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Submitted to Exeter 7 Dec 1999
Research questions 
Motivation for learning English among first year female  
university students in Abu Dhabi


This small scale study investigates the motivation orientation of female university students in the United Arab Emirates. The study aimed to explore the key motivating factors for learners in this context, the attitudes toward the target language community, the learners’ perceived self-efficacy and differences between two ability groups. The key motivating factor for the learners was found to be instrumental – in order to get a job, the perceived self-efficacy was found to be relatively low. Although attitudes to the target language community were generally found to be positive, there appears to be no desire to assimilate, adopt western behavior or become friends with speakers of English. The two ability groups studied were not sufficiently different enough to show any major differences except that the more able students tended to be more intrinsically interested. 


Numerous motivation studies have suggested that different motives for learning have an effect on the level of success in a second language. Little work appears to have been done on Middle Eastern females however. For this reason, this paper aims to investigate the attitudes of female university students towards the compulsory study of English. All the participants of the study were first year students in a new, female, English medium university in the United Arab Emirates. Many of the students involved in this small-scale study were regularly performing badly in assessments and seemed, on the surface, to lack motivation for learning English. The learners in this study live in a country where English is officially a second language but there are few actual native speakers. It is used more a common language between ex-pats of other nations. Arabic would be used in most of the subjects’ interactions with foreigners with the exception of their teachers.  

The study aims to investigate whether there was an actual lack of motivation, or whether the observed performance and attitudes can be attributed to another factor. In order to address this issue, I aimed to collect data on the learners’ motives for learning English, their perceptions of their abilities as language learners and their attitudes toward the target language community.  

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation 

The fact that a more motivated learner will achieve greater success in the target language appears to be a generally accepted view. Motivated learners tend to be more active in the learning process (Gardner 1988), and perceive themselves to be more competent learners (Harter 1981). Many researchers make the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic (or instrumental) motivation is defined as the learner’s desire for achievement for an external reward such as to pass exams or to get a job (Pittman & Boggiano 1992:3), whereas intrinsic motivation is defined as the desire to perform or take part in activities without such external inducement or reward (Bandura 1977:107-9). Deci (1980) provides this neat definition:  

The distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is frequently made on the basis of whether there is an externally mediated reward or constraint present in the situation. When people receive a reward such as money, or praise, or the avoidance of punishment for doing an activity, they are considered to be extrinsically motivated. If there is no apparent external reward, they are said to be intrinsically motivated. In the latter case, the reward is supposed to be in the activity itself. 

Deci 1980:30-1 


Many studies report that an intrinsically motivated language learner is more likely to achieve mastery in a second language and perform better in activities (Gardner, Lalonde and Moorcroft 1985, Benware and Deci 1984 cit. Deci & Ryan 1992:28-9, Grolnick and Ryan 1987 cit. Deci & Ryan 1992:29; Deci 1971). 

Dörnyei (1990) claims that an intrinsically motivated learner is more likely to go beyond an intermediate level in a language than a learner whose main motivation is extrinsic. It must be noted, however, that some studies have argued that extrinsically motivated learners are just as likely to achieve success in the target language (Ellis 1994). 

Another point worth noting is the fact that not everything can be intrinsically interesting, but a learner can recognize the importance and rely on extrinsic motives in order for learning to occur. It is unlikely also that a learner will experience intrinsic or extrinsic motivation exclusively, there is likely to be at least some extrinsic motivation involved (Deci & Ryan 1985).  

Self-efficacy theory 

Self-efficacy is students’ beliefs about their capabilities to “apply effectively the knowledge and skills they already possess and thereby learn new cognitive skills” (Schunk 1989:14). Bandura (1986) offers a definition of what he means by perceived self-efficacy: 

Perceived self-efficacy is defined as people’s judgements of their capabilities to organise and execute courses of action required to attain designated types of performances. It is concerned not with the skills one has but with judgements of what one can do with whatever skills one possesses. 

Bandura 1986:931 


Bandura (1995) suggests four contributing factors to a person’s sense of self-efficacy. These are based on: mastery experience, vicarious experiences, verbal persuasion, and physiological and emotional states.  

Mastery experience is usually the result of tests and assignment marks and past experience with success or failure; “successes build a robust belief in one’s personal efficacy. Failures undermine it, especially if failures occur before a sense of efficacy is firmly established” (Bandura 1995:3). 

Vicarious experience is the observing the performance of others. Seeing peers succeed by perseverance, raises the observers’ beliefs that they, too, possess the abilities to master comparable activities (Bandura 1986,1995 Schunk 1987). Similarly, experience with observing others fail in spite of high effort, undermines the observers’ level of motivation due to the lowering levels of their own self-efficacy. 

Verbal (or social) persuasion is also said to boost a person’s perceived self-efficacy. This verbal persuasion comes in the form of affirming feedback about the individual’s capabilities to master an activity. 

Bandura claims that Physiological and emotional states is the fourth main influence contributing to a student’s self-efficacy. This relates to the stress and tension learners have in reaction to their capabilities. Learners attribute these reactions to “signs of vulnerability to poor performance” (Bandura 1995).  

Bandura (1995) suggests that students with a low sense of self-efficacy will shy away from difficult tasks, have low aspirations, weak goal commitment, will focus on their deficiencies and give up quickly. Learners with a high sense of self-efficacy, on the other hand, will approach difficult tasks for the challenge, will foster intrinsic interest, set challenging goals, maintain strong commitment and sustained effort, and will tend to attribute failure to internal factors such as insufficient effort or skills. 

Attitudes to the target language culture – integrative orientation 

Attitudes toward the target language community are reported to be of consequence when learning a language. Gardner’s Socioeducational model (1985) stresses that language learning is different from other subjects in that learners are actually required to learn and take on the behavior type of another culture. The model claims that cultural beliefs also influence the development of the integrative orientation. Attitudes toward the target language community will therefore appear to be fundamental to determining success in the language. If a learner does not have a positive attitude toward the target language community, he or she would be unlikely to want to learn a behavior type associated with that culture. A learner showing an integrative orientation to the target language community is defined as having the desire to belong the community and acquire psychological characteristics, and as having a desire for wider social contact with members of that community (McDonough 1981). Graham (1984 cit. Dörnyei 1990) reinforces this view with what he calls assimilative motivation and claims that integrative orientation is when a learner aims to become indistinguishable from a member of the target language community. Shumann’s (1978) Acculturation Model suggests that motivation levels are vary according to the social distance from the target language community. The nearer the learner’s own culture is to the target culture, the higher the integrative motivation.  

There are reported to be differences in motivation between learners in second language acquisition (SLA) contexts and learners in foreign language acquisition (FLA) contexts. SLA is when “the target language is mastered through direct exposure to it or through formal instruction accompanied by frequent interaction with the target language community” (Dörnyei 1990). FLA contexts are ones where the target language is taught as an academic subject in schools with little or no exposure to it outside the classroom. Dörnyei’s (1990) study reported that integrative motivation is more meaningful to learners in a SLA context. His study also suggested that learners with a high integrative orientation, in his case Hugarians who esteemed English culture, were far more likely to go beyond an intermediate level in English than learners without such an orientation, even if they had a strong extrinsic motive to learn English. It has been argued, however, that an instrumental orientation may be more important in FLA contexts (Williams & Burden 1997). 

Research Questions 

The aim of this study was to establish whether the students in this context were motivated to learn English and suggest what those motives were. The study also aims to gather information on whether the learners in the rather unusual SLA context studied have an integrative orientation. Information was also gathered on attitude to learning English and also on sense of agency. The research questions were: 

  1. What are the key motivating factors for learners in this context?
  2. What are the learners’ attitudes to the target language community? Is there a strong integrative orientation?
  3. What is the perceived self-efficacy of the learners and what are the possible reasons for this?
  4. Are the any significant differences between the two ability groups studied?


The participants were 33 female, Arabic speaking, first year students at Zayed University, an English medium university in Abu Dhabi. They were all aged between 17 and 19 and had been educated and raised in an Arabic speaking environment. Each had received 7-8 years of English instruction at school before joining the university. Before joining the degree programme, all Zayed University students are required to have an advanced level of English roughly equivalent to a 5.0 IELTS score. Hence, the first two years of their programme predominantly comprised of English instruction. None of the participants had lived outside the UAE or taken extra English classes. All the students agreed willingly to complete the questionnaire and the five students interviewed were volunteers. 

Instrument and procedure 

An adapted form of a valid, tested questionnaire created by Williams and Burden was used (appendix i). Some of the language was simplified and the target language was changed from French to English. It was decided that the questionnaire need not be translated as the students were of an intermediate level and able to deal with the language it contained. Some of the more difficult items on the questionnaire were identified during the pilot test and were either simplified further or, in two cases, an Arabic translation was written up on the whiteboard and pointed out while the students were completing the questionnaire. 

The questionnaire consisted of two parts. The first part with 32 items aimed to collect information pertaining to attitude to learning English. The items comprised 4 items from each of the following 8 subscales: 

  1. Challenge and optimal arousal
  2. Liking, enjoyment, interest
  3. Desire
  4. Need, importance
  5. Integrative orientation
  6. Teacher
  7. Parents
  8. The group
The second part of the questionnaire pertained to sense of agency and contained 40  

items. There were 4 items for each of the following10 subscales: 

  1. Perceived success, competence
  2. Perceived ability, self efficacy
  3. Effort
  4. Result of effort, learned helplessness
  5. Metacognitive awareness
  6. Awareness of strategies
  7. Internal locus: responsibility
  8. Internal locus: control
  9. Metacognitive strategies
  10. Intrinsic motivation
Reversed items were included on both parts of the questionnaire. 

Participants were required to shade circles on a scale from 1 – 4, where 4 indicated that the sentence was definitely true for them, 3 was quite true, 2 was not very true and 1 was definitely not true. 

The questionnaire was administered to two classes during class time by myself, the class teacher. Before the students were handed the questionnaire, the purpose was explained carefully. They were told that the questionnaires could be completed anonymously and that their honesty was appreciated. The following conditions were common to both groups: (a) the students were given as much time as was needed to complete the questionnaire (b) the students completed the questionnaires without conferring with classmates, and (c) students were encouraged to ask me for help with comprehension. 

Both classes contained a similar student population with the following exceptions: The first class (called section 4) contained more capable students. 8 out of the 16 students went on to pass the semester 2 English course (they obtained at least a grade C which was 70%). The average end of semester grade for the class was 72.7%.  

The second class (called section 3) contained less capable students. 7 out of 17 passed the semester English course (41%). The final average class grade was 60% for the same course. Less than 70% was considered a fail. Students were given the option to withdraw from the course before the exam and to repeat the course the following year before taking the exam. 7 students chose this option. The classes were not substantially different which probably accounts for lack of significant differences found in the results. 

The interview questions (appendix ) were designed to establish whether the questionnaires accurately reflected the opinions of the students and also to achieve more depth of understanding. Two students were interviewed from section 4 and three students from section 3. 

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