LTL DISCUSSION: motivation – it’s tricky

LTL DISCUSSION: motivation – it’s tricky

Motivation means being able to organise yourself to do the things that you want to.

In language teaching and learning ‘motivation’ is often used to describe learner behaviour. Teachers sometimes complain that some students or even some groups of students are ‘unmotivated’, and this makes them difficult to teach. This is a problem, because learning to learn is a very important part of the language learning process, and sometimes teachers can forget this. If learning isn’t happening the way learners think it should (rightly or wrongly), then it is very easy to become discouraged – or ‘unmotivated’.

Motivation is usually defined in two ways:

  • Intrinsic
  • Extrinsic

Maybe we could think of it as inner (intrinsic) and outer (extrinsic).


If we think of motivation in terms of language learning, then intrinsic motivation is what drives us to internalise the language. An intrinsic motivation to learn French, for example, represents a strong desire to be able to understand French songs or films, to  converse with your French lover, or to be able to listen to French radio as you are driving in a sports car through Paris (with the warm wind in your h-a-a-a-i-r). A deep inner desire to be a part of French culture and romance is a very strong motivator to spend time seeking opportunities to learn and practise the French language.


So from a language learning point of view, extrinsic motivation is what drives us to study for exams, class presentations or spelling tests and the like. External factors, like carrots and sticks, are very strong motivators for language learners who are studying in institutions or with a tutor. High extrinsic motivation will see you set aside enough time to review lessons and memorise vocabulary and practise grammar patterns as you work your way through the relevant exercises and practise putting the phrases into a variety of contexts.

Which is best?

It seems to me that extrinsic motivation leads to faster fluency development, and intrinsic motivation leads to better accuracy. The extrinsic vs. intrinsic debate goes the same way as the fluency vs. accuracy one; you need both. We are all motivated in different ways for different things; driving to town to post some letters and picking up some phone credit has very different motivators than, say, driving to the airport to pick up a friend you haven’t seen for a long time.

So when we say students are not motivated, what do we mean? Do we mean they don’t want to ever really speak the language, or that they don’t really care if they pass the subject or not? Young learners have different motivational support needs from adult second language learners. Very young learners are totally unaware of any learning ‘processes’ or ‘outcomes’, and that’s how it should be. Their motivation is just to enjoy as they learn. Older learners also need to enjoy as they learn, but they also need to be able to figure out a reasonable rate of language return for their effort. If the return is as expected (or a bit more or a bit less), then learners feel that they are on the right track and they feel encouraged to continue. If they have no idea what to expect, and no plan to get to their goal, be it an exam or an increase in skills needed to do your thing in the other language, then there’s no encouragement for you to continue.

Lack of goals and encouragement is a leading cause of demotivation among second language learners today – or maybe not. But, it is certainly a factor.

What is the teacher’s role and what is the learner’s role in classroom motivation?

Coming soon: motivation as a learning strategy

 Read eslinchina’s thoughts on motivation in the classroom HERE


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s