Strevens (1992) stated that over one and half billion people use English as a first, second, or foreign language all over the world and emphasized that one quarter of these speakers have English as their native language, while the rest use it as a second or foreign language to establish communication. More interestingly, over two third of these non-native English speakers have learned this language in the past 20 years. Thanks to advances in technology, which among other things, brought about wider intercommunication among people all over the world, this number is already on the rise. However, it should be taken into account that learning a language other than the first one differs greatly with regard to the contexts in which learning the second language takes place (Marckwardt, 1963; Stern, 1983; Brown, 2001).
Generally, language learning and teaching in a second language context is much easier than that in a foreign language context. Regarding this issue, Stern (1983) mentioned that a non-native language which is learned and practiced “within” one country is accounted as a second language, while a non-native language learned and practiced with reference to a country “outside” territorial boundaries is accounted as foreign language. He also states that the purpose of second language learning is often different from foreign language learning. Since the second language is frequently the official language in a society, learning it is needed “for full participation in the political and economic life of the nation” (Paulston, 1974, p. 12-13), or it may be the language for education (Marckwardt, 1963).
In line with Stern (1983), Brown (2001) also made some distinctions between foreign and second language learning contexts. To make an operational differentiation between a second and foreign context, Brown (2001) emphasized the role of the environment outside the language classroom and stated that there are two different language learning environment in which a learner can learn another language. He believed that in a second language situation, the language learner is exposed to the target language outside the classroom in a variety of settings, while in a foreign language environment, the learner will rarely, if ever, have opportunity for exposure to the target language outside the educational setting or language classroom. Teaching English in Japan, Morocco or Thailand, for example, is almost always a context of English as a foreign language (EFL) which lacks the aforementioned privileges.
Social context has been considered as a very important factor with regard to the language teaching and learning process. For language teaching to be effective, it is highly significant to make a relationship between language and the society or the context where the language is used and put into practice (Stern, 1983). The effect of social context on the process of language learning becomes more prominent when the differences in the social factors involved in ESL and EFL situations are taken into consideration.
2. Literature Review
Second language acquisition is a very important undertaking and has important and far-reaching consequences. Howatt (1984, p.22) stated that “people have been learning languages other than their first language throughout the long history of mankind, either informally or with the help of one methodological support or another”. Since 1960s, Tudor (2003) believed that we have witnessed an unprecedented expansion in the history of language teaching. This results from the dramatic increase in international exchanges and the consequent need for the learning of languages for the purposes of study, commerce, travel, and so on. In the ups and downs of learning another language, there have always been some facilitating and inhibiting factors which led to many painstaking studies during the past decades like Bloomfield (1933) and Ausubel (1964), to name just a few.
It is believed that learning an additional language is a difficult and complex task. To accomplish this, not only should a language learner master the grammatical system of that language, but also he or she should be able to make use of this system appropriately for communication in real-life situations. According to Barkhuizen (2004), there is obviously a process taking place in the head of language learners, which is unobservable; however, this process becomes more complicated when the outcomes of that learning, which are now observable, are examined within a social context.
There are myriads of research in the annals of second language learning regarding the cognitive procedures underlying language learning such as those done by Chomsky (1965), Pica and Doughty (1988), Oxford (1990), Dickinson (1992), to name just a few ; however, less focus has been placed on the social environment affecting the process of language learning.
2.1 Social context and language learning
In order to find the relevance of social context to second language acquisition, Ellis (1994) distinguished between social factors and social context. According to him, the latter refers to “the different settings in which L2 learning can take place” (p.197). His samples of the social factors included age, sex, social class, and ethnic identity and the context could be considered as either a natural setting, where informal learning takes place, or an educational setting, where formal learning occurs. Attaching significance to the social context, Harmer (2003) held that “the social context in which learning takes place is of vital importance to the success of the educational endeavor” (p. 338). Barkhuizen (2004) , on the other hand, proposed a basic model of language learning which takes into account at least five elements. According to him, in order to start the procedure of language learning, there has to be a learner; no language learning can take place if the learner is not exposed to input. In the process of language learning, a systematic representation of that knowledge, interlanguage, develops inside the learners’ head, and learning is evident in the output, a display of the learner’s ability in the language. The last element and perhaps the most important one is the social context within which the other four elements can play their roles as appropriately as possible (p.555).
Vygotsky (1962), the Russian psychologist, whose ideas have influenced the field of educational psychology in general and the field of education in particular described learning as a social process. The major theme of his theoretical framework is that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition (Turuk, 2008). That is to say, he considered social context and socio-cultural settings as highly significant factors in the development of higher forms of human learning. Introducing the concept of Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), Vygotsky (1962) defined it as “the distance between a child’s actual developmental level, as determined by independent problem solving, and the higher level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (as cited inWertsch,1985, P. 60).
Recently, researchers, such as Ryan (1997), Norton (2000), and Skilton-Silvester (2002) have begun to investigate how individual language learners learn a language in a range of formal and informal contexts among which the classroom setting plays a lesser role than the social contexts beyond it. Lave and Wenger (1991) also believed that although classroom setting plays a role in the process of language learning, a wider ecology of language learning exists in the context outside the classroom which is made up of situations and environments which provide settings in which language learners can participate by learning and using the language. Learning a language cannot be seen as a process taking place simply in an individual’s head, but the process of learning also occurs through the interconnected parts of a class, a family, or other social groupings (Robert and Kleiner, 1999).
Moreover, based on the ideas of Beebe and Zuengler (1983), in the early years of SLA research and theorizing, studies seemed to indicate that social context influences learning. In other words, they are two separate entities with the former having an effect on the latter. An important point which is worth mentioning regarding the above-mentioned studies is that in these studies what has received greater attention was actually language use rather than language or interlanguage development (Barkhuizen, 2004, p.554. emphasis in original).
However, Tarone and Liu (1995) held that “interaction in different social contexts can influence both interlanguage use and overall interlanguage development” (p.108). In addition, another study in the same vein carried out by Toohey (2000) has emphasized the sociality of language development, whereby learners and learning are socially, historically and politically constructed. Therefore, as Barkhuizen (2004) put it, instead of describing language learning as a process which happens to learners as they interact in a social context, it should be noted that learners themselves are partly constitutive of those contexts, which at the same time organize language learners’ identity and their language learning process.
Regarding the significance of community and social context in language learning, Bransford et al. (2000) estimated that 79% of school pupils’ waking time is spent interacting in the home and community, and only 21% at school. Putting emphasis on the significance of the environment beyond the school, these researchers call for educators and stakeholders to take into account the educational potential of the community (Palfreyman, 2006). Putnam (2000) used the term ‘social capital’ to refer to ”connections among individuals –social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them” (p. 19). However, Palfreyman (2006) used the term “resources” to focus on positive features of learning and context which can help educators and stakeholders to facilitate learning outside the classroom. In a study conducted in the UAE context, Palfrayman (2006) pointed out that language learners drew upon a rich repertoire of material and social resources in order to practice English in such an EFL milieu. In other words, English language learners in that context had access to a broad range of resources and opportunities for English language learning.
However, despite the importance of social context and its significant effects on language learning and teaching, to the researchers’ best knowledge, a few, if any, studies have been carried out in Iran regarding the impact of social environment on Iranian foreign language learners and the availability of language learning opportunities in that context. Since Iranian foreign language learners are living in a context in which they have inadequate or low-level exposure to English language, this study is concerned with the issues of L2 learners’ access to language learning resources and opportunities within such an EFL context.
Therefore, the present study aims at providing answer to the following research questions:
1. What kinds of language learning resources are employed by Iranian English language learners in the Iranian EFL milieu?
2. What kinds of social opportunities and resources are available out there of which language learners are not completely aware?
This was a mixed design study which combined both qualitative and quantitative approaches during the data collection and data analysis phases. The choice of the design of the study was dictated by the nature of the objectives of the study. According to Creswell (1999), a mixed design allows the researcher to gather the data in order to take into the account the results of both qualitative and quantitative methods. Results obtained from the quantitative phase of the study were enriched and evaluated by using qualitative semi-structured interviews, so that a deeper insight would be provided into the resources which can be made available to language learners in EFL contexts like Iran.
3.1 The context and the participants of the study
Since this study was conducted in Bahar language institute (BLI) in Shiraz and focused on the language resources and opportunities available to language learners in this part of the country, it is necessary to elaborate briefly on the social context of the country in general and the social milieu of the city in particular. As mentioned earlier, Stern (1983) categorizes two kinds of contexts in which learning a language rather than the first language takes place: ‘second language context’ versus ‘foreign language context’. The former provides second language learners with a plethora of resources and opportunities to practice and therefore enhance their second language learning. However, contexts in which second language learners do not have ready- made resources and opportunities to practice their L2 are considered as foreign language contexts (Stern, 1983).
Therefore, Since English was not the medium of communication in this environment, and it was not the medium of instruction at schools and universities in this context, second language learners’ contact with English outside the classroom was rather limited and the range of authentic situations, if any, in which they could use English to communicate with native speakers was considerably restricted. That is why, the context in which this study was carried out is considered as a foreign language learning context.
Participants for the current study were selected from the central branch of Bahar language Institute in Shiraz. Using cluster random sampling, the researchers selected 250 participants, 150 male and 100 female, studying English in high and advanced levels. Majority of them were university students studying in different majors, and the rest were taking pre-university courses. Moreover, all of the participants had Persian as their first language and aged from 19 to 35. These participants had various types of social and professional backgrounds and differed with regard to the reasons for attending the English language classes.
In order to conduct the present study, the researchers made use of two kinds of instruments. The main data collection instrument was a validated questionnaire including 33 questions focusing on the social environment participants were living in, language learning resources available inside and outside home and classroom, as well as language learning activities in which participants were involved. In addition, in order to provide more in-depth individual data, a semi-structured interview was conducted with a representative sample of the participants randomly selected from among those who had filled out the questionnaire. The questions posed in interview section were related to and based on the questionnaire’s items, so that the participants could shed light on some other points and opportunities for language learning in the social milieu in which they were living.
3.3 Procedures of the study
The data were gathered during the summer term of the academic year at Bahar Language Institute in Shiraz, Iran. During the ninth week of that term, a list of all the classrooms, including high and advanced learners, were firstly obtained from the director of the institute, and based on cluster sampling, 17 out of 25 English classes with high and advanced level students were randomly selected. Then, the students were informed about the research project and were assured of the confidentiality of the collected personal information. Finally, the questionnaires were distributed among the students during the regular class hour. Then, at the end of the term, 40 students of the 250 total participants were randomly selected to take part in the interview section.
After the data collection phase, the quantitative data were analyzed with SPSS using both descriptive and inferential statistics. Of course, the main statistical formula for the analysis of quantitative data was the qui-square test. After that, in order to analyze the qualitative data, the researchers made use of specific interview analysis techniques (Kvale, 1996). Then, benefiting from both quantitative and qualitative information gathered throughout the study, the researchers sought satisfactory answers to the research questions.
4. Data analysis
In data analysis section, two steps were taken: first, the data gathered via questionnaire were considered and analyzed; second, the interview data were elaborated on for finding complementary or additional information about the research questions.
In order to analyze the data gathered through the questionnaire, the questions were classified into five different categories, each focusing on a specific type of information. Category 1 provided information on the students’ use of English inside home, whereas Category 2 focused on the participants’ use of English outside home or institute. The third category included some questions which were related to the usefulness rate of the materials used by the students. In addition, Category 4 questions asked about the availability of family members helping students with English at home. Finally, the last category took into account the amount of help students received from or provided for their family members regarding the activities related to English language. After that, the Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS) was used for analyzing the data, using both descriptive and inferential statistics. Then, in order to determine whether there were any differences between responses given to the questions, a chi-square test was run.
The data gathered through the interview phase was of considerable significance for a deeper elaboration on the research questions, so that the new points which were not probably touched upon in the questionnaire could be mentioned and discussed.
In the present study, 250 high and advanced level students studying English in Bahar language institute participated and provided information about the available resources and opportunities for language learning in an EFL context. Regarding the results obtained from the first category, it was revealed that the participants spend a significant portion of their time with their family members, and more than half of them spend time with their friends and classmates ‘once a week’ or ‘a few times a week’. Another important point shown in the table below is that a large number of the students use the Internet messengers ‘rarely’ or ‘once a week’ (table 1). Regarding the interview section of the study, it was indicated that the reasons for not using Internet Messengers was that some participants did not know how to use these resources for the purpose of language learning. And those using these resources mentioned that they use these types of resources, but for the purposes other than language learning (e.g. chatting with a friend in Persian language).
Moreover, with regard to the practice of four language skills at home, participants stated that they have very limited opportunities to engage with English, and that they have to practice mostly the reading and writing skills as their homework assignments, and the other two skills are always left untouched at home.