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Motivation in Language Learning

The Number One Predictor of Learning Success

In a previous article, I wrote about the keys to motivation. People can control their motivation by understanding their motivation matrix and designing their lives with systems, goals, and routine. Other influential factors include checklists, purpose, positivity, and community. So how do these ideas apply to learning a foreign language? 

Motivation is a good predictor of language learning success—defined as reaching your own language goals—because learning any language, especially later in life, takes a tremendous amount of commitment. There is the time spent, the finances invested, the energy expended, and emotions expressed. 

The first question is, “Why do you care?” Given how busy our lives are, why would we want more anxiety, frustration, and setback? Why invest so much time and energy for some vague, distant payoff? If not for practical purposes—getting better grades, entering into a great university, meeting job requirements, receiving a promotion—why spend your free time doing one of the most challenging things in the world? Students need to know why they’re embarking on a language learning journey. Whenever I meet with new students, I always ask, “How do you see yourself in the future? How will your life be different when you’ve acquired a higher level of fluency?” 

There are a host of advantages to speaking another language. Research has shown that bilinguals and multilinguals perform better on selective attention (focusing on relevant stimuli) and multitasking tasks. Another study shows that learning another language may delay dementia. But for me, the principal benefits of learning another language is expanding one’s identity and, by extension, one’s world. As a multilingual living in the most diverse borough in the world, I juggle with several languages every single day. Most of the conversations are small talk, but had I not known those languages, those opportunities to connect would probably not be there. 

Language students can be categorized into four different motivational styles. Internal-positive motivation describes an individual who wants to learn because it’s fun or challenging. They are passionate about the culture, the language, or the people. These students tend to be lifelong learners who enjoy the journey as much as the destination. Internal-negative is much less talked about, but an equally powerful driver. These students want to learn because they feel insecure, stressed, or powerless. They want to overcome the negativity and reach the light at the end of the tunnel. Language is power, and they seek to level the playing field. Integrative motivation refers to a desire to communicate with people and belong to a community. After all, language is a social construct, and our need to belong is an ingrained motivator. Lastly, instrumental motivation, the most common style, is learning for practical reasons. This style is excellent for short-term inspiration, but once students reach their goals, they might not have a reason to continue studying. In general, intrinsic-positive and integrative motivation create sustained learning and have less interference due to cultural barriers. These learners seek out communities and weave culture into their studies, gaining the ability to express their identities in another language.  

Language learning takes place in a few different stages: 

(1) Initial Humps: inspired learners dabble with the language. They are motivated in the short-term, and only time will tell if it’s a one-and-done interest or a genuine passion/goal. Some people stay in this stage for years. 

(2) Beginner Gains: learners are immersed in the language and develop discipline and spaced repetition in their studies. They progress relatively fast and begin familiarizing themselves with the language. 

(3) Catalyst: learners grow more confident in their abilities and can have short conversations with native speakers. Their perceived progress motivates them to continue learning. They’ve decided to be accountable for their learning and invest the necessary time, energy, finance, and emotion into this activity. 

(4) Sustained Progress: learners progressively improve their skills, develop fluency, and express their thoughts and feelings. Sometimes, taking one step back, but over time, getting better. Motivation remains at peak levels. 

(5) Diminishing Returns: learners reach more advanced levels of learning and realize that previous effort doesn’t translate into the same results. Motivation decreases with diminishing progress. 

(6) Fossilization: learners have accepted some bad habits, unmotivated to correct mistakes. Motivation is sporadic, and learning stalls. 

(7) Fine Tuning: advanced learners change their strategy, seeking new challenges, and diversity of input/output opportunities. They begin fine-tuning their language skills. Motivation is more consistent but lower than the peak.  

Students need to visualize their purpose. Then, they should understand their motivation style. With self-awareness, they can control their motivation and design efficient routines and goals tailored to their needs. Motivation ebbs and flows, progressing in different stages. Learners who see the bigger picture are better at weathering the bumps in the road and at ensuring that perceived progress remains positive over the long-run. 

Is motivation enough? Unfortunately, no. There are other factors to consider: genetic aptitude, quality of input and output, teacher instruction, learning strategies, quality of learning environment, and levels of feedback. Not to mention learning psychology, which encompasses attitude toward learning, expectations of success, self-belief, self-confidence, outlook (optimistic, pessimistic), support network, and resilience. All of these factors directly impact a learner’s level of motivation. As long as we take a step forward each day, however small, we will move forward.