Introduction to Motivation 101

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And so, we start Motivation Month on the right foot! The following post is from Paul, an English teacher who lives in Argentina. Paul writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language teaching service which offers foreign-language level tests as well as other free language-learning resources on their website. 

I’m very lucky to have had Paul as a guest poster for The Polyglotist before–you can find his first article here.

 


What it Means to Be Motivated

Melanie was in her junior year at university, and was about to take a six-month study abroad trip to Italy. She had no real experience speaking Italian, and was nervous about learning the language. After all, she had taken 4 years of Spanish in high school, but could barely manage a Spanish-language conversation beyond “Hola, ¿cómo estás?”. While in Italy, however, she met Mariglen, a native Italian speaker who spoke virtually no English, with whom she fell madly in love. Six months later, her relationship with Mariglen was going strong, and she was effectively fluent in Italian.

How was Melanie able to learn Italian so quickly, given that she spent so much more time (unsuccessfully) trying to learn Spanish? First off, she was immersed in an Italian-speaking country, which certainly helped. More importantly, though, Melanie was extremely motivated to learn Italian so she would be able to communicate with her amore.

But what exactly is motivation, this abstract concept that we language learners read so many articles about? As it turns out, motivation comes in many different flavors, each of which can help (or hurt) our language-learning goals.

Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation

Most basically, motivation can be divided into two major categories: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from within; it’s based on our natural needs, desires, and curiosities as human beings. For instance, we are motivated to find food when we are hungry. Many language learners are intrinsically motivated to study language because they derive pleasure from learning new words and phrases.

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, comes from our desire to earn a certain reward or avoid a certain punishment. For instance, a child may clean his room only because he does not want to be yelled at by his parents. Melanie, struggling through years of high-school Spanish, was extrinsically motivated to learn Spanish in order to pass her final exams.

Ah, the humble carrot. The classic concept of the “carrot and the stick” relies on external motivation: either gaining a reward (eating the carrot) or avoiding a punishment (being hit by the stick). Image via vijay chennupati / flickr
Ah, the humble carrot. The classic concept of the “carrot and the stick” relies on external motivation: either gaining a reward (eating the carrot) or avoiding a punishment (being hit by the stick). Image via vijay chennupati / flickr

While the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is important, the language learner is almost certainly going to be faced with a variety of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. For instance, Melanie may have been intrinsically motivated to learn Italian by her personal interest in Italian culture, but also extrinsically by the satisfaction of impressing her Italian friends with her language skills (admit it, language learners: we’ve all experienced this). Therefore, for the purposes of language learner, there’s a further distinction to be made: integrative and instrumental motivation.

Integrative vs. instrumental motivation

As its name suggests, integrative motivation combines both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Someone who is interested in Japanese culture (i.e., intrinsic motivation), for instance, may feel an extra push to learn the language because he seeks a job in Japan (i.e., extrinsic motivation). This type of mixed motivation – which is based on both outside rewards as well as personal interest and satisfaction – yields the best results in terms of language learning.

Instrumental motivation, on the other hand, is solely extrinsic; it’s based on using language skills only as a vehicle for gaining other types of rewards. An employee who is being transferred to Japan, yet has no interest in either the language or the culture, will be operating solely on instrumental motivation: learning Japanese is a way for them to further their career, and nothing else. Generally, instrumental motivation results in less successful language learning than integrative motivation.

Taking a language you’re not interested in with the sole objective of passing a class is generally not an effective way to learn a language. Image via CollegeDegrees360 / flickr
Taking a language you’re not interested in with the sole objective of passing a class is generally not an effective way to learn a language.
Image via CollegeDegrees360 / flickr

How motivation affects language learning

At this point, it’s important to complicate the picture a bit: intrinsic motivation comes from within, but it can be influenced by external factors. For example, the series Friends has attained a significant degree of worldwide popularity. If somebody loves Friends, this may pique their interest in learning about English-language culture, thus constituting intrinsic motivation. In other words, one’s genuine interest in – and thus, motivation to learn – a certain language can be strongly influenced by the culture that surrounds them.

This fact, as well as the difference between integrative and instrumental motivation, relates to two key language-learning issues. First, it helps explain why so much of the world has successfully learned English, as well as why many ESL students are so motivated. Knowing English not only satisfies one’s innate desire to learn another language, but it also holds the key to understanding the series, songs, books, and movies that have continually surrounded many people living in non-English speaking cities due to widespread cultural influence of English-language media. This, in turn, can increase learners’ integrative motivation: they’re both intrinsically motivated (as the prevalence of English-language media has gotten them interested in the culture) and extrinsically motivated (as it’s both chic and rewarding to be able to understand and discuss the nuances of such English-language media).

 

The series Friends is a favorite among English language learners. Image via Wikipedia
The series Friends is a favorite among English language learners.
Image via Wikipedia

This could also explain why many native English speakers are not motivated to learn another language. With some notable exceptions, foreign-language songs and movies have not so profoundly infiltrated the English-speaking world. Instead, English speakers often learn foreign languages only out of instrumental motivation, such as their desire to get a passing grade in their high school Spanish class.

Second, the success of integratively motivated language learners speaks to the importance of connecting with the people and the culture of the language that you’re learning. When you have a connection with a native speaker, you have so much more stake in the language: you forge a relationship, learn about a culture, and have a much more compelling reason to communicate well. This is one of the reasons why studying abroad is such a successful language-learning strategy: aside from just immersing yourself in the language, your desire to connect with the people who you’re surrounded by (and their culture!) will increase your interest in the culture and fuel your desire to speak the language – which is what integrative motivation is all about.

Luckily, even if you can’t travel to a country that speaks your language of study, there are still plenty of ways to connect. With websites and apps like Speaky and Tandem, you can connect with native speakers from all over the world without even leaving the comfort of your home. So the next time you feeling uninspired in your language studies, try chatting with somebody from a different culture: it could be just what you need to get yourself back on track with your language studies.

For more language-learning advice, check out Language Trainers’ Facebook page, and feel free to email paul@languagetrainers.com for more information.

 

Language learners: how do you keep yourselves motivated? What do you think is the most motivating reason to learn a foreign language? Let us know – leave a comment!