A Case Study of Two Japanese English Learners: Their Motivation and Concept of English

Azusa Yamamoto, Soka University, Japan

Yamamoto, A. (2019). A case study of two Japanese English learners: Their motivation and concept of English. Relay Journal, 2(1), 104-117. https://doi.org/10.37237/relay/020115

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Learners’ motivation is one of the crucial factors in the ultimate achievement of language learning. To understand how Japanese English learners’ motivation changes over time, and how their experiences influence their concept of English and English learning, it is beneficial to look closely into personal stories of individual learners. Through interviews of two Japanese female adults, it was found that their perception of English was affected by school English education and their own experiences. In addition, the level of achievement in Japanese school setting did not necessarily determine the ultimate proficiency of English in the long run. Furthermore, there was a strong relationship between their level of motivation and their learning context, and their self-image played an important role in creating and keeping their motivation.

Keywords: motivation, English as a foreign language, Japan


Literature Review

Different learners achieve different levels of second language, and there are various factors for this. For example, Ellis (2004) listed seven aspects of individual differences: language aptitude, learning style, motivation, anxiety, personality, learner beliefs and learning strategies (p.4). Though individual differences are often explained separately, they are not independent but complex, dynamic and interact with each other (Dörnyei & Ryan, 2015). While these characteristics are all important in language learning, motivation is crucial because motivation is required throughout the process of learning. In fact, other individual factors are affected by the assumption that the learners are motivated, and motivation can even help overcome some of the shortages in other individual difference factors (Dörnyei & Ryan, 2015, p.72).

There are various theories and frameworks related to motivation. For instance, Gardner and Lambert (1972, cited in Hiromori, 2003) categorized the learners’ motivation into integrative and instrumental orientations, while Self-Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2002, p.16) described different stages of regulation within extrinsic motivation. The L2 Motivational Self System introduced three dimensions: the Ideal L2 Self, the Ought-to L2 Self, and the L2 Learning Experience (Dörnyei & Ryan, 2015), and Directed Motivational Currents (DMCs), a concept based on vision, was proposed as “a prolonged process of engagement in a series of tasks which are rewarding primarily because they transport the individual towards a highly valued end” (Dörnyei, Ibrahim, & Muir, 2015, The Unique Nature of Directed Motivational Currents section, para.2).

Ushioda (2005) stated the importance of investigating the relationship between context and learners’ motivation, since “each responds and adapts to the other” (Learner-Context Relations as Ecosystems section, para.2). Ishikawa (2017), in his study, described the foreignness of English for Japanese people: English is neither a result of Western colonization nor a means of communication. English words and phrases are often used only emblematically, and many English loanwords have evolved into their own words with their own meanings. In addition, Ishikawa noted that the majority of the Assistant Language Teachers and English teachers at private conversation schools are from United States, United Kingdom, Australia or New Zealand, and this creates an impression of English as a language exclusively for them (pp. 237-240). Moreover, various studies about Japanese students (Ishikawa, 2017; Saito & Hatoss, 2011) revealed their negative attitude towards their own English, especially their Japanese-influenced accent, using the native English speakers as a “benchmark” (Ishikawa, 2017, p.245).

Research Questions

In this case study, to look closely into two Japanese learners’ English learning experiences in the complex context of Japan, the following questions were investigated:

  1. What were the previous English learning experiences like for these two learners?
  2. How did their motivation change over a long period of time?
  3. What were the reasons for the changes in their motivation?
  4. How did their experiences influence their conception of English?


I chose two of my friends Mia and Manami (both pseudonyms) who had different levels of communicative effectiveness when I traveled to the United States with them. During the stay, there were many situations when Mia helped Manami communicate with the people there. Table 1 is the summary of Mia and Manami’s backgrounds.

 Table 1. Mia and Manami’s Backgrounds

To collect the data, semi-structured interviews were adopted. In semi-structured interviews, the topics to be covered are planned in advance; yet allow the interviewees to develop the conversation freely (Heigham & Croker, 2009). In addition, a motivation graph adapted from (Mynard, 2018) which shows participants’ age on the horizontal axis and their self-rated motivational level on the vertical axis was used. The interview with Mia was done using videoconference software, while Manami’s interview was done in her own house. During one-hour interviews, they were asked to describe their language learning histories, and were asked what English meant to them. Interviews were done privately in Japanese and recorded. After the interviews, Mia and Manami both completed the motivation graph on a blank sheet of paper, which I converted to the digital form shown in the figures 1 and 2.


The interviews were fully transcribed, then coded. When coding, grounded theory approach (Saldaña, 2009) was used to let the themes emerge naturally. Coding categories included attitude, environment, learning strategy, learning style, motivation, personality, perspective, confidence, evaluation of effectiveness, fear, regret, role model, self-evaluation and success. The graphs were self-explanatory, but I asked both of the participants’ clarification for each major event and labeled them.


When I analyzed the data, three main themes emerged; motivation, perception of themselves, and the concept of English and English learning.


Figure 1. Mia’s Motivation Graph

Figure 2. Manami’s Motivation Graph

Motivation graphs. As shown in Figure 1, three events highly motivated Mia; university entrance examination, time in the Japanese junior college, and time in Hawaii. Mia’s initial low motivation was described: “I wasn’t attracted to English at all. I was never going to leave Japan anyway.” Figure 2 describes Manami’s motivation. Manami had the highest motivation when she first started learning English, and studied for her university entrance examinations. Law school entrance examination, trip to the United States, and her current working situation were also motivators.

School context. Their teachers and the degree to which they understood their class lessons affected both Mia and Manami’s motivation. Mia said, “I couldn’t really read kanji and didn’t understand what adjective or adverb meant even in Japanese, so there was no way I could understand the explanation about English grammar using those terms.” Manami also mentioned, “More and more points became unclear, and I started feeling uneasy.” Manami described her first English teacher as “fresh and cute,” while the next teacher was described as “too serious, boring, dispassionate and just taught grammar.”

University entrance examinations also had a tremendous impact on their motivation. Mia, who had prior to that time skipped studying English, started studying seriously for her entrance examination: “It was as if my motivational switch was turned on.” Manami also studied intensely, but more strategically: “I wrote down sentences on post-it notes and put them everywhere around the house. The best places were the bathroom walls and the mirror above the sink so I could see them while I brushed my teeth.”

In addition, peers and environment affected their motivation. When Mia entered junior college, she was influenced by classmates who had experiences or plans to study abroad, and eventually she also decided to study abroad. When she finally started taking classes in Hawaii, however, she was demotivated: “I was so disappointed and lost my motivation because many of the rich Japanese students in my ESL class were there simply to enjoy the time in Hawaii, and never studied.” When she started learning specialized subjects with local students, she was motivated again.

Manami owed much of her motivation during her secondary school to her close friend who liked an American TV show Full House and a pop band Backstreet Boys (BSB): “The reason why I didn’t dislike English was because of Full House, BSB, and my close friend. Watching her enjoy learning English prevented me from hating English.” In addition, her school put an emphasis on English education: “We often had English morning service and sang English hymns, we had English Camp and English lunches.” She repeatedly mentioned her role model in her secondary school, who had never lived abroad, but had good English skills. Her classmates at her law school also had an impact: “Many students were returnees. They were planning to work as lawyers internationally using English. I felt like I would never reach their English proficiency, so I pledged to myself that I will keep living as a Japanese in Japan.”

Perception of themselves

Mia described her trait: “I’m either at 100 or 0. There is no middle point. I am persistent to achieve my goal when it clicks;” “I’m a visual person. If I can imagine myself doing it, I will act on it.” She also added: “I’m stubborn. I think some Japanese students disliked me because I didn’t use Japanese with them in Australia and Hawaii. I was hard on myself, but that was needed to improve my English.” Manami often displayed a lack of confidence regarding her English experiences: “I don’t have confidence because I only have little intercultural experience;” “I wanted to study abroad when I was in 9th or 10th grade, but the timing was not right. I was worried of being bullied in the host country, or graduating one year later than my classmates. Even when I was in university, I couldn’t make up my mind because I was engaged in different activities … Now that I’m in my mid-30s, I’m hesitant. Will my English skill still improve if I go?”

Concept of English and language learning

Though Mia initially saw English as a school subject, she now believes it is a tool to communicate: “Without communication, I don’t think it will improve. Even if I earned a good grade in class, if I can’t use it in an actual situation, it would be useless.” Manami also claimed English is a tool for communication; however, it is more complex for her. She was not convinced that studying for TOEIC would improve her communicative English skills. She was skeptical of the effectiveness of the English conversation lessons she took because she had difficulty communicating with local people when she took a trip to the United States. Manami is now concerned about English becoming a subject in Japanese elementary schools: “I don’t know how much my daughter should spend time on English in the future. She has to study for other subjects as well.”

While Manami mostly associated language learning with formal instruction, Mia expressed the idea that taking classes is not the only way to learn a new language. Mia now has a plan to study Korean: “I would study all by myself. I will buy a book to learn the writing system first. I learn faster when I listen, so I will choose some scenes from a Korean drama that I could use with my customers. I will also use YouTube.” Manami is now bewildered how to study English for her job: “I want to take English lessons, but I don’t know what to learn and who to ask. The progress might be too slow, so it might be better for me to jump in where the foreigners are.”

Both Mia and Manami described the importance of grammatical knowledge. Mia emphasized that simple grammatical knowledge is enough. Manami emphasized that it is the basis of English. “If I didn’t study grammar and vocabulary at school, I wouldn’t have understood Full House. It was like a spiral staircase. Study at school, watch Full House, study at school, listen to the BSB, and kept going like that.”

For Mia, mastering English phonology was important and her hypothesis is “Bad singers are bad language learners.” Manami questioned the importance: “My university teacher who studied in Harvard was successful in English communication even though his pronunciation was not native-like. I don’t know how important pronunciation is internationally.” In addition, she described meeting a local man on a trip to Hawaii who spoke English with a mild Hawaiian pidgin accent;

“He spoke warm English. It was a little different from real American English. I had always thought I had to speak like President Trump or news reporters, but after meeting him, I felt it was okay to speak my kind of English. His English was easy to listen to, I could understand everything, and even if I couldn’t pronounce my ‘r’ perfectly, I was sure he would never look down on me. He would embrace my imperfect English, so I felt more relaxed to speak.”


One thing that stood out in the data was their conception of English. Both Mia and Manami acknowledged English as a tool for communication, but their perception of their own English pronunciation, especially in secondary school, was affected by native ideal concept discussed by Saito and Hatoss (2011) and Ishikawa (2017). Mia was still certain about the importance of native-like pronunciation; however, she was also aware that the message is more important than the pronunciation based on her own experiences communicating with non-native English speakers of various backgrounds in Hawaii and Spain. Manami questioned the practicality of comparing Japan grown English pronunciation to that of native speakers in her interview, but this attitude was formed only after she had personal contact with people who did not speak what she called ‘real American English.’

Yashima (2011) pointed out that many people in Japan treat English communication practice as the opposite of studying grammar, reading and writing, and sometimes useless for entrance examinations. This may be because the majority of examinations focus more on receptive English skills than productive skills, and preparing for these tests would make English look like a subject rather than a means of communication. As an example, Manami did not think studying for TOEIC itself was worthwhile when she was a graduate student. Since the TOEIC test measures one’s English proficiency in a business context, the students may have had difficulty seeing the connection between its content and their daily lives. It is even said that many companies use university graduates’ TOEIC scores “as a convenient tool to measure the level of effort” (Kubota, 2011, p. 258). Mia and Manami also separated school/examination English and communicative English. In fact, Manami was more successful than Mia in the former setting. Manami had many attributes of successful learners at school as discussed by Gan, Humphreyes, and Hamp-Lyons (2004), such as describing strategies, being analytical of the teachers, and recognizing the culture. However, Mia ultimately achieved higher English proficiency. Indeed, Mia helped Manami communicate when they traveled to the United States.

One of the reasons for this seemed to be the difference between their motivation. When Mia’s claim about her motivation being either 0 or 100 was put into the framework of Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 2009, p.445), Mia takes actions only when the source of motivation is internal. She did not have her Ideal L2 Self (Dörnyei & Ryan, 2015) in the beginning, but when she decided to study for her entrance examinations, she formed the Ideal L2 Self who passed the examination and became a university student. In junior college, she formed the new Ideal L2 Self who possesses intercultural experiences similar to her peers. So she decided to homestay for a month in Australia, and happy with the experience, she decided to study abroad long-term. There, her renewed Ideal L2 Self lived abroad, and she strived for that Ideal L2 Self by studying, researching information, and asking her parents for advice and financial support. Her parental support was important in her every decision-making, similarly to the effect of parental influence described by Noguchi (2017) in developing the Ideal L2 Self of young learners. During Mia’s time in Hawaii, she possessed internalized intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Throughout her learning, Mia continued to reform her Ideal L2 Self every time she became closer to the original Ideal L2 Self.

Manami’s motivation had more ups and downs. She has had her motivational spikes, but every time she achieved the goal, her motivation decreased until she found the next goal. The DMC happens when learners value the end result (Dörnyei & Ryan, 2015). Manami only took actions when she was convinced that the result was worth the hardship and cost. Manami’s Ideal L2 Self was based in Japan; therefore, learning English might not have been her priority. This depicts the complexity and difficulty of learning English as a foreign language. In addition, her lack of confidence due to the shortage of intercultural experience limited the formation of Ideal L2 Self even more.


Mia and Manami shared her stories from her memories, so they could have been different in reality. In addition, since I was the only person who coded, inter-rater reliability has not been checked. To understand more in depth, follow-up interviews are needed; however, the present study revealed various aspects of English learning in Japan. Even in the dilemma between school English and authentic English, both of the learners considered English as a communication tool. They had formed the native ideal concept described by Saito and Hatoss (2011) during their school years in Japan; however, interacting with other non-native English speakers weakened this formed concept. They also separated school English and communicative English, and being a successful English learner in a Japanese school did not necessarily mean ultimate high communicative proficiency. Moreover, both of their motivation was significantly influenced by their university entrance examinations and the context of language learning, such as teachers, environment and peers. Lastly, both learners’ perception of themselves played a big part in how and how intensely they learned English, and having a well-formed Ideal L2 Self and renewing the Ideal Self was important in continuous language study. Further investigation on how their L2 Selves were formed would help to reveal the complex nature of learning English in Japan.

Notes on the Contributor

Azusa Yamamoto is a lecturer at Soka University. She has earned her MA TESOL from Temple University Japan, and is currently in a doctoral program at Anaheim University. Her research interests include learner autonomy, study abroad, and motivation in language learning and teaching.


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6 thoughts on “A Case Study of Two Japanese English Learners: Their Motivation and Concept of English”

  1. This is an interesting study that connects the literature effectively to the data and conclusions. The motivation graphs are an effective way to demonstrate the complex language learning journeys that you are trying to describe.

    I would like more information about why you chose the subjects? Was it convenience? Were you looking for two subjects who had significantly different experiences? Usually in Case Study methodology, cases are chosen for their uniqueness and data is derived from a deep understanding of the case (Yin, 2009; Stake, 1995, 2006). I’m also wondering about the insider information you had as researcher and friend of both subjects. This isn’t a problem, but you might want to indicate if your “beyond the data” knowledge of the subjects had any affect on the interpretation of the data.

    I’m also wondering about your use of “Grounded Theory” which is a research method of it’s own. I understand that you used “emergent coding” but this doesn’t mean that you are using Grounded Theory. In fact, your title indicates that you are doing “Case Study” research which has a specific methodology of it’s own and can definitely involve the use of emergent coding.

    Overall, the writing is clear with minor errors that don’t affect meaning. It wouldn’t hurt to do one more edit. Fix the pronouns in this sentence from the conclusion: Mia and Manami shared her stories from her memories

    While you have done a complete job of answering your research questions, I’m left with the big questions of “so what”? and I don’t mean this in a negative way. This is a question I ask myself when I’m doing research. While it’s interesting to understand what has motivated the participants in this study and how individual differences and circumstances affect motivation, I would like to see some conclusions or recommendations that relate to teaching and learning of English. This may be a question for a future study.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment and suggestions. I appreciate your help in making my article better.

      For my subjects, I chose them because part of it was the convenience, but mainly because I thought they were sort of opposite types of English learners; one was not successful in the formal educational setting but achieved high communicative proficiency, and the other was successful in school context and exams but not necessarily so in real-world English communication. I somehow related them to two types of my own students at universities. I could imagine some students becoming like Mia or Manami in the future. Since I have known my participants for a long time, the events that happened after I met them may have been colored to some extent with my own memories, even though I tried my best to be objective.

      Thank you for the comment about Grounded Theory and emergent coding. After reading your comment, I realized that I misunderstood the therm Grounded Theory, and it was emergent coding that I used as suggested.

      Through this investigation, I realized how important learners’ motivation is in learning a language. I had always thought so based on my own experience of English learning. Some students are independent to find their intrinsic motivation while others may need more guidance. It is also crucial for the students to have the clear reasons and visions why they are studying English. As a teacher I could provide various opportunities that could help them build their L2 selves.

      Best regards,

  2. Your case study was easy to read and enjoyable. I found it intriguing that your study was based on adult learners who mostly studied English in their past, as opposed to younger, current learners. Your visual comparison of the two learners as well as your visual representation of the three compared themes was helpful.

    I, too, am interested in the learner difference of motivation and find its complexity daunting in research. A case study is a great way to limit the sample and simplify the focus when examining motivation.

    I wonder if you considered Weiner’s Attribution Theory at all. It seems that certain experiences triggered motivation or demotivation among your learners and it might be interesting to see if there is any relationship to a feeling of success associated with motivation or failure associated with demotivation.

    One thought you might consider is a lengthier discussion of your data analysis. I understand the process of coding for emerging factors but what was that process like in this case? How did you identify a broad theme like “motivation” in the transcripts and distinguish it from other possible emergent themes? A little more on this process would strengthen your paper.

    Overall, I thought your case study was really interesting and left me wishing there were more take-aways. What kind of research might follow this study? Is there a larger study worth exploring based on your findings here? Are there different motivational factors that emerge in hindsight as opposed to university students or younger learners who are entrenched in language learning at the moment? These are just some thoughts for further discussion and possible future research.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment and suggestions Shoshannah, they were extremely helpful.

      I would like to look into Attribution Theory deeply and see how the relationships between their motivation and success/failure. It seemed that Mia attributed her success to her persistence and commitment often. Manami often mentioned the teachers and Japanese English learning situations of EFL context and TOEIC exams when talking about her demotivation.

      As for my data analysis, I agree that I should include more detail. As you mentioned, explaining how I used the term motivation when categorizing would be helpful. I think that following this research, investigating on how their L2 ideal selves were formed differently would be interesting. My participants’ self image was important in keeping their motivation to learn which was related to their ultimate English communicative proficiency, so if we could help the learners build their L2 self, it may be beneficial even for the students in EFL context. Now I could see how this study could connect to future research interest. Thank you.

      Best regards,

  3. I think Karen and Shoshannah make some excellent points. In particular, there may be some issues with the use of the term ‘grounded theory’. Aside from that, I just came to let you know how much I enjoyed the paper. I think it is valuable to present the human face of the learner, especially language learners who are not currently in formalised language education. The larger scale studies and theoretical papers you summarise so neatly in your opening review need to be validated by smaller, more personal studies such as this one.

    1. Thank you so much for your encouraging comment. Yes, I had misunderstood the term grounded theory, and the comments I have received helped me very much. I’m happy to hear that you enjoyed my paper. I too enjoyed writing this. I was skeptical of having my friends as the participants, but I think it helped to see learners’ learning experiences deeply.

      Best regards,

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