In research and theorizing on foreign language learning (FLL), self-constructs—i.e. beliefs about oneself which are thought to affect behaviour and attitudes—appear in a number of areas. For example, references to self-confidence, self-concept, self-efficacy, and self-esteem can be found in work on affect, autonomy, strategies, individual differences, motivation, identity, attributions, anxiety, and willingness to communicate. (See, for example, Dörnyei 2005; Williams et al. 2004; Yang 1999; Yashima et al. 2004.)

However, although the significance of self-beliefs has been increasingly recognized in FLL, they have not so far received the same degree of attention as in educational psychology. (See for example, Bandura 1997; Baumeister et al. 2003; Marsh 1990.) This is partly because research in FLL (and in psychology itself) has been hampered by the intrinsic complexity of conceptualizations of self-beliefs and problems with use of terminology (Byrne 1996: 1–7). In particular, three key self-constructs—self-esteem, self-concept, and self-efficacy—are often referred to inconsistently or even inaccurately.

Valentine and DuBois (2005: 55) explain that ‘theoretically, self-concept, self-esteem, and self-efficacy beliefs share a common emphasis on an individual's beliefs about his or her attributes and abilities as a person’. However, they also show that it is possible, and indeed necessary, to differentiate between the terms. They suggest that the key distinguishing criteria are (1) the degree of specificity with which the three constructs are measured, and (2) the relative importance of the cognitive and evaluative self-beliefs involved (Valentine and DuBois: op. cit.).

Self-esteem can be seen as a more global construct, one which is related to an individual's value system, and thus considered to have a larger evaluative component. As Harter (1999: 5) explains, self-esteem is focused ‘on the overall evaluation of one's worth or value as a person’, and she uses the terms ‘self-esteem’ and ‘self-worth’ interchangeably. Self-esteem is the broadest and most evaluative of the three constructs.

In contrast, self-efficacy is seen as more cognitive in nature and more concerned with expectancy beliefs about one's perceived capability to perform a certain task in a very specific domain (Bandura 1997), for example, to carry out a particular type of reading or writing activity. In other words, as Pajares and Miller (1994: 194) say, it is ‘a context-specific assessment of competence to perform a specific task, a judgement of one's capabilities to execute specific behaviours in specific situations’.

Self-concept, on the other hand, is viewed as containing both cognitive and affective elements, and is seen as less context-dependent than self-efficacy. It concerns an individual's self-perceptions in a wider domain (for example, learning EFL) than is the case for self-efficacy. However, as Bong and Skaalvik (2003: 7) point out, when self-concept is measured at increasing levels of specificity, it becomes more difficult to separate it from self-efficacy. Indeed, as they also state (ibid: 10–11), some researchers accept that self-concept subsumes a self-efficacy component and that ‘this component may be the most important building block in one's self-concept’.

Self-constructs in FLL may be different in nature from those for other subjects, and may in fact play an even more central role. As Cohen and Norst (1989: 61) say, research shows that ‘there is something fundamentally different about learning a language, compared to learning another skill or gaining other knowledge, namely, that language and self are so closely bound, if not identical, that an attack on one is an attack on the other’. Thus, a clear understanding of the nature of learner self-beliefs is crucial to making greater sense of the individual motivation and behaviour of FL students, and, thereby, the development of a sound FL teaching approach in general.

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