Noels, K. (2005). Orientations to Learning German: Heritage Language Learning and Motivational Substrates. Canadian Modern Language Review/ La Revue canadienne des langues vivantes, 62(2), 285–312.
Most of the studies discussed so far involved large numbers of bilingual participants. Such investigations are interesting because they allow for generalisations: what does the majority of a large group do? However, in relation to bilingualism, such large-scale studies often don’t account for smaller sub-groups within the majority, or outliers, i.e. for the people who don’t perform according to the group norm. When accounting for outliers, one is essentially asking the does-everyone-do-that-(and-if-not,-why)? question(s). Sometimes, if there are enough outliers in a study, a researcher might be forced to question the generalisations he or she made about the group. For example, let’s say a researcher investigates adult population X and finds that most people (sub-population X1) in population X do not feel motivated to learn second languages in adulthood. The generalisation would be, quite simply, that most people do not feel motivated to learn second languages in adulthood. But – what if – in the same population X, population X2 were also found, and population X2 comprised highly motivated adult second language learners? In that case, especially if population X2 were rather large, the researcher would (if he or she were a thorough researcher) want to ask why population X2 was especially motivated to learn second languages, as opposed to population X1. If the researcher were then able to find a factor which determined high motivation versus low motivation in adult second language acquisition, this researcher would have made a considerable step forward in research in bilingualism.
Kimberly Noels made such a step in her investigation into so-called German “heritage” language learners. Specifically, she investigated 99 students who were registered in German classes, differentiating between those who were of German decent (=heritage language learners) and those who were not of German decent (=non-heritage language learners). Although Noels examined German, globally, heritage language learners are a relatively common phenomenon. For example, whilst growing up in Anglophone Canada, I was exposed to Dutch because my father is Dutch, and my Oma and Opa were Dutch, but I can’t claim to have learned Dutch “perfectly” as a child; I was – and probably still am – a heritage language learner of Dutch as a result of less intensive exposure to the Dutch language resulting from my own cultural background. In her study, Noels found that heritage language learners of German were more motivated to learn German – than comparable non-heritage learners of German – for reasons related to their self-identify, and their conceptualisation of their cultural heritage. Interestingly, she didn’t just find that the heritage language learners were differently motivated to learn German, she also found that they were more successful at learning German than the non-heritage language learners.
In this way, her study feeds into a large body of research linking motivation to second language acquisition, some of which indicates that, even when a language is learned late in life, highly motivated learners are able to acquire native language proficiency in a second language. Practically, an implication of Noels’ research is that if you are thinking about learning a second language in adulthood, it might be worthwhile to focus on one with which you culturally identify due to your own heritage. In that case, you could be set to learn it quite well.
Esther de Leeuw