Creative Education
Vol.10 No.01(2019), Article ID:90124,15 pages

Understanding Motivation for Learning German among Chinese College Students: Comparing In-China and Study-Abroad Contexts

Meihua Liu

Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China

Copyright © 2019 by author(s) and Scientific Research Publishing Inc.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution International License (CC BY 4.0).

Received: December 13, 2018; Accepted: January 20, 2019; Published: January 23, 2019


To understand motivation for learning German among Chinese college students in in-China and study-abroad (SA) contexts, the present study employed a mixed method to study 229 Chinese college students located in Beijing (N = 138) and Germany (N = 91). Quantitative data was collected through a 34-item questionnaire, and qualitative data was collected through 25 semi-structured interviews. The major findings were: 1) students in both contexts were largely integratively or instrumentally motivated to learn German, and 2) differences existed between the two groups in specific motivations, motivation level, and effects of motivation. These findings in return justify the need for research on motivation for learning not-so-important foreign languages like German.


Motivation, In-China Context, Study-Abroad Context, German as a Foreign Language, Mixed Method, Effect

1. Introduction

Language learning motivation, defined as attitudes towards and orientations to learn a second/foreign language (SL/FL) (Gardner & Lambert, 1972) , has been widely researched from diverse theoretical perspectives such as the socio-educational model (Gardner, 1985) and the L2 (namely a foreign language) Motivation Self System (L2MSS) (Dörnyei, 2005, 2009) . Empirical research in various SL/FL contexts has found that students with greater motivation tend to study the SL/FL better (e.g., Csizer & Dörnyei, 2005 ; Dörnyei, 1990, 1994, 2005 ; Gardner, 1985 ; Liu, 2017b ; Ushioda, 2011 ). Even so, as reviewed below, most research on motivation often focuses on ESL/EFL (English as a SL/FL) learners, while motivations voiced by learners of not-so-important SLs/FLs vary from those of ESL/EFL learners in certain aspects (Humphreys & Spratt, 2008; Liu & Li, 2018) . Although there is research on motivation targeting other languages as SLs/FLs (Csizér & Kormos, 2008; Humphreys & Spratt, 2008; Liu, 2017b) , more research is needed considering the increasing number of learners of not-so-important SLs/FLs as a result of globalization. Also because of globalization, increasingly more students go abroad for education for varying durations. Nevertheless, research on motivation of these students is far from sufficient. Furthermore, study-abroad (SA) students’ motivation to study the target language might be different from those of their peers in their home countries (Hernández, 2010; Liu, 2017a) . Surprisingly, such comparative studies are rare. Therefore, the present research aimed to examine Chinese college students’ motivation to learn German, a not-so-important FL, in in-China and SA contexts.

2. Literature Review

Motivation has been subject to conceptual discussion since Gardner and Lambert (1972) published their findings of a ten-year study which linked successful SL learning to integrative and instrumental orientations in a socio-educational model. In this model, instrumental orientation means practical benefits of learning a SL/FL (Gardner, 1985) and integrative orientation refers to the desire to learn a SL/FL in order to become closer to the target language community (Gardner, 2001) . This model believes that motivation plays an important role in SL/FL learning and that integrative orientation is more critical, which is largely supported by studies done by Gardner and his associates (e.g., Gardner, 1985 ; Gardner & MacIntyre, 1992 ; Masgoret & Gardner, 2003 ; Suryasa, Prayoga, & Werdistira, 2017 ) as well as those that adopt different theoretical orientations (e.g., Busse & Walter, 2013 ; Cheng, Tang, & Cheng, 2015 ; Csizer & Dörnyei, 2005 ; Dörnyei & Csizer, 2005 ; Liu & Cheng, 2014 ; Liu, Yao, & Hu, 2012 ; Lu & Yang, 2013 ; Yilmaz, 2017 ). These studies further reveal that integrativeness is closely related to the more self-determined motives while instrumentality has a strong correlation with external regulation, and that both integrative and instrumental orientations play a critical role in SL/FL learning.

As more research is done on SL/FL learning motivation, the motivation construct has been expanded to cover more components such as linguistic self-confidence (Clėment, 1980) , goal and expectancy (Noels, Clėment, & Pelletier, 2001) , need for achievement and attributions about past failures (Dörnyei, 1990) . As a leading researcher in this process, Dörnyei (1990, 1994) proposed a three-level framework of L2 motivation, consisting of language level, learner level and learning situation level. This framework involves various variables associated with the three levels, aiming to provide a comprehensive understanding of the issue. Yet it is too complicated to be applied in empirical research. Later, he (Dörnyei, 2005, 2009) proposed the L2MSS, consisting of three components: ideal L2 self, ought-to L2 self, and learning experience L2 Self. Dörnyei (2005) suggested that integrativeness represented a broader construct than Gardner’s definition and could be interpreted as a language-specific facet of a learner’s ideal L2 self. Yashima (2009) discovered that the ideal L2 self was related to the notion of international posture in a Japanese EFL context. By exploring the developmental of L2 self and L2 learning motivation of two Korean ESL students, Kim (2009) found that instrumentality could be merged to either the ideal L2 self or the ought-to self based on the internalized degree of instrumentality. The L2MSS is a great leap in the development of language learning motivation theories, providing a wide possibility for research on the issue. Nevertheless, researchers may still disagree on integrativeness and instrumentality.

Moreover, diverse orientations (e.g., to win higher social respect, to get certificates, to have an international view, and to show intellectuality), are often voiced by learners of important SLs/FLs like English which play influential roles in their life and study (e.g., Csizer & Dörnyei, 2005 ; Dörnyei, 1994, 2005 ; Humphreys & Spratt, 2008 ; Liu & Cheng, 2014 ; Masgoret & Gardner, 2003 ). Learners of not-so-important SLs/FLs often report learning the languages largely for personal interests and reasons (Csizér & Kormos, 2008; Humphreys & Spratt, 2008; Liu, 2017a, 2017b; Liu & Li, 2018) . For example, Liu and Li (2018) collected both quantitative and qualitative data to study patterns of and changes in Chinese college students’ motivation to study German in China. The results showed that the participants studied German primarily for integrative and instrumental orientations, such as receiving further education in Germany, doing (well in) academic research, knowing more about Germany and its culture, mastering more FLs, becoming more competitive in future career development, developing personal skills, and traveling in German-speaking places, as discussed in Gardner (1985) . A few participants reported studying German to know more about the world and other cultures and communicate with German-speaking people, indicating aninternational posture (Dörnyei, 2009; Yashima, 2009) . Meanwhile, several students reported studying German for peer influence, killing time, having confidence, and having learned basic German, reflective of dimensions such as goal and confidence (Dörnyei, 1994, 2005) . The researchers attributed these findings to the fact that German was only an unimportant FL in China.

A generally similar pattern is observed in motivation studies in SA contexts, which has become an issue of interest in recent decades (Allen, 2010; Hernández, 2010; Hsieh, 2009; Liu, 2017a, 2017b; Meredith, 2010) . For example, Hernández’s (2010) investigation of 20 1-semseter SA students in Spain revealed that the participants had great integrative and instrumental orientations to study Spanish. Likewise, Liu’s (2017a) study of motivation for learning Chinese revealed that adult international students in Beijing studied Chinese mainly for such reasons as parent encouragement and support, interest in the Chinese culture, China being powerful in certain fields, future career development and personal development. Meanwhile, Hsieh’s (2009) interview of two Taiwanese students studying in an American university indicated that the SA context had a great impact on the development of the participants’ L2 motivational self system.

As demonstrated above, research on motivation often focuses on ESL/EFL learners, orientations voiced by learners of not-so-important foreign languages vary from those of ESL/EFL learners in certain aspects. Although there is research on motivation targeting languages other than English such as French (Gardner, 2001; Gardner & MacIntyre, 1992) , German (Csizér & Kormos, 2008; Humphreys & Spratt, 2008; Liu & Li, 2018) , and Mandarin Chinese (Humphreys & Spratt, 2008; Liu, 2017a, 2017b) , the research is far from sufficient in that the number of learners of other languages has been increasing thanks to globalization. It is the same in China. As the world becomes increasingly globalized, learners of languages other than English such as Japanese, Spanish, German, and Russian in China have been increasing. Meanwhile, more and more Chinese students participate in SA programs for varying lengths of time. For example, Germany had become the most popular non-English-speaking country for Chinese students to study abroad ( Nevertheless, research on motivation of these students is far from sufficient. Unlike English which is the major FL, German is only a minor FL in China, for which there is little requirement in any stage of schooling or in the job market in the country. Accordingly, most students study German in college generally not to pass examinations and/or obtain certificates (Liu & Li, 2018) . Moreover, SA students’ motivation to study the target language might be different from those of their peers in their home countries (Hernández, 2010; Liu, 2017a) . Surprisingly, such comparative studies are rare. For these reasons, the present research aimed to examine Chinese college students’ motivation to learn German in in-China and SA contexts. The following research questions were formulated:

1) What are Chinese college students’ orientations to learn German in in-China and SA contexts respectively?

2) What are the differences in motivation for learning German between Chinese college students in in-China and SA contexts?

3. Research Design

Participants. The present study was conducted where German language courses were offered to about 200 students in a university in Beijing and to international students in a university in Germany. All (Chinese) students of German language courses in the two universities were invited. The final valid data were collected from 138 students from the university in Beijing (in-China) and 91 students from the university in Germany (SA). With an age range of 17 to 29 and an average age of 20.73 (SD = 1.97), 118 (85.5%) in-China students were undergraduates and 14 (14.5%) postgraduates. They had learned German for an average of 1.23 (SD = 1.23) years, been living/studying in Germany for an average of .05 (SD = .29) years, and spent an average of .029 (SD = .70), .33(SD = .57), .25(SD = .39) and .047 (SD = .42) hours in communicating in, reading, listening to and writing in German every day respectively. With an age range of 18 to 27 and an average age of 20.46 (SD = 1.85), 85 (93.4%) SA learners were undergraduates and 6 (6.5%) postgraduates. They had learned German for an average of 2.04 (SD = 1.14) years, been living/studying in Germany for an average of .27 (SD = .46) years, and spent an average of .85 (SD = .87), .85 (SD = .75), .77 (SD = 1.03) and 1.47 (SD = 1.48) hours in communicating in, reading, listening to and writing in German every day respectively. After that, 10 in-China and 15 SA survey respondents were interviewed.

Instruments. A mixed-methods approach was used in the present research (Creswell, 2009) , as detailed below.

Background Information Questionnaire. The Background Information Questionnaire intended to gather such information about the participants as gender, age, length of stay in Germany, and time spent in learning German.

German Test Performance. The students’ final German course grades were collected as their test performance.

The Motivation for Learning German Questionnaire. This 34-item Motivation for Learning German Questionnaire (MLGQ) (Cronbach alpha = .901 in in-China and .922 in SA contexts) was developed based on the results of Liu and Li’s (2018) study. As previously discussed, their (2018) study revealed a number of motivations for Chinese college students to study German in an in-China context. The present study pooled these motivations into a survey in Chinese, which was then sent to 10 participants in Liu and Li (2018) for confirmation and revision. The feedback was further evaluated by two peer researchers as well as the authors and incorporated into a revised survey, which was then piloted on a Chinese studying in a university in Germany. The result produced the 34 item 5-point Likert scale used in the present study.

Semi-Structured Interview. To elicit more insider views of motivation for learning German, an interview guide was developed with reference to that in Liu and Li (2018) and the feedback collected on the survey, which was also piloted to the student studying in Germany. The resulted interview guide covered such questions as German learning experiences, motivation for learning German, and its effects on German learning.

Procedure. Prior to data collection, two postgraduate students (one in China and the other was an exchange student in Germany during the term when data was collected) in Applied Linguistics were recruited and trained to be research assistants for data collection and analyses. The questionnaires, as well as a consent form, were emailed to in-China and SA students in the last two weeks prior to their final test weeks. Coupled with follow-up emails, the return rate was 86.3% in China and 82.4% in Germany. Then, 10 in-China and 15 SA survey respondents were randomly chosen for semi-structured interviews during the following two weeks. Each student was interviewed alone in a quiet room for 15 - 20 minutes, which was conducted in Chinese and audio-recorded.

Data analyses. For the sake of convenience and protecting privacy, a number was assigned to each interviewee in both contexts. Then the interview data was transcribed and double-checked by the research assistants who did their work independently with an inter-rater coefficient of .973. After that, they analyzed the transcripts according to themes (Richards, 2009) respectively with an inter-rater coefficient of .942. Their major aim was to identify reasons for and effects of motivation on learning German. The results were then compared, discussed and evaluated among the research assistants and the authors, which were then incorporated into the survey results and reported in the present study (Creswell, 2009) .

The survey data were analyzed using SPSS 20. The MLGQ data was first subjected to principal factor analysis to identify its underlying components. The results were then cross compared with those of interview data, which resulted in a three-factor solution on the MLGQ. After that, means and standard deviations of the MLGQ scales were computed to determine motivation levels to learn German; independent samples t-test was run in the scales to identify the differences in motivation levels between in-China and SA learners; and correlation analyses were conducted to examine the associations between motivation for learning German and German test performance.

4. Results

4.1. Orientations to Learn German

The qualitative data showed that the interviewees in both groups reported a number of reasons for studying German. The commonly reported reasons were: interest in German, interest in Germany and German culture, having learned German before, desire to study a second FL, plan to study in Germany in the future, second language being a mandatory course, and German being relatively easier and useful in future career. The in-China interviewees also reported studying German for the following reasons: it being easier to register German language courses, German being helpful to their major study, the need to read German books, killing time and peer influence. All these reasons were generally the same with those reported by their counterparts in Liu and Li (2018) , except for second language being a mandatory course and German language courses being easier to register. The following excerpts are typical remarks: “I study Germany mainly because many publications in my field are in German. To do well in my major study and research, it is necessary for me to understand German” (No. 2, in-China), “I like German. And I love to live in Germany here. Germany does so well in many fields such as medicine, automobile, and philosophy” (No. 5, SA), “I like learning foreign languages. German is a beautiful language, quite different from English and Chinese” (N. 8, in-China; No. 12, SA), and “… Because I’m studying here in Germany, I have to study German well. I want to know what I see and read in German” (No. 10, SA).

These findings further confirmed the MLGQ used in the present study, though no interviewees reported such orientations as learning German to know the world, to travel in German-speaking places, and to communicate with German-speaking people. When asked about whether they wanted to learn German to know more about the world and communicate with German-speaking people, they laughed or ginned, explaining that an experience in any place could help know the world better and that they had already had a (good) knowledge of English. As they remarked, “… Technology develops so fast and knowledge spreads fast. English is so important that many people know English in this world. Without German, I can know the world and communicate with Germans” (No. 4, in-China; No. 9, SA). None of them expressed the desire to become like Germans either.

Then the MLGQ was subjected to rotated (varimax) factor analyses for learners in both contexts. Coupled with the interview results, a three-component solution was finally chosen for the MLGQ. The three components (Appendix I) were: 20-item Integrative Orientation (MLGQ1), 8-item Instrumental Orientation (MLGQ2) and 6-item Orientation for Miscellaneous Purposes (MLGQ3). The MLGQ1 items were reflective of an internal interest in German and its culture, the MLGQ2 items were indicative of external benefits for studying German. The six MLGQ3 items were grouped together because they were peculiar to the context and reported only by a few participants either in the present research or in Liu and Li (2018) . These three factors accounted for 23.12%, 13.22% and 10.37% of the total variance respectively for in-China and 28.27%, 17.29% and 12% of the total variance respectively for SA learners.

4.2. Motivation Levels to Learn German

To explore students’ motivation levels to learn German, means and standard deviations of the MLGQ scales of the two groups were calculated and independent samples t-test was run in the scales to identify differences in motivation levels between the two. The results are reported in Table 1.

As seen from Table 1, both groups scored more than 3, the scale midpoint, on MLGQ1 (Integrative Orientation) (m = 3.74 and 3.76 respectively), MLGQ2 (Instrumental Orientation) (m = 3.16 and 3.39 respectively) and the overall MLGQ (m = 3.33 and 3.46 respectively), but below 3 on MLGQ3 (Orientation for Miscellaneous Purposes). This shows that both groups of learners were generally moderately integratively and instrumentally motivated to study German, as found in similar studies (Csizér & Kormos, 2008; Humphreys & Spratt, 2008; Liu & Li, 2018) , yet their orientation to learn German for miscellaneous purposes was generally low.

Cross-comparison of scores of the two groups shows that SA learners scored higher on all the MLGQ scales than their in-China peers. This means that compared with in-China learners, SA learners were more motivated to learn German for all reasons. And the differences in MLGQ2 (Instrumental Orientation) and MLGQ3 (Orientation for Miscellaneous Purposes) were statistically significant, with a medium effect size.

4.3. Relationship between Motivation for Learning German and Test Performance

To explore the relationship between motivation for learning German and test performance, correlation analyses were run between the MLGQ scales and German test scores (see Table 2). The results showed that MGLL3 was significantly positively correlated with in-China learners’ German test performance, and that the MLGQ, MLGQ1 and MLGQ2 were significantly positively related to SA learners’ German test performance, consistent with that in other studies in SA contexts (Hernández, 2010; Hsieh, 2009; Liu, 2017b; Liu & Li, 2018) , with a medium effect size. This means that the more motivated in-China students were to study German for miscellaneous purposes, the better they performed in German, and that the more instrumentally and/or integratively motivated SA students were to study German, the better they performed in German.

When asked about the effects of motivation on the learning of German, 60% of in-China and 67% of SA interviewees believed that motivation positively affected their learning of German (see Table 3). As they remarked, “… I may go on studying in Germany and even work here in the future, I work very hard on German and the results are good so far” (No. 15, SA), “I like German literature, I want to read more literary works in German. So I study German hard” (No. 8, in-China), and “I’m a student of philosophy, and many good books on philosophy are in German. This drives me to study German well” (No. 5, in-China). Meanwhile, 30% of in-China and 7% of SA interviewees reported that motivation negatively affected their learning of German, mainly because “German is not important” (No. 1, in-China) and “I am an exchange student and will go back to China soon. German is not much used in China” (No. 2, SA). In addition, 10% of in-China and 27% of SA interviewees claimed that motivation had no effect on their learning of German largely because they studied German out of interest and/or German was not urgently needed at present.

Table 1. Mean and standard deviations of MLGQ scales.

Notes: M = mean; SD = standard deviation. Effect size of Cohen’s d: small = d ≤ .2; medium = d = .5; large = d ≥ .8 (Cohen, 1988) .

Table 2. Correlations between MLGQ scales and test performance.

Notes: coefficient of determination: small = r ≤ .1; medium = r = .3; large = r ≥ .5 (Cohen, 1988) ; ** = p ≤ .01; * = p ≤ .05

Table 3. Self-reported effects of motivation on the learning of German.

5. Discussion

Orientations for Learning German. As presented previously, both groups of learners voiced similar reasons to learn German, which were generally either integrative or instrumental, consistent with Liu and Li’s (2018) report of motivation to learn German in an in-China context, and Liu’s (2017b) and Hernández’s (2010) reports of motivation to study Chinese and Spanish respectively in SA contexts. They studied German mainly for their major study, academic research, further education, career development, and interest in German and German culture. Few of them or those in Liu and Li (2018) reported learning German to pass exams, get certificates, meet external requirement and go abroad, as reported in Gao, Zhao, Cheng and Zhou’s (2002, 2003) and Hua’s (1998) reports of Chinese college students’ motivation to learn English. Considering that they studied German not to know more about the world or communicate with German-speaking people, the items reflective of international posture (Dörnyei, 2009; Yashima, 2009) were grouped into integrative orientation. Thus a three-component solution was conducted on the MLGQ, which yielded satisfactory results (Appendix I). Even so, it is worth noting that MLGQ3 covered items reflective of peer influence, difficulty level of learning, self-confidence, past experience and liking for German sports. These orientations were diverse with lower loadings, reflective of the ideas discussed in Dörnyei (1994, 2001) about different levels and phases of language learning motivation and Clėment (1980) on linguistic self-confidence. Regrettably, these ideas have not been conceptualized into measures yet. And these motivations have seldom been reported by ESL/EFL learners. Hence, the MLGQ, MLGQ3 in particular, deserves further investigation, which might be closely related to the learning of a foreign language not highly valued in learners’ mother countries.

Differences in Motivation for Learning German between In-China and SA Contexts. Appendix I shows that the loadings of most MLGQ items in the SA context were higher than those in the in-China context. This indicated that SA students were more consistent on the MLGQ items. This might be because they were more homogeneous, or because they were more motivated to study German, as found in this study. A stronger relationship between motivation and German test performance was also reported by SA participants. All these differences might be attributed to the context difference: while studying and living in Germany, SA learners had much more exposure and access to use German every day and thus had greater integrative and instrumental orientations, while most in-China students had little access and exposure to German and some studied German for miscellaneous purposes such as killing time and peer influence. Nevertheless, these differences might be better explained by a follow-up study, which may even reveal differences in specific integrative and instrumental orientations. More differences might be revealed if studies were conducted in the L2MSS or other frameworks.

6. Conclusion

This research explored Chinese college students’ motivation for learning German, a much less valued foreign language in China, in in-China and study-abroad contexts. The major findings were: 1) students in both contexts were largely integratively or instrumentally motivated to learn German, and 2) differences existed between the two groups in terms of specific motivational reasons, motivation level, and effects of motivation.

Since minor SLs/FLs are often not (highly) valued in learners’ home countries and there is little external pressure for learning them, it is important to identify learners’ personal reasons to learn the languages. This will not only help increase their motivation to learn them but enhance their learning outcomes. A friendly, supportive and encouraging classroom environment is certainly helpful. It may also be useful for instructors to engage learners in learning activities involving the history, culture, sports, and science of these languages in both contexts (Hernández, 2010) . For example, as learners’ knowledge of Germany and German culture increases, their motivation to study German may increase as well (Du, 2013; Hernández, 2010) . This is exactly why SA students generally tend to be more motivated than their within-the-country counterparts, as found in the present research. Moreover, it is beneficial for students in both contexts to participate in various activities and interactions with German-speaking people to improve their proficiency in German, which will in return help enhance their motivation (Hernández, 2010; Meredith, 2010) .

These findings offer us insights on students’ motivations to learn not-so-important second/foreign languages. Nevertheless, similar research is needed to verify these findings and contribute more to our understanding of language learning motivation. Meanwhile, due to certain constraints, limitations existed in the study. First, the participants were diverse in many aspects such as age, German proficiency, education level, and length of stay in Germany, which might make the findings less generalizable. Nevertheless, this was the real situation of learning a minor foreign language in China, and probably in other similar contexts. Studies on SL/FL learners with homogenious backgrounds may yield more generalizable findings. In addition, to better understand what students experience and how they react in different contexts, which may affect their motivation, it is useful for future research to employ more in-depth methods to track the experiences and convey their effects on the development and change in motivation in within-the-home-country and SA contexts, and differences between the two.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflicts of interest regarding the publication of this paper.

Cite this paper

Liu, M. H. (2019). Understanding Motivation for Learning German among Chinese College Students: Comparing In-China and Study-Abroad Contexts. Creative Education, 10, 163-177.


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Appendix I: Varimax Rotated Loadings for Factor Analysis of the MLGQ

Notes: MLGQ1 = Integrative Orientation; MLGQ2 = Instrumental Orientation; MLGQ3 = Orientation for Miscellaneous Purposes; MLGQ = Motivation for German Language Learning Questionnaire. Notes: coefficient of determination: small = r ≤ .1; medium = r = .3; large = r ≥ .5 (Cohen, 1988) .