languages word cloud
‘There is no such thing as motivation.’ Hmm, probably not the best way to start a post about motivation in second language acquisition. What Zoltán Dörnyei in Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom, means by this is that we cannot exactly define what motivation is. It is an abstract concept that explains human’s behaviour. Motivation is actually made of lots of different motives, such as economical (raise in salary), enjoyment or even the old survival instinct. It is indeed hard to define motivation, yet we all know what a ‘motivated’ student looks like. The qualities that spring to mind would be enthusiastic, keen, and committed. Unfortunately, we also know what a student lacking motivation looks like. Lately I have been reflecting on my motivation to study languages. Why was I motivated to become a linguist? And how can I transmit my motivation to my current students?
Just a bit of background information. I am a French male teacher in my thirties teaching French and Spanish in an English secondary. I have done most of my education in France, except my PGCE. I speak French (obviously!), Spanish and English. French is my first language I have learnt English from the age of 11 in a French secondary school and went on to study it up to university (Degree). I have acquired Spanish much later when I met my wife, who is Mexican and went to live in Mexico for 8 months.


As long as I can remember, I have always been interested in languages. English has always been my favourite subject at school. As I mentioned earlier, lately I have been reflecting about my motivation to study English and I realised that it has never been due to very inspiring language teachers. I can remember great, inspiring teachers, the kind I want to be like now. But none of them were languages teachers! So where does it come from then?

After thinking about it quite a lot, no sleepless nights but almost… I came up with two main influences for my motivation to learn a second language. First, an affectionate link with the language and then, an integrative orientation towards the language, the target culture and its community.

An affectionate link with the language:

My mum was a linguist too. She studied English in France up to university. She did not become a teacher but still used some of her English knowledge in her career. Unfortunately, my mum died when I was 7 years old. She did not try to bring me up bilingual. Nevertheless I can still remember her teaching me some words in English. In fact these are some of my only memories of her. I think this has had a massive effect on my later motivation to learn English. I went on to do the same degree as she had started; I went on to live in the UK for a while as she had done in her university years.

An integrative orientation:

I don’t think this affectionate link I have with English is the sole responsible for my motivation in learning English. Indeed my mum also studied German. I studied German too but, even though I got to a nice level (15/20 was my baccalaureate result for it!), I never really enjoyed it and dropped it as soon as I could. There was something else with English. Remember, I grew up in France. At that time, the 90s, when you turned on the radio you would hear Nirvana, Oasis, Blur, Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine and some other pop-rock bands. They all looked really cool and we all wanted to be like them. We wanted to understand what they were singing about. It all sounded very meaningful and deep! We were then very disappointed! Robert Gardner and fellow social psychologists called it the ‘integrative orientation.’ Gardner argues that language learners’ goals fall into two broad categories:

  • Integrative orientation, which reflects a positive disposition toward the L2 group and the desire to interact with and even become similar to valued members of that community.’
  • Instrumental orientation, where language learning is primarily associated with the potential pragmatic gains of L2 proficiency, such as getting a better job or a higher salary (or a good grade in my case for German).

These two orientations have become widely known and recognised in the second language acquisition world however, the work Gardner is most famous for is the concept of ‘integrative motive’.

integrative motive

In the classroom:

So what can we do to motivate our learners? How can we have 100% motivated and keen learners in our classrooms? From my experience we can see that the personal link with the language is never going to work for everybody. Some students might have something similar but it will be a minority. The ‘integrative orientation’ is definitely something that has a huge impact; however it is quite difficult to apply in the United Kingdom where all media (cinema, music or TV) are exclusively in English. For a vast majority of our students, we (the language teachers) are the closest these kids will ever get to the target culture! Zóltan Dörnyei in Motivational Strategies in the Classroom makes a list of 35 strategies to help with motivation in L2. Even though I have to say that all of them are extremely important, I have decided to focus on some of them and comment on them or share some experience.

Strategy 1:Demonstrate and talk about your own enthusiasm for the course material, and how it affects you personally.

Explain to your students why you are a linguist, how you became one, without getting too personal. Students will genuinely be very interested about your ‘story’. Explain how you use or have used your knowledge of languages in your life.

Strategy 2 and 3: ‘Develop a personal relationship with your students.’ And ‘ Create a pleasant and supportive atmosphere in the classroom.’

Your students must feel at ease in the learning environment. They must feel that they are safe in your classroom and with you. They must feel that you care about them.

Strategy 4: ‘Develop a collaborative relationship with the students’ parents.’

Keep parents informed about their children’s progress and also ask for support with homework for example. This year we have sent emails to parents when KS4 students were preparing for a controlled assessment. This has helped massively as parents knew that their children were supposed to be doing some revision.

Strategy 5: ‘Promote the learners’ language-related values by presenting peer role models.’

Having sixth formers helping with KS4 classes is a great one for example. I have taught a lesson recently in another school where they do this and the impact of this is amazing.

Strategy 6: ‘Raise the learners’ intrinsic interest in the L2 learning process.’

Make the encounter with the L2 a positive experience. Have a curriculum that will be relevant for your students.

Strategy 7: ‘Promote ‘integrative’ values by encouraging a positive and open-minded disposition towards the L2 and its speakers, and towards foreignness in general.’

I think that this one is crucial. We, language teachers, do not only teach a language. We also teach the culture that goes with the language. Students are always very curious about differences between cultures. We must make sure that our schemes of work contain the cultural dimension as well as the linguistic dimension. It might sound obvious but residential trips, penpal exchanges even day trips are one of the tools we have to expose our students to the target culture.

Strategy 8: ‘Promote the students’ awareness of the instrumental values associated with the knowledge of an L2.’

After a survey with my current Yr 10, I have found that more than half of the class had chosen GCSE French because it would bring more job opportunities. The impact this argument has is undeniable, it is therefore something that we need to make our students aware of.

Strategy 9: ‘ Increase the students’ expectancy of success in particular tasks and in learning in general’

Make sure they know exactly what success in the task involves.

Strategy 10: Make learning stimulating and enjoyable for the learner by increasing the attractiveness of the task’.

Make tasks challenging, make the content attractive by using exotic, humorous and technological elements.

Strategy 11:Provide learners with regular experiences of success.’

Make sure all tasks are accessible to all learners from all abilities. In my department listening tasks were sources of demotivation as they were found very challenging by the students. This year I introduced to the department a differentiation strategy to help with this problem. We give the students the choice whether or not they want to use the transcript of the listening task. This has helped with their confidence, students slowly realise that they can do listening tasks and even start enjoying them!

Strategy 12: ‘Help diminish language anxiety by removing or reducing the anxiety-provoking elements in the learning environment.’

Help learners accept the fact that they will make mistakes as part of the learning process.

Strategy 13: ‘Build your learners’ confidence in their learning abilities by teaching them various learner strategies.’

Metacognition is very important. We know lots of strategies to learn successfully, we are teachers, at some point in our lives (and hopefully still now) we have been successful learners. Therefore we must share not only our subject knowledge but anything that is going to facilitate our students’ learning.

Strategy 14:Promote effort attributions in your students.’

Encourage learners to explain their failures by the lack of effort and appropriate strategies applied rather than by their insufficient ability. Encourage your learners to have a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset.

Strategy 15:Provide students with positive information feedback.’

Notice and react to any positive contributions from your students. Provide regular feedback about the progress your students are making and about the areas which they should particularly concentrate on.

motivational teaching practice

In conclusion, these strategies are only an idea of how we can have an impact on our students’ motivation to learn another language. I am sure that most of us are already doing some of these. However, personally, I feel that I sometimes become blinded by details that are probably irrelevant. ‘Make sure you always justify your opinions!’ or ‘Use another tense!’… I think that sometimes I forget the big picture; they are here to learn another language and its culture, not to achieve a level 5 or 6. We must try to instigate in them a passion for the target culture and its language.