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What motivates you to learn a second language?

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By Kaitlyn Tagarelli and George Smith

This article is part of our "Learners as Individuals" strand of The Science Behind Language Learning series. In this strand, we are taking a look at the factors, or individual differences, that account for the different levels of language learning success among learners. Read on to learn more!


 أهلا! Hej! In today's article, we’re talking about motivation and language learning. How much do you want to learn another language and why? How much effort are you willing to commit to language learning? Everyone has their own unique set of goals and expectations, but does this affect the language learning process and outcomes? Let’s find out!

What is motivation?

Motivation plays a role in so much of what we do on a day-to-day basis. Let’s think about some examples. Jerry has his eye on a promotion at work, so he puts in extra hours. Simi has always dreamed of running a marathon, so she runs a little farther every day. Jamie is committed to animal rights, so they decide to adopt a vegan diet. People are motivated by various reasons to put in effort or make changes in their lives. And that effort often comes with rewards. Jerry's extra hours help him develop new skills, Simi is in the best shape of her life, and Jamie’s cholesterol levels are fantastic.

But what does this have to do with language? Well, to make good progress in language learning, you need to have good reasons for studying a language – like wanting to learn more about another culture or obtaining a language certification for work or school – as well as positive attitudes towards a language and culture. But reasons and attitudes alone are not enough – you also need to put in the work. At the end of the day, you are the one who needs to seek opportunities for learning and practice. You are responsible for actively studying and remembering what you’ve been exposed to, and for keeping your enthusiasm up over time. This is language learning motivation in a nutshell: the will to start and keep learning a new language. When you look at it this way, it’s no surprise that motivated learners tend to be more successful at second language learning!

The Building Blocks of Motivation

Like other individual differences related to language learning, motivation isn’t something that you have or don’t have: it’s a complex combination of different components. Three components which language researchers often look at are goals, effort, and reflection.

Goals

chalk drawing of stick figure climbing stairs toward a shining lightbulb

When we talk about goals and language learning motivation, we are talking about the reasons you're learning a language, the expectations you have for yourself, and what you want to achieve. All of these things reflect your values, attitudes, and beliefs about language learning and the target language community. For example, you might be studying a language because it’s a mandatory school subject or because you want to get a job in another country. Alternatively, you might be learning it because you want to speak to your grandparents in their native language or because you want to fit in with a certain culture.

These goals tend to fit into one of two main “orientations,” or guiding forces in language learning. If you are learning a language for practical purposes – for example, to meet a college language requirement – then you are guided by an instrumental orientation. However, if you are learning a language because you have a personal interest in the target language and culture – for example, wanting to reconnect with your cultural heritage – then you are guided by an integrative orientation. In reality, most second language learners tend to have a mix of both instrumental and integrative orientation. However, research has shown that having a higher level of integrative orientation, which is more of an intrinsic drive, may give learners a small edge in terms of language achievement. 

Effort

Effort_1

Goals and orientations are a big part of the motivation puzzle, but they don’t count for much if you don’t act on them! Effort is another part of motivation that comes into play during the language learning process itself. What are you actually doing to achieve your goals? Are you putting in the work? And are you keeping up that work over time? Effort is the translation of goals and reasons into action. This could mean doing your homework, studying flashcards, seeking out additional opportunities for learning like podcasts, music, movies, books, and apps, or even setting aside some time to chat with a speaker of the language you are trying to learn. 

The amount of effort that people make when learning a language is, perhaps unsurprisingly, related to internal factors like attitudes and goals. In other words, if you like a language and have compelling reasons for studying it, you’ll probably be more willing to put in extra time! But effort can also be influenced by external factors, like how engaging and rewarding a classroom environment is or what you think others expect of you. In fact, studies show that all of these factors are important predictors of how much effort people put into language learning.

Reflection

wet stones stacked atop one another

As with other aspects of our lives, our language learning goals, as well as the effort we put in, are susceptible to change. In other words, motivation isn’t something that is fixed in place – it can actually fluctuate over time. Studies have shown that motivation can change when you enter into a new period of your life. Some learners may not realize the value of speaking another language until they enter the workforce or spend time abroad. Even something as simple as having a good day in your language class can change your motivation. Reflection, or self-evaluation, plays an important role in understanding how and why these changes occur. 

Some level of reflection takes place, consciously or unconsciously, any time you do something with your target language. You may ask yourself whether you have met the goals that you set for yourself, or whether the effort you put into learning paid off. All of these reflections feed back into your motivation to continue learning. For example, maybe one day after an invigorating chat with a friend, you realize that you’re able to have more meaningful conversations in your second language than before. This could make you more willing to go out and talk to people in the future. Alternatively, maybe one day you put a lot of effort into studying for a grammar test, but don’t get the grade you had hoped for. This could make you less willing to study as hard for your next exam.

However, keep in mind that your reflections on a given language experience, as well as how they feed back into your motivation, are affected by the internal and external factors we’ve already discussed – your reasons for studying a language, the amount of effort you put into it, and the environment you’re studying in. So even if you didn’t do so well on that grammar test despite studying really hard, your motivation might withstand the blow if you have a really supportive teacher, or if it's important to you to connect with your grandmother, who only speaks Vietnamese.

Motivation and You

So what does all of this mean for the average language learner? Well, it may confirm your intuitions that it’s important to find experiences that are interesting, engaging, and achievable – in other words, those that make sense to you and make you want to put in extra effort. This could mean reading your favorite books, listening to podcasts that interest you, playing video games, or even just finding a good way to fit language learning into your daily routine. Do you want to learn a language, but find that making the time for learning feels nearly impossible? Try out Mango's autoplay feature! This hands-free option allows you to learn a language while cooking, cleaning, or even commuting.

If you’re not quite sure where to start, try some of these research-approved steps to keep up your motivation: 

  1. Set goals, work towards them, and evaluate how things are going

  2. Set up a study routine and make learning a habit. If you’re using Mango, make sure you turn on study reminders!

  3. Make learning social – learn with a friend or in a group! Fun Fact: Every Mango account comes with 5 additional profiles, so you can share the Mango love with your family and friends!

  4. Be your own cheerleader! Pat yourself on the back when you hit those language learning goals, and take it easy on yourself when things don’t go so well.

  5. Seek out opportunities to learn about and interact with the culture associated with your target language. Cross-cultural contact has been shown to keep motivation levels high, and helps to sustain integrative motivation (which is associated with language learning success).

Researchers believe that learners who use these techniques can overcome a lack of motivation or declining enthusiasm, and even come up with new reasons to keep studying their language

Well, there you have it! Are you feeling motivated?

Let’s recap what we’ve learned!

  1. Motivation is the willingness to start and keep learning a new language. It affects how willing you are to seek out new opportunities for learning, as well as how much you’ll end up achieving.

  2. Motivation is primarily made up of goals, effort, and reflection. Your attitudes, goals, and reasons for studying a language can affect how much effort you commit to the learning process, as can a positive learning environment. 

  3. Motivation can fluctuate over time. Reflecting on your language learning experiences, whether consciously or not, can influence your motivation.

  4. Motivation really comes down to finding learning experiences that work for you and make you want to work at language learning.

Finally, we covered some tips for keeping up your own language learning motivation. Try them out and let us know how it goes! 

 

 

Thanks for reading!

If you liked this article, let us know! Want more engaging language content like this? Subscribe to our YouTube channel and podcast feed, and follow us on Instagram @MangoLanguages! Or visit us at Mangolanguages.com!

Fill out the form below to take a quiz on what motivates you to learn a second language. Thanks for reading!  مع السلامة! Farvel! 

Wondering what languages were used in today’s episode?

لا (AHlen) and مع السلامة (MA'a AsaLAMA) mean “Hello” and “Goodbye” in Iraqi Arabic (also known as Mesopotamian Arabic). This linguistically rich variety of Arabic has about 41 million native speakers across the Mesopotamian basin in Iraq, Syria, Iran, and even Turkey.

Hej (Hai) and Farvel (fahVEL) mean “Hi” and “Goodbye” in Danish, an Indo-European language whose standard form is largely mutually intelligible with Norwegian and Swedish.

Want to know more about the scientific research underlying this article? Here’s some of the research we consulted and/or mentioned:

About the authors

Kaitlyn Tagarelli is a linguist and the Head of Research at Mango Languages. She holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics from Georgetown University, specializing in how the mind and brain learn languages. Aside from geeking out about all things neuroscience and linguistics, she loves hanging out with her family at their Connecticut home, trying to convince them to speak French with her.

George Smith is a Linguistics Content Writer at Mango Languages. He holds a Ph.D. in Second Language Studies from the University of Hawai‛i at Mānoa, and conducts research on second language listening, speaking, and vocabulary learning. He is a lifelong teacher and learner who enjoys gabbing about language with his family and friends.

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