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Research for PhD thesis (2019):

Informal second language learning: The role of engagement, proficiency, attitudes, and motivation. Download here


UK Economic and Social Research Council,

Foundation of German Business (sdw)


There is a general lack of research on second language learning and language use taking place outside of formal educational contexts. This is particularly true of research on the impact of new technologies and social media on language learning. Insights from classroom research are inevitably shaped preconceived notions about teaching and learning which are deeply embedded in curricula and teaching practices. By contrast, my research focused on exploring how learners independently use new technologies to engage with their second language in their everyday lives, what motivates them to do so, and how it impacts their language development.


To study the relationships between language learning motivation, engagement in informal second language activities, and language development, I designed a mixed methods study which I implemented in three phrases. I collected and analysed qualitative and quantitative data from a total of 506 15- to 16-year-old secondary school learners of English in Germany.

In Phase 1, I conducted semi-structured focus group interviews, in which I spoke with 47 learners about how and why they use technology to engage in English-language activities during their free time. We also discussed their attitudes and beliefs surrounding language learning inside and outside of the classroom.


In Phase 2, I used the insights from my interviews to develop novel questionnaires to measure motivation, attitudes, and engagement in informal second language learning. I chose to develop my own instruments because pre-existing motivation and attitudes questionnaires overwhelmingly include specific references to features of classroom learning (e.g., “I am always looking forward to my English classes”), which mean that they do not make sense in the context of informal learning. I piloted the novel survey instruments with 105 students and further refined them through statistical validation (Exploratory Factor Analysis).


In Phase 3, I used the new questionnaires and a form of global language proficiency test called a ‘C-test’ to collect quantitative data from 354 more students. The participants completed the questionnaires and language tests twice, three months apart, so that I could track changes in their language proficiency and motivation over time. In my analysis, I used statistical modelling techniques (Latent Profile Analysis and Structural Equation Modelling) to investigate the connections between any such longitudinal changes and the ways in which the students engaged with English-language activities in their free time.


The study showed that English, in general, plays a significant role in the everyday lives of German secondary school students. On average, the surveyed learners spent around two hours per day on informal English activities, primarily listening to music, watching online videos or TV series, and browsing social media.


However, this was not equally true for all learners. It was found that those learners who engaged in more, and more diverse English-language activities in their free time tended to:


  • already be more proficient in English than their peers;

  • value English because it allowed them to pursue their personal interests and learn independently;

  • have a strong desire to become proficient users of the English language; and

  • believe that using English in their free time helped them improve their language skills.


Conversely, I did not find evidence which suggested that frequently using English outside of class significantly improved students’ English proficiency—although this may be due to the short timescale of the study, as there was very little overall language development.


Yet, I found that being engaged in English-language activities in their free time did predict changes in the students’ attitudes towards language learning over time. More specifically, more frequent informal users of English became less positive in their attitudes towards formal learning over the course of the study. This suggests that informal language contact can actually de-motivate students, as they come to perceive a greater difference between the ‘school English’ that they are taught in class and the more ‘authentic English’ they encounter in leisure activities. At the same time, the findings suggested that active informal English users also gained confidence in their own language skills once they experienced feeling totally immersed in a foreign language TV series, book, or song and without having to make a great effort to understand the meaning.

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