The Learning Patterns
Learning patterns represent the rate at which a person can learn over time (Aird, 2017). With respect to the learning patterns shown in Appendix 1, ‘progress’ means that the learner scored higher than their previous score. A ‘plateau’ means that the subsequent score was similar to the previous score. A ‘decline’ is an indication that the subsequent score was lower than the previous score.
It is evident in this study that the learning patterns were non-linear because most participants experienced progress, decline and a plateau in the grammar tasks of the TGJT and the VC tasks during the 15-month period in which learning of Maltese was assessed (see Appendix 1). As shown in Appendix 1, although the participants’ marks were categorised into six groups, there were even differences within the same group. For example, for learning curve 1 (see Appendices 1 and 2), in January‒March 2017, there were some participants who experienced progress in their TGJT scores and others in the same group who experienced a plateau or a decline. This observed learning pattern is evidence of C/CT, which states that SLA is not only non-linear but also unpredictable (Larsen-Freeman, 1997, 2011, 2018).
It was challenging to group participants based on their learning curves since progress, declines and plateau patterns varied from time to time (see Appendix 1). The participants’ scores were grouped into six different learning curves, and there was variation for learning curves 1 and 6 as shown in Appendix 1 and the general learning curves drawn by GeoGebra software in Appendices 2 to 7.
Although a little progress or decline in raw scores was recorded for some participants, such variation is usually not considered statistically significant, but in this research, every kind of observed decline or progress of the non-linear learning curve was considered to be significant as evidence of one of the C/CT characteristics. Moreover, the statistically significant mean scores showed small insignificant differences in the mean scores in the first four months (i.e., March, May and October 2016 and January 2017) in which the data were collected on the TGJT and VC tasks, resulting in significant differences in the mean scores in the last two months (that is, March and May 2017; see Figures 1 and 2). This provided evidence of C/CT’s butterfly effect. According to the butterfly effect, any change that is small and termed as not being statistically significant is likely to result in a dramatic change, as shown in Figures 1 and 2. The facts show that there was a dramatic change as the participants continued to learn Maltese, as indicated by each participant experiencing either a decline, a plateau or progress during the learning phases.
An analysis of learners' performances indicates that the teacher cannot predict the performance because a student who has performed well may either improve or decline in performance and vice versa. In light of the foregoing, the findings of this study are contrary to those reported by traditional studies, such as the results of De Bot and Verspoor (2005) who avowed that SLA has a clear starting and ending point, is linear and can be displayed in a cause‒effect graph. If learning is linear, it means that the learner’s performance continues to improve with time and cannot decline or hit a plateau; an aspect that is not evident in the current study or in Safari and Rashidi's (2015) results; it is also not supported by C/CT.
This study’s findings are supported by most researchers who acknowledge that SLA is non-linear (Larsen-Freeman, 1997, 2016, 2018; Safari & Rashidi, 2015). SLA is a complicated process that cannot be predicted, as evidenced by the varied performance of the participants over time. The unpredictability of a learner’s performance is influenced by several factors as demonstrated in some learning theories, such as the completion model which emphasises that within a person’s language system, SLA is influenced by social, cultural, environmental and psychological variables which work together to determine how a person learns a language (Larsen-Freeman, 2016). Other theories that form the basis for this study and that can be used to explain the complex nature of SLA include C/CT and cognitive, sociocognitive and sociocultural theories.
According to Larsen-Freeman (1997), a complex system is usually non-linear and, therefore, the effect does not depend on the cause. Since the present study has revealed that SLA is non-linear, the effect ‒ in this case, the learners’ score on the Maltese grammar tests ‒ does not depend on the cause ‒ in this case, the learners being taught Maltese. It is thus evident that the performance of the ML2 learners on the grammar tests does not completely depend on the instructors’ teaching methods or the learner’s amount of time or effort.
The non-linear pattern of SLA cannot be entirely linked to the instructor’s teaching approach, but rather to the learner’s internal and external environment. SLA is termed as complex in C/CT since the learning process is influenced by factors such as feedback from native speakers, peers and teachers as well as the learner’s age, motivation, attitude and strategies of learning (Larsen-Freeman, 2011). It is expected that learners will always present their subjective reasons for their poor performance on L2 tests. To comprehend how C/CT applies to SLA, the difficulties experienced and mentioned by the 35 ML2 learners will be explored and linked to C/CT.
Difficulties in learning ML2
All of the 35 participants were faced with a variety of problems ranging from personal to environmental that led to either a decline, progress or plateau in TGJT and VC task performance. The existence of these problems associated with ML2 learning gave rise to evidence that C/CT truly prevails. The learning difficulties will be discussed according to the identified themes and then linked with C/CT. The findings are arranged into the common emerging themes in relation to the theories that form the basis for this research.
Lack of both implicit and explicit knowledge
Several participants reported that their low scores were due to not being exposed to the Maltese language during their four-month summer vacation period (i.e., June–October 2016), Christmas vacation for three weeks and Easter vacation for two weeks. Thirty-one participants acknowledged that while they visited other countries, they neither spoke nor listened to Maltese and thus, implicit knowledge could not occur. As evening classes were not provided during the holidays, most participants lacked explicit knowledge. For example, a participant who was a doctor said:
I went back to Macedonia during summer to visit my family and for an important medical course as I need to continuously update my knowledge in my work. I didn’t have time to study or to talk to anyone in Maltese.
(Interview, 24/05/17, Danijela)
The underlying issue of lack of implicit and explicit knowledge is not a lack of L2 exposure but rather the break in exposure during the vacation period. Saylag (2014) asserted that exposure of an adult learner to an environment will lead to adaptation of L2, while a lack of exposure can lead to resistance, and a learner might not be interested in learning L2. Extended breaks in exposure to the Maltese language could have led participants to a decreased knowledge in ML2.
Lack of feedback
The majority of the participants who were married to partners that were Maltese reported that their partners were not willing to speak in Maltese, and if the ML2 participants spoke in Maltese to their partners or ML1 speakers, the latter were not willing to correct their mistakes in Maltese and even answered them in English instead. Furthermore, one of the participants who was an English maid stated that her husband informed her that she did not even need to learn Maltese:
My husband keeps on asking me: Why are you learning Maltese when we talk in English, and everyone here understands English? It is not an important language at all. You can speak it only in Malta. It’s just a waste of time so that you won’t do household chores!
(Interview, 25/05/17, Gabby)
According to C/CT, learning is also feedback sensitive (Larsen-Freeman, 1997); hence, learning might not have taken place when ML1 speakers were too polite to correct ML2 learners during their interactions. A participant who was a Russian writer stated that writing was important and that it has helped him in his ML2 learning more than ML1 speakers:
Many people are so wrong when thinking that you will know the foreign language better if you live in that country where this foreign language is being spoken there. For instance, Maltese are so kind and polite that they always reply to me in English even if I talk to them in Maltese. So, it’s not living in Malta which made me learn Maltese but my motivation and my ability to learn. I used to also have fun writing dialogues in Maltese; some of the dialogues were actual conversations that I have heard on the bus or at a shop or by the beach. During evening classes, we should be allowed to write dialogues to each other or to fictional characters and then recite it in class.
(Interview, 26/05/17, Vladimir)
Some participants blamed a difference in culture between Malta and their home country as a barrier to ML2 learning. Twenty-three participants reported that they were influenced by culture shock and needed to adapt themselves to the Maltese culture.
Over time, Martina, a Czech ICT assistant, started to feel a sense of belonging in Malta and felt more comfortable with the Maltese culture, the Maltese people, their food and the Maltese language. In fact, she claimed:
I have accepted the side that the Maltese people drive. Now for me, driving on the left is fine and I got used to it. Even the hot climate in Malta especially in July and August, the lack of greenery and trees especially during summer when everything looks so dry, the Maltese food, its political system, the fireworks’ noise during the morning, the fact that we cannot drink tap water, the Maltese language ... all of this is sounding familiar to me now. Now I am finding it difficult when I return to my home country for the holidays because I feel that I am getting used to the Maltese culture.
(Interview, 24/05/17, Martina)
Adaptability to the environment (and hence to the L2 environment) is also a characteristic of C/CT (Larsen-Freeman, 1997). Culture differences between Malta and the ML2 learners’ original cultures imply there are difficulties in learning ML2. Culture shock can be countered by cultural intelligence in which the learner becomes flexible enough to understand, listen, analyse and reflect on the L2 culture (Aravind & Dhar Dwivedi, 2015). Learners need to unlearn and challenge their own cultural beliefs and practices as otherwise these could impede ML2 acquisition in this context. Nonetheless, C/CT states that SLA is unpredictable (Larsen-Freeman, 2016), and the ML2 learner who adapts to the Maltese culture is not guaranteed to learn ML2 without experiencing any problems. Besides, it is difficult for a teacher to declare that all ML2 learners will similarly resolve the problem of culture shock.
Adult learners’ commitments
Thirty-two participants reported that they required more time to learn ML2. These participants reported that learning Maltese requires commitment in terms of time; yet it is difficult to find the time to learn ML2 due to obligations, such as a family, children, a garden, pets, hobbies or the need to keep the house clean. Some participants perceived being older and other such external factors (in this case, having adult duties) as a reason for their poor performance in ML2 learning.
C/CT’s characteristic of openness requires that external factors which influence SLA should be considered in the learning process (Gonsior, Domzalski & Gątarek, 2014). The problem of poor performance is further enhanced by the fact that C/CT is sensitive to the initial conditions (Larsen-Freeman, 2016). There is an increased probability that the commitments of the adult learners as well as L1 transfer affected the initial conditions, and thus, the learners could not grasp the important aspects in ML2 leading to a decline in ML2 test performance.
Learner’s memory issues due to ageing
Seventeen participants declared that they were ready to give up learning ML2 as they were experiencing memory problems. Growing older and experiencing memory loss was cited as the reason for the participants’ declining performance, especially in VC tasks from October 2016 to the period of January 2017. Memory loss was also found not only to affect ML2 learning but also the participants’ L1. Consequently, the participants were very frustrated when they tried very hard to remember a word, even in their L1.
An English teacher admitted that his memory is failing him due to the ageing process as he had a good memory when he was a child.
Sometimes I just cannot remember the word or the conjugation of the verb. I know that we did it in class or that I have seen it somewhere. I also know that I know it, and then, I just cannot remember it. It is so frustrating! What’s worse is that sometimes I realise that I am remembering a word in Maltese but I forgot the same word in English. Then after some time, I remember how to say that word in English. This is quite impressive considering that I have been learning Maltese for only three years! It shows that I am getting old. This never happened to me when I was younger.
(Interview, 24/05/17, Robert)
This highlights the critical period hypothesis, in that SLA processes in adults are slower and less successful than in children younger than the age of puberty (Muñoz, 2017). The maturation mechanism has been proposed as a synchronous constraint on both the ability to lose a language, as L1 attrition shows, and the ability to acquire L2 (Muñoz, 2017). This implies that the brain plasticity for both L1 attrition and SLA are age dependent and will correspond to a qualitative change in individual learning ability (Gathercole & Baddeley, 2014).
However, some learners performed well in ML2 tests despite having advanced ages, and it can thus be said that other factors interfere with learning apart from memory loss. In a situation in which SLA presents with a progressive curve, which is declining as well as plateauing in nature, the fractal concept as a characteristic of C/CT is shown (Larsen-Freeman, 1997, 2016). This creates a need to examine all the possible factors associated with the decline in the performance on an L2 test before settling on the fact that poor performance is associated with age.
As Table 1 and Figure 3 show, most participants experienced the same pattern in their learning curve on the TGJT and VC tasks and this is evidence of the C/CT fractal pattern characteristic, which is a pattern that looks similar but appears on various scales (Larsen-Freeman, 1997). Figure 3 shows the positive correlation between the TGJT and VC scores. As Table 1 shows, the correlation coefficient between TGJT and VC scores was 0.676 which is close to one, and it shows a positive correlation. The P-value is 0.000 which is less than a 0.05 level of significance, and thus, the correlation is statistically significant.
Table 1: The Correlation between TGJT and VC scores
Frustrations associated with either stagnation or slow progress in ML2 learning
Twenty-nine participants reported being frustrated due to the absence of progress in ML2 learning. The experience of frustration was further aggravated as these participants were attending evening classes and tried hard to interact with ML1 speakers, and yet their ML2 performance was stagnating. A Serbian team leader of a cruise liner commented:
Even though I am an intermediate student of Maltese, I am aware that I have not achieved perfect mastery of Maltese. I feel that I am not that very competent in Maltese when I talk to Maltese in Maltese. I might know the verbs, as I have studied them by heart like a parrot, but that doesn’t mean that I can use the verbs suitably when I am talking in Maltese. My nine-year-old daughter is better than me. We started learning Maltese together, but at least she is able to talk and play with the other Maltese children, and many times when we read a book or watch a Maltese drama on TV, she is translating from Maltese to Serbian and not the other way round.
(Interview, 24/05/17, Jasmina)
Jasmina’s comment supports C/CT’s strange attractor characteristic (Larsen-Freeman, 1997), implying that no matter how much time and effort a learner dedicates to learning a language, s/he still can obtain unpredictable results; in this case, lower scores than previously on the same grammar tasks. The period during which the L2 learner is experiencing a plateau is termed as chaotic because the new content being taught results in a collapse of the content that was taught earlier (Safari & Rashidi, 2015). The stagnation in the learning process usually continues until the learner understands how to incorporate the new concept that has been taught into the already existing concepts which were previously taught. It can thus be said that ML2 learners were not making progress because they were in the SLA chaotic phase.
Difficulties in making effective utilisation of language transfer
All of the 35 ML2 participants acknowledged that the Maltese language was either similar or different from their L1, and this either positively or negatively influenced ML2 learning. It was acknowledged by most learners that if they were familiar with Arabic, then they would perform well in learning Maltese, especially Maltese grammar. Knowledge of Italian was associated with easier learning of Maltese vocabulary. In fact, the existence of positive language transfer (Shatz, 2016) was reported in cases in which the participants' L1 was Arabic or Italian. In other cases, negative consequences of language transfer were reported. Positive transfer from a source language might be attained due to the facilitating effects of the L1 in SLA (Alonso, 2016; August & Shanahan, 2017). Most learners reported that they experienced a negative transfer due to the differences between their L1 and Maltese.
The issue of language transfer could confirm the C/CT characteristics of adaptability, self-organisation and feedback sensitivity. This means that for SLA to be effective, the ML2 learner needs to not only adapt to the new environment but also, for example, accept and use feedback from ML1 speakers or peers. Furthermore, a learner’s interlanguage is impacted by interacting factors referred to as self-organisation (Norris, Davis & Timpe, 2017).
Limitations associated with personality, especially extroversion and introversion
Some participants reported that their improved performance could be attributed to the fact that they have an extroverted personality, were not afraid of making mistakes and, thus, kept on speaking Maltese with their peers and teacher in class and when meeting ML1 speakers. Studies have suggested that extroverts are inclined to learn more aspects of an L2 than introverts (Lightbrown & Spada, 2013). On the other hand, several participants reported that their performance improved even though they have an introverted personality, contrary to what many studies have claimed.
Jasmina stated that she was an introvert and admitted that she felt shy in talking to ML1 speakers:
I come across as a very introverted person, and this could have been the reason my husband left me five years ago. I am really shy to speak in class and I do not dare speak in Maltese with a Maltese person. First of all, Maltese people are very fast when they talk to each other in Maltese, and I can barely understand them, even though I have been attending private lessons and evening classes in Maltese for three years.
(Interview, 24/05/17, Jasmina)
As observed by Ratner (2010), connections with other people are not natural among introverts since they prefer to cautiously choose with whom they interact. Moreover, this participant recorded an improvement in her performance on the Maltese grammar tests and she attributed this to the fact that she liked reading Maltese books and listening to the radio and podcasts in Maltese. At the beginning of the ML2 learning process, the difference in personality can be linked to C/CT’s butterfly effect since being either an introvert or an extrovert will influence ML2 learning and is termed as the learner’s initial condition.
The fact that personality may have had a positive influence in SLA gives further credence to C/CT’s unpredictable and complex characteristics, and it is not pegged on personality, particularly introversion and extroversion among adult learners. An extroverted personality facilitates more learning since these individuals are not afraid to interact with L1 speakers, and they have been found to learn L2 faster than introverts (Lightbrown & Spada, 2013). However, in a contrary finding, Zafar (2017) reported that introverts learn faster and are better at L2 in comparison to extroverts because they listen better, thereby enhancing their L2 implicit knowledge. Hence, it is difficult to predict the learner’s performance depending on the learner’s personality, and this further portrays the fact that SLA is a complex process as indicated by one of the C/CT characteristics.
The teacher’s overdependence on using traditional teaching methods
Thirty-three participants reported that their ML2 learning went through a plateau period or that they even obtained lower scores due to their teacher’s traditional methods, such as sitting down during the whole lesson; distributing long lists of verb conjugations and vocabulary translated to English; writing on the board and expecting the learners to just passively sit; lack of engagement in classes; failure to listen; and lack of positive feedback. Such traditional methods were very boring and ineffective for 95% of the participants. Other reasons mentioned by the participants were that the teacher did not link previous knowledge with current knowledge, the teacher insisted that everything should be learnt by heart and that there was a lack of engagement during lessons through role play and group work. The participants preferred learning methods which included visual, auditory, reading and kinaesthetic learning styles.
C/CT is characterised by sensitivity to feedback which is an important aspect in SLA (Larsen-Freeman, 1997, 2018). The teaching method needs to be one in which ML2 learners are given feedback and are engaged in lessons so that they can consider the areas in which they need improvement.
Limitations of the Study
Several limitations arose in the course of conducting the research. Among the limitations was that some participants were withdrawn from the research. The sample size in the academic year 2015/2016 was that of 39 ML2 learners who were taking part in the MFL2 intermediate level course at three differentiated lifelong learning institutions in Malta. In the subsequent academic year of 2016/17, the sample size fell to 37 ML2 learners as two learners failed to pursue the MFL2 course. This research population size further fell to 35 participants as a learner was not ready to be a subject in this research and another participant left Malta indefinitely. Due to the small participant size, the outcomes cannot be generalised to the entire foreign learner populace in Malta, which is, in any case, undisclosed.
Data Collection Instruments
The other limitation was that the researcher wanted the five reflective journal contributors to perceive that they could interact candidly and overtly with the researcher. The researcher did not want to be entirely authoritarian in imposing restraints on what they could note in their reflective journals. However, this influenced the reflective journal outcomes since these participants at times noted other elements which impacted their ML2 learning that contradicted what the researcher perceived to be helpful for the research questions. Furthermore, the researcher had to extensively depend on the information the participants gave her in their interview or jotted in their reflective journals. Hence, the researcher was compelled to note down their viewpoints without being able to authenticate their responses.
Recommendations for Further Research
Further study could determine the best teaching techniques for ML2 learners to absorb Maltese verbs, for instance, via action research. An assessment could also be made subsequent to various learning techniques related to Maltese verbal tense and elements for diverse ML2 groups in order to evaluate the pertinence of the teaching techniques.
There could also be research concentrating on the discerned language distance concept, one of the elements of Crosslinguistic Influence theory. Language distance is contemplated to be an element affecting the simplicity or difficulty with which learners obtain and master an L2.