Motivation is a key ingredient in success when it comes to language learning. That’s because languages are hard. The path from beginner to fluent speaker may be long and winding and the sheer amount of vocabulary and grammar one needs to learn can seem overwhelming. Motivation not only keeps language learners on track but research has shown that it is motivation and self-efficacy, not aptitude, that most correlate with success in language learning. This means even people who claim they aren’t good at languages can still learn if they’re motivated. And while you may be learning to impress your boss or pass an exam, it is motivation to integrate with native speakers that has the most powerful impact on your skills.
R.C. Gardner is the researcher who first delved into the question of different kinds of motivation. Gardner felt motivation changes the way a learner thinks, feels and even behaves. In other words, motivation can make you consider language in new ways, help you get excited or interested about learning, and make you more likely to engage in practices that will help you be successful, like creating flashcards or memorising common phrases.
Gardner was convinced that attitudes and motivation could be just as powerful as aptitude and he used his Attitude Motivation Test Battery to prove it. The questionnaire featured statements like “I enjoy learning languages” and “I wish I had more friends who spoke my target language.” Respondents reacted using a Likert scale of responses ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree. The goal was to tease apart the various ways in which learners were motivated by identifying clusters and patterns.
What Gardner found was there are 4 major types of motivation which he labelled intrinsic, extrinsic, integrative and instrumental. Moreover, not all motivation is created equal. In a subsequent study Gardner and Lambert showed that individuals who were intrinsically and integratively motivated had more success in language learning and achieved greater degrees of fluency.
Instrumental vs. integrative
Traditional classrooms emphasize developing intrinsic motivation which is a desire to learn that comes from within the student. This is in contrast to extrinsic motivation which might be learning to earn a reward or avoid punishment from an external source. Similarly, instrumental motivation is learning a language to do well at school, receive a promotion or impress someone, whereas integrative is learning so you can communicate with native speakers.
Language learners are no different from maths students in that intrinsic motivation will carry them through the hardest parts of learning a language and give them the drive they need to be successful. However, it is the desire to integrate with native speakers that remains the most important type. Language is a subject but it is also a tool for communication and when an individual is genuinely interested in the people who speak the target language, they are more likely to be successful.
7 Ways to enhance motivation
Not all of us can visit the country where the language we’re learning is spoken but we can simulate these rich learning environments and enhance integrative motivation at the same time by experiencing culture, interacting with native speakers and learning more about the local history and traditions.
- Discover culture. Culture varies from region to region but you’re sure to stumble upon interesting traditions, whether they be religious or national celebrations, characteristic dress or even politeness habits, if you look hard enough. You might start with a book or a documentary, head to a museum or pick up a copy of National Geographic. Put pictures up around your room to remind you of all of the interesting things you’ve learned and keep re-assessing your idea of target culture as you acquire more knowledge. If you’re an intermediate or advanced learner, see if you can speak about it in your target language!
- Listen to music. Not only does music help you learn the sound system of your language, from phonemes, to stress and intonation, but it also helps to lower anxiety levels. When we’re more relaxed our affective barriers go down and it’s easier to learn new language. Don’t worry if you don’t understand what the singer is saying, keep target language music on in the background and learn the lyrics to your favorite song. Study a few famous tunes including anthems, lullabies and folk songs and look for patterns when it comes to the subjects people sing about.
- Watch local TV and films. YouTube is a great resource for language learners looking to gain access to locally produced television programmes and films. You will both see and hear native speakers in action and be introduced to different scenarios that are of interest in the target culture. If you put subtitles on, you might pick up on some slang and native speaker phrases. You should be able to guess at what’s going on from the action. Listening to the language as you see it on the screen helps reinforce your phonics skills so you can parse language and correctly map sounds to letters — an essential skill for using the dictionary.
- Try the food. Involve all of your senses in learning and take advantage of the strongest one tied to memory. Proust had his madeleines but you may have your bim-bam-bop or melanzane parmigiana to remind you of a meal, including the words you used to describe it, something someone said while you were eating or even the ingredients themselves. Menus are also great practice for language learners as they feature plenty of concrete language, repeat nouns and adjectives. If you don’t have a local restaurant in your area, you can always search for recipes in the language you are learning and try your hand at preparing a new dish at home.
- Meet native speakers. There are plenty of new apps and websites that can introduce you to native speakers of the language you are learning. You can either try a MeetUp group for face-to-face interaction or stay virtual with an app like HiNative. Try out a language exchange and ask questions about your new language while you answer questions about your native tongue. Make new friends and get comfortable interacting with locals from a range of backgrounds and ages. Language exchanges are particularly useful because you don’t have to worry about making mistakes — both of you are learners so you can keep things as relaxed as possible.
- Take on a new hobby. Look up a craft, sport or even card game that is particularly popular in your target language culture and give it a go. This will give you something to talk to native speakers about and you’ll have an immediate in when the subject comes up in conversation. Moreover, physically doing something that relates to the language you are learning helps you add a kinesthetic element to your study which reinforces learning in memory.
- Plan a trip. It may be a few years before you have the funds or free time to travel abroad but that shouldn’t stop you from researching all of the places you want to go. Get excited about the country where they speak your target language. Make lists of the best websites for booking train travel, local tours or exploring sites that are “beyond guidebooks.” As a bonus, visiting foreign websites will immerse you in a target language rich environment where you’re likely to learn some new vocabulary. You might sign up for a blog written by an expat currently living in your target culture or put up a map and note down all of the places you’d like to see so you’re ready when the time comes.
More tips for learners
Visualize your success. Picture yourself as a fluent speaker of the language you’re learning. Are you participating in academic discussions or using slang at your local watering hole? Some people aim to have native-speaker like pronunciation and blend into the crowd, others are interested in impressing significant others on a weekend away and some language learners just want to understand what people are saying to them. There’s no wrong answer. Figure out which skills you will need and have a plan to master them.
Make a plan. Before you start your next language lesson, take a few minutes to map your goals to the different skills you’ll need to achieve them. Prioritize your study plans accordingly so you are sure to emphasize the areas that are most important to you.
Take it one step at a time. Set achievable goals and be realistic about how long they will take you to meet. Language isn’t learned overnight and even when you become fluent, you will still need continual review to keep vocabulary active. It can help to build up to your goals gradually and set milestones against a calendar. If you can commit to a set amount of hours of study spread over a week, slowly but surely you will get closer to your goals.
TIP: Taking a larger task like learning a language and breaking it into bite-size steps is referred to as a self-efficacious approach that helps you build and maintain momentum.
Every learner is different and some people do possess an uncanny ability to learn languages. This is mainly due to cognitive skills including working memory. When you remember a phone number in your head by repeating it over and over again you are relying on something called “the phonological loop” to temporarily store the sequence. Certain individuals can hold longer strings of numbers than others and for longer amounts of time and these people tend to be good language learners.
Working memory also utilizes the “visuospatial sketchpad” as a tool for taking in new language from the input — this is what you’re using when you close your eyes and can still see the word on the page in front of you. The longer you can hold an image before it dissipates, the better you will be at learning a language.
But while aptitude directly impacts your success as a language learner, it doesn’t have to remain something you’re born with or without! That’s because aptitude can be learned and enhanced through targeted training. With the right guidance you can engage in mental gymnastics that helps your brain flex its memory muscles and get better at holding target language for longer and longer stretches of time. Learn more about language and the brain in this post.
Do you have any tips to add on enhancing motivation? Join the discussion in the comments!