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A story of success, motivation, and self-direction in second language learning: A research paper

Updated: Apr 19

By Linh Phung

August 2014


Dr. Linh Phung holding her new book IELTS Speaking Part 2 at TESOL 2023

It is common knowledge that second language (L2) learners vary in the speed of acquisition and their ultimate level of achievement. Three different sets of explanatory factors have been identified for the differential success in L2 acquisition: cognitive, affective, and social (Ellis, 2004). The first two sets of factors are considered individual difference (ID) factors, which are categorized into personality, temperament, and mood; language aptitude; motivation; learning styles and cognitive styles; language learning strategies; and others by Dornyei (2010). Research findings regarding the correlation of these factors and L2 acquisition have been inconclusive (Ehrman, Leaver and Oxford, 2003). In addition, ID factors interact in complex ways with the learning context (social factors), adding difficulty to doing ID research and integrating ID factors within a general model of SLA (Sawyer and Ranta, 2001). In short, accounting for the success or lack of success in L2 learning is a complex matter.

Confronted with the task of writing my language learning history, I stitched together pieces of my memories to write a coherent story of my language learning experiences that span over a period of 22 years. As Bell (2002) points out, imposing a story line on experiences is how people make sense of what might otherwise be perceived as random experiences. My story line is one of motivation, self-direction, and success – a story line that reflects my perceptions of myself all these years, but in no way is devoid of conflicts nor does it fully account for the complexity of my language learning. In analyzing the major themes in the story, I discovered the narrow conception of success that I adopted and the significant ID and social factors that might have explained for my L2 achievements. This paper reports on those discoveries and in essence tells “deeper stories” (Bell, 2002, p. 209) about my language learning experiences that the narrative itself does not address.


The story portrays me as a successful learner as I obtained the number one ranking throughout my years in secondary school, received the third prize in the national contest in English, was admitted to college without having to take entrance exams, and later on had the opportunity to study in the U.S. Desire for success appears to be the driving force behind all my intense effort in language learning. However, the conception of success that I adopted seems to be a narrow one with a focus on grades, test scores, and prizes. This conception of success was consistent with my approach to English as a subject in secondary school and my focus on exam preparation in both secondary school and college. In other words, my overall orientation to the target language was not a communicative one, which was argued by Nunan (2013) to be important for true learner autonomy.

While my drive for academic achievements as measured by grades can be attributed to my internal motivation, it also reflects the powerful effect of the examination system in Vietnam on how language teaching and learning is approached. In this system, students’ learning is mostly measured through an achievement test at the end of each course. In addition, students spend most of their time in high school on preparing for the university entrance exams that they can take after high school graduation. As is widely known, students study for the exams and teachers teach to them. In language education, despite the prevailing rhetoric of communicative language teaching (CLT) in policy documents, teaching and assessment materials and practices focus mostly on vocabulary, grammar, and reading (Nunan, 2003). There are also other constraining factors that limit the implementation of CLT in Vietnam (Nunan, 2003; Le, 2007), which, in turns, contributed to my focus on grades and exams.

With my heart set on having good grades and winning a national prize to gain access to higher education, I adopted certain language learning strategies that did not necessarily develop my abilities to use English for communicative purposes. I did not take up on the opportunities to use English for authentic communication with the two Singaporean teachers as often as I should have during my high school years. I followed the dominant practices of doing exercises and preparing for exams. Similar to Xia, a language learner in China and MA student in a TESOL program in the U.S. in Park’s (2012) study, I conformed to the “hegemony” of the dominant educational practices in Vietnam through what McLaren (2003, p. 76 as cited in Park, 2012) calls “consensual social practices.” Although my “success” in secondary school led me to greater opportunities later in my language learning career, I realized the many opportunities I missed by conforming to a narrow conception of success.

Factors contributing to L2 achievement


The story shows I achieved a fair degree of success in my language learning as shown in my near perfect TOEFL score after graduating from college. Remarkable in my story are the motivation that I exhibited and the self-directed language learning strategies that I adopted. While accounting for success in language learning is an extremely complex matter because of a daunting array of factors (Ellis, 2004), motivation and self-direction appear to have played a significant role in my success. This seems to be consistent with ID literature, which has identified motivation as the primary impetus and driving force to initiate and sustain L2 learning (Dornyei, 2010). Motivational factors have been argued to override the aptitude effect (Gardner & Lambert, 1972). Motivation has been listed as one of the three main variables for successful language learning, the others being aptitude and opportunity (Rubin, 1975). As Ushioda (2008, p. 19) puts it, “It almost goes without saying that good language learners are motivated. Common sense and everyday experience suggest that the high achievers of this world have motivation … Thus, simply defined, we might say that motivation concerns what moves a person to make certain choices, to engage in action and persist in action.” A closer analysis of my language learning history shows that I exhibited a high level of motivational intensity and elements of integrative motivation, instrumental motivation, intrinsic motivation, and extrinsic motivation, four types of motivation widely recognized in motivation literature. The analysis also demonstrates the complexity of my motivation and of motivation as a variable in L2 learning.

Integrative motivation, a concept in Gardner’s motivation theory, refers to learners’ attitudes toward the target language, which “are bound to influence how successful they will be in incorporating aspects of that language” (Gardner, 1985, p. 6). As told in my narrative, when I started to learn English, I did not imagine myself living in the U.S. or interacting with native English speakers, but I loved the target language and culture. I was fascinated by the words written by Martin Luther King, the lyrics in English songs that I had access to, the holidays and traditions of the U.K. and the U.S., and the knowledge of the world that I could access through English. It is difficult to recall what aspects of the target language I tried to incorporate in my language learning, but these positive attitudes translated into the enjoyment I had and the effort I made in language learning.

Instrumental motivation, often interpreted as part of Gardner’s motivation theory, is associated with the concrete benefits that language proficiency might bring about (Dornyei, 2010). Closely related to instrumental motivation is extrinsic motivation, which is driven by factors external to the learners such as parents, teachers, and others (Deci & Ryan, 2000 as cited in Ozgur & Griffiths, 2013). In my account of my language learning history, I studied English for good grades, access to higher education, and a better future away from the countryside. In my experience, as often emphasized to children in Vietnam, a bright future is only possible with a college education. I was sent to live away from my family so that I could have a good secondary education, a college education, and a brighter future. I internalized this motive and studied with great intensity.

Intrinsic motivation is associated with the learners’ inner feelings as they engage in language learning. Learners with intrinsic motivation find language learning fun, engaging, challenging, or competence-enhancing (Noels, Clement and Pelletier, 2001). Because I was placed in a gifted class that specialized in English in high school and college, English was my cognitive challenge, a subject to master, and a system of rules to crack. In other words, I found joy in the learning process itself.

However, I also constantly struggled with my perceived limited intelligence as I could not memorize long lists of words. This perception of abilities, potentials, and limitations has been identified to be a crucial aspect of motivation. In addition, according to attribution theory, there are two attributional patterns influencing positive motivational thinking as reviewed by Dornyei (2010). These patterns include attributing positive L2 outcomes to personal ability or other internal factors and attributing negative L2 outcomes or lack of success to temporary shortcomings that might be overcome. Interestingly, in my language learning history, I attributed positive L2 outcomes to my ability and effort, but also attributed lack of success to a shortcoming that could not be overcome, i.e., my perceived lack of intelligence. This shows that motivation is a complicated concept, especially when research on motivation examined in its relationship to specific learner behaviors and classroom processes shows the dynamism and fluctuations of motivation (Dornyei, 2010).

In summary, my language learning history describes me as a motivated learner, and motivation seems to explain my intense effort throughout the long process of language learning. However, the ebbs and flows of motivation (especially intrinsic motivation) possibly present in my language learning can only be examined with other kinds of data such as recordings of classroom activities or regularly written diaries.

Language learning strategies

Apart from acknowledging motivation as the impetus and driving force for language learning, Dornyei (2010) emphasizes the importance of learners’ active and creative participation in the learning process through individualized language learning strategies. Griffiths (2013) defines language learning strategies as “activities consciously chosen by learners for the purpose of regulating their own language learning” (p. 36). In other words, language learning strategies are goal-oriented, intentionally invoked, and effortful (Dornyei, 2010). Language learning strategies have been categorized in various different ways. One of the most popular taxonomies is Oxford’s (1990) Strategy Inventory for Language Learning (SILL). This taxonomy places different strategies into six categories: memory, cognitive, compensation, metacognitive, affective, and social.

My narrative shows that I employed a variety of language learning strategies at different times in my language learning career to regulate my own learning. Prominent in the history is the use of general cognitive strategies, such as practicing and memorizing words and metacognitive strategies such as setting goals, studying toward those goals, and evaluating my progress. I employed more social strategies such as speaking with native speakers only when I was studying in the U.S. Missing in my history are affective strategies such as strategies for anxiety-reduction and self-reward and compensation strategies such as using gestures or circumlocution. Although the effect of specific strategies on my language learning is unclear, my self-direction and conscious effort apparently provided me with the amount of exposure to the target language far greater than what classroom instruction in Vietnam could possibly provide. Perhaps my self-directed activities also provided me with much richer input than was afforded by class materials and activities.

However, my largely non-communicative orientation to language learning during my secondary school and college years might have prevented me from seeking communicative activities available elsewhere in Vietnamese cities at that time and prevented me from developing true learner autonomy as Nunan (2013) hypothesizes. According to the author, there is a fascinating, but puzzling, relationship between the growth of autonomy and development of a “communicative” orientation to language. Autonomy, according to him, is not merely a matter of control over learning activities and resources, but also a matter of orientation toward language learning. He cites Little (1997, p. 99) as saying “for the truly autonomous learner, each occasion of language use is an occasion of language learning, and vice versa.” That is why I wrote in my language learning history that “I always regret the lack of more interesting materials to study, more authentic communicative activities to participate in, and more helpful feedback from teachers.” I realized the limitations of my approach to language learning and teaching practices in Vietnam and their implications in my L2 development.


Examining my language learning experience, I discovered important themes of success, motivation, self-direction, and orientation to the target language. These personal factors interacted with the assessment practices in Vietnam in interesting ways. I was puzzled by the fact that I now can use the English language competently and fascinated by the interplay of myriad factors in my language learning experience. However, I also realized that my narrative only presents one story among layers of stories about my language learning experiences. Through the passage of time, the memories that last only reflect my most enduring perceptions of myself, not necessarily the reality. In addition, many aspects of language learning such as the fluctuations of motivation can only be examined with more immediate retrospective data (Cohen and Hosenfeld, 1981) such as diaries or observational data of classroom interactions and processes.

Dr. Phung showing the Tug of Words book at TESOL 2022

More information: This paper was written in a graduate class. The author first wrote her language learning history and analyzed it. The language learning history has been published HERE. This paper has been used as a model to teach research writing to students learning English in the U.S. Dr. Linh Phung will share more about her experience teaching research writing in other posts and publications. Apart from journal articles, Dr. Phung has published the picture book Tug of Words, IELTS Speaking Part 2, and Studying in English: Strategies for Success in Higher Education. She has also published lessons and language learning materials in the Eduling Speak app.


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