L2 Learner’s Beliefs: An Overview

by tyankee7 on December 13, 2012

Zehra Gabillon
CRAPEL, Université Nancy2 and Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour,
IUT de Mont de Marsan, France


This paper overviews the research into L2 learners’ beliefs through sketching some
conceptualizations of beliefs from the psychological and educational literature as they
appear in SLL/FLL (Second Language Learning/Foreign Language Learning) belief
research. What beliefs are, how they are formed, and how they impact on language
learning are reviewed by referring to different theoretical conceptualizations and
SLL/FLL research done in this area. The final part of this paper proposes a categorization
which views L2 learners’ beliefs as a process of progression and concludes by suggesting
new directions (some questions to consider) for future research.

Key words: L2 learners, beliefs, social/cultural representations, metacognitive
knowledge, self-efficacy, control-beliefs, attributions, learner conceptions.


The role and importance of beliefs have been of a great interest for many scholars from
diverse disciplines. In disciplines where human behavior and learning are of a primary
concern (namely, cognitive psychology, educational psychology and social psychology)
beliefs are viewed as an important construct to be investigated in relation to their subsequent
impact on people’s behavior. Many theories of learning especially the ones which emerged
from conceptual frameworks for the study of human cognition (e.g. Flavel’s metacognitive
theory: 1979) expectancies, goals (e.g. Fishbein and Ajzen’s expectancy-value model: 1975.
See also1), attitudes, motivation (e.g. Socio-educational model of Gardner & Lambert: 1972),
social representations (e.g. Moscovici’s theory of social representations, 1976) utilized
beliefs to comprehend human behavior.

Substantial amount of research regarding language learners’ beliefs (directly or implicitly)
has been conducted in diverse SLL /FLL contexts (Alanen, 2003; Barcelos, 2003; Benson &

1 Weiner’s attribution theory, 1986; Ajzen, 2002.


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Lor, 1999; Castellotti, 2001; Castellotti & Moore, 2002; Cotteral, 1995; Dufva, 2003;
Gardner et al., 2004; Horwitz, 1987, 1999; Kalaja, 2003; Levine, 2003; Masgoret & Gardner,
2003; Riley, 1989, 1997; Sakui & Gaies, 1999; Wenden, 1986a, 1986b, 1999; White, 1999;
Williams, 2002; Williams, Burden, Pulet, & Maun, 2004; Yang, 1999). Some of these studies
looked for possible relationships between beliefs and SL/FL learners’: a) use of strategies
(i.e. metacognitive strategies); b) motivational paradigms; c) readiness for autonomy; d)
approaches to language learning; e) attitudes towards language learning, learning materials,
learning tasks, teachers, teaching, L2 culture, and use of L1 and L2.

Early research into language learners’ beliefs and attitudes, can be traced back to the early
1970s within the motivational research studies of Gardner (for an overview see Gardner,
1979, 2001a, 2001b; Gardner, Masgoret, Tennant, & Mihic, 2004; Masgoret & Gardner,

Since the 1980s language learners’ beliefs, with the influence of research in cognitive
psychology, have received remarkable attention. These early studies mainly employed
mainstream cognitive approaches as research orientations. Research studies using cognitive
orientations considered beliefs as an internal autonomous property of the mind, and
investigated language learners’ higher order representations (beliefs that the individual is
aware of, conscious about) to establish links between learners’ beliefs and L2 attainments.

L2 learners’ beliefs have also been examined from social psychological and sociocultural
perspectives. Research into learner beliefs from a social psychological perspective looked
into learners’ beliefs under the rubrics of representations (see Castellotti & Moore: 2002;
Zarate, Gohard-Radenkovic, Lussier & Pens, 2004) and attitudes (see, Gardner 1972, 1979,
2001a, 2001b; Gardner et al., 2004; Masgoret & Gardner, 2003). Both social psychological
and sociocultural theories have stressed the influence of external factors and the knowledge
which is acquired from the environment. Sociocultural approaches have tended to focus on
how beliefs are (co)constructed, appropriated and mediated through social transactions.
Sociocultural approaches, especially the ones mainly influenced by Vygotsky’s constructivist
model, have also stressed the part played by significant others and artifacts (social tools) in


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belief-formation, with a special emphasis on the importance of ‘speech’2 in dialogic exchange
(see Alanen, 2003; Dufva, 2003).

What are Beliefs?

In the SLL/FLL literature, influenced by different theories and conceptualizations, language
learners’ beliefs have appeared under different rubrics and categories such as: a) L2 learners’
metacognitive knowledge; b) mental and social representations; c) self-beliefs such as self-
concept beliefs, and self efficacy beliefs: d) control-beliefs, such as self-regulatory beliefs,
locus of control-beliefs; e) attributions.

However, these distinctions between different perspectives and conceptualizations seem to
overlap at some points in the literature, and some terms (although defined differently) appear
to be used interchangeably. At this point it may be useful to refer to psychological and
educational literature to sketch different conceptualizations of beliefs which have been of
interest to some SLL/ FLL researchers.

Metacognitive Knowledge

The term metacognitive knowledge originates from Flavell’s metacognitive theory and refers
to the individual’s beliefs or knowledge (cognitions) about (his or others’) cognitive
processes (Flavell, 1979). This knowledge, in return, is used by the individual to guide his/her
cognitive activities (i.e., engage in or abandon a particular cognitive activity). Flavell
proposed three categories of metacognitive knowledge: a) person variables: these are the
individual’s beliefs about himself and other people (e.g. that s/he can learn better by
memorizing vocabulary items, or his/her friend can learn languages better because s/he has a
better memory etc.); b) task variables: these are the individual’s knowledge about a given
task (e.g. whether the task is interesting, familiar, and whether it is within the capabilities of
the individual to accomplish); c) and strategy variables: these involve selection of
appropriate cognitive processes to fulfil a task (e.g. whether the task requires summarizing,


In Vygotskian thinking speech is an important element in knowledge construction. According to this view

language users shape their ideas and construct knowledge while speaking (Alanen, 2003).


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analyzing, expressing personal opinion etc. or whether the individual needs to ask for further
clarification etc.).

The term metacognitive knowledge has been used in SLL/FLL literature since the 1980s (see
Wenden, 1986a, 1986b). Since then the term, although defined differently by some scholars,
has been referred to in various belief studies in SLL/FLL literature (Alanen, 2003; Dufva,
2003; Sakui & Gaies, 1999; Yang, 1999; Wenden,1995, 1998, 1999). Wenden (1999) refers
to beliefs as a subset of metacognitive knowledge. Although she acknowledges that the terms
metacognitive knowledge and beliefs are used interchangeably, she claims that “…beliefs are
distinct from metacognitive knowledge in that they are value-related and tend to be held more
tenaciously.” (Wenden, 1999, p. 436).

However, many researchers now agree that the importance does not lie in the fact that
knowledge differs from beliefs, but that beliefs themselves constitute a form of knowledge.
The term metacognitive knowledge has also been used interchangeably with learner
cognitions, and learner representations by some SLL/FLL scholars.

Mental & Social Representations

The concept of mental representations is a theoretical construct borrowed from cognitive
science. According to CTM (Computational Theory of Mind) representations are
information-bearing units, and are connected to one another to form networks of information
which are stored in the mind. This view considers representations as a construct which
belongs to individual minds. However, Durkheim defines representations as
“(Representations are) group ideas which are widely shared and socially forceful because
they are collectively created through the interaction of many minds.” (Durkheim as cited in
Riley, 1997, p. 127). Gremmo also emphasizes the role played by culture and society and
claims that the aggregate of representations that learners hold about languages and learning
(e.g. the idea that languages are learned through imitation, memorization and so forth)
constitute their ‘language learning culture’, which, in return, guides learners’ language
learning behaviors (see Gremmo, 1993a).

Zarate et al., (2004) stress the influence of positive and negative representations on learners’
behaviors. They explain that “… positive representations lead to xenophile attitudes which


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are generally expressed by a behavior and practice of openness to the ‘Other’, while negative
representations lead to behavior that is displayed through xenophobic rejection and refusal of
the Other.” (p. 27). Castellotti and Moore (2002) assert that representations are neither
‘wrong’ nor ‘correct’ nor ‘permanent’. They sustain that representations vary depending on
the macro-context (curricular options, teaching orientations and relationships between
languages in society as a whole and in the classroom), and micro-context (directly related to
classroom activities, and the attitudinal and classroom dynamics).

The concept of social representations was introduced to social psychology by French social
psychologist Moscovici (the concept was first introduced in 1961 and fully elaborated in
1976). This view rejects individuality of human cognition (Moscovici, 1997). According to
this view representations are formed collaboratively in a society. In this respect Moscovici’s
social representations theory shares similarities with Piagetian theory and other constructivist
and sociocultural trends in psychology in that knowledge is treated as correlative and co-
constitutive (Duveen and Llyod: 1990). According to Moscovici, social representations are
composed of two complementary (interdependent) functions: a) anchoring: whereby the
unfamiliar is absorbed into the familiar categories which are shared by the individuals who
are members of the same group); and b) objectivation3: whereby representations are
transformed into more significant images easily comprehensible by the individual.

The term social representations has been widely referred to in many studies which have
looked into language learners’ beliefs (e.g. Castellotti & Moore, 2002; Zarate, 1993; Zarate et
al., 2004). More often the term has been used to refer to common knowledge such as
stereotypes, attitudes, prejudices, images and so forth.

Self-beliefs have become a real research interest with Bandura’s social cognitive theory (see
Bandura, 1986). His ideas have been widely referred to by SLL/FLL researchers (e.g.
Dörnyei & Otto, 1998; White, 1995; Yang, 1999). According to Bandura these beliefs
comprise a self-system, and the individual’s behavior is the result of the interaction between
this system and external influences. Self-beliefs– which learners create, develop, and hold to


The term objectivation has also been referred to as objectification by some scholars.


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be true for themselves– are considered to play a vital role in their successes and failures
(Pajares & Schunk, 2002).

Self-beliefs are studied under different classifications such as: self-concept beliefs, self-worth
beliefs, and self-efficacy beliefs.

Self-worth belief refers to the opinion the individual has about himself/herself. Self worth
belief is assumed to be influenced by society and culture, school achievement, and opinion of

Self-concept belief is “a self-descriptive judgement that includes an evaluation of competence
and the feeling of self-worth associated with the judgement in question.” “Self-concept
beliefs reflect questions of ‘being’ and ‘feeling’.” (Pajares & Schunk, 2002, p.20).

Self-efficacy beliefs refer to personal beliefs (judgements) about one’s capabilities to engage
in an activity or perform a task at a given level (Bandura, 1986). “Self-efficacy beliefs
revolve around the question of ‘can’.” (Pajares & Schunk, 2002, p.20).


Control-beliefs are “beliefs about the presence of factors that may further or hinder
performance.” (Ajzen, 2002, p.1). Dörnyei and Otto refer to the term as “perceived ease or
difficulty of performing the behaviour” (Dörnyei & Otto, 1998, p.56). It is assumed that
learners who believe that they have sufficient control over the outcome exert effort towards
achieving a behavior. Control-beliefs are considered to have an important impact on learning
outcomes. Dörnyei & Otto state that there is significant evidence to show that “failure that is
ascribed to stable and uncontrollable factors such as low ability hinders future achievement.”
(Dörnyei & Otto, 1998, p.61).

The concept locus of control was first introduced by Rotter in 1960s. Locus of control-beliefs
are people’s beliefs about what causes their actions. These beliefs, in turn, guide what kinds
of attitudes and behaviors people adopt. In other words a locus of control orientation is an
individual’s belief about whether outcomes of an action are within their personal control

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(internal locus of control) or whether these events happen because of some external causes
outside their personal control (external locus of control).

Learners’ control-beliefs together with self-efficacy beliefs have proved to play an important
role in self-regulation during L2 learning process. Thus, control-beliefs have increasingly
been gaining importance in the SLL/FLL field (e.g. Dickinson, 1995; Dörnyei & Otto, 1998;
White, 1999).


Attributions are the individual’s beliefs about causes (internal & external) of outcomes
(Weiner, 1986). Attributions refer to individuals’ interpretations of the causes of events that
happen to themselves and others. A person’s attribution about himself/ herself is also known
as a locus of control belief. The difference between an attribution and a locus of control belief
is that the latter is a belief that an individual ascribes as a cause for his/her own action and
this belief guides the individual in his/her future behaviors. Attributions on the other hand can
be made by individuals regarding other people’s behaviours. Despite different
conceptualizations and different definitions in the SLL/FLL literature attributions and locus
of control-beliefs have been used interchangeably (e.g. Dörnyei & Otto, 1998; White, 1999).

How are Beliefs Formed?

How beliefs come into being is viewed differently by different scholars. To what extent
beliefs are social and cultural but also mental and individual has been the major debate in the
social and cognitive psychological literature. The scholars taking social psychological and
sociocultural standpoints claim that beliefs are constructed in a social context. They,
therefore, consider it to be inconsistent (inexact) to talk about beliefs without referring to the
context in which they are shaped. The scholars defending cognitivist viewpoints, on the other
hand, have paid little or no attention to the context where beliefs are constructed. These
scholars have considered beliefs as well-organized schema (networks of connected ideas) and
claimed that belief formation is an individual autonomous act and each belief bears the mark
of the individual. Their main emphasis, therefore, has been not on the knowledge which is


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acquired from the environment but rather on learners’ acquired knowledge which is
memorized and stored as the learners’ knowledge reservoir.

However, today, both a cognitive perspective on the individuality of beliefs and a social
psychological perspective on the social nature of beliefs are both considered to be justifiable
and complementary (see Sperber & Hirschfeld, 1999 for comparisons between cognitive and
social approaches). This dual nature of beliefs (being both social and individual) is supported
by most sociocultural approaches4 (see Alanen, 2003; Dufva, 2003).

Castellotti and Moore (2002) stress the social nature of language learners’ representations and
claim that these representations are constructed and shaped through interactions between
groups in a society. Similarly, Gremmo (1993a) argues that the society’s general vision about
language learning, and the learner’s educational past, and personal experiences influence the
formation of learners’ representations and language learning culture.

Why are Learners’ Beliefs Important?

Beliefs are very often associated with self. Interest in the learner as a self gained importance
with the influence of Carl Rogers’ humanistic approach. In Rogers’ humanistic movement the
self is considered to be the central aspect of personality. He believed that an individual needs
positive regard both from the self (positive self-concept, self-worth etc.) and from others in
order for self–actualisation and growth to take place (Pajares & Schunk, 2002). In language
classrooms humanistic approaches contributed a shift toward the learner and his/her needs as
a learner.

However, research into learner thinking and learner beliefs has gained ground with the
developments of cognitive psychology. As a result of the influence of cognitive psychology,
language learners are today seen as active and responsible participants who learn from their
own experiences, make their own choices and respond to events as they perceive them
(Meskill & Rangelova, 2000; Williams & Burden, 1997). Gremmo and Riley (1995) claim


Some sociocultural approaches, especially the ones which employ Vygotskian perspective, view beliefs as

both individual and social (See Alanen, 2003; Sperber, 1999).


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that both humanistic and cognitive psychology “…emphasize learning as a process resulting
in extension of the range of meanings of which the individual is capable, as something
learners do, rather than being done to them.” (p.153). They also claim that these two
approaches (humanistic and cognitive psychology) form the methodological basis for the
communicative approach to language learning and teaching (the approach which is widely
advocated by SLL/FLL specialists).

From this perspective, which still dominates SLL/FLL today, efficient learning could not be
accomplished without understanding learners and their interpretations of their personal
learning experiences (Meskill & Rangelova, 2000).

Learners’ beliefs have proved to influence both the actions and experiences of language
learners (Horwitz, 1999). Empirical findings have demonstrated that beliefs that language
learners hold about a target foreign language and its culture affect their attitudes towards that
language and together with other variables play a role in their L2 motivations (Csizér &
Dörnyei, 2005; Gardner, 1979, 2001a, 2001b; Gardner et al., 2004; Masgoret & Gardner,
2003). In the same vein, Castellotti and Moore (2002) claim that social groups’ shared images
(representations) about other languages and learning these languages can influence learners’
attitudes towards other languages and finally their interest in learning these languages.
Attitudes and beliefs have also been reported to have a notable effect on L2 learners’ strategy
use, with negative attitudes and beliefs resulting in poor strategy use (Oxford, 1994).

White (1999) asserts that language learners’ expectations which are developed prior to their
experiences are also influenced and shaped by their beliefs. According to White these
expectations influence how individuals react to, respond to and experience a new
environment. In other words, learners’ beliefs, which are formed through their experiences,
guide them in their conceptualizations of language learning and influence the approaches they
adopt to L2 learning (see Benson & Lor, 1999). If they believe that languages can only be
learned through translation and explanation, they will expect the language instruction to be
based on translation and explanation and will reject any approach adopted by the teacher
which does not correspond to this expectation. If learners believe that languages are learned
by memorizing and reproducing, they will adopt strategies to memorize vocabulary items and
grammar rules to reproduce these whenever required (quantitative/surface approach to


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learning5). If they believe that understanding the meaning and the communication is
important they will adopt strategies to absorb the language in its natural context
(qualitative/deep approach6) (Benson & Lor, 1999).

The beliefs that learners develop and hold to be true about their capabilities and skills they
possess have an immediate impact on their learning behaviors. Pajares and Schunk (2002)
suggest that research should focus on students’ beliefs in order to understand why students
choose to do certain activities and avoid others and why they achieve and why they fail to
achieve. Zeldin and Pajares (2000) assert that learners who believe that they do not have the
required skills will not engage in tasks in which those skills are required and these beliefs
about their competencies will affect “the choices they make, the effort they put forth, their
inclinations to persist at certain tasks, and their resiliency in the face of failure.” (Zeldin &
Pajares, 2000, p. 215). Similarly, Wenden (1995) maintains that learners refer to their self-
concept beliefs and their perception of the task demands to interpret and act upon the learning
activity. She sustains that learners choose to engage in activities when they perceive that they
have sufficient competence to fulfil the task requirements. Learners who believe that
language learning requires a special ability which they lack, for example: “Some people have
a good ear for languages, they just pick them up, but I’m not one of them” (Riley, 1997, p.
134); or “I’m not gifted for languages” (Riley, 1989, p.70), would naturally not be motivated
towards learning a foreign language. Riley (1997) states that subscription to any of these
beliefs will have a direct consequence on the way learners learn. He maintains that although
some of these beliefs can be considered as ‘wrong’ by SLL/FLL specialists they are still
meaningful because they reflect the ‘subjective reality’, the ‘truth’ from the learners’ point of
view (Riley, 1997).

Benson and Lor (1999) maintain that language teachers need not only know what beliefs
learners hold about learning but they also need to know whether these beliefs are ‘functional’
or ‘dysfuctional’ in order to be able to influence learners’ attitudes and behaviors. In the same


Quantitative/surface approach : Intention to complete task requirements; memorise information needed for

assessments; failure to distinguish principles from examples; treat task as an external imposition; focus on
discrete elements without integration; unreflectiveness about purpose or strategies (Entwistle: 1987, p. 16).


Qualitative/deep approach: Intention to understand; vigorous interaction with content; relate new ideas to

previous knowledge; relate concepts to everyday experience; relate evidence to conclusions; examine the logic
of the argument (Entwistle, 1987, p. 16).


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vein, Ellis (2001) maintains that it is important to identify learners’ beliefs which relate to
successful learning and beliefs which have a negative impact on language learning. He
suggests that these beliefs be used to develop self-awareness in learners.

Thus, understanding language learners’ beliefs is claimed to be vital to understanding
learners and their approaches to language learning in order to be able to adopt appropriate
language education policies and plan and implement consistent language instruction (Benson
& Lor, 1999; Castellotti & Moore, 2002; Horwitz , 1999; Riley, 1997; Sakui & Gaies, 1999;
Yang, 1999 ; Wenden, 1999; Zarate et al., 2004).

Today in some institutions where foreign languages are taught, learner training or counselling
programmes7 are integrated in language learning curricula to negotiate (mediate) learners’
dysfunctional beliefs and help them to appropriate these in a more functional way. The
Council of Europe has published various studies proposing different approaches for
mediating language learners’ representations and helping learners develop positive attitudes
toward the target culture(s) and language(s) they are learning (see Byram & Planet, 2000;
Fenner, 2001; Zarate et al., 2004).

Research into Beliefs in SLL/FLL

SLL/FLL literature provides us with a rich body of theoretical and empirical studies about
learner beliefs. Research into beliefs in the SLL/FLL domain can broadly be divided into two
principal groups as regards the approaches they employ8: a) approaches based on mainstream
cognitive orientations; and b) approaches based on sociocultural orientations (Dufva, 2003).

However, these two groupings should be viewed with caution since there is not a clear-cut
distinction between cognitive and sociocultural approaches and there is neither a single
cognitive nor a single sociocultural approach (Alanen, 2003). Thus, these two approaches
should not be considered as mutually exclusive but rather points on a continuum where
classical cognitive orientations are placed at one end and sociocultural orientations at the

7 CRAPEL (Centre de Recherches et D’Applications Pédagogiques En Langues) Université Nancy 2 has been
using counselling services as part of their self-directed learning programme (see Gremmo, 1993b; Bailly, 1993).
8 Some studies use eclectic approaches which combine different research orientations.


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other (see Table1). However, for the sake of clarity, only the characteristics of these two
orientations, which represent two opposite-ends, are illustrated on the continuum. The
characteristics of socio-cognitive and social psychological approaches, which are also
assumed to represent points on the continuum, are not illustrated. The social psychological
approaches and sociocultural approaches seem to have a lot of similarities and their
characteristics may overlap at some points. Hence, social psychological orientations are
considered to be comprehensive within sociocultural approaches. Socio-cognitive
approaches on the other hand can be placed somewhere in the middle as they share some
common aspects with both cognitive and sociocultural approaches.

SLL/FLL Belief Research Based on Mainstream Cognitive Approaches

As previously stated, the real interest in beliefs in SLL/FLL arose with research in cognitive
psychology. From cognitive perspective the language learner was viewed as an active
participant in the learning process, using various mental strategies in order to sort out the
system of the language to be learned (Williams & Burden, 1997). This new conception of
learning brought changes both into the language classrooms and the research done on
language learning. Following cognitive assumptions, SLA/FLL researchers felt the need to
access language learners’ beliefs in order to understand how learners make use of cognitions
to guide their cognitive activities in language learning.

According to the mainstream cognitivist viewpoint, all information-bearing structures
(representations) are stored in the mind. These representations, or information units, are
connected to one another to form a kind of network and can be accessed when required. From
this standpoint, beliefs are considered to be static and individual. In this cognitive tradition,
the role of the external factors and the context within which the beliefs come into being have
almost never been referred to.

Early references to learners’ beliefs focused on the content of learner beliefs (Riley, 1989;
Wenden, 1986a). Riley referred to learner beliefs as representations and used Kreitler and


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Kreitler’s ‘cognitive orientation model9’ to categorize them under different headings such as
general beliefs, beliefs about self, beliefs about norms and rules, and beliefs about goals.
Although these early works mainly displayed lists of learner beliefs, with little or no focus on
how they impact language learning, they are prevailing in that they contributed to the rise of
interest in learners’ thinking –a shift towards the learner and learning rather than the teacher
and teaching. Later studies took this idea a step further and tried to find a correlation between
language learners’ beliefs and the possible influence these might have on their L2
attainments. Wenden (1995, 1998, 1999), asserted that there are consistent relationships
between learners’ beliefs and the strategy use. Similar consistent relationships were also
viewed by different SLL/ FLL researchers (White: 1995; Horwitz: 1999; Sakui & Gaies:
1999; Yang: 1999).

Researching beliefs from a cognitivist perspective is regarded with criticism by some
SLL/FLL researchers (Dufva, 2003; Barcelos, 2003; Benson & Lor, 1999). Dufva (2003)
sustains that mainstream cognitivist views emphasize the individuality of mental knowledge
and see contextual influences as secondary. She adds that research into beliefs from this
perspective assumes that “…properties of the mind are not crucially dependent on the outside
influences and forces once they have been acquired and established.” (Dufva, 2003, p.132).
She refers to the research methodologies used in these works with criticism. She comments
that these studies employed surveys, questionnaires and quantitative means of data analysis
and they aimed at explanation and generalization disregarding what each belief represents to
each individual. In the same vein Benson and Lor (1999) state that questionnaire data give
only a ‘snapshot’ of learner beliefs and this would not be sufficient to understand the
complexity of learners’ beliefs.

Alanen (2003) on the other hand, sustains that early cognitive approaches have contributed to
the foundations of the methodological and theoretical framework of the study of
metacognitive knowledge. She also asserts that cognitive and sociocultural approaches are
not incompatible with one another and that social aspects are being increasingly incorporated
in contemporary cognitive psychology.


According to this model human behavior is guided by one’s cognitive orientation and ‘beliefs are cognitive

units of meaning embedded in networks of belief.’ (cited in Riley, 1989, p. 68).


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SLL/FLL Belief Research Based on Social Psychological and Sociocultural Approaches

Social psychological and sociocultural standpoints, although they have slightly different
perspectives, appear to share some major claims that:

a) beliefs are context-dependent and that they cannot be looked into without considering the
context in which they are formed;
b) beliefs should be examined as regards the individual’s past and present experiences.
c) beliefs are formed through transactions with others;
d) beliefs are both static and dynamic;
e) beliefs are flexible and changeable; thus, they can be influenced and mediated.
f) beliefs are both personal and social (Moscovici’s social representation theory rejects
individuality of beliefs; however, some SLL/FLL scholars, despite their social
psychological orientations, share this claim).

Gardner and his associates’ motivational studies, based on Gardner’s socio-educational
model, can be considered as the earliest research activities which viewed language learners’
beliefs as a social psychological phenomenon (For an overview see Gardner, 1979, 2001a,
2001b; Gardner, et al., 2004; Masgoret &Gardner, 2003). In the latest version of his socio-
educational model of second-language acquisition research study Gardner (2001b) claims that
the personal family background and the socio-cultural milieu and “…a complex of social and
personal variables that the individual brings with him or her…” can influence second
language acquisition (Gardner, 2001b, p. 4). However these empirical studies have examined
language learners’ beliefs implicitly within comprehensive motivational research studies and
have not offered a paradigm or approach on how to deal with these beliefs (attitudes) to the
advantage of the learner.

Beliefs (or representations), as a social and cultural phenomenon, have been the foremost
standpoint for some European and especially for some French SLL/FLL researchers (e.g.
Beacco, 2001; Castellotti, 2001; Castellotti & Moore, 2002; Zarate, 1993, Zarate et al.,
2004). These scholars have emphasized the important role representations play on language
learners’ attitudes (e.g. towards the target language and its culture) and their interest in
learning foreign languages. This social psychological viewpoint claims that representations
are generated through transactions between individuals and between groups in a society.
Zarate et al., explain that “…Our vision of the world and our ways of thinking develop from
our contact with others and shape our cultural representations.” (Zarate et al., 2004, p. 29). It
is presumed that these representations, which are sometimes referred to as stereotypes,


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images, attitudes, and prejudices, are partly shaped by media, literature, tourist information
booklets, and various kinds of publicly available sources of information (Beacco, 2001;
Castellotti, 2001; Castellotti & Moore, 2002; Zarate, 1993).

It is also assumed that representations come into being through a process whereby what is
already known and familiar serves as a point of reference and comparison (anchoring) and
new information is absorbed into what is already familiar and reassuring (objectivation). The
learner’s culture and mother tongue are postulated to be utilized as a point of reference when
learning a foreign language. Castellotti claims that learners’ mother tongue is in the core of
their representations and constitutes a point of anchoring, therefore, people who are
concerned with L2 learning cannot disregard this fact (Castellotti, 2001).

The social psychological theoretical perspective shares similarities with socio-
constructivist/constructivist approaches. Moscovici (1997) claims that “… In fact, every
constructive activity, at least so it seems to me, is ‘syncretically’ communication and
representation, instrumental and symbolic…” (Moscovici, 1997, para. 15). He maintains that
constructivist activity prolongs the anchoring and objectivation process and can be viewed as
the outcome of this process.

SLL/FLL researchers who have adopted a sociocultural perspective for the study of beliefs
about language learning have mostly employed socio-constructivist, constructivist, and
dialogical, discursive approaches (see Alanen, 2003; Dufva, 2003;). Dufva (2003), who
approached language learners’ beliefs as a situated phenomenon, claims that analyzing beliefs
without considering the social/cultural context they occur in would be a mistake. In her
research she has been inspired by Vygotsky and Bakhtin’s dialogical philosophy of language,
and analyzed language learners’ beliefs as subjective experiences. Dufva (2003) considered
voice to be important and used it as a methodological tool to analyze ‘what subjects say and
how they say it’. She criticizes cognitivist research orientations (quantitative means of
analysis and positivist philosophy) and, therefore, used interviews, group discussions and
written narratives to collect data. During the interviews she used a negotiative technique
where the interviewer was not an outsider but a partner who also expressed his/her personal
opinion (objectivity was not her goal).


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Alanen (2003) investigated a group of young language learners’ beliefs from a sociocultural
perspective. Her aim was to devise a theoretical and analytical framework appropriate for the
study of ‘how L2 learners’ beliefs come about’. In her small-scale empirical study she used
longitudinal interviews to gain insight into the process of belief formation. Through these
longitudinal dialogical exchanges she observed how a group of young learners’ beliefs were
mediated through transactions with others.

L2 Learners’ Belief Formation as a Progressive Process

In this final section, drawing upon the previously mentioned theories and SLL/FLL belief
research studies, I will propose a categorization of L2 learners’ beliefs (see figure 1). This
hierarchical categorization views L2 learners’ belief formation as a progressive process
through anchoring and objectivation. This view presumes that learners’ beliefs are
(co)constructed, reconstructed and appropriated (fine-tuned) through gaining experience
(through going up from one phase to another) and are internalized as part of the learners’ L2
learning belief repertoire. The three phases, social/cultural context, the general educational
context, and the L2 learning context(s), are the social environments where the learner
(co)constructs his identity and his beliefs through interaction with others (parents, friends,
teachers etc.) and with tools (media, textbooks, classroom activities etc.) provided
with/within these social environments. Through out this progressive process of belief
formation, in each phase, the learner’s intra-personal mechanisms operate simultaneously, in
parallel to the social activities s/he is experiencing.

The complexity and abundance of variables influencing L2 learners’ beliefs makes
conducting research in this area a difficult task. In this final section, therefore, I will pinpoint
some prevailing aspects and propose a scheme which could serve as a guideline to research in
this area.

Phase One: Society at Large and Learners’ Cultural Representations and Cultural Beliefs

Cultural representations or cultural beliefs (such as values, prejudices, attitudes, stereotypes)
constitute the substructure (phase one) in the learners’ belief hierarchy and serve as a kind of
reference to learners when shaping their beliefs about language learning (anchoring). In other


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words, these collectively created beliefs which reflect views of the society the learner has
been brought up in, form a kind of base on which the learner further constructs other beliefs.
These cultural beliefs often precede the learner’s experience in language learning. Before the
learner starts learning a foreign language s/he already possesses some of these
(culturally/socially constructed or collectively created) ready-made beliefs about foreign
languages and, perhaps, beliefs about how foreign languages are/should be learned. However,
these cultural beliefs might not always appear to have direct links with L2 learning itself. In
some cases beliefs about a particular foreign language and the learner’s interest in learning it
seem to originate from other socially/culturally shared beliefs about that specific culture, its
people, its economical and political status (see Csizér & Dörnyei 2005). The learner’s
knowledge about the shared historical past and political relations between the target foreign
language culture and his own might also contribute to shaping his beliefs about and his
attitudes towards learning that particular language and most often even before starting to
learn it.

These representations can also be considered as raw beliefs which the learner may acquire
unconsciously and accept as ‘truths’ before having any personal experience in language
learning (Alanen, 2003). Later, through gaining experiences of learning in general and
language learning specifically these cultural beliefs might be reinterpreted, fine-tuned, and
internalized to become part of the learner’s personal L2 belief repertoire.

Differentiating between functional and dysfunctional representations and encouraging
functional cultural representations would help learners develop positive attitudes toward the
target language(s) in question (see Zarate, 1993). This issue, therefore, concerns language
policy makers. These cultural representations, which circulate in society, need to be
uncovered and dysfunctional beliefs need to be detected so that policy-makers can adopt
appropriate L2 policies. Large-scale surveys, questionnaires, interviews and text/discourse
analysis can be employed to detect these dysfunctional beliefs (see Zarate, 1993; Zarate et al.,
2004). To mediate these beliefs, cultural awareness raising activities/programs are found to
be useful (see Byram & Planet, 200010).


This Council of Europe publication aims to build in intercultural competence among FL/SL learners with a

specific focus on creating a European feeling among European SL/FL learners. However, the criteria are
European and limit Otherness to the European context.


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However, to my knowledge, there has yet not been any empirical data on whether there is a
consistent functional change in L2 learners’ language learning behaviors and attitudes after
their beliefs have been mediated and appropriated. This issue, therefore, remains to be

Phase Two: The General Educational Context and Learners’ Beliefs about Learning

Learners’ beliefs about learning constitute the second phase in the learners’ belief formation
process. There is now abundant evidence that learning/teaching traditions may vary in
different cultural contexts (e.g. learning may be conceived as a reproductive process through
which learners store knowledge and reproduce it when necessary, teacher-centered
approaches may be emphasized over learner-centered learning/teaching and so forth).
Starting from a young age, learners are exposed to educational traditions and consciously or
unconsciously they develop some beliefs about what learning and teaching are/should be and
what the roles of learners and teachers are/should be. Moreover, at this stage learners have
day-to-day experience in learning and they construct/reconstruct beliefs based on these
experiences and internalize these, embedding them in other relevant beliefs in their belief

Much L2 learning takes place in formal educational contexts, in classrooms, as is the case
with other subjects. As a result, L2 learning is often perceived as the same as learning other
subjects. In most cases learning other subjects precedes L2 learning and learners embark on
the L2 learning process with some preconceptions about learning. However, these beliefs,
often, do not seem to correspond to what FLL/SLL specialists consider as functional in L2

Literature from the field of educational psychology concerning Conceptions of Learning and
Student Approaches to Learning11 (SAL) (although research in this area has mainly concerned
higher education and subjects other than SLL/FLL) would be useful to understand the role of
beliefs in learners’ conceptions of learning and the approaches they adopt to learning (see


Biggs: 1994; Marton & Säljö :1976a, 1976b; Entwistle: 1987, 2002; Entwistle, McCune, & Hounsel: 2002;

Prosser & Trigwell: 1999.


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also footnotes 5 & 6). It is, therefore, important to discern what conceptions learners have
about learning in general. This knowledge together with learners’ conceptions of L2 learning
would help us to make comparisons, and perhaps, understand why learners choose to do
certain tasks and ignore others, why they resist or participate, why they show interest or lack
of interest, and why they fail or succeed.

Phase Three: The L2 Context (s) and Learners’ Beliefs about L2

The language learning context(s), learners’ past and present experiences in L2 learning, forms
phase three in the learners’ belief formation process. Like general teaching/learning
traditions, L2 learning traditions may vary in different educational contexts. In this phase
learners have direct contact (experience) with L2 learning. The learners’ cultural beliefs
(attitudes towards and beliefs about the target language), their past learning experiences in
general and L2 learning in particular, all contribute to shaping their beliefs about the L2, their
conceptions of L2 learning. In this phase learners start to have well-established beliefs about
how efficient they are in L2 learning, what their roles and their teachers’ in L2 classrooms
should be, and how L2 should be learned.

Teachers’ approaches to teaching/learning, testing types used, learners’ past experiences, and
course expectations are all said to be factors influencing the approaches learners adopt to
learning (Posser & Trigwell, 1999). Like L2 learners, L2 teachers also have some
conceptions of L2 learning/teaching and they often modify the espoused theory ( the ‘official’
theory ) and adopt approaches which are compatible with their beliefs. That is, the espoused
theory becomes the theory-in-use and it guides both the teacher and the learners in the
teaching/learning process. (Biggs, 1994).

Consequently, to cope with L2 learning demands, learners use strategies which they believe
to be effective in their L2 learning context. L2 learners’ strategy use has long been of interest
to SLL/FLL research; however, research into this area would be more meaningful if these
strategies were looked into in relation to the learners’ conceptions of L2 learning, the
approaches they adopt to L2 learning and the approaches teachers adopt to teaching.
Phenomenographic research methods, interviews, classroom observations, document
analysis, and questionnaires would be useful to obtain an integral picture of L2 classrooms
and to gain insights about learners’ beliefs.

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The Intra-personal Plane and Metacognitive Knowledge

Beliefs which have been (co)constructed in social planes through interactions between others
and social tools (artifacts) are appropriated and internalized in the learner’s psychological
plane to become part of the learner’s metacognitive knowledge (Alanen, 2003). This
knowledge reservoir is used as a resource by the learner to guide his/her L2 activities. The
learner, drawing upon his/her metacognitive knowledge (belief repertoire), makes some
judgements regarding self, others and L2 tasks, and activates self-regulatory mechanisms to
choose the strategies s/he believes to be suitable to fulfil the required language tasks.

Attributing learners’ beliefs solely to their L2 learning experience, and attempting to
investigate these beliefs without referring to the learner’s past experiences would be
inadequate. Research into L2 learners’ beliefs, therefore, needs to allow a wider perspective
to include both the learner’s past and present experiences so that possible reasons for some
dysfunctional L2 learning beliefs can be traced back. And the result of this research could
subsequently be sued to inform language learning/teaching policies.


To conclude, this progressive view of L2 learners’ belief formation assumes that learners’
beliefs come into being in society in different contexts (society as a whole, general
educational context, L2 learning context) respectively and are reshaped and internalized in
learners’ intra-personal planes as L2 learning beliefs. We can also assume that through this
process each belief is fine tuned and reshaped from: distant to closer; general to specific;
social to individual; less relevant to relevant; unconscious to conscious and variable to stable.

I suggest that SLL/ FLL research go beyond accessing L2 learners’ metacognitive knowledge
about L2 learning and pursue other correlating forces which contribute to shaping these
beliefs. I, therefore, propose the following questions to consider:

a) Cultural beliefs about L2 related issues: What are they? How are they expressed? Are
they functional/dysfunctional? Can they be mediated? How?


Journal of Language and Learning Vol. 3 No. 2 ISSN 1740 – 4983

b) Beliefs about learning: What conceptions of learning do learners have? How do learners
perceive their roles and their teachers’?
c) Beliefs about L2 learning: What are the learners’ conceptions of L2 learning? How do
learners perceive their roles and their teachers’ in L2 classrooms? How do teachers
perceive their roles and their learners’ in L2 classrooms? What approaches do
learners/teachers adopt to L2 learning/teaching? What types of assessment methods and
tasks are used? How do learners/teachers approach the use of L1 and L2? Are there
mismatches between testing/teaching/learning? Does the classroom environment
encourage the learner to construct healthy self-concept beliefs?
d) Self-beliefs: What kind of attributions do learners make in the face of failure/success?
What personal interests/expectations do learners have regarding L2? How do learners
regulate their L2 learning? Which strategies do they use? Are these strategies functional?
What beliefs encourage the use of these strategies? How can learners be equipped with
functional strategies?

About the Author

I have been an EFL/ESL teacher for eighteen years. At present I am a PhD student at the
University of Nancy2, France, and work as an EFL teacher at the University of Pau (IUT de
Mont de Marsan), France. I also worked as a tutor on the COTE/DOTE courses
(Certificate/Diploma for Overseas Teachers of English University of Cambridge, UCLES)
and as a teacher trainer on the In-service training programmes for secondary school teachers
in Northern Cyprus. My research interests are teacher development and teacher/learner

Email: zehra@wanadoo.fr


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Table 1

Approaches Employed in SLL/FLL Learner Belief Research

Classical Cognitive Orientations ————————- Sociocultural Orientations

Learners beliefs are viewed as:
 Autonomous, personal
 Occur in the mind
 Representations or schemata stored in the mind

 Stable
 Context-free
Research tools/methods (quantitative)
 Surveys, questionnaires, interviews (e.g. descriptive
statistics, statistics programs, factor analysis,
correlations etc.)
Research Data:
 generalization/explanation

Important questions:
 What beliefs do learners’ posses?
 How do beliefs impact on learning?
 How do beliefs regulate learning?

Note: *(Alanen, 2003, pp. 67-68)

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