Third case study - Fan
Description of Fan's background
Fan is 31 years old and has been living in France for nine years. At the end of the third academic year in biology at a Chinese university, he decided to continue his studies in Germany. After a few months, he left Germany and came to France. He had never learned French before being in France, and on arrival, he registered at a language school. Two days later, he gave up the courses because of the perceived difficulty of the French language. Despite his poor proficiency, Fan succeeded in enrolling at a French university; however, he repeated many school years. At the time of the interview, he was registered in the second year of a Master's degree program in business administration.
Ideal L2 learner
Fan mentioned several criteria for a good language learner: 'He should understand everything in the target language, and only give good answers in exercises.' We asked, 'What would you say he/she should do to learn a language?' Fan replied, 'He should have no problem at all in writing and speaking.'
Like Chong, Fan talks about a language user rather than about language learning. Fan also emphasises the characteristic of being a good student at school - for example, giving correct answers in language classes - as one criterion for being a good language learner. Therefore, Fan's ideal model is a good student, displaying a good command of the target language. Fan considers himself as a poor language learner in comparison with his ideal model, for the reasons discussed below.
Viewpoints about French language learning
We asked two questions to find out whether Fan is motivated by learning French. The first one involves the importance of French in his current university major studies:
'Do you think that success in university studies depends on the mastery of the French language?'
'So what is necessary to ensure the success of your studies in university?'
'Hard work and luck.'
According to Fan, French is not necessary for his studies, though his university courses are entirely taught in French. As for what is important for success in university studies, Fan thinks that hard work and luck are essential elements. We wonder how hard studying can be when one does not understand the content of the courses.
The second question about Fan's motivation for learning French involves the importance of the language in his future job: 'Do you think French is going to be important for your future job?' 'I don't know,' he said. 'If my future job isn't related to French, I'll forget this language.'
Unlike Chong and Pu, who both have a positive view of the usefulness of the French language for their future, Fan does not know whether it will be important for his future career. One thing is sure: he 'will forget French', provided that he doesn't use it in his future job. One interpretation is that forgetting French may signify putting an end to his suffering.
We also asked Fan how he sees the role of the teacher in his language learning: 'He guides me in my learning. A Chinese proverb says the master teaches the trade, but the apprentice's skill is self-made.' Fan used the same Chinese proverb as Pu to explain his representation about teacher-learner roles. However, a little later in the interview, Fan gives a different version about the role of teacher: 'I need someone to direct me; I would work harder under her/his control.' In this example, the teacher becomes a learning manager. This statement contradicts his previous position and shows that Fan is influenced by a certain ideology: he believes that the learner should actively undertake learning, but that he does not have the ability to do so.
We asked Fan if he felt he was autonomous in learning French. 'Never. I learn French in order to survive in France. I feel very passive; I force myself to learn it.' Fan tries to be active in learning French - as he says, 'I force myself to learn it' - but can the pressure of being coerced triumph over passivity? In another statement, Fan declares his viewpoint about language learning: 'I don't like learning by rote. I prefer to learn by understanding. Language learning is a subject that demands rote learning.' Fan's representation of language learning is memorising, which demands considerable cognitive effort. Yet rote learning is one among many strategies in language learning; singling it out may suggest that it is his main learning approach.
Actions in French language learning
We asked Fan to describe his approach to learning French in everyday life: 'I memorize vocabulary; I learn by rote. Then I read articles in which these words are used, but I forget them very quickly.' This statement supports our hypothesis concerning Fan's use of rote learning. Moreover, he considers this method inefficient, which may be the origin of his lack of motivation for French.
We wanted to know more about his experience learning French, so we asked him some questions about the materiel and human learning resources that he used to learn French in everyday life:
'What are your learning resources?'
'What on the Internet?'
'Some Chinese forums to learn French where there are some little
exercises, and I have some Chinese books of French grammar.'
Unlike Chong, who frequently uses authentic learning resources, Fan mainly or only learns French using the learning resources based on his mother tongue, such as Chinese forums and Chinese books. Chinese still seems to be important in his learning of French, even after staying in France for nine years. Furthermore, he favours conventional learning activities that he learned to use at school.
As to friends and acquaintances, Fan told us that he had few contacts with French people: 'I am autistic. I have a few Chinese friends whom I met at school. I speak Chinese in most cases, rarely French.' The interviewee's self-reported autistic character is his rationale for explaining his difficulties in making friends; however, a few Chinese friends make him feel less lonely. Fan's personality seems very different from Chong's and Pu's, who are much more open to others.
Another example gives us more detail about Fan's representations of the French language: 'I use French when I have to handle some administrative duties for bank or for resident permit, etcetera. I use Chinese when I am with my friends.' To him, French is a language with an official function, such as dealing with administrative duties, while Chinese is the language that Fan uses with his friends, probably to talk about his life and emotions. Under these conditions, it is inevitable that Fan fails to reach the same closeness to French that he has with Chinese.
Feelings concerning French learning and life in France We asked Fan about his feelings towards learning French:
'Do you think your learning French is successful or failing?'
'Could you give me any instances?'
'I could express myself when I began learning French, but I can't speak it any more now. Maybe because I don't like speaking, and I don't often speak French. I gradually regressed.'
The perception of a deteriorating level of language and the inability to communicate in French make Fan think that his learning of French is a failure. As he says, he does not often speak French, and even dislikes doing so:
'Why don't you like French?'
'I think I'm stupid. I can't understand the sentences with liaisons. I have a strong aversion to French.'
'As I said, I made many efforts, but I haven't had any progress, I've lost enthusiasm. A Chinese proverb says failure is the mother of success. I don't think so, because if you fail every time, you lose interest to learn.'
Fan blames his lack of intelligence and his bad auditory capacity to understand French. Despite a great deal of effort, he does not make any improvement in French; consequently, he hates the French language. Furthermore, the loss of interest and self-confidence in the target language is the consequence of a series of perceived failures. We asked him whether he had given up learning French or planned to do so:
'Have you ever given up or do you want to give up learning French?'
'I worked hard enough, but I didn't make any progress. I understood
nothing, I could say nothing, I wanted to give up.'
'Why did you learn French again?'
'I have to stay in France; I force myself to continue learning French.'
We truly feel that Fan suffers from his experience learning French. Although he continues to learn it, he feels neither pleasure nor motivation. What does Fan think about his failure in learning French in relation to his life? We asked him if he thought successfully learning French is related to a successful life. 'No,' he replied. 'You can't say that my life is a failure because my French is not good.'
We felt tension between Fan and us at that moment. We may have injured his self-esteem. Does he really think that success learning French is not related to success in life? We are not sure. Perhaps he wanted to protect his dignity and not to generalise his failure in learning French to his life by denying his true feelings.
The last question reveals Fan's general feelings about life in France:
'Are you disappointed with the decision of studying in France?'
'It is a mistake.'
'I thought that foreign countries were good when I was in China, but
the reality is not so good, and my French is very bad. I regret having
Deception and regret are the two feelings expressed here. Many Chinese students have a very positive image of foreign countries, but living abroad is not always easy. Anticipating difficulties, persevering during difficult moments, thinking about learning and finding an appropriate method, as well as controlling emotions are only some of the hurdles that all international students have to face if they are to find the experience fulfilling.
Summary of the third case study - Fan
Fan's view of the ideal language learner - that is, someone who enjoys doing structural drills, memorising vocabulary and learning French grammar - makes him learn French in a very limited way outside of class. Classroom activities do not seem to give him much satisfaction in his learning. Fan considers French as nonessential for his studies and future career, thus his motivation to learn is weak. Furthermore, he exhibits a dependent attitude towards the teacher, even though he claims to believe that a learner's skills are self-made. Fan belittles his cognitive capacity and sees himself as autistic; this last feature isolates him from others, especially the host society and the local population. Such a solitary life is harmful for his learning of French. Fan expresses a sense of failure in his learning and regrets having come to France. It appears that he suffers considerably from this experience of studying abroad.