Second-language acquisition and motivation: The most important language-learning field you’ve never heard of.

The author of this post is from Pat Goodridge, he is a senior at the University of
Pennsylvania, where he studies linguistics and works for a Russian teaching site, He loves to study languages and run his Facebook page for linguistics majors, The Linguist Lattice. He hopes to pursue graduate work in Russian Studies.


The study of linguistic desire

Anyone who has ever studied a foreign language (or has ever studied anything for that matter) knows the importance of motivation to learning. But what exactly is the extent of that importance, and are there different types of motivation to learn languages? If there are different types, what are they? And which ones result in the best results? More simply, where does the motivation to learn and understand language, what I would call “linguistic desire”, come from? A diverse and interdisciplinary area of work, the field studying motivation in second-language acquisition (SLA) pursues the answers to all of these questions. To do so, it pulls from a wide range of other fields, including psychology, sociology, pedagogy, and applied linguistics. Whatever your field, the chances are it relates to SLA and motivation in one way or another.

This domain of study, which has existed for nearly 70 years, has helped form new and ever more revealing findings about how and why students (and adults!) are motivated to study other languages. Though it is highly-specialized, the field contributes greatly to a wider understanding of effective second-language education. Such an understanding of second-language pedagogy can in turn positively inform educational policy in a way that helps individuals and whole societies overcome very real language barriers in international dialogue.


Change your language, change your life

In this sense, furthering our understanding of second-language education, and specifically of the role of motivation within it, has the capacity to impact an entire generation of people academically, professionally, and interpersonally. Reading about it here is a fantastic opportunity to do just that, and to help understand your own motivation to learn (or not learn!) languages in your own life.

Although it is seen in the English-speaking world as a subject of only minor significance, second-language learning is an issue of great significance for nearly all students of non-English speaking countries. This is due to the necessity of learning English and other lingua francas like it, for reasons both personal and professional (key an eye out for this distinction later on). Additionally, the significance of English education globally may also explain why so much of the research completed in the field is by non-native speakers of English through experiments on non-English speaking populations.

The most notable of these researchers are Zoltan Dörnyei (Hungary) and Ema Ushioda (Japan), who have emerged as figures central to the field’s progress, and both of whom work out of British universities. As we will see, however, the development of the field goes much deeper than the work of only two scholars; it reaches into the annals of psychology and other of science’s most fundamental fields.

While approaches of those in the field are varied both in their methodology and theoretical positions, the general trend of motivation in SLA (No, by the way, there isn’t any better a name for the field yet) is the evolution of theories from the earliest, most basic discoveries of motivation’s function in language learning, to a more well-defined binary of two motivational systems with fancy names (integrativeness and instrumentation), to the current nuanced concepts involving the learner’s self-concept (the Ideal L2 Self model). The latest research has also employed methodologies in line with those used in related scientific fields like cognitive science, in order to develop theories that can best represent empirical findings in a format familiar to the wider scientific community.


A history lesson

The topic of SLA and motivation has become most interesting to researchers in the last three decades. The roots of that interest, however, go back much further, to the work of R.C. Gardner of the University of Western Ontario. With his seminal 1959 work “Motivational variables in second-language acquisition”, Gardner asserted that motivation may be more important than aptitude in second-language performance. This opposed prevailing opinions of the time that so-called “ability for languages” was the best measure of success in language learning.

The study also introduced the relevance of “affective factors”, the emotional components to the language learning experience that vary between students, such as anxiety and internal self-esteem. Beyond discussing motivation as it relates to aptitude, Gardner went a step further by actually characterizing motivation in SLA; he created what he called the “Orientation Index”, a model specifying two types of motivation: integrative and instrumental. If you take one thing away from this post, let it be these two terms, since they represent the most fundamental reasons why students are motivated to languages.


Two sides of the same coin

The integrative theory, based on studies of Canadians learning French, proposed the idea that learners develop language skills in order to better integrate with another group. Furthermore, Gardner maintained that desire to integrate with such a group could be a strong motivating factor for students to achieve success in learning that group’s language. According to him, “An individual acquiring a second language adopts certain behaviour patterns which are characteristic of another cultural group and his attitudes towards that group will at least partly determine his success in learning the new language.” In this case, Canadians learning French to better relate to the majority French-speaking Québécoise were motivated according to the integrative approach.

The instrumental approach, on the other hand, described students who pursued the pragmatic reasons for learning languages, such as increased work opportunities. For example, a knowledge of French in Quebec would likely help one to procure a job, get admittance to the region’s best universities, or to otherwise more smoothly interact with customers, classmates, or coworkers in a way that would externally benefit the learner. The difference between these two types of motivation represented the difference between intrinsic (natural drive) and extrinsic (material, reward-reinforced) motivation in language learning.

Most of you are probably familiar with these terms; they’re the difference between going to work in the morning because you love your job, or because you want that new Ferrari. Anyhow, Gardner sought to compare the two types of motivation; he gave Montreal students of French a battery of tests to determine verbal intelligence and motivation in conjunction with proficiency tests. He found that the strongest determinant of language-learning success was, in fact, the integrative type of motivation—a “willingness to be like valued members of the language community”.


Modern motivation
This work by Gardner ushered in the social-psychological period in language learning, which lasted from the 50s to the 90s. The movement consisted of a flood research in the bilingual context of French Canada, both by Gardner himself as well as by Clément, a scholar who focused on phenomena like linguistic self-confidence in motivation. Clément’s work would influence much future work on affectual, psychological aspects of language study, such as “foreign language anxiety”, which is worry and nervousness experienced when learning or using a foreign language.

The social-psychological period was followed by a shift toward looking at language from a cognitive perspective, a move that reflected the “cognitive revolution” taking place in psychology during the 90s.

In contrast to a social-psychological model that emphasized the relationship of a learner to other cultures and linguistic groups, the idea advanced by scholars during this period was that motivation was more self-contained and subjective, relying on how one’s perception of one’s own abilities, limitations, and past performances influence motivation. A major example of a cognitive-based theory is Ushioda’s “attribution theory”. First described in the late 90s, the theory contends that the causal reasons a student attributes to his or her past performance play a critical role in her motivation in future endeavors within that area. In other words, a student’s motivation to study will skyrocket if they believe they are responsible for a good grade on a language test, whereas their motivation won’t change if they believe it was due to luck or some other reason. Likewise in a negative situation; if a student believes they failed because of their own shortcomings, their motivation will plummet, whereas it will stay constant if they “attribute” their failure to, say, a bad teacher. After over a decade, the theory still persists, with the support of researchers like Weiner, who maintain that a student’s motivation is influenced by how much control that student feels she has over his or her progress.

Following this cognitive shift came the so-called “process-oriented” period, which studied motivation as being dynamic, fluctuating within a semester, a year, and a lifetime. This period consisted mainly of two different models by Dörnyei in the late 90s and 2000s: the process model and the motivational self system. The process model tracks learner motivation chronologically, from the beginning goal stage, to intermediate learning stages, to a “reflection” stage wherein the student takes a look back at their progress. At each of these stages, motivation develops and takes on diverse forms as the learner gets feedback and his or her learning circumstances shift. The motivational self system focuses on a phenomenon Dörnyei calls the “ideal L2 self”, a person’s imagined ideal future self as a second-language speaker. It’s thought by Dörnyei and others that a desire to actualize this imagined self is a deep source of motivation for language learners. Now that’s cool.


The future of motivation

Advancing out of this idea of ideal self, current perspectives will, in the words of Ushioda, “seek to analyse L2 motivation with reference to a person’s motivational self-systems and future self-representations as a whole, rather than just as an L2 learner.” Other possible avenues for future research involve teacher motivation and teacher-student interface. The principal reason for interest in these areas is evidence showing that teacher performance, as a product of a teacher’s motivation, can have a profound effect of student motivation and, consequently, on student success. So choose your language teacher wisely.

Other researchers have been interested in affective factors of personality type, such as those found on the introversion-extroversion spectrum (be on the lookout for an article of mine on introvert-extrovert vocabulary learning), that may be influencing motivation by shaping a learner’s temperament, as well as their approach to social interaction in the classroom, to intercultural education, and to learning more generally. Adding these elements of teaching and personality to the field adds layers of complexity, but also layers of accurate variability that will help form a more precise portrait of second-language motivation in the future.

Until a more complete understanding of motivation in language learning is available, we will have to settle for the current, most accurate theory—“great language learners have plenty of motivation, poor ones do not”.




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(Eds.), Psychology for Language Learning, (2012): 58-73. Basingstoke, HA: Palgrave


Weiner, Bernard. “The Development of an Attribution-Based Theory of Motivation: A History

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