Introduction in the second year of university.


For most Chinese students, English is one of the most important compulsory courses they have to take from the start of their primary education, and a great number of them learn English even from kindergarten till college life. English score is required for entrance examinations of all stages. For most university students, passing College English Test Band 4 (CET-4) is one of the major concerns during their university years since it closely relates to their success in graduation and employment. And for employees, English competence is one of the basic qualifications for employment and promotion in various positions of professions.

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Due to the importance of English in every aspect of the society, numerous Chinese devote themselves to English learning. Consequently, a tremendous amount of time, energy and funding have been invested in syllabus designing, teacher training, teaching materials designing, and teaching method improving. How to help students learn English successfully and efficiently become the main interests of linguistics and English researchers. Since most of the learners in China usually learn English in classrooms, most of them quit it after they complete the formal English training in the second year of university. As a result, their English proficiency faded away with time. Tremendous efforts and resources that paid in English learning have been wasted. This is extremely unfavourable to the development of English education in China. Compared with the enormous attention paid in the research of EFL acquisition, little notice was paid in the phenomenon of English language loss.

In the field of second language acquisition, individual factors have received intensive attention since the research focus has been switched from to teachers to learners. There are variables that could affect the process of language acquisition such as age effect, educational level, motivation factor, amount of contact with the target language, etc. And interestingly, these background factors are also proved to have a huge influence with regard to the individual degree of language attrition. However, as a major type of individual factors, motivation is more frequently discussed to improve the competence of second language learners. Research concerning motivation mainly deal with the influences of various types of motivation and the intensity of motivation on English competence of Chinese EFL learners. However, few studies explore the relationship between English learning motivation and English attrition in China, and even fewer studies examine the influence of various motivations on English attrition.

The present study attempts to explore the impact of motivation to the English attrition of Chinese non-English major undergraduates. Gao Yihong’s model of instrumental motivation, culture motivation and situational motivation will be employed, and attritions of participants’ different  skills, listening, reading, and writing attrition will be examined respectively in this study. The literature findings, research questions and procedure will be discussed in detail in the following paragraphs.

Research on Language Attrition in China

Compared with the dynamic research in the field of language attrition abroad, it is a rather deserted area in China. Up to the present time, a limited number of studies focused on the issue of EFL attrition under China’s context. A large proportion of them are introductory essays or review of the literature.

In China, Language attrition studies began in 2003. Zhong Shuneng (2003) introduced the new research field of language attrition for the first time through presenting a longitudinal case study by Tomiyama (2000) and the classification of language attrition. Cai Hansong & Zhou Rong (2004) reviewed the relevant research in the development of the issue and its present situation. They asserted that under the special linguistic environment of Chinese language the research of language attrition has extraordinary directive significance for foreign language teaching in China. Ni Chuanbin made a great contribution to the development of the language attrition research in China. Ni Chuanbin & Yan Junrong (2006) identified seven factors influencing foreign language attrition including proficiency level prior to attrition, time since onset of attrition, exposure to the target language, age at onset of language attrition, foreign language learning mode, affective factors, and literacy.

There were several empirical studies but mainly found in postgraduate dissertations. Zhao Dan (2009) investigated the English attrition of 71 non-English major university students finding that there is a reverse correlation between language proficiency and attrition; acquisition modes affects English attrition: the subjects’ skills acquired through classroom learning, explicit teaching, listening-and-reading focused teaching and strong-intensity teaching were less vulnerable to attrition than those acquired through outside-class learning, implicit teaching, speaking-and-writing focused teaching and weak-intensity teaching. In Hu Min’s (2009) research, all of the 34 subjects suffered attrition 1 or 2 years after graduation. Listening skill was the most seriously affected skill, writing skill is the secondary, and there was no obvious attrition for reading skill; the negative attitude group suffered more attrition than the positive group.

Obviously, the research on language attrition started comparatively late in China. Scarce research, especially empirical research, has been conducted in the field of language attrition. Few research are available which investigate the influence of learning motivation to English attrition of Chinese college students.

Individual Differences in Language Attrition

Hansen (1980) investigated the foreign language attrition of two American preschool children who had acquired Hindi-Urdu when they stayed in India with their parents for three times. Their foreign language competence was considered almost the same level with the local children, which was much better than that of their mother. However, every time they went back to America for several months their foreign language competence lost almost completely. When they were tested 20 years later they could not recall even one word. But their mother could understand almost all the language. 

The foreign language of children loses faster than that of adults (Hansen, 1980). High proficiency L2 learners maintain high second language level after the termination of the language learning, and the opposite is true for low proficiency L2 learners. A negative correlation was found between FL proficiency prior to attrition and FL attrition rate (Godsall-Myers, 1982). It reflects the importance of reaching the critical threshold to prevent language attrition. According to Neisser’s research (1984), the foreign language competence of high FL proficiency learners is resistant to substantial attrition. Other relevant studies also suggest that individual differences affect L2 attrition to a large extent.

Research on Motivation in L2 learning

A lot of researchers have investigated the relationship between motivation and L2 learning. Oxford & Nyikos (1989) investigate the factors that affect learners’ performance of language learning in the approach of classroom training; they are motivation, gender, task type, age, cultural background, and stages of language learning. After conducting a large-scale study on college students, Oxford & Nyikos find that in all of the basic variables, motivation is the best predictor of students’ language performance, and it greatly influences the employ of language learning strategies. According to the research findings, the highly motivated language learners tend to employ many different strategies in the process of language learning. The research findings are in accordance with the comment of Gardner that motivation and attitude, especially motivation, influence the degree of commitment of language learners to the target language.

The socio-educational model put forward by Gardner and Lambert (1985) is the most influential one in the research field of language learning motivation. There are 3 major factors in this classical model: effort, desire to learn, and satisfaction with the task. Each of those 3 factors is necessary for the measuring of the motivation degree and motivation intensity in the process of language learning. The classical classification of motivation instrumental vs. integrative motivation was the greatest contribution to socio-educational motivation model. Oxford & Ehrman (1995) investigate the relationship between adult’s FL proficiency and different kinds of motivation through the Affective Survey. Among the four different motivations (intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation, desires to use the language, and effort), intrinsic motivation and desire to use the language in natural environments are found having significant correlations with the extensive use of language strategies.

A great deal of discussion has been launched about the foreign language learning motivation in China since the 1980s, theoretically and empirically. Wen Qiufang & Wang Haixiao (1996) investigates the influences of learners’ factors to College English Test scours. The students who have deep motivation, which means learning a foreign language for deep non-material stimulus such as the interests in target language culture, learn foreign language actively and persistently; the students with surface motivation, which means learning a foreign language for surface material stimuli such as certificates and well-paid jobs, are not active and persistent in foreign language learning because of the time limit of surface motivation. Compared with surface motivation, deep motivation is more conductive to foreign language learning and maintaining. Gao Yihong (2003) investigate the relationship between English learning motivation types and self-identity changes among Chinese students. 2278 undergraduates from 30 universities of 29 provinces in China are selected through stratified sampling. According to the study, seven categories are categorised into three motivation types: instrumental motivation, cultural motivation and situational motivation. 

Although there are a great number of studies on motivation in second language learning abroad and in China, many research orientations about motivation still remain untouched. Few studies are found focusing the relationship between language attrition and motivation. Among the various factors, motivation is proved affects language attrition to a certain extent. However, the motivation research in China focuses on SL learning mostly, and very few investigate the relationship between motivation and English attrition. The studies investigating the relationship between motivation and English attrition are urgently needed under the circumstances. 

Classification of Motivation

The integrative motivation and instrumental motivation proposed by Gardner & Lambent (1972), together with the intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation proposed by Deci & Ryan (1985) are the most well-known divisions of motivation. Combined the actual situation of China and the motivational theories of western, Gao Yihong (2003) classified motivation into three types: instrumental motivation, cultural motivation and situational motivation.

There are seven categories in the three main motivation types. They are intrinsic interest, immediate achievement, learning situation, going abroad, social responsibility, individual development, and information medium. Intrinsic interest means appreciation and adoration of the target language and some respects of the target language culture. It is not the desire to integrate into the target culture community, but an intellectual and aesthetic interest. It belongs to cultural motivation. The category immediate achievement is closely related to actual conditions of education and employment in China. It refers to engaging in the target language learning for the purpose of achieving desired examination results to satisfy particular requirements or qualifications. For example, to pass graduation examination, university entrance examination or other examinations. It is regarded as a type of instrumental motivation. Learning situation is independent from instrumental and cultural types of motivation. It means the enthusiasm for English learning depends on the learning environment, for example, the quality of teaching, teaching materials, teachers, and relationship between classmates. Learning situation is typically situational motivation. As the name implies, the category going abroad refers to some learners learning English for the purpose of going abroad. It can be divided into two orientations: some learners want to go abroad to look for the opportunities of better education or job; others would like to go abroad to immigrate into English-speaking countries or to experience English-speaking cultures. The former orientation falls into the domain of instrumental motivation, and the latter one belongs in cultural motivation. Social responsibility indicates the learners’ responsibility to live up to social expectations. It is the product of traditional Confucianism which is particular to Chinese culture or some other Asian cultures. Some learners regard learning English as the instrument for them to make efforts for China’s prosperity, to fulfil parents’ expectations, or to introduce Chinese culture to the world. Therefore, social responsibility belongs to instrumental motivation as well as cultural motivation. Learning English for the purposes of improving personal ability and raising social status, such as finding a better job in future and being considered well-educated, is regarded as the category of individual development. It is classified as instrumental motivation. The category information medium means English is accounted as a tool of improving other academic subjects and knowing the latest developments of economy and technology, which is categorised as instrumental motivation. 

In Gao Yihong’s model, different kinds of situations are discussed in the seven sub-categories in detail, and the most of all, the special cultural background with Chinese characteristics is taken into account as well. Accordingly, this study will employ Gao’s model in the motivation questionnaire.

Research Questions

The present study is designed to investigate the distribution of different types of motivation among Chinese non-English major students; the extent of English attrition 2 years after the participants finished their formal English training at university; the influences of different types of motivation on the English attrition of Chinese non-English major seniors. Therefore, the following questions are involved in the study:

What is the motivation for senior students of non-English majors? Which types can their motivation be classified into? Which is the leading one and which subordinate?
Is there any attrition of participants’ English skills after they completed the formal English training in university? Which kinds of language skills are more vulnerable to suffer from attrition?
Are there any significant differences in English attrition among different motivation groups? Which types of motivation are better in resisting attrition, instrumental motivation, cultural motivation or situational motivation?


The participants of this study will be 85 non-English major senior students who were enrolled in such majors as applied physics, engineering mechanics, materials forming and control engineering and biological engineering in 2014. The participants will be selected from the researcher’s undergraduate university (Chongqing University of Posts and Telecommunications, China) for it is convenient to collect the motivation questionnaire and conduct the English proficiency test.

Since the purpose of the present study is to explore the influence of motivation on English language attrition among Chinese non-English major university students, the subject should conform to the following criteria:

Native Chinese. The present study discusses the second language attrition took place in the first language environment. The first language of the participants must be Chinese.
University senior students. The participants should be students who have completed the two-year English training in university. Senior university students finished the training course 2 years ago. Theoretically, they are anticipated to have suffered English attrition more obviously than other grades of university students.
Non-English majors. Students majoring in English is a special group whose motivation toward English, and their situations are quite different from students of other majors’. Therefore, the group of English major students will not be included in the participant group.
CET-4 taken. The English attrition of the participants will be measured through the comparison of their scores of the two tests. It is important that they have taken the CET-4 in their freshman year. Participants failed to take the test in the first year of university will be excluded from the participant group.


Two instruments will be used in the study. The motivation questionnaire will be handed out to investigate the participants’ English learning motivation. An examination paper of College English Test Band Four (CET-4) is used in the English proficiency test to inspect if the subjects suffered English attrition and the attrition rate.

The English learning motivation questionnaire is designed in Chinese to avoid misunderstanding and there are two main parts of the questionnaire. The first part focuses on the personal information and CET-4 scores. This part contains items such as name, gender, department, major, and their CET-4 scores (listening comprehension score, reading comprehension score, comprehensive skills score, writing score, total score). The second part includes 30 items which are designed to classify the motivation types of the subjects. Among all the 30 items, 14 items are relevant to instrumental motivation; 11 items are relevant to cultural motivation; 4 items are relevant to situational motivation. It is worth noting that 3 items are both related to cultural motivation and instrumental motivation. The statements are given in the 5-point scale as 1=strongly disagree, 2=disagree, 3=no opinion, 4=agree, 5=strongly agree.

The English proficiency test will be carried out after the questionnaires are collected. As a national-wide proficiency test, CET-4 is arranged by national education agencies of indubitable authority. And it is an acceptable method to evaluate college students’ English proficiency which can also be used to judge if the participants’ language proficiency suffer attrition or not. The test includes four parts: listening comprehension, reading comprehension and writing. The examination will take 130 minutes and the maximum score is 710. Whether the participants suffered from English language attrition will be measured through the comparison of their scores between Test 1 and Test 2. Test l is the CET-4 the participants had taken in their freshman year. Test 2 will be another CET-4 organised 2 years after the completion of the formal College English course, using the exact same test paper.

Data Analysis

Quantitative method is applied in the study. The data process involved the following statistical procedures:

Descriptive statistics of motivation questionnaire scores, Test 1 scores and Test 2 scores will be analysed to examine the general distribution of different motivation types, English proficiency before and after attrition. Means, standard deviations, minimums, and maximums of these statistics are checked. 
Paired sample t-tests will be adopted to check whether there are statistically significant differences between scores at Test 1 and Test 2 in the whole subjects and in the same motivation group: instrumental motivation, cultural motivation and situational motivation. The means show whether English attrition took place or not. And, if t-test significance value is smaller than 0.05 indicates a significant difference between Test l and Test 2.
The one-way analysis will be conducted to examine whether significant differences existed among different motivation groups in Test 1 scores and Test 2 scores. The differences will be shown through means. And the significance difference are will be verified if the significance value is smaller than 0.05.


Gardner, R. C. & Lambert, W. E. (1972). Attitudes and motivation in second-language learning. Rowley, Massachusetts: Newbury House.
Godsall-Myers, J.E. (1982). The attrition of language skills in German classroom bilinguals: A case study. Dissertation Abstracts International (43/01): 157-A.
Hansen, L. (1980). The Acquisition, loss and reacquisition of Hindi-Urdu negative structures by English-speaking children. Learning and forgetting a Second Language. Berkeley: University of California.
Neisser, U. (1984). Interpreting Harry Bahrick’s Discovery: What confers immunity against forgetting? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, (113): 32-35.
Oxford, R. & Ehrman, M. Effects of sex difference, career choice, and psychological type on adult language learning motivation. The Modern Language Journal, (72): 253-265.
Oxford, R. & Nyikos, M. (1989). Variables affecting choice of language learning strategies by university students. The Modern Language Journal, 73 (3): 291-300.
Tomiyama, M. (2000). A longitudinal study of L2 attrition. Second language attrition in Japanese Context. New York: Oxford University Press.

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