New Directions in Language Learning Psychology

New Directions in Language Learning Psychology

New Directions in Language Learning Psychology is an edited collection by Christina Gkonou, Dietmar Tatzl and Sarah Mercer. The book was published in 2016 as part of Springer’s Second Language Teaching and Learning series.

It consists of 12 chapters, flanked by an introduction and concluding remarks by the book’s editors, which collectively put forward various possibilities for research and scholarship in language learning psychology.

In this post you can find information about:


Some background

The impetus for putting together New Directions in Language Learning Psychology was provided by the 1st Psychology of Language Learning (PLL) conference, which took place in Graz in 2014. The conference was very influential in establishing psychology of language learning as a new field within language education, and in broadening the range of constructs and methods that researchers engaged with. This development is reflected in the edited volume as well, since the 12 substantive chapters that make it up showcase multiple topics and methods that can be used to investigate psychological aspects of language teaching and learning.

University of Graz Campus
University of Graz Campus

The editors

Christina Gkonou is a Senior Lecturer in TEFL and MA TEFL/TESOL Course Director in the Department of Language and Linguistics at the University of Essex. She has extensive research experience in multiple aspects of language learning psychology, including language anxiety and emotions.

Dietmar Tatzl is a FH-Professor at the Joanneum Institute of Applied Technology in Graz, where teaches English language courses at the Institute of Aviation.

Sarah Mercer is Professor of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Graz, and has published extensively on aspects of language learning psychology.

Christina Gkonou
Christina Gkonou
Dietmar Tatzl
Dietmar Tatzl
Sarah Mercer

The contents of the book

Intentionality and complex systems theory: A new direction for language learning psychology

In the first chapter of the book, Juup Stelma and I introduce the concept of intentionality in language learning psychology. Intentionality is, at the same time, an old concept in psychology (it was introduced by Franz Brentano’ [1874] Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint) and a new one, in that it has not been used much in the study of language learning psychology. In this chapter, we use the term to mean, roughly, ‘purpose’, and we investigate how shared ‘purposes’ emerge in collective entities, such as groups of learners, or school systems. You can read more about our chapter in the following post:

New directions in language learning strategy research: Engaging with the complexity of language use

The next chapter, by Caron Griffiths and Görsev Incençay, is a theoretical overview language learning strategies. Strategies are “actions chosen by learners […] for the purpose of learning or regulating their learning of language”. Building on this definition, the authors go on to discuss what they perceive as four essential features of strategies: activity, choice, goal/purpose, and learning. The chapter also contains comments about diverse aspects of strategies, such as their theoretical grounding, classifications, and their relationship with context and other variables. An extensive part of the chapter is dedicated to recommendations about research, where the authors discuss – at some length – the limitations of questionnaires that have been used to measure strategies.

A systemic view of learner autonomy

In his contribution to the volume, Dietmar Tatzl discusses how learner autonomy can be understood using a complex dynamics systems theoretical frame. He suggests that autonomy can be viewed as a phenomenon that is situated not just within individual learner, but also as an emergent property of the interaction between learners and their environment. This perspective foregrounds the dynamism of autonomy, individual variation, and the ways in which autonomy may be collectively shaped.

Attachment theory: Insights into student postures in autonomous language learning

Denyze Toffoli also looks into learner autonomy, this time drawing on attachment theory. Attachment theory is derived from developmental psychology, and it refers to the quality of children’s relationships with their primary caregivers. Toffoli distinguishes between four attachment styles among adults (dismissing, fearful, preoccupied, and secure), which reflect different childhood experiences, and suggests that they have influence learning autonomy. She then reports on a diary study, using data from a language learners’ blog, to demonstrate the empirical validity of her model.

Emotions and feelings in language advising discourse

The next chapter, by Maria Giovanna Tassinari, focusses on language advising, i.e., interactions between a language learner and a mentor, which is often used as a supplement for self-access learning. By looking at the discourse of such interactions, Tassinari highlights how emotions were verbally manifested, and how affective aspects of the interaction were negotiated.

“It’s time, put on the smile, it’s time!”: The emotional labour of second language teaching within a Japanese university

Jim King’s highly influential chapter discusses the concept of emotional labour in language education. The term “emotional labour” refers to the ways in which professionals in some industries (e.g., flight attendants) manage their emotions so as to conform to the norms of the profession. King uses data from interviews with English language teachers in a Japanese university, to show how they used strategies such as surface acting, deep acting and emotion suppression. He goes on to discuss how emotional labour might connect with teacher stress and burnout.

A tale of two learners: Discovering mentoring, motivation, emotions, engagement, and perseverance

The next chapter, by Rebecca L. Oxford and Diana Bolaños-Sánchez, reports on the narratives of two English language learners. Using a grounded theory approach, Oxford and Bolaños-Sánchez tease out five themes, namely mentoring, motivation, emotions, engagement, and perseverance, which were helpful in overcoming adversity. Although situated in the often problematic positive psychology paradigm, the chapter stands out among similar work on account of its rigorous analysis, and the ways in which it allows for the participants’ voice to be heard, rather than shoehorned into a pre-decided analytical frame.

Language-teacher professional identity: Focus on discontinuities from the perspective of teacher affiliation, attachment and autonomy

Dorota Werbińska’s chapter reports on a four-year qualitative study that looked into the pre-service and early-service experiences of four language teachers. In the study, the teachers’ narratives were analysed using a theoretical framework called 3ATIF, or Affiliation, Attachment, Autonomy Teacher Identity Framework. Using this theoretical frame, the study compares and contrasts the teachers’ professional trajectories and identity development, and points out various discontinuities that might be theoretically significant.

Drawings reveal the beliefs of Japanese university students

Sakae Suzuki and Marshal Childs discuss how identity beliefs of Japanese university students. In their study, 70 participants were asked to draw themselves engaged in language learning, and these drawings were used as the basis of an analysis that inferred beliefs and classified them as positive and negative. These insights were supplemented with data from a brief questionnaire.

Love or money? Reinterpreting traditional motivational dimensions in modern social and economic contexts

The chapter by Viraǵ Czillagh uses language economics in order to extend theoretical models of motivation. This theoretical attempt is supported by questionnaire data from 375 students at the University of Geneva. Findings revealed differences between Swiss and international students, and other attitudes among the student body which are sometimes related to motivated language behaviour.

Attribution theory: Dimensions of causality, stability and controllability according to learners

Ana Sofia Gonzalez uses attribution theory as a lens for understanding success (or failure) in foreign language learning. In the context of language learning, attribution theory refers to the ways in which language learners interpret the outcomes of their efforts. Some key differences include locus of causality (i.e., whether responsibility for outcomes is theirs or not), stability (i.e., whether attribution may change or not), and controllability (i.e., whether changes in attribution are in their control or not). To investigate the role of attributions, Gonzalez conducted a questionnaire survey among 366 university students in Luanda (Angola). A key finding was that students tended to construct different attributions for successful and unsuccessful learning outcomes.

Scaffolding 2.0 – Redefining the role of the teacher in online learning environments

The final substantive chapter of the collection, by Margit Reitbauer and Hannes Fromm, looks into the role of teachers in online learning. In the chapter, Reitbauer and Fromm use cognitive flexibility theory, cognitive load theory, cognitive styles and learning interactions as theoretical frames, and put forward a list of ten criteria for effective language teaching.


What makes this book important?

While the individual chapters that make up the book each make an autonomous contribution to the study of language learning psychology, taken together they provided significant impetus towards re-invigorating the discipline.

One of the main contributions that the book made was that it raised awareness of a number of constructs and theoretical frames that were, at the time, relatively unknown to language learning. For example, the chapter by me and Juup Stelma focussed on intentionality, a construct that has powerful potential for understanding language learning activity. Similarly, the chapter by Denyze Toffoli foregrounded the role of attachment theory, which is well-established in mainstream psychology, but somewhat under-utilised in language education. The construct of emotional labour, which is the focus of Jim King’s chapter, a highly original contribution to the theory of language learning psychology, and one that has been picked up in more recent scholarship as well (e.g., Gkonou 2019; King & Ng, 2018).

A second key contribution of the book was that it highlighter the complex nature of language learning psychology, and language education in general. Many of the chapters in the book are explicitly informed by complex systems theory (e.g., Kostoulas & Stelma, Griffiths & Incençay, Oxford & Bolaños-Sánchez, Tatzl, all in this volume). Other contributions, which do not explicitly draw on complex dynamic systems as an interpretative frame, echo some of its guiding principles. For example, the chapter by Toffoli reminds readers of the long-term impact of early formative experiences – or what complexity theorists would call sensitivity to initial conditions. Likewise, Tassinari’s chapter provides evidence of how discourse is co-constructed (or ‘soft-assembled’) by mentor-mentee dyads, and how the outcome of their activity is shaped by a rich ecology of emotions.

Other chapters connect the book with more established strands in language learning psychology, sometimes adding a new perspective or using novel methodological approaches. Examples of such work include the chapter by Gonzalez, who revisits attribution theory; Czillagh’s study, who extends motivation theory with considerations of language economics; and Werbińska’s research, which adds new insights to identity theory. The study by Suzuki and Childs is also interesting, on account of its methodological novelty. Lastly, Reitbauer and Fromm’s study extends debates about language learning psychology into the realm of online education, in a way that is both insightful and foresightful.

The editors conclude the book with a series of questions, the last ones of which read as follows:

What other new directions lie ahead for the field of language learning psychology? And how can practitioners and researchers come together in dialogue about these directions?

Gkonou, Tatzl & Mercer (2016: 254)

This book has definitely opened up this ongoing conversation, and it has been a rewarding one.


The full reference for the book is: Gkonou, C., Tatzl, D. & Mercer, S. (eds.). (2016). New Directions in Language Learning Psychology. Cham: Springer.


About this post: This post was originally published in June 2014, as part of the Calls for Papers section of my blog. The call for chapters was replaced with the current content after the publication of the book. This post was last revised on 20th March 2020.

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