The Motivations Behind Foreign Language Learning

Image courtesy of Master isolated images/

Image courtesy of Master isolated images/

We wrack our brains trying to recall the correct word or phrase. We twist our tongues to form the unfamiliar sounds. We put ourselves out on a limb, hoping that what we say is going to be understood. Learning a foreign language is not an easy task for most of us. Why then, do we do it? While it is hard to determine just how many people on our planet are bilingual, some expert estimates suggest that half of the world’s population speak at least two languages. So what drives so many to pick up a second, third, fifth or seventh tongue?

For decades, linguists and language teachers have explored and tried to understand the motivation needed to learn a foreign language. They have narrowed it down to two basic categories: integrative and instrumental. The Center for Applied Second Language Studies from the University of Oregon explored each of these inclinations and describe them in a 2011 report.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

Integrative motivation is when a learner hopes to learn more about a country, a culture, society, or another individual that means something to them. The focus is on building trust and relationships, developing communication, and a need to feel connected. The learner tends to pick up the new language quickly with this incentive. For an example of what this looks like, one might recall the 2003 British movie Love Actually, where characters Jamie and Aurélia fall in love. The only problem is Jamie speaks only English and Aurélia speaks only Portuguese. Jamie immediately embarks on Portuguese immersion to win the girl of his heart, so he could finally tell her how he feels.

While romance was involved in this scenario, integrative motivation doesn’t have to be inspired only by love. Acquiring a new language by this type of motivation can also be the result of a friendship, a sense of duty to country, a sense of honor, an eagerness to belong to a specific culture, or maintaining one’s heritage. Integrative motivated learners are eager to pick up pronunciation, accent, and dialects, and typically approach learning the new language with a positive attitude. This ambition is similar to intrinsic motivation or feeling compelled to do something out of personal reasons.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/

The other type of motivation is instrumental. This occurs when learning a foreign language is necessary for some kind of advancement or credential. This push is most commonly experienced when going for a grade, getting a job that requires the new tongue, to land a promotion, or perhaps to conduct a business negotiation or pass a proficiency exam. Interest and curiosity are not factors.

These learners may not necessarily enjoy or want to learn the language, but do so because they have to. As a result, the attitude may not be as positive as the learner with integrative motivation, and learning the language may not come as quickly. This motivation is related to extrinsic motivation, or doing something because an outside force is acting upon or influencing.

One could learn a foreign language with either of these motivations. However, it may still prove more difficult for some learners to find the drive to do so than others. Take for example, native English speakers. Because English is the language most used in global communication, English speaking students are among the least motivated to learn a foreign language.

When traveling to another country, these native speakers are likely to come upon someone who can speak at least some English. They become dependent on the fact that there are many English speakers in the world, as well as a wealth of information, entertainment, and learning resources. However, one must only think back to English speaking Jamie’s desire to win the fair Aurélia, to see that it is not impossible to suddenly shift one’s motivation.

What compels you to learn a new language?


Written by Marlene Martzke for English Classes by Skype





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