings; and 4) conclusion.

2. Literature Review

2.1 Motivation Constructs 

The sense of integrative, when learning L2, is defined as a strong type of motivation (integrative motivation) by Gardner and Lambert (1972). In stark contrast, if learner’s interest is in practical advantages derived from language proficiency, the drive is called instrumental motivation. Similarly, there exist other constructs: intrinsic motivation v.s. extrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2000); L2 Motivational Self System and instrumentality (Dörnyei’s 2005, 2009) etc.

These constructs, however, fail to divide the inner L2 identity from the outer one in EFL (English as a foreign language) context. Integrative motivation emphasizes “survive” in the target language community, for Gardner & Lambert mainly focused on migrants to North America (Hua, 1998), thus falling into the scope of ESL (English as a second language) context. Also, integrative motivation does not fit in China for the concept “L2 community” is vague (Dörnyei’s 2010). Intrinsic motivation refers to gaining satisfaction from the language learning itself, hardly distinguishing L2 identity from gaining sense of achievement. L2 Motivational Self System, didn’t involve the inner acknowledgement for L2 culture.

Lingual identity refers to the intrinsic desire for acquiring and accepting a new culture-embedded language (Gardner & Lambert, 1972; Deci & Ryan, 2000; Pavlenko, 2006; Dörnyei’s, 2009; Henry, 2017; Zhou, 2001). It does not encourage getting fully immersed into English culture, but to make people aware of the value of English except as a tool.

2.2 Utilitarianism in Language Learning

Utilitarian motives in language learning refers to learn languages for a separable outcome (Gardner and Lambert 1972; Deci & Ryan, 2000). The outcome can be personal achievement, high grades, job opportunities, and worldwide communication.

As for what brings such motivation, Asian educational systems (Warden & Lin, 2000; Hua, 1998) and the competitive climate of English classrooms are catalysts (Hua, 1998). Expectations from oneself, families, teachers aside (Guo, 2009), the lack of lingual identity stemmed from the lack of integrativeness to English culture also points to the raging utilitarianism (Warden & Lin, 2000).

Opinions vary in L2 utilitarianism’s effectiveness. Researchers like Deci & Ryan (2000) held students could perform well out of strong outer motivation, explaining why many Chinese learners acquire English well out of utilitarian motives (Hao, 2001). But Dörnyei (2010) and Hua (1998) considered it as a “pale and impoverished” motivation working only in a short run, with which the current study echos.

2.3 Overview of English Motivation Research in China

Between 1959-2005, L2 motivation studies in China centered around motivation types, classroom activities, and strategies (Zhou, 2007). In one of the most generalizable studies led by Gao (2003) seven motivation types were listed, among which only the intrinsic interest is associated with lingual identity, the rest all belonging to the utilitarian one.

Subsequently, relevant strategies like arousing students’ interest were made (Hua, 1998; Zhou, 2001). Specifically, Zhou (2001) suggested English learners try to eliminate short-term utilitarianism and keep an enduring interest in English and the culture it represents. But during 2005-2013, problems of overwhelming utilitarianism remained and even widened (Guo, 2009).

In recent 5 years, the focus lies in empirical researches testifying theories raised by foreign scholars, mostly seen under the L2 Motivational Self System (Dörnyei’s 2005, 2009). Strategies studies at teachers’, students’ level and educational technology also showed up (Li, 2015; Wang, 2020; Ge, 2016). But many studies only targeted on students in different regions, leaving the problem of utilitarianism as it be. Thus, it is time to see L2 motivation through new lens.

3. Methodology

3.1 Quantitative Sampling

Participants are students learning English as their first foreign language for at least 10 years in China.

Online questionnaire was distributed to 122 EFL learners in China, with 101 responding English was their first foreign language (effective questionnaires).

Table 1. Questionnaires overview

* Questions regarding motivation types are listed in Table 3

Notably, deviations exist in the lingual identity results from questionnaire and interview.

3.2 Qualitative Analysis

The inclusion criteria for interview was to set control groups. Among participants leaving contacts, 10 were randomly chosen, who are profiled in Table 1.

Table 2. Profiles of Interviewees.

Semi-structured interviews were held online, lasting for 24-48 minutes each. Recordings gained interviewees’ approval. The data were anonymised to ensure confidentiality. NVIVO 12 was used to conduct analysis.

4. Major Findings

4.1 Theme1: Utilitarian Motivation in English Learning

Table3. Utilitarian and intrinsic conceptionsin EFL.

The first hypothesis was verified. In Table2, pursuing higher grades in admission examinations, acquiring a useful communication tool, and forced by their parents and school dominate.

In the interviews, living up to expectations from teachers and showing signs of being well-educated are also common determinants. David described the former: “I met a terrifying English teacher. I learned English for avoiding irritating her.” Cathy depicted the latter: “this society thinks highly of people speaking English well.”

4.2 Theme2: What Brings Utilitarianism

4.2.1 Overpowered Extrinsic Motivation

One of the key determinants pertaining to overwhelming extrinsic motivation is “forced learning” brought by English’s dominant importance. “Forced learning” is inferred to eliminate intrinsic interest towards English. Ruth described this feeling: “I feel English is crazily important that everyone kneels down to its mighty. Everyone forced me to learn it well, which kills my original interest. Metaphorically speaking, if my boyfriend is so important, I may not like him naturally like the first time we met.” This reason was agreed by all interviewees.

A corresponding proof lies in the strong intrinsic favor in learning of other foreign languages like French, Russian, and Swahili, which are imposed with less importance. Joy, who considers English as a tool, shows strong identity towards French: “French is fascinating! I want to learn it totally out of inner interest.” Similar feelings were found in Cathy, Andy and Ruth.

4.2.2 Lack of Intrinsic Motivation Lack of Lingual Identity

All interviewees held English is a sheer tool to them. Descriptions include as lingua franca and such an important language in China, it is a tool; measurement tool for exams and one’s value; must-be in the modern world; and compulsory tool for everything. Lack of Cultural Identity

For interviewees without much cross-cultural exposure, had low English proficiency or even hated English, “the culture element” could be a buffer balancing the extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. It is showcased in Sophie’s experience: “When learning English was just for higher grades, I felt agitated. Because I couldn’t learn it well, yet I had to learn it. But if I could watch English TV shows or communicate with foreigners, my hatred would be eased.”

Given the in-depth cultural contact is neither realistic nor necessary, “cultural element” buffer is rarely found in China’s education system. “Teachers mentioned lightly about English culture, which was not check point in exams,” said John. Ruth illustrate the same point: “when learning Chinese, I will know how each word comes into being and get deeply immersed in this culture. But English teachers would never talk about the source of an English word.”

4.3 Theme3: Implications on Effective English Learning

Joint motivation with both utilitarian motives and intrinsic identity might tend to be most effective in raising English proficiency. Result indicates that pure intrinsic identity is not likely to enhance English ability to a great deal. Pure extrinsic motivation works in a short term to raise English ability to an intermediate level.

But if learners want to step further, intrinsic interest and lingual identity is indispensable. Adding “culture elements” to the exam-oriented system is beneficial. As interview data suggests, cross-cultural communication with foreigners and cultural products is likely to enhance intrinsic identity. Though in-depth cultural penetration is not practical, more cultural elements could be added into the existing education system.

Learning foreign languages other than English, also, might help to build or extend lingual identity, as multilingual awareness increases.

5. Conclusion

Different from intrinsic/integrative motivation, this study fleshes out lingual identity, targeting at Chinese EFL learners’ utilitarian conceptions and its contributing factors. Through qualitative design, this study verifies that utilitarian motivation outweighing intrinsic lingual identity among L2 learners. Such utilitarianism results from over-strong extrinsic motivation and the lack of intrinsic one, which includes insufficient lingual identity and cultural identity respectively.

Suggestions like forming a joint motivation are made. The study hopes to help improve EFL learners’ enduring interest in language learning.


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