Motivated or unmotivated students?

Wendy Flores

In every language class, you can find students ready to study with enthusiasm always finding a way to succeed. You can also find those who don’t show much interest in their studies and are unable to reach their goals. In such situations, teachers will often hear the student say: “I’m not good at languages,” “It’s hard for me to learn,” “I’m not interested in learning a language,” and “I don’t like learning foreign languages.” Sometimes though, the complete opposite can also be heard. As a teacher, I can appreciate that my students have different rhythms and approaches for learning a foreign language, and their successes and failures have led be to ask the following question: what is it that makes some students so much better at picking up languages than others?

It’s a tough question to answer, but in my experience teaching I can say that’s it’s not just about intelligence and ability like some students may believe. It also depends on attitude and level of motivation. If a student really wants to progress with a language, they must first understand why they wish to learn the language. To do this, you can do a little exercise which has personally helped me out a lot with my students. The student simply needs to make a list of reasons for learning a specific language. At first, they might be motivated by a desire to want to communicate and later they may develop a more personal or academic interest. Maybe the student wants to learn the language for work, or maybe for fun, for travel, for literature, for art, for music etc. Each reason is a good reason, as long as the student values it. They can all serve as motivation for the student to help ensure that their learning experience is successful.

With this in mind, we should take a look at an idea put forth by Robert Gardner and Wallace Lambert (1972) who believed that motivation is the desire and effort required to reach a goal. According to these psychologists, there are two ways of conceptualizing motivation for learning a second language:

Inclusive Motivation: A student wishes to learn a second language with the purpose of integrating it into other facets of their life. This kind of motivation is more effective and lasts longer because it fosters a determination to continue language studies in order to reach long-term objectives.

Instrumental Motivation: Here, a student has little interest in the people who actually speak the language. Instead, the student wants to learn the language in order to pursue a desired qualification. Once the student achieves a certain level, motivation ceases.

Using this model, we can compare a motivated and an unmotivated student. We see how a motivated student will learn more since they are prepared to actively participate in class and maintain focus on their studies. Unmotivated students are the opposite. For example, some of my students wish to learn Spanish specifically as a prerequisite for a line of study or for a job. They want to communicate and nothing more, lacking the necessary commitment. Others however, are attracted to all things related to Latin culture and are continually looking at different ways of understanding both the local language and the people who speak it. They demonstrate a positive attitude of acceptance and admiration.

In conclusion, motivation is essential if one truly wants to successfully learn a language. Without it, a student will likely give up. With it, understanding comes easier and faster.


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language class / I’m not good at languages / It’s hard for me to learn / Inclusive Motivation / Instrumental Motivation