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Learning English

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Language
Wordcount: 5520 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Motivation and Attitudes towards Learning English: A Study of Petroleum Engineering Undergraduates at Hadhramout University of Sciences and Technology


This paper outlines the results of a survey which was carried out, to identify Petroleum Engineering students’ motivation and attitudes towards learning the English language. The study investigated students’ motivation in terms of three motivational constructs: instrumental motivation, integrative motivation and personal motivation based on Gardner’s (1985) and Cooper and Fishman’s (1977) works. Learners’ attitudes, on the other hand, regarding 1) the use of English in the Yemeni social context, 2) the use of English in the Yemeni educational context, 3) the English language and 4) the culture of the English speaking world were identified. The study sample consisted of 81 petroleum engineering students at Hadhramout University of Sciences and Technology (HUST). A questionnaire and interviews were used for data collection. For the students’ motivation, the findings showed the subjects’ greater support of instrumental reasons for learning the English language including utilitarian and academic reasons. Personal reasons were also regarded as important motives by the students. However, regarding the integrative reasons, the results provided evidence that learning English as a part of the culture of its people had the least impact in students’ English language motivation. On the other hand, data for the students’ attitudes revealed that most of students had positive attitudes towards the social value and educational status of English. In addition, the findings showed the students’ positive orientation toward the English language. Interestingly enough, the results indicated that a high number of the students showed their interest in the culture of the English speaking world as represented by English-language films. Finally, some pedagogical implications that would help tap the students’ motivation and attitudes were presented.


Motivation, Attitudes, English for Specific Purposes (ESP), EFL context, Petroleum Engineering Students.


Previous research in the field of engineering showed that English language is of paramount importance in the academic and professional lives of the engineering students (Basturkman, 1998; Pendergrass et al., 2001; Pritchard & Nasr, 2004, Joseba, 2005; Sidek et al., 2006; Hui, 2007; Venkatraman & Prema, 2007). For example, Pendergrass et al. (2001) point out that English is an essential tool in the engineering education and, therefore,” integrating English into engineering, science and math courses is an effective way to improve the performance of engineering students in oral and written communication” (p. 1).

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However, at Hadhramout University for Science and Technology (HUST) its petroleum engineering students have been described as low-competent in the English language (Al-Tamimi & Munir Shuib, 2008). Al-Tamimi and Munir Shuib’s views were based on preliminary interviews with some English language teachers at HUST and some petroleum students and graduates, from the Faculty of Petroleum and Engineering (FPE) at HUST, in which they opined that the petroleum students faced a lot of difficulties in using the language. As a result of their poor performance in English, most of the petroleum graduates have been rejected when applying to work at the oil companies. In this regard, the former Yemeni Minister of Oil and Minerals Mr. Khaled Bahah stated that applicants, who graduated from the FPE, always found it difficult to join the oil companies because of their language problems and therefore advised these graduates to improve their English skills to increase their opportunities in getting the job (http://www.mom.gov.ye/ar/news_53.htm).

There are many factors that might cause the students’ low proficiency in English. One might be attributed to petroleum engineering students’ motivation towards the English language. This is because learners’ motivation has been widely accepted as a key factor which influences the rate and success of second/foreign language learning (McDonough, 1983; Ellis, 1994). McDonough (1983, p.142) state that “motivation of the students is one of the most important factors influencing their success or failure in learning the language”. Another factor is learners’ attitudes. This is because an ESL/EFL learner’s motivation in language learning is affected by his/her attitudes towards learning the language. The relation between motivation and attitudes has been considered a prime concern in language learning research. Gardner and Lambert (1972, p.3) state that “his [the learner] motivation to learn is thought to be determined by his attitudes towards the other group in particular and by his orientation towards the learning task itself”. In addition, Lifrieri (2005, p.14) assert that “attitudes are necessary but insufficient indirect conditions for linguistic attainment. Only when paired up with motivation proper do attitudinal tendencies relate to the levels of student engagement in language learning, and to attainment”. All in all, a better understanding of students’ motivation and attitudes may assist ESL/EFL curriculum and instruction designers to devise language teaching programs that generate the attitudes and motivation most conducive to the production of more successful ESL/EFL learners (Gardner & Lambert, 1972; Midraj, 1998, 2003). Additionally, it can help material writers create and teachers select activities and tasks that tap students’ motivation and attitudes (Midraj et al., 2008).

Given the importance of identifying learners’ motivation and attitudes towards learning the English language, this paper reports a study which had been conducted to investigate petroleum engineering students’ motivation and attitudes towards the English language. Besides the significant role of learners’ motivation and attitudes in the learning process, the lack in the literature regarding studies on engineering students’ motivation and attitudes in the Arab World has been another motive to conduct the present study.

More importantly, in the Yemeni EFL context, the only related study which has been carried out among Yemeni undergraduates was that of Al-Quyadi (2002) who looked at Sana’a University English majors’ motivation and attitudes towards learning English. However, to the best of the researchers’ knowledge, no study has been conducted to investigate language learning motivation and attitudes of Yemeni English for Specific Purposes (ESP) learners in general and HUST ESP learners in particular. As these types of learners might have their specific motives and attitudes towards learning English, the present investigation would contribute to understand such issues with regard to petroleum engineering students at HUST, Yemen. This could also serve as a reference for instructors and syllabus designers at HUST to improve the situation of English language teaching with respect to students’ motivation and attitudes.

The objectives of the study

This study aims at investigating petroleum engineering students’ motivation and attitudes towards learning the English language. The objectives are as follows:

* To determine which of the three types of motivation (instrumental, integrative and personal) could be the primary source of petroleum engineering students’ motivation towards learning the English language.

* To determine the type of attitude that petroleum engineering students have towards learning the English language.

Literature review

This section provides a review of the literature deemed relevant to the research objectives. This includes a brief overview of the concepts of motivation and attitudes and a review of the related studies.


Motivation is very hard to define. As Gardner (2006, p.242) states “motivation is a very complex phenomenon with many facets…Thus, it is not possible to give a simple definition”. This is because the term motivation has been viewed differently by different schools of thought. From the behaviouristic perspective, motivation is “quite simply the anticipation of reward” (Brown, 2000, p. 160). However, the cognitivists view the term motivation as being more related to the learner’s decisions as Keller (1983, p.389), quoted by Brown (ibid, p.160), stated, “the choices people make as to what experiences or goals they will approach or avoid, and the degree of effort they exert in that respect”. However, in the constructivists’ definition of motivation, they place “further emphasis on social contexts as well as the individual’s decisions” (ibid). Despite the differences, in all the definitions of motivation given by the three schools of thought the concept of “needs” is emphasized, that is, “the fulfilment of needs is rewarding, requires choices, and in many cases must be interpreted in a social context” (ibid, p.161).

The importance of motivation in enhancing second/foreign language learning is undeniable. Lifrieri (2005, p. 4) points out that “when asked about the factors which influence individual levels of success in any activity – such as language learning -, most people would certainly mention motivation among them”. Brown (2000, p.160) states that “it is easy in second language learning to claim that a learner will be successful with the proper motivation”. With similar views, Gardner (2006, p. 241) posits that “students with higher levels of motivation will do better than students with lower levels”. He further adds that “if one is motivated, he/she has reasons (motives) for engaging in the relevant activities, expends effort, persists in the activities, attends to the tasks, shows desire to achieve the goal, enjoys the activities, etc” (Gardner, 2006, p. 243).

Brown (2000) asserts that studies of motivation of second/foreign language learners often refer to a distinction between two types of motivation namely, instrumental versus integrative motivation. Gardner (1983, p. 203) defines instrumental motivation as “learning a language because of someone or less clearly perceived utility it might have for the learner”. More specifically, a learner is instrumentally motivated when he/she wants to learn a language “to pass an examination, to use it in one’s job, to use it in holiday in the country, as a change from watching television, because the educational system requires it” (Wilkins, 1972, p.184).

On the other hand, integrative motivation was defined as “learning a language because the learner wishes to identify himself with or become integrated into the society” of the target language (Gardner, 1983, p.203). Therefore, a learner is integratively motivated when he/she learns a language because he/she wants to “know more of the culture and values of the foreign language group… to make contact with the speakers of the languages… to live in the country concerned” (Wilkins, 1972, p.184).

Besides Gardner’s integrative and instrumental constructs, Cooper and Fishman (1977) mentioned a third type of motivation which they termed “developmental”. Developmental or personal motivation, according to them, refers to motivation relating to “personal development or personal satisfaction” (Cooper & Fishman, 1977, p. 243). This includes such activities as watching movies and reading books in English (ibid).

The researchers concur with Spolsky (1989, p. 160) in that “a language may be learned for any one or any collection of practical reasons”. As such, identifying the petroleum engineering students’ motivation will be related to the reasons for which they learn the English language. In other words, instrumental, integrative and personal reasons will be considered as far as the students’ motivation is concerned. This view is also supported by Crookes and Schmidt (1991) who consider motivation in learning a second/foreign language as “the learner’s orientation with regard to the goal of learning a second language” (p. 10).


Likert (1932, p.9), cited in Gardner (1980, p.267), defines the term attitude as “an inference which is made on the basis of a complex of beliefs about the attitude object”. Gardner (1980, p.267) elaborates on Likert’s definition by defining attitude as “the sum total of a man’s instinctions and feelings, prejudice or bias, preconceived notions, fears, threats, and convictions about any specified topic”. Ajzan (1988, p.4) considers attitudes as “a disposition to respond favourably or unfavourably to an object, person, institution, or event”. Baker (1992, p.10) defines attitudes as “a hypothetical construct used to explain the direction and persistence of human behaviour”.

Gardner (1985) considers attitudes as components of motivation in language learning. According to him, “motivation … refers to the combination of effort plus desire to achieve the goal of learning the language plus favourable attitudes toward learning the language” (p. 10). However, Wenden (1991) proposed a broader definition of the concept “attitudes”. He states that the term attitudes includes three components namely, cognitive, affective and behavioural. A cognitive component is made up of the beliefs and ideas or opinions about the object of the attitude. The affective one refers to the feeling and emotions that one has towards an object, ‘likes’ or ‘dislikes’, ‘with’ or ‘against’. Finally, the behavioural component refers to one’s consisting actions or behavioural intentions towards the object (ibid).

From a different angle, McGuire (1969, p.157), cited in Oscamp, (1977, p.10) suggests that it is possible that the three components are so closely interrelated, “that theorists who insist on distinguishing them should bear the burden of providing that the distinction is worthwhile”. This made Van Els et al. (1984, p.116) to suggest that “it does not really matter whether all or only one of the three components are measured; the relationship between the components is so close that sufficient information on an attitude can be obtained by measuring only one component, no matter which”.

Learning a language is closely related to the attitudes towards the languages (Starks & Paltridge, 1996). Karahan (2007, p.84) avers that “positive language attitudes let learner have positive orientation towards learning English”. As such, attitudes may play a very crucial role in language learning as they would appear to influence students’ success or failure in their learning.

Related Studies

There is a plethora of research that has been carried out internationally to investigate learners’ motivation and attitudes towards the English language. In Malaysia, for example, Vijchulata and Lee (1985) reported on a study that investigated the students’ motivation for learning English in Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM). Based on Gardner and Lambert’s research (1972), the researchers developed a questionnaire to elicit the data required. The questionnaire was administered on approximately a thousand students from all the different faculties in UPM. The findings revealed that UPM students are both integratively and instrumentally oriented towards learning the English language.

Another study by Sarjit Kaur (1993) attempted to explore the language needs of consultants at a company. The name of the organisation was not mentioned as the consultants did not allow the researcher to expose their identities. Learners’ motivation was of concern in the study. The research sample consisted of 26 consultants, 4 directors and one instructor. In her study, Sarjit Kaur (1993) employed different techniques to gather information, such as questionnaire, interviews and field observation. For the subjects’ motivation, the study found that instrumental motivation was the main reason for learning the language followed by personal motivation.

In Japan, learners’ motivation and attitudes towards the English language were also of concern for many researchers. One of the most relevant studies was that of Benson (1991) who surveyed over 300 freshmen to assess their motivation towards learning English. The results demonstrated the importance of integrative and personal goals as factors in motivation among Japanese college students as he stated, “integrative and personal reasons for learning English were preferred over instrumental ones” (Benson, 1991, p. 34).

In Papua New Guinea (PNG), a related study was undertaken by Buschenhofen (1998). He sought to assess the attitudes towards English among year 12 and final-year university students. To collect the data, he administered a questionnaire on approximately 50 % of year 12 and first-year university students in PNG. Both groups were contrasted in terms of their tolerance towards the use of English in a variety of contexts. The results indicated (1) a generally positive attitude by both groups towards English and (2) some significant attitudinal differences in relation to specific English language contexts. Buschenhofen attributed such differences to the changing social, educational, and linguistic conditions which characterize the transition from year 12 to university education.

Arani (2004) investigated in Iran the language learning needs of medical students at Kashan University of Medical Sciences. One of the primary objectives of the study was to identify the students’ attitudes towards learning English as a school subject i.e. prior entering the university. The research sample consisted of 45 medical students who enrolled in the first and second year of study. To collect the data, different types of questionnaires were administered to the sample at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the English for Medical Purposes (EMP) courses. The results showed that most of the subjects had positive attitudes towards both learning English and the English language teacher.

A more recent study has been carried out by Karahan (2007) in the Turkish EFL context. The motive of his study arose from the complaints raised by learners, teachers, administrators, and parents about why most of Turkish EFL students cannot attain the desired level of proficiency in English. Therefore, he conducted a study to find out the relation between language attitudes and language learning which is a missing point of discussions on the problems of teaching English in Turkey. More specifically, Karahan tried to identify the interlaced relationship among language attitudes, the starting age of language learning, and the place where the individual started to learn language within Turkey EFL context. The only method of inquiry used was a questionnaire adapted from previous studies on language attitudes. The sample included 190 (94 females and 96 males) eighth grade students of a private primary school in Adana, Turkey, where English was intensively taught. The findings indicated that although the students were exposed to English in a school environment more frequently than other students at public schools, they had only mildly positive attitudes; especially female students had higher rates. In addition, the subjects recognized the importance of the English language but interestingly did not reveal high level orientation towards learning the language. On the other hand, the results revealed that the subjects had mildly positive attitudes towards the English based culture but they were not tolerant to Turkish people speaking English among themselves.

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With regard to Arab EFL learners, some studies have been undertaken to investigate learners’ motivation and attitudes towards the English language. For instance, Qashoa (2006) conducted a study among secondary school students in Dubai. The study aimed at 1) examining the students’ instrumental and integrative motivation for learning English, and 2) recognizing the factors affecting learners’ motivation. Two research tools were used: questionnaire and interviews. The sample, for the questionnaire, consisted of 100 students. For the interviews, on the other hand, the sample included 20 students, 10 Arab English teachers and 3 supervisors. The results revealed that students have a higher degree of instrumentality than integrativeness. In addition, the findings indicated that difficulties with the subject (English) aspects such as vocabulary, structures and spelling were found to be the most demotivating factors for the students.

In the Yemeni Arabic EFL context, Al-Quyadi (2002) carried out a comprehensive study to investigate the psycho-sociological variables in the learning of English in the faculties of Sana’a in Yemen. One of the main objectives of his study was to study the nature of the psychological variables of learning English by Yemeni EFL learners in terms of attitudes and motivation as measured by English majors at the Department of English, Faculties of Education at Sana’a University. The only research tool used was a questionnaire. The study sample consisted of 518 students representing seven Faculties of Education. Generally, the results showed that the students had a high level of both instrumental and integrative motivation toward the English language. With regard to their attitudes, the findings indicated that the students had positive attitudes towards the English language and the use of English in the Yemeni social and educational contexts.

To sum up, the following may be said about the past studies discussed in this section:

· All the above-mentioned studies reconfirmed the importance of identifying learners’ motivation and attitudes towards the English language.

* Some studies have been carried out to investigate second/foreign language learners’ motivation. These studies help the researchers to understand the how to identify learners’ motivation. As a result, to assess petroleum engineering students’ motivation, some questions were adapted from Benson (1991), Sarjit Kaur (1993) and Qashoa (2006).

* Other studies focused on learners’ attitudes (Buschenhofen, 1998; Al-Quyadi, 2000; Karahan, 2007). Besides adapting some questions to investigate the students’ attitudes, these studies help the researchers to build their idea on how to identify the petroleum engineering students’ attitudes towards the English language. That is, the term attitudes in the present study includes four main categories: attitudes toward the use of English in the Yemeni educational context, attitudes toward the use of English in the Yemeni social context, attitudes toward the English language and attitudes toward the culture of the English Speaking World.

* The issues of learners’ motivation and attitudes have not been sufficiently discussed with regard to Arab engineering students. In other words, no study has been conducted to explore the types of motivation and attitudes that engineering students in the Arab World might have toward learning the English language. Therefore, this study would help understand these important issues with regard to Yemeni petroleum engineering students in the Arabic context.

Given the situation that highlighted the gap in the literature with regard to engineering students’ motivation and attitudes in the Arab World, the next section presents how the current study was carried out.


This study was conducted to identify petroleum engineering students’ motivational and attitudinal orientations in learning the English language. To achieve this objective, two research tools were used namely, questionnaire and interviews. This type of design, that uses different research methods to investigate the same issue, is called a triangulation mixed method design (Creswell, 2002). The need for triangulation arises from the ethical need to confirm the validity and reliability of the process (Tellis, 1997). In addition, using multiple methods in a research design would also help to “give a fuller picture and address many different aspects of phenomena” (Silverman, 2000, p.50).


The target students’ population in this study was all the students who studied in the academic year 2006-2007 in the Department of Petroleum Engineering (DPE) at HUST, Yemen. The total number of the students was 191 males. There were no female students in the department.

The system in the DPE provides five years of instruction that qualifies the students to graduate with a BA degree in petroleum engineering. English language is the medium of instruction in the department. In addition, one English language course is taught for all the petroleum engineering students over two semesters in their first year.

A non-probability judgment sampling technique was employed by the researcher to select a representative sampling of the subjects in this study. Choosing the subjects using the judgment (purposive) sampling is based on the researcher’s own judgment (Milroy, 1987). Given this, out of the 191 students in the DPE, only 81 third, fourth and fifth year petroleum engineering students, aged from 21 to 26 years old, were selected as a sample to fill in the questionnaire. On the other hand, only 10 of these students were involved in the interview. 3 of them were in the third year, 4 in the fourth level and 3 were final year students in the academic year 2006-2007.


The primary method of inquiry used in this study was a questionnaire. It consisted of three sections: A, B and C. In Section A, 3 items were used to collect information regarding the students’ background. Section B consisted of two parts which included questions to identify students’ motivation to learn the English language. The researchers adapted these questions from Benson (1991), Sarjit Kaur (1993) and Qashoa (2006) based on two scales of Gardner’s (1985) Attitude/Motivation Test Battery (AMTB) (the instrumental and integrative orientation scales) and Cooper and Fishman’s (1977) personal motivational construct. These reasons represented the three motivational constructs namely, instrumental motivation (items 1, 2, 3, and 4), integrative motivation (item 7) and personal motivation (items 5 and 6). It might be worth indicating that Gardner’s instrumental and integrative types of motivation were adopted because such a classification offers “an impetus to the study of language attitudes and motivation that had previously been lacking” (Benson, 1991, p.35). For the personal construct of motivation, it was included because it has been incorporated by some researchers such as Benson (1991), Sarjit Kaur (1993) and Shimizu (2000) when they investigated ESL/EFL learners’ motivation towards the English language.

In the second part of Section B of the questionnaire, on the other hand, the students were asked to answer a question on whether or not they are interested in attending more English language training courses to improve their proficiency in the English language. Answering such a question is of great importance to know about their desire for learning the language which is considered one of the main components of language learning motivation (Gardner, 2006).

Section C of the questionnaire was developed to elicit information regarding the students’ attitudes towards the English language. In this section, the students were given 8 statements (items) , adapted from Buschenhofen, (1998), Al-Quyadi (2000) and Karahan, (2007), for which they were requested to specify their responses by choosing any of the three alternatives provided, namely, agree, disagree and don’t know. The items were divided into four main categories: attitudes towards the use of English in the Yemeni educational context (items 3, 4, 5 and 6), attitudes towards the use of English in the Yemeni social context (items 1 and 2), attitudes towards the English language (item 7) and attitudes towards the culture of the English Speaking World (item 8).

It is worthwhile mentioning that the researchers translated the questionnaire into Arabic and then it was submitted to the Language Centre at HUST to check the translation. To ensure its validity, the questionnaire was piloted prior to carrying out the main study. On the basis of the outcome from the pilot study, the questionnaire was amended and the final draft was prepared for the main study.

Besides the questionnaire, interviews were used to obtain data to supplement and cross-validate the students’ responses to the questionnaire. The students were asked questions related to their motivation and attitudes towards the English language. The interviewees were asked about 1) their reasons for learning English, 2) their interest to attend more training courses in English, and 3) their attitudes towards the English language and towards the culture of the English speaking world.

Data Collection Procedures

Given the description of the questionnaire and interviews, this sub-section presents the procedures used in the administration process.

In May, 2007, the researchers started carrying out the main study at the DPE in the FPE at HUST. Before administering the questionnaire, permission was sought from the FPE and the time was arranged with two lecturers at the DPE. Prior to distributing the questionnaire, the students were informed of the objectives and significance of the research. They were also requested to state their true and honest responses. In addition, the subjects were informed to ask for any clarifications they might have. Then, the questionnaire was distributed. Once they finished answering the questionnaire, they were requested to check their responses for incompleteness or missing answers.

Before conducting the interviews, the subjects were briefed on the aims and procedures of the interview sessions. To reduce their fear of exposing their honest views and to ensure better and valid results, the interviewees were informed that their answers would be treated with complete confidentiality. Moreover, ethical issues related to the culture and nature of the interviewees and the policy of the environment were taken into consideration when conducting the interviews. To record the interviewees, an MP4 and a notebook were used.

Data Analysis Procedures

The data collected in the present study was of two types i.e. quantitative and qualitative. The quantitative data of the questionnaires were analysed in terms of means, using the Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS) and percentages. For analysing the qualitative part of the data, on the other hand, a content analysis method was used. In the analysis process, the interviewees’ responses for each question were firstly translated into English and then transcribed. After that, the responses were analysed in terms of themes related to the study objectives.

Limitations of the study

There were a number of limitations to the present study which should be highlighted so as to avoid any overgeneralizations and misinterpretations of the results. First, due to financial and time concerns, the present study was confined to 81 petroleum engineering students in the academic year 2006-2007 at the FPE at HUST. Although the minimum sample size recommended by many researchers (Cohen et al. 2006) is thirty subjects, the findings might be a reflective of the motivation and attitudes of those participated in this study. Second, all the participated subjects (n=81) were males as there were no female students in the department. Therefore, the generalisation from the findings should be made with caution. Finally, the pedagogical implications of this study are limited to those which can be based on the participants’ responses.


This section is divided into two main sub-sections: the students’ motivation to learn English and their attitudes toward the English language. In presenting the results in each sub-section, data obtained from both the questionnaire and interviews were used.

Motivation to Learn English

This sub-section presents the questionnaire and interview findings related to the students’ motivation to learn the English language.


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