Most would agree that fostering a sense of achievement is an essential feature of a motivating and successful language programme. After all, why invest in language lessons (on or offline) if not to achieve some measure of success? However what is meant by success depends very much on who the stakeholders are, and 3rd party stakeholders such as parents, employers, universities, visa schemes etc. are inevitably focused on concrete results of examinations and tests. This can provide learners with a strong extrinsic motivation to succeed in that one given test or exam that ‘matters’, sometimes with such a single-mindedness that teachers are driven to introduce everything that happens in the classroom in terms of potential relevance to that particular exam, just to get learners’ attention. As a technique to open students’ ‘receptive filters’ to acquire language and engage in communication this is naturally seriously flawed, as the focus of attention is only ever on one kind of real-world communicative event – taking an exam. Much has been written about the virtues of fostering more intrinsic motivation to study the target language and get students’ minds off test scores, for example through self-evaluation checklists, learner training in the use of self-access online resources, horticulturally themed graphics and digital badges, and the selection of personally relevant topics of lessons exploiting ‘authentic’ media.
All these approaches are well worth integrating into programmes, but they are not fail-safe by any means. Self-evaluation checklists that do not go any further than being a private document and display for the learner can quickly become tedious to complete. Slick learning platforms and competitive apps can impress the learner for a while, but rarely stick as regular habits to use unless they support intrinsically felt communicative needs. Personalised lesson topics can easily become ends in themselves, sugaring the learning pill as a way to theme familiar classroom exercises or generate unstructured discussion. In this latter case, one might argue just focusing on topics of interest sets up the right conditions for natural language acquisition, but do participants enrolled on expensive language courses really have the time and aptitude to simply absorb language ‘naturally’ without any conscious effort?. Learners generally want to know what their ability is and what to consciously study next, but unfortunately the detailed psychometrics of achievement in language learning are rather complex and not particularly exciting or satisfying for most learners, if we’re honest.
The key to all of this may well be to critically re-evaluate discourses of achievement in language education. The influence of instruments such as the CEFR illustrative scales to describe communicative competence in terms of what the learner ‘can do’ (rather than just a level scheme) is well known but still relatively new historically. It is still arguably in a gradual process of filtering down to teachers’ and learners’ own intrinsic perceptions of language learning success. The ubiquitous focus on the Common Scale (A1 – C2) for course titles and gate-keeping examination benchmarks is sadly not helping, as it does not yet sufficiently address the mechanics of teaching and learning for success. Most resources available to the language teacher arguably remain vaguely grounded in the transfer of knowledge about language structure and use, rather than the honing of learners’ performance in useful communicative tasks.
It might be pertinent to consider the typical motivating factors and measures of success in other performance-based skills that are popular for recreation, such as sport, cookery, painting, dance etc. In all of these learners build an inventory of their skills and performances with a sense satisfaction and aspiration because the outcomes are so instantly recognisable, and grading systems appear to be more a ratification of this building skills inventory. For example, the accomplished black belt in karate wears the belt with a certain confidence and pride in her/his ability to demonstrate the range of skills it represents. Indeed, to be a black-belt in Italian has a strangely intrinsic motivational and practical ring to it! One could argue this (admittedly silly) idea illustrates a shift of emphasis from achievement to accomplishment, which I argue is a more suitable word for language learning success. Therefore, the challenge is surely to find ways of shifting the emphasis in this way in the classroom, by working on a target inventory of communicative performances with clear models, and repeating them, revisiting them, adapting them to get demonstrably better and more skilful, in a way that learners can feel proud of.