This Is Why Language Learning Motivation Is Important

When you want to learn a new language, a second or third language other than the ones you are already fluent in, you don’t just learn it because it is there or because you are exposed to it from time to time. There has to be a reason to retain it, for it to stick well enough to speak it. 

Motivation for learning a language is extremely important. Whether it’s due to culture and personal growth or career and financial opportunities, or some combination, motivation for learning a language is critical to acquiring it. If sufficient motivation is lacking, you won’t be successful.

Many people believe that learning is so necessary that you don’t need a desire or motivation to do it; it has to happen, so it must. But this is so wildly incorrect. Without motivation, not a lot of things would get done! As a former public school teacher, I know this is why some students get left behind in education… because they lack motivation. Motivation is critical to acquiring fluency in another language!

How Is Language Learning Motivated?

Learning a language has to be fueled by something to increase all of the components associated with learning, such as:

  • Retention
  • Quality Instruction
  • Opportunities for meaningful input and output with the language
  • Ability to exist in environments that continue to fuel language learning

The best environment for learning is one that can surround you; has the best instructor; and allows for you to be wholly immersed in the culture of the target language you’re trying to learn. Still, without motivation to learn, the desire to learn can slowly diminish, leaving you without purpose. 

If you don’t have a purpose behind learning a language, many students choose to drop out after learning a few keywords believing that they won’t need to use it in their life. This is just one example of why motivation is necessary. 

With very few exceptions, without motivation, you would not likely be able to learn a new language, let alone any new idea or process.

Motivation is essential to language learning.

No matter what type of inspiration you have, it will allow you to push through the challenging moments and achieve a new connection to culture. 

Types Of Motivation

Motivation has been defined as the reason behind your needs, wants, desires and passion. Without motivation, you would most likely not finish many tasks or obstacles due to you losing your passion halfway through whatever you are trying to finish. 

Motivation has also been defined as a desire to gain an objective in conjunction with achieving the objective. Motivation is the main reason for any behavior or lifestyle that you actively choose to live. 

In the simplest of terms, motivation is the reason behind the way that you act or do anything. Now motivation can be divided into two different types that explain intrinsic differences as to why you have a desire to learn or do something. 

Extrinsic And Intrinsic Motivation

Now, motivation can really be divided into two categories, externally fueled or internally fueled, otherwise known as extrinsic or intrinsic. To really understand more of what causes motivation, it would be better to break that down even further, or more specifically. 

As an educator, I’ve spent a lot of time in the classroom, as well as in professional development, focusing on motivation as a key to instruction. Most all teachers recognize that if students aren’t motivated, they won’t learn, and this goes for long division, writing essays, or learning a foreign language.

Studies agree that extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are connected; that is, you can’t generally get to intrinsic motivation without some sort of extrinsic. In theory, teachers try to move students towards intrinsic values but we all like rewards and that’s okay within reason.

While some motivation, such as learning about a new culture, might be considered external since you’ll have the ability to ‘perform’ and gratification either personally from the reactions of other people or say, professionally, because it opens up a job promotion, it is also internal, based on the desire for knowledge. This is where instrumental and integrative motivation comes in. 


Instrumental motivation refers to practical motives or things that would be fueled by futuristic goals. There any many reasons that your motivation can be classified as instrumental, such as:

  • Learning a second language for a new job
  • Learning for a raise
  • Graduating college with the language requirements
  • Learning a language to get into college.

Instrumental motivation is looked at as external factors that are creating a desire due to achieving something that is bigger than yourself. In these moments, learning a language isn’t something you are doing for yourself, but rather for an external reward, raise, or opportunity. 

Now, some people might say that a raise or new job opportunity is a personal reward or motivation for learning a new language. However, if the job or raise is motivating you more than just learning the language, then it is considered instrumental motivation. 


Now, if you are a person who likes achieving goals for yourself, or you like continually growing, you would be described as a person who is fueled mostly by integrative motivation. Integrative motivation comes from a desire to better yourself for personal growth desires or to learn about and understand the desired culture with limited language barriers.

Integrative motivated people are usually the ones who like to plan and create to-do lists. They receive motivation from their own personal goals, even if it is just completing daily tasks. However, this can also be a person who enjoys immersing themselves in other cultures and wants to make sure they do it appropriately. 

A personal with integrative motivation is simply someone who enjoys traveling and not expecting the locals to teach them everything; instead she will be motivated by an ability to do things independently. 

Outcomes Of Motivation 

There has been some debate among researchers as to which type of motivation works better when learning a new language. There has been much back and forth about how external or instrumental motivation is better at causing someone to learn a language rather than integrative, internal motivation. 

After quite a few studies over the years, it seems as if instrumental motivational goals have a slightly higher impact on the ability and desire to learn a new language well. It has been shown that since instrumental motivation involves external rewards and achievements, people are more likely to learn the language well initially. 

Now, integrative motivation doesn’t fall too far behind and actually tends to supersede instrumental motivation in the long run. The external rewards and achievements do not exist consistently enough to continuously fuel the desire to keep learning a language. People who are instrumentally motivated also tend to give up more quickly and quit when things get complicated. 

However, integrative motivation is focused so much on goal-oriented behavior and habits that people who are motivated internally usually succeed better in the long run. When you are driven to do something due to practices and actions you have conditioned your mind with, you tend to perform better, especially without external pressure. 

The Key Positive Factors of Motivation

While motivation can be fueled by certain rewards or goal-orientated behavior, it can also be drained or lacking due to other factors. Motivation has certain factors that explain or feed into where it comes from or why someone is so motivated. 

Attitude Towards Language Community

No matter what language you are learning, you either have respect and care for them, or you don’t. Through a few studies, it has been shown that your attitude towards the community that you are learning the language of has to be positive; otherwise, you can quickly lose respect and desire for the language. 

Your desire to become part of or even exist with the community has strong ties to why you want to learn a language, and without that desire, your motivation can quickly lesson, or in some cases, disappear. 

Enjoyment Level

A high enjoyment level of learning a language is almost imperative to the longevity of learning a language enough to make it a skill. If you are not enjoying learning a language, you have limited desires to continue to do the hard work it requires to retain the information. 

Due to this factor, integrative-motivated persons are much more likely to continue to study and learn a language long after the external perks have expired or disappeared. Without enjoyment, most instrumentally motivated people are likely to quit or get bored with the lack of rewards they receive. 

External Pressures

If you are instrumentally motivated, external pressures are the factors that keep you going with the desire to learn your second language. There is a long list of possible external forces, some of which include:

  • Parents pressuring you to learn
  • Rewards from school or work
  • Keeping a Job
  • Getting a new job
  • Getting a raise
  • Reaching a requirement

No matter the external pressure, it will most definitely fuel your motivation to learn the language for at least a period of time. Now, most of the time, studies have shown that even if the goal hasn’t been achieved yet, only the knowledge of a reward or achievement will not carry a person to the end goal. 

There has to be some form of integrative motivation to contribute to the longevity of your education. Without it, the idea of a goal in the long-term is going to sound less and less appealing over time, therefore decreasing your desire to continue to learn. 

Prior Language Knowledge 

If you have any prior knowledge of learning a new language, your motivation is likely to come from the understanding of patterns and rules that come with many languages. Even if you are learning a completely different language than you have before, it is more likely to be easier for you to learn. 

If a language is easy for you to learn, even if it is only easy in certain parts, it can give you the motivation or extra push you need to get through the rough education moments. 

Achieving A Goal

If you have previously achieved or completed anything that you set out to do, then you will recall the feeling of accomplishment after it was completed. Allowing yourself to relive that moment throughout your life will help drive your motivation in any goal you set from there on out. 

Knowing that you can achieve hard things, and have done so, is only creating habits in your mind that tell your body you need motivation because you’ve done this before. These are good habits and fuel integrative motivation for language learning. 

Negative Motivational Factors

There are, unfortunately, some negative factors of motivation. Now, just because these are negative and have been shown to lower motivation doesn’t mean they always have to be. It is common for people to take these factors and turn them around positively to use as motivation for pushing through. 

These are usually factors that we have little, if any, control over and oftentimes have to accept as the way life is. While that can be hard to manage, it doesn’t make a task unachievable. 

Poor Instructor

Even if you are highly motivated with phenomenal goal setting habits, a poor instructor can cause your motivation to be severely lacking, usually resulting in limited learning. An instructor can be really good at teaching while also displaying a few not so great qualities that cause the students to be brought down. Some of these qualities can be:

  • Lack of enjoyment for the job
  • Lack of desire to teach
  • Poor self-confidence
  • Lack of knowledge about the subject
  • Lack of relationship building with students
  • Limited desire to help or walk with students having a rough time.

No matter what is on your plate as an instructor, the students need consistency in how you teach and your enthusiasm to teach. Without either of these, it will be harder for the students to feel comfortable in any learning setting. 

In a scenario where someone is learning through a virtual means, a poor system or a confusing process can leave the learner feeling hopeless, as well.

Inadequate Learning Facilities

In any situation, in-person or a virtual setting, the necessary facilities have to be adequate to fill the learner’s needs. In a classroom-type environment, you have to have consistency in teaching methods and expectations. 

It’s important to have quiet areas, strong internet, and resources to understand the language better in a virtual setting. You also need to keep things organized. Desk organizers and a good desk lamp such as these from Amazon will help your motivation. Without these resources, a person could be left feeling like they can only learn so much, or maybe not at all. 

Undiagnosed Learning Issues

It is not uncommon at all for adults to have lived their entire lives simply feeling like they were not capable of learning certain things. However, in several scenarios, an undiagnosed learning issue can hinder a person from a good educational experience. 

Simply identifying the problems and solving the issues surrounding the issue can give someone the confidence and motivation to learn the language they need to. For example, someone who has dyslexia may not know it; they may think learning a new language is just too hard for them. 

After figuring this out, their diagnosis of dyslexia can fuel their motivation to overcome the issue and prove to themselves, or others, that they can learn a new language. 

Poor Self Confidence

Anyone with poor self-confidence will likely be stuck in a fixed mindset about themselves, which means motivation is hard to come by. Believing that they can learn, and proving to themselves or someone else that they can achieve it, is really the only way they will be able to build their confidence back. 

Someone who has been told throughout their life that they can’t do hard things or that they aren’t worth helping usually is negatively affected long-term…having those things echo in their head for years and years.  While there are some people who used past issues as motivation-a challenge-to get through things, even they have had to move past the hurt feelings and low confidence before being able to turn it around and use it as motivation.  

Where Does Motivation Come From?

Motivation comes from a desire to do something or a willingness to achieve an activity. Now, just because you have a desire to do something doesn’t mean that you have the motivation to get it done. 

More often than not, you have to put positive actions into place and almost force yourself to get motivated. There is a large chance that most things you have to do, you won’t exactly feel like doing it; however, simply creating an environment that allows you to complete your tasks can cause your body to feel more desire and motivation that you thought at the beginning. 

It has been discovered that generally, there are three main reasons behind a lack of motivation, all of which can be broken down into more specific meanings. 

Not Having A Choice

One sure thing that will reduce or remove motivation is by telling someone that they have to do it. Not feeling like you have a say or control over your actions and time drastically limits your motivation and desire to do activities. 

However, merely changing your thought process and perspectives can help increase your motivation again. Instead of looking at things like you have to do them, shift your thoughts to focusing on the fact that you get to do them. 

If you have to learn a language, it’s amazing that you get to learn a language because some people don’t have the resources that you do. Simply changing your perspective to realize that even if you have to, you get the ability to, and that is more than enough reason to do well. 

Moral Issues

Having to complete a task that goes against your morals or values is a definite motivation killer. Now, in the most extreme of cases, it may be best to walk away from a task and manage the consequences. 

However, in a moment of simplicity, changing the view of the value you have on whatever the decision is can help motivate you to manage it with a good attitude. Or perhaps you can make adjustments in your thinking so that it can better align with your morality, thus not conflicting with motivation.

For example, if the language you’re learning is celebrating something that goes against your values, shift your mindset to understand that learning about it doesn’t mean you have to celebrate it. Simply learning will help you connect and understand the culture, even if you don’t agree. 

Just because you choose to learn about another culture or celebration doesn’t mean you endorse it. 

Inability To Achieve

If you feel overwhelmed or underqualified for a task, it’s obvious that you aren’t going to feel motivated at all to complete it. It is a common thought that completing a job terribly is worse than not finishing it at all. 

However, if you continue down a path of never trying to complete things, you will never feel adequate enough ever to achieve them. There are little moments where it is better not to complete a job rather than doing it poorly. 

Effort over time equals excellence. If you haven’t read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers (linked to Amazon), please do ASAP! As Gladwell explains, practice makes perfect!

Every time you try to complete a task, you will get more confident and better. If you aren’t great at learning new things, try to learn a different way. Flashcards may be better for you than reading the information, or even repetitive writing might work for you. 

Change your circumstances as much as you can, even if it is just the amount of effort you choose to put in.

Creating A Motivational Learning Environment For Language

As a teacher of a language, you have to think outside the box when it comes to making sure your students stay motivated and making sure you are doing everything in your power to help that. 

As a teacher, while it is debatable as to whether or not it’s your responsibility to keep the students motivated, it is best for you and them if everyone stays engaged and keeps their desire to learn throughout the learning period. As I have almost 20 years experience teaching in public schools, please trust me on this!

If you are a student- or teaching yourself- you also need to be aware of the environmental factor. (If you are self-teaching a new language, you may also be interested in this article where I address it and provide recommendations.)

Ability Vs. Inability

There is this idea that is usually passed down generationally that certain people are only built for certain things, and you can’t change what you are capable of doing. In other words, some people have a fixed mindset about what they can or can’t do instead of a growth mindset that would allow them to adapt to new things. 

You want to create an environment that inspires your students to have a growth mindset or the mindset that they have the ability to do or learn whatever is presented to them. One way of doing this is running your classroom with a growth mindset and not lending a moment to the thought process of inability. 

If you give someone tasks and assure them that you believe they are capable, you have effectively shut down the fixed mindset, at least for a little while. To further instill the idea of growth, regularly providing assessments and progress reports can provide tangible evidence of the ability to adapt and grow through adversity or new things. 

It’s been shown that for teachers that are working hard for their students, the hard work is usually reciprocated by the students for the teacher. If a teacher is working hard to show her students how well they are doing and helping those who aren’t doing so well, the students will usually work even harder to make sure the teacher’s work isn’t in vain. 

And from the perspective of the student learning something new, you also need a growth mindset. You need to face the challenge feeling like even if you weren’t born with a natural aptitude for something, you are more than capable of achieving it…or learning something, even if it’s more of a struggle for you than someone else.

Open Conversation And Relationships

You want an environment in your classroom that radiates openness and a desire for connection. As an educator, the more that you know and understand about your students, the better you can serve and teach them in a way that will help them best. 

You also want them to feel like they can come to you for anything so that the communication lines are open both ways. If a student has issues with the material or life in general, the ability to ask you for advice or help can substantially affect their ability to continue learning effectively. 

Since all students learn differently, this also gives you and the opportunities to learn how they each learn best. Using this knowledge to provide different activities that cater to different styles of learning will increase their trust and the communication levels between the educator and the student. 

As a student learning a language, you need to make sure you select the best learning environment for you. If you are creating your environment at home (such as for virtual learning), make sure it is conducive and welcoming.

If you are choosing a traditional setting, again, make sure you feel welcomed and have the ability to take risks. If you don’t feel safe in learning (for example, feel ridiculed for making mistakes), then you need to discuss this with the instructor or make other choices. It’s truly that important!

Goals And Expectations

Starting off any relationship with goals and expectations can substantially increase the relationship level while also setting up both parties for success. Understanding what is expected of you is a huge motivator and gives you the ability to evaluate your strengths and weakness at the beginning. 

The student to educator relationship is no different. As an educator, you need to start the learning process with a clear expectation of goals and responsibilities that you expect the students to meet. 

At the beginning of the class, students can start to prepare for what is expected and express their needs to you in a clearer fashion that aligns more with what they will be learning. This also provides motivation once you give them a clear path and understanding of what they are expected to do and where it will take them. 

As the student, you need to be clear about your goals and expectations. You need to set SMART goals and be reasonable. To learn more about SMART goals, I suggest reading this other article where I explain it thoroughly.

The Final Talking Point

Language learning has quite a few components that can make or break the process of learning. One of the biggest components is motivation. Motivation in language learning is arguably one of the most important aspects. 

Without the motivation to learn a language, you really have no purpose for doing it at all. Without purpose, there is no reason to push through learning and studying a language. Motivation will be the reasoning that gets you through language learning.

Additional Sources:

Just Got Diagnosed




Whitby School




Jackie Booe

Jackie Booe is a licensed teacher for elementary through high school in 3 states. She is a former adjunct professor at the undergraduate level and certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners. She was a mentor for many education interns, department leader at various levels and organizations, has taught and coordinated professional development for teachers and educators, and professionally tutored in a multitude of subjects.

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