Questionnaires in Second Language Research

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Asking questions is one of the most natural ways of gathering information and, indeed, as soon as babies have mastered the basics of their mother tongue they launch into a continuous flow of questions, and keep going throughout the rest of their lives. Some people such as reporters actually make a living of this activity and survey/polling organizations can base highly successful businesses on it.

Because the essence of scientific research is trying to find answers to questions in a systematic manner, it is no wonder that the questionnaire has become one of the most popular research instruments applied in the social sciences. Questionnaires are certainly the most often employed data collection devices in statistical work, with the most well-known questionnaire type - the census - being the flagship of every national statistical office.

The main strength of questionnaires is the ease of their construction. In an age of computers and sophisticated word processing software it is possible to draw up something that looks respectable in a few hours. After all, as Gillham (2000) reminds us, we all know what questionnaires look like: hardly a week goes by without some coming our way. Ironically, the strength of questionnaires is at the same time also their main weakness. People appear to take it for granted that everybody with reasonable intelligence can put together a questionnaire that works. Unfortunately, this is not true: Just like in everyday life where not every question elicits the right answer, it is all too common in scientific investigations to come across questionnaires that fail. In fact, I believe that most questionnaires applied in second language (L2) research are somewhat ad hoc instruments, and questionnaires with sufficient (and well-documented) psychometric reliability and validity are not that easy to come by in our field. This is of course no accident: In spite of the growing methodological awareness that has characterized applied linguistics over the past two decades, the practice of questionnaire design/use has remained largely uninformed by theory. I sometimes wonder what proportion of ques tionnaire constructors are actually aware that such a theory exists...

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