Karen's Linguistics Issues, October 2006 | Previous Months


Motivation Variables and Second Language Learning

by R. Narayanan

Vinayaka Mission Research Foundation University, Aarupadai Veedu Institute of Technology, Kanchipuram, India


This article is a theoretical study of the integrative and instrumental motivational factors related to second language learning.   In addition, this article focuses on four key questions: 

1.      What is meant by the term motivation?

2.      What are different types of motivation?

3.      What are the characteristics of motivated learners?

4.      What is the role of the teacher in English learning? 

      Finally, this theoretical study gives special emphasis to the role of the teacher in the context of learners’ motivational levels.    

If asked to identify the most powerful influences on language learning, motivation factors would probably be high on most teachers’ lists. Because of the multifaceted nature of the concept of motivation, I shall begin this article by discussing the four questions.

Krashen (1975) makes the connection between formal operations, the ‘personality changes occurring at puberty’ and language learning in the following terms:

According to Elkind ((1970)), ‘the ability to think abstractly, a characteristic of formal operation (sic), leads the adolescent to conceptualize his own thought….’ (p.66) ….. Another consequence, according to Elkind, is that the adolescent can now also ‘conceptualize the thoughts of other people’ ……. The adolescent’s resulting self-consciousness, his reluctance to reveal himself, his feeling of vulnerability, may have a great effect on second language learning’.

                                                                       (Krashen 1975:220f.)          

1.      What is meant by the term motivation?

The term motivation in a second language learning context is seen according to Gardner (1985) as ‘referring to the extent to which the individual works or strives to learn the language because of a desire to do so and the satisfaction experienced in this activity (p.10).’  

According to the Pocket Oxford English Dictionary (2004), motivation is '1. the reason or reasons behind one’s actions or behaviour.  2. Enthusiasm.' (p.587).  

Hence, the abstract term ‘motivation’ on its own is rather difficult to define.  It is easier and more useful to think in terms of the ‘motivated’ learner: one who is willing or even eager to invest effort in learning activities and to progress.  

     2.  What are different types of motivation?

Gardner and Lambert (1959, 1972) have done pioneering work to explore the nature of motivation specific to language study.  Gardner highlights two different types of motivation:

      1)      Instrumental motivation: the desire to learn a language because it would fulfill certain utilitarian goals, such as getting a  job, passing an examination, etc.

      2)    Integrative motivation: the desire to learn a language in order to communicate with people from another culture that speak that language; the desire is also there to identify closely with the target language group.

            Instrumental motivation vs integrative motivation

A distinction has been made in the literature between ‘integrative” and ‘instrumental’ motivation: the desire to identify with and integrate into the target-language culture, contrasted with the wish to learn the language for the purpose of study or career promotion.  Gardner and Lambert (1959, 1972) showed that success in a foreign/second language is likely to be lower if the underlying motivational orientation is instrumental rather than integrative.  But research since then has cast doubt on the application of this claim to foreign language learners in general.  In any case, at least one other study (Burstall et al., 1974) has indicated that it may be impossible in practice to distinguish between the two. (Penny Ur (2005) A course in Language Teaching: Practice and Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.p.276).

Another distinction, perhaps more useful for teachers, is that between ‘intrinsic’ motivation (the urge to engage in the learning activity for its own sake) and ‘extrinsic’ (motivation that is derived from external incentives).  

3.  What are characteristics of motivated learners?

     The author of a classic study of successful language learning (Naiman et al., 1978) came to the conclusion that the most successful learners are not necessarily those to whom a language comes very easily; they are those who display certain typical characteristics, most of them clearly associated with motivation.:

4.      What is the role of the teacher in second language learning?

In the second language classroom environment, what undoubtedly influences learners’ learning outcomes is their interpretation of interpersonal teacher behaviour.  So, in language learning, the teacher plays the main role. 

According to Mickey Nasiri, General Manager at Cambridge Silicon Radio:

"For the drivers in my city, it is obvious how bad the pedestrians behave.  They walk on the roads, slow down the traffic, and they don’t even care about their own safety.

The drivers have to honk to make the pedestrians aware of the danger they put their lives in.  For the pedestrians in my city, it is obvious how bad the drivers behave.  Drivers don’t let the pedestrians cross the roads and they honk and pollute the city.

A simple psychometric test shows that hyped self-perception is a widespread human trait.  A good leader is aware of this myth and surrenders to the belief that “people are like me, and they try to do the best job they can” which helps in effective delegation.

This belief makes the good leader wonder why one succeeds and the other fails.

 If understanding the concept of 'hyped self-perception' is a foundation for effective delegation, the answer to the above question, 'condition', is the heart of motivational skills.

Although everyone tries one’s best, the conditions are different.  The obstacles in one’s condition could de-motivate the individual, and demotivated people are normally not successful.

 A good leader works for creating the condition conducive to success for people around him/her. 

People do the best they can; the leader just need to remove the biggest obstacles.  Now, if the good leader’s belief in people would lead to less honking cars, well, that is also positive for the reduction of noise pollution. "

(Leader speech motivating leaders, Don’t honk!: The Hindu Business Line Monday, August 14, 2006 p.11.)

The above-said words were meant not only for a good leader, but also for a good teacher or facilitator - who helps to remove the biggest language learning obstacles from his/her learners, and creates conditions conducive to language learning success.

A successful facilitator should therefore ask questions such as these:

A good teacher or facilitator should listen to his/her students with empathy, and provide them with the support that they so greatly need.



R. Narayanan works as an English lecturer  for VMRF-Deemed University, Kanchipuram, India.  He is particularly interested in Indian writing in English and English language teaching.  He has presented two papers, and holds an MA in English Literature, an MA in Linguistics, and an MPhil in Indian writing in English.  Presently, he is doing research in the area of applied linguistics in the Department of Linguistics at Annamalai University, Annamalai Nagar, India.


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©R. Narayanan 2006. All rights reserved.