Motivating Learners

Learning to communicate in a second or additional language takes a long time and is one of the most challenging tasks your students are likely to undertake. For this reason, an important part of your teaching involves finding ways to keep your students interested and motivated. You can do this by helping them to understand the language acquisition process, develop realistic language learning expectations, connect their language learning objectives with their larger educational and life goals, and see themselves as successful language learners.

To keep your students engaged, it’s also helpful to understand their motivations for learning the language. Much of the current understanding of the role of motivation in language learning is based on the work of Robert Gardner and Wallace Lambert in the early 1970’s. Gardner and Lambert identified and described two types of motivation:

  • Instrumental motivation: An instrumental motivation involves pragmatic or practical reasons for learning the language. Instrumental motivations are focused on defined goals or achievements, such as obtaining a specific type of job, qualifying for a salary bonus, being able to communicate while traveling, or being able to read resource materials in the language. Instrumental motivation is a key element in Malcolm Knowles’ articulation of the nature of adult learning (andragogy).
  • Integrative motivation: An integrative motivation involves personal reasons for learning the language. Integrative motivations are focused on understanding, relationship building, and personal development, such as understanding the culture and society of those who speak the language, developing relationships with individual speakers, or maintaining or building on family background and connections (especially true of heritage speakers).

Student motivations for learning the language you are teaching may be exclusively integrative, exclusively instrumental, or a combination of the two. If you take the time to explore your students’ motivations, you will be better able to help them set learning goals that are both realistic and appropriate.


Resources on Learner Motivation

Adams, Nan. Andragogy: Adult learning theory.

Dörnyei, Zoltán. Motivation in second language learning. In M. Celce-Murcia, D. M. Brinton, and M. A. Snow, Eds., Teaching English as a second or foreign language. (4th ed.). National Geographic Learning (Cengage), 2014.

Gardner, Robert C., & Wallace E. Lambert. Attitudes and motivation in second language learning. Rowley, MA: Newbury House, 1972.

Horwitz, Elaine. Motivation. Lesson 2 in Foreign language teaching methods: The language learner. Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning (COERLL).

Omaggio Hadley, Alice. On learning a language: Some theoretical perspectives. Chapter 2 in A. Omaggio Hadley, Teaching language in context (3rd ed.). Boston: Heinle, 2001.


Read More

Understanding Language Acquisition

Promoting Engagement in Language Learning

Understanding Multiple Intelligences

Achieving Success with Learning Strategies