Motivation and Language Learning

by Joshua Kraut

What makes for successful foreign language learning? Second to our natural, genetically determined aptitude for acquiring other languages (which we cannot change!), motivation constitutes the next most important factor in predicting the outcomes of our language learning endeavors. Of course, no amount of motivation will compensate for a lack of opportunity to practice or for bad instruction; but the point is, all things being equal, motivation makes an enormous difference in our ultimate levels of attainment of second languages. In this post, I want to distinguish between two different kinds of motivation and suggest some related practical applications.

Language acquisition researchers categorize motivation, in very broad terms, as either “instrumental” or “integrative.” Instrumental motivation, as its root “instrument” suggests, perceives language as a practical tool or as a means to an end of personal gain, unrelated to the language itself. Take a few examples: A student who needs to pass a German test in order to get a good grade in her class may see “learning German” as a stepping stone to a good GPA. Many people need to learn second languages up to at least basic levels of proficiency in order to become citizens in their adopted countries. Individuals working in international business may require knowledge of a second language to facilitate—or simply perform—their work. Instrumental motivation can be quite effective; when the stakes are high, our motivation grows, as do our efforts to learn.

On the other hand, integrative motivation involves a positive view of the language itself, seeing the goal of learning as connecting with—“integrating” with—the speakers and the culture of the target language. Here, for example, we might think of international pen pals (or is it FaceTime pals, now?) who work to learn each other’s language better and better so that they grow in mutual understanding. Another example would be the second-generation American teenager who decides to learn the language of his grandparents, who do not speak English, so that he can communicate with them meaningfully for the first time. Or we could speak of the student of Latin who is learning to read Virgil for the beauty of the original verse, even though she can easily find it in translation.

Now, with a moment’s reflection, it is obvious that the same learner may experience both kinds of language learning motivation, either simultaneously or at different times. Motivation is a complicated psychological phenomenon, and it can vary from moment to moment! But here is the interesting finding from the last several decades of second-language motivation research: Over the long term, integrative motivation appears to be linked to higher overall learning outcomes. That is, the kind of motivation that sees learning language as a good for its own sake—for the sake of experiencing the people and culture associated with that language—seems correlated to higher proficiency levels over time.

Does this mean that we should discourage any appeals to instrumental motivation as instructors, or that we should meticulously avoid cultivating such motivation in ourselves as language learners? No! Tests—whether for grades or citizenship—can be powerful impetuses to language learning progress. The same goes for needing a second language at work and other “instrumental ends.” However, the research does suggest that we need to take the long view of our language learning and teaching efforts. By that, I mean we need to help our students and ourselves latch on to what is most sustainable and rewarding in the slow, often arduous process that is language learning: a personal connection to the language and culture that we study. How can we develop or encourage such integrative motivation? The rest of this post focuses on a couple of ways to do so.

I’ll start with what is perhaps the most powerful, but also potentially the most difficult-to-locate source of integrative motivation: interpersonal relationships. Learning a language to build friendship or to strengthen a family relationship brings with it the excitement of getting to know new facets of a person—to see the world through their eyes, and to have our own eyes opened in the process. Sometimes a great opportunity can be found close to home: In America, there are many families in which parents or grandparents speak a language other than English, but who are shy or indifferent about sharing this language with younger generations. (Sometimes they might even believe that their native language is useless or would take away from a child or grandchild’s acquisition of English—an unfortunate myth!) Carving out some regular time to have a family member teach you or your children some of his or her native language allows a parent or grandparent to share something fundamental to their own upbringing and can make for very entertaining mealtimes, playtimes, etc.

If you do not know anyone currently who speaks the language you (or your children or students) want to learn, consider asking around in your social networks for suggestions of friends or relatives (or friends of friends) who might be interested in pairing up for language exchanges. You also could consider calling consulates or embassies to see if there are any interested families visiting or living temporarily in your area. Many colleges and universities have programs for international students learning English; these often feature a “conversation partners” or “host family” program through which you could be connected to students who speak a language you’d like to learn—or who might have younger family members back home who would be more age-appropriate language partners for school-age children to correspond with via video-chat or email. And of course, there is always the possibility of visiting a country where the language of interest is spoken, and trying your best to meet local people while there. (Some of these “encounters” can be planned: For example, my wife and I have been thinking about a summer camp experience in Quebec for our kids who speak French.)

A second source of integrative motivation can be found in exploring the artistic/textual culture of the language and culture: reading comic books or novels, listening to music, watching films or cartoons (in moderation!), or finding magazines about subjects one is particularly interested in (sports, film, fashion, etc.). All of these can be highly entertaining and motivating for learners who discover that a second language can be fun and relevant to their own interests. Some of these activities, of course, require a basic proficiency, but it is surprising how often this expectation is more imagined than required: Music, for instance, often does not need to be entirely understood before it is appreciated. It may take some time and experimentation before your child or student stumbles on the thing that really piques his or her interest, but this is, in my opinion, a worthwhile quest.

My hope is that this post has given you a better sense of the importance of motivation in language learning, as well as some ideas of how to cultivate integrative motivation in your own study and teaching. Language learning works best when it has been made personal; when it brings with it the pleasure of opening up new relationships, discovering new art or books, or developing new perspectives on old passions; and when, concretely, it begins to enrich the life of the learner.

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