Researching motivation and emotion of Chinese older adults in English language learning

  • Yanchuan GENG

Student thesis: PhD Thesis


In China, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of older adults who are engaged in learning English as a second/foreign language (hereafter L2) in their post-retirement life, aiming to accrue presumed physical, social and psychological benefits. However, although reasons for older adults to participate in learning activities in general have been extensively researched, such research rarely focusses on an L2 and related emotional aspects. This study investigates the L2 motivation of Chinese older adults and the relationships between their motivation and emotion. Research on this theme is urgently needed. There is limited research in the field of adult learning in education that focuses on the particularities behind the choice of learning English as a subject or set of skills or which discusses how the learning motivation might change dynamically in the process. This shortage of studies might, admittedly, be addressed within the rapidly expanding field of L2 motivation studies, but only in a partial manner. This is because the findings of L2 motivation studies are predominantly based on younger learners rather than on retired older adults who may display distinctive learning features. Further, the links between L2 motivation and a fuller spectrum of emotions have only recently attracted attention from scholars, and these links merit further investigation. Within a mixed methods design, this study collected quantitative and metaphor data through 718 questionnaires distributed in 10 Universities of the Third Age in China, before conducting 34 in-depth interviews with older adult learners of English. Structural Equation Modelling is used in the quantitative analysis to describe the dimensions of L2 motivation and to evaluate hypothesized causal relationships between dimensions of motivation and eight selected types of emotions. The metaphor and interview data enriched the quantitative results to give more nuanced descriptions of participants’ experience. The results showed that L2 motivation later in life can be structurally different from motivation in earlier stages of life and from motivation for learning in other cultural contexts. Among these older Chinese adults learning English, both the remembered past and anticipated future combine work to motivate participants to join and continue learning English in language courses. In particular, the expectations of L2 learning constructed from early schooling and socialization can be re-evoked and re-aligned with the situations at hand to influence participants’ learning behaviour. Further, some types of emotions were found to overlap or interact with learner motivation in unique ways. These shared patterns found in older adult learners’ motivation and emotion suggest a culture of learning which is important to understand how to learn an L2 successfully in later life and specifically how to teach English and other L2s to Chinese older adults.
Date of Award8 Nov 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Univerisity of Nottingham
SupervisorLixian Jin (Supervisor), Candace Veecock (Supervisor) & Yanhui Zhang (Supervisor)


  • L2 motivation
  • emotion
  • older adults

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