Interviewing people about language learning: Know your epistemology

If you take a Masters degree in the social sciences, the first course you will take will be Research Methods, and the first chapter of your Research Methods textbook will address terms like methods, methodology, theory, and epistemology. Epistemology is the highest term in the four-level hierarchy: it is the way we understand social reality, and by extension, how we understand our research findings. There are three main epistemologies: positivism, interpretivism, and social constructivism. In this post, I explain what these are, then illustrate using an interview-based study about motivation to learn English versus Mandarin Chinese (Chan, 2015) why epistemology is important to consider in interview-based research on language learning motivation.

Epistemology in social sciences research: Positivism, Interpretivism, and Social Constructivism

Positivism posits that we get to the objective “truth” or “facts” behind a social phenomenon. For example, in a fifth grade class, Leon says he was bullied by Zack. If we are to take a positivist approach, we examine the truth behind Leon’s claim: whether or not (or to what extent) he was indeed bullied by Zack. When it comes to language learning, for example the research question, “To what extent, and for what reasons, are students in Hong Kong (a Cantonese-speaking society) motivated to learn Mandarin Chinese?” we likewise would be attempting to get the “facts.”

Interpretivism and social constructivism are alternative epistemologies to traditional positivism. (I do not mean to say that positivism is outdated; it is simply the default epistemology.) Interpretivism (I think some people call it “subjectivism”) seeks to explore what people think is the fact of the matter, not the actual fact of the matter. What does Leon think about the situation? How about Zack? How are their perceptions influenced by various personal factors? Why do students in Hong Kong think they want to learn Mandarin Chinese? How do they see themselves as ‘motivated’ Mandarin learners? (We are not attempting to capture their actual motivation to learn Mandarin, but their perception of their motivation.)

Social constructivism, the research epistemology I principally am trained in, is conceptually the trickiest. It is not about the facts, or what people think to be the facts, but what they collectively agree on (openly pretend) are the facts. What they socially construct to be facts. We would thus examine how Leon, Zack, their classmates, and their teacher negotiate the story of what happened. Or, we would examine how Hong Kong students perform being “motivated learners of Mandarin” (in their words, actions, self-portrayals in conversation and on social media)—not whether they are actually motivated learners of Mandarin, or whether they actually believe themselves to be motivated learners of Mandarin. Because it is social, social constructivist research also examines how others respond to performances (with acceptance, doubt, challenges, similar/different performances, etc.).

If you are researching language learning motivation, particularly through interviews, you can see how this is tricky! What are you capturing, and how do you know? Often, what happens in qualitative research (quantitative research = numerical/statistical data; qualitative research = non-numerical data like interviews) is that people frame their studies as interpretivist or social constructivist. You get methods sections of articles that basically go: “reality is not objective… I’m more enlightened than positivist researchers…”, but then they go on to present findings and discussion of findings in positivist terms: “Here are three key themes (read: positivist findings!) that emerged from the data…”

Then there are mixed methods researchers who do rigorous quantitative and qualitative analyses with a positivist orientation, to get to the truth or facts of the matter, but their interview data can still show some hints of social constructivism—co-construction of “facts” between interviewer and interviewee.

Sometimes it’s hard, even impossible, to separate these three kinds of data from each other in the same interview database. But I think we have to try to identify what we are doing, in order to do rigorous interview studies on motivation to learn languages. To illustrate, I will use a high-quality study by a colleague, Prof. Jim Chan, that investigated Hong Kong secondary students’ motivation and attitudes towards learning English and Mandarin Chinese.

Chan, J. Y. H. (2018). Attitudes and identities in learning English and Chinese as a lingua franca: A bilingual learners’ perspective. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development39(9), 759-775.

Jim Chan’s aim was to investigate, first of all, the extent to which Hong Kong secondary students wanted to learn English and Mandarin, and second, what variety (standard, nativized, or lingua franca). Briefly, and somewhat simplistically, these varieties are as follows:

  • The “standard” variety: middle-class Midwestern U.S. English or “the Queen’s English” (U.K.); for Mandarin, ostensibly Beijing dialect.
  • The nativized variety: a dialect of English that is systematic, with a full-fledged and codifiable grammar, though not the standard (e.g., Hawai’i Creole, Singapore English, Hong Kong English, and other World Englishes found in India, South Africa, Kenya, etc.); for Mandarin, we might say regional varieties, which in Guangdong province and Hong Kong would be influenced in accent by Cantonese.
  • The lingua franca variety: No shared code or rules; focus on mutual intelligibility. This is how a Tanzanian and a Swede would speak English to one another, or how a Hong Kong tour guide and Taiwanese tourists would interact in Mandarin. How do you learn a language as a lingua franca? You focus on intercultural communication and pragmatic strategies for accommodating one another (Friedrich & Matsuda, 2010).

So what epistemological paradigm did Chan’s study adopt? My overall impression is positivism, because I believe he wanted to come up with curricular and pedagogical implications for stakeholders:

Hong Kong’s post-handover language education policy is to enable students to become biliterate (i.e. mastering written Chinese and English) and trilingual (i.e. speaking fluent Cantonese, English and Putonghua [Mandarin]). English and Putonghua are compulsory subjects at the primary and secondary levels, and in certain schools they are the medium of instruction (MOI) for content-area subjects (Evans 2013). … In Hong Kong’s service-led economy, this increase in multilingual proficiency has coincided with a rising demand for professional language skills (Evans 2011). … [T]he use of English and Putonghua in white- and pink-collar [care-oriented, largely female] occupations, respectively, has steadily increased over the last few decades [though we assume blue-collar jobs, including male-oriented manual labor, largely involve Cantonese], accompanied by a noticeable decline in the use of other Chinese dialects. (p. 762; my bold)

Chan also states:

An in-depth comparison from the perspective of learners is thus likely to contribute significantly to research on language attitudes and identities and on language teaching and learning, offering valuable insights into the status of the two languages as they compete locally and globally. (p. 764)


Chan conducted semi-structured focus group interviews with students in a Hong Kong secondary school. The school was categorized as a “Band 2” public school (out of 3 Bands), meaning it is mid-SES. English and Putonghua were compulsory subjects, and each was the medium of instruction (MOI) in different classes. English tended to be the MOI for math and sciences, which is quite common around the world, and Putonghua for the remaining academic subjects. Cantonese was students’ first language (L1), but Putonghua is a cognate language and Chan reported that students were confident in Putonghua and had a relatively high level of Putonghua proficiency. Their English level was average compared to other Hong Kong students’, and they were less confident in English.

The focus groups took place with 75 junior secondary and 46 senior secondary students, in groups of 4 to 6 (in their own grades) conducted in their L1 (Cantonese). All the interviews were audio-recorded and lasted 35 minutes on average. They were guided by a semi-structured interview protocol, i.e., there was a list of written questions but the researcher, Jim Chan, could ask side questions before going on to the next question. He wrote: “follow-up questions were asked to further elicit their language attitudes in the dimensions of status and solidarity, major themes of previous attitudinal studies” (p. 765).

Chan (2018), p. 775

The Cantonese recordings were transcribed and translated into English by Chan, who seems to express a positivist orientation (p. 765):

This was followed by an inductive analytical and interpretive process that involved the coding of data for each focus group, the generation of general patterns and the identification of recurring themes through cross-case analysis and the development of categorization systems (Patton 2015).

To what extent are these results actually positivist? Interpretivist? Social constructivist?

Chan divides his results into four themes:

  1. The extent to which the “standard” variety was embraced for each language (this is called the “native speaker” model, but it’s a misnomer because many speakers of dialects that are not “standard” but equally sophisticated, complex, and difficult for non-native speakers of the dialect to learn ARE native speakers of the language);
  2. Perceived attainability of the “standard” variety of each language;
  3. Practical communication needs;
  4. Perceptions of local models and cultural identities.

One positivist finding was that people differed in their attitudes, and there was no clear “majority attitude” for either language. There were, however, noticeable trends.

Chan (2018), p. 766

We can see that less than 20% of students said they wanted to sound like their local teacher in either language—meaning the nativized variety of both languages is likely stigmatized as “not good enough.” We see the remaining students split 50/50 between embracing “standard English” and embracing English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). For Mandarin, we see a 60/40 split between embracing lingua franca Mandarin and (presumably) the Beijing standard. This suggests that while people are relatively open to lingua franca norms, “standard” norms are quite strong for both languages, and most of all, the local variety is not what people report they want to speak: they say they would like to speak a “standard” variety, or a lingua franca (cosmopolitan, flexible) variety.

Now… let’s reinterpret these findings from a social constructivist perspective. Above, I cited Friderich and Matsuda’s (2010) article that states there is no such thing as a lingua franca variety; using a language as a lingua franca basically means everyone speaks their own version of a language that has some dialectal influences and some individual characteristics. So WHAT would these students be speaking in ELF, if not Hong Kong English, or CLF, if not Southern Mandarin, similar to their local teachers? In other words, the majority of participants position themselves as “good” students who want to learn “standard” English/Mandarin, OR as lingua franca users rather than dialect speakers… but lingua franca users are, objectively speaking, speakers of their own dialectal variety, with some individual characteristics.

[Side note: We are ALL lingua franca speakers of every language we speak. I am a lingua franca speaker of Western Canadian English with Tagalog influences, a lingua franca speaker of French with Anglophone influences, and a lingua franca speaker of Tagalog with North American English influences… with individual aberrations here and there from habits I picked up in Hong Kong, the Eastern U.S., and Hawai’i throughout my life. My repertoire continues to grow and evolve, according to a language acquisition theory called emergentism.]

Chan also documented some stereotypical and hegemonic discourses about both languages, the type of findings that my former PhD supervisor, Christina Higgins, found tiresome about interview-based research about language learning. “Please ask some different questions,” she would say, “so we don’t reproduce these same-old, same-old discourses!”

Here is a summary of some of Chan’s findings of this nature (pp. 766-768):

  • “Standard” English was “cool” and imparted “a sense of pride” (3 groups); it was “original,” “accurate” (6 groups) and “most easily understood,” “beneficial for career advancement,” “aiding communication with Westerners” (5 groups).
  • Not speaking “standard” English gave the impression one had not learnt it seriously (4 groups).
  • Individual quotes: “makes it easier to get a job or gain admission to university”; “gives others a better impression”; “English allows you to communicate with the whole world, whereas Putonghua only allows you to communicate with China.”
  • Lack of English-speaking environment —> main reason for unattainability of “native speaker” pronunciation; local speakers do not speak the target accent (3 groups).

While a few of these interview findings (e.g., job/university gatekeeping) can be seen as positivist findings, i.e., facts, most of the findings are interpretivist and social constructivist—the last point rather questionable, as Hong Kong is an English-speaking environment for many people, who are native English speakers; however, the nativized variety ironically doesn’t count as “native.”

A positivist finding was that “students in the ‘weaker’ classes… tended to select the intelligibility-oriented target, which was considered more achievable than—although inferior to—the NS target. But while this can be taken as “fact,” it is also social constructivist because we can see what discourses/ideologies students are socialized into based on social class. Another positivist finding was that Putonghua was perceived as more attainable than English due to its linguistic similarity (6 groups), and some saw “native-like” proficiency as more attainable in Putonghua (2 groups). Again, we can take this as a potential social constructivist finding as well: up until this point in their lives, students have not been told their Putonghua is inferior, to the same extent to which they have been told this about their English; however, most probably have not yet been to Beijing.

One good finding was that some students who selected the ELF option did not associate it with a lower target (3 groups). Another encouraging finding was that some students did not think there was such as thing as “standard” Putonghua (1 group). Someone was quoted as saying: “Different ‘versions’ of Putonghua are spoken in different provinces in China. How can there be a standard? […] If you go to China, achieving target (c) is enough. People speak Putonghua differently” (p. 768).

Having addressed language attitudes and practical needs (themes 1 to 3), Chan next turned to findings about cultural identities. Here, we can also examine positivism, interpretivism, and social constructivism.

The students did not express a very favourable view of Hong Kong English. In reality, they may well use Hong Kong English extensively to construct in-group belonging and exclude anyone who does not speak this dialect; this is what Higgins (2015) calls “covert prestige.” But in their interview with Chan, they said they would be happy if they were mistaken for English “native” speakers (i.e., of “standard” varieties), and called Hong Kong English “not accurate enough,” “not pure,” unacceptable,” etc.—something that “should not be spoken or taught by English teachers” (p. 768). (This is another social constructivist point; they present themselves as against Hong Kong English, but this may not be their actual practice, or reflect the extent to which they really value it.)

In contrast, students in general expressed no desire to speak “standard” Mandarin because they were “afraid” to be “mistaken” for Mainland Chinese in Hong Kong (p. 768). This would, of course, likely change if they visited the Mainland, which is another social constructivist point. Nevertheless, a few said they were originally from the Mainland or that their families immigrated from the Mainland, and therefore did not mind being regarded as being Mainland Chinese (p. 769). (This point seems positivist or interpretivist to me: it speaks the truth of the matter and also what people genuinely believe about themselves. I respect them for not denying their heritage.)

In his discussion of these findings, Chan states that 

Putonghua has yet to achieve the status of English in Hong Kong society. Believing that the use of Putonghua is limited to the region [of Mainland China], whereas English is an international language, [which is an interpretivist and social constructivist finding, not reality I think… and Cantonese is likewise a global language] the learners interviewed wished only to achieve a basic communicative ability in Putonghua [by which I think Chan means communicative competence], but sought to achieve NS proficiency in English. NS Putonghua was evidently not associated with the same added value or symbolic and economic capital as NS English. (p. 770; my bold)

So how do we take the finding in bold—as positivist, interpretivist, or social constructivist? I think all three. It is a fact, it is internalized, AND it is reemphasized in collective discourse. Hong Kong Chinese take pride in the past economic affluence of Hong Kong during the British colonial period, and especially in their superior English fluency as a society (Flowerdew, Li, & Tran, 2002; Tsang, 2004); both Cantonese and English index a Hong Kong identity (Brewer, 1999). In fact, “a unique local identity is constructed by speaking ‘good’ (NS-like) English and a variety of Putonghua distinct from that of native Putonghua speakers” (p. 771). This is an important social constructivist finding—even though these Hong Kong students evidently do not see themselves as NS speakers in the interview with Chan, in another context they may construct themselves as NS-like compared to Mainland Chinese. Of course, linguistic features of Putonghua that differ from the Beijing norm are still penalized in high stakes Putonghua examinations (Saillard, 2004), but only 19.3% of students reported they wanted to speak NS Putonghua (p. 766).

Blogger’s commentary

I end with my own reflections. It is impossible to study language attitudes without studying discursive positioning and getting, to some extent, into social constructivism. People don’t just objectively comment on the value of languages/dialects, but comment on these in order to position themselves positively. For this reason, language hegemonies cannot be totally done away with because the main reason a language hegemony tends to be challenged is that an individual or group wants to position themselves more positively, and in doing so they often inevitably set up another language hegemony.

If we want to find a way out of language hegemonies from time to time, we need not only critique language hegemonies (i.e., the global hegemony of “standard” English, the national hegemony of Mandarin, the assimilative hegemony of Cantonese in Hong Kong), but also curb the desire to position ourselves positively, and make conscious efforts to position EVERYONE positively (i.e., sincerely believe there is nothing superior or inferior about any individual language repertoire). This is the only way to position everyone positively—every other option positions some people positively at the expense of others.

With regard to positivism, interpretivism, and social constructivism, we might ask of our data:

  • On a surface level, what does this suggest about language attitudes and ideologies among the participants as a group? (positivism)
  • What are the differences between individuals? (interpretivism, not a focus of Chan’s study)
  • What discourses about language do people draw on to position themselves positively? (social constructivism)

Chan concludes that we need to consider promoting nativized varieties more (Chan, 2018, p. 772), but this does nothing for critical language pedagogy if it does not position others positively (e.g., ethnic minority students, Mainland Chinese). On the other hand, it should be done to empower people—particularly Hong Kong locals with regard to English, as they already seem to be doing it rightfully with Mandarin. In other words, it is not so much teaching students “good” or “bad” language ideologies that matters, compared to teaching them to be cognizant of what they are doing with language ideologies, unto themselves and others.


Brewer, M. (1999). Multiple identities and identity transition: Implications for Hong Kong. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 23(2), 187–197.

Evans, S. (2011). Hong Kong English and the professional word. World Englishes, 30(3), 293–316.

Evans, S. (2013). The long march to biliteracy and trilingualism: Language policy in Hong Kong education since the Handover. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 33, 302–324.

Flowerdew, J., Li, D., & Tran, S. (2002). Discriminatory news discourse: Some Hong Kong data. Discourse & Society, 13(3), 319–345.

Friedrich, P., & Matsuda, A. (2010). When five words are not enough: A conceptual and terminological discussion of English as a lingua franca. International Multilingual Research Journal4(1), 20-30.

Higgins, C. (2015). Earning capital in Hawai‘i’s linguistic landscape. In R. Tupas (Ed.), Unequal Englishes: The politics of Englishes today (pp. 145–162). London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Patton, M. (2015). Qualitative research and evaluation methods (4th ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Saillard, C. (2004). On the promotion of Putonghua in China: How a standard language becomes a vernacular. In M. Zhou & H. Sun (Eds.), Language policy in the People’s Republic of China: Theory and practice since 1949 (pp. 163–176). Boston, MA: Springer.

Tsang, S. (2004). A modern history of Hong Kong. New York, NY: I.B. Tauris.

Published by annamend

Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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