Motivation and Second language learning

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

17 Pages, Grade: 86% (High Distinction)



Why do people learn second languages? Why do for example Australians study Japanese or Korean people study French? The answers to these questions are important, according to Rebecca Oxford (1994), because ‘motivation is considered by many [researchers] to be one of the main determining factors in success in developing a second or foreign language’ (p.12). Gardner even claims L2 motivation to be the ‘primary factor’ in L2 learning in his socio-educational model (1994, p.361). Therefore, an investigation of the components of motivation and the influence of motivation on L2 learning seems quite reasonable. This essay will focus on the concept of motivation in second language learning. Initially, the definition of the term motivation shall be discussed and this will be followed by an identification of the key terms. Then the attention shall be drawn to research results concerning the importance of motivation as influencing second language learning. The essay will discuss Gardners quantitative approach and a recent research of Ushioda shall be taken into account that seeks to provide an alternative qualtitative approach. This approach focuses on students’ beliefs and thinkings rather than on measurable and observable activity. A final chapter will focus on implications for teaching.


A definition of the term motivation seems rather difficult, because there is disagreement about the precise nature of its meaning. It seems to vary from culture to culture and from individual to individual. This is a problem, because the clarification of a definition is the first step to any further investigation. The word motivation is ‘derived from the Latin verb movere ’ and means to move (Pintrich & Schunk 2002, p.5). According to Pintrich & Schunk, a general definition of the term motivation refers to ‘the process whereby goal-directed activity is instigated and sustained’ (2002, p.5). Moreover, Gardner states that a specific L2 learning motivation is ‘the combination of effort plus desire to achieve the goal of learning the language‘ (Gardner 1994, p.361). Thus, a motivated individual shows ‘favourable attitudes toward learning the language’ (Gardner 1994, p.361). Oxford summarises Gardner’s definition as a composition of four elements as follows: ‘a goal, a desire to attain the goal, positive attitudes toward learning the language, and effortful behaviour to that effect.’ In some cases the reader has to figure out which of these four elements an author includes in his or her concept of motivation which can be quite confusing. Therefore, Ellis correctly characterises motivation as a ‘slippery’ concept (1994, p.142). By contrast, Oxford thinks that ‘motivation reflects the power to attain the goal.’ Furthermore, she claims that ‘this power stems from the desire to attain the goal, positive attitudes toward learning the language, and effortful behaviour (1994, p.14).’ Consequently, in Oxford’s view, motivation merely equals the power to achieve a goal by contrast to others.

Furthermore, Skehan (1989) gives an account of the problems attached to the concept of motivation. He puts forward four hypotheses that raise the question about where motivation derives from. This is of importance in order to agree on a definition. He claims that it either derives from an ‘inherent interest in the learning task’ (Intrinsic Hypothesis) or it has to be considered as a result (Resultative Hypothesis) (Skehan cited in Ellis 1994, p. 509). According to the latter, only learners who do well will persevere. In addition to this, motivation might derive from an internal cause (Internal Cause Hypothesis) (Skehan cited in Ellis 1994, p. 509). Thus, the learner generally brings ‘a certain quantity of motivation’ to a learning situation (Skehan cited in Ellis 1994, p. 509). According to Skehan, this hypothesis has received the “lion’s share of researchers attention” (Skehan cited in Ellis 1994, p. 509). The fourth hypothesis refers to ‘external influences and incentives’ that affect the strength of the learner’s motivation (Carrot and Stick Hypothesis) (Skehan cited in Ellis 1994, p. 509).

Motivation from a developmental viewpoint mainly refers to Piaget on the one hand and to Vygotskys research on the other hand. According to Piaget (1985), children are ‘motivated to develop their cognitive or mental abilities in a predictable set of stages’ (Piaget cited in Oxford 1994, p.23). They move to accommodate their cognitive schemata ‘to a new stimuli or assimilate the new stimuli into their existing schemata’ (Piaget cited in Oxford 1994, p.23). Thus, motivation is a ‘built-in, unconscious striving toward more complex and differentiated development of the individual’s mental structures’ (Piaget cited in Oxford 1994, p.23). Vygotsky is of the opinion that motivation can only exist if the input given to students is ‘challenging and relevant’ (Vygotsky cited in Oxford 1994, p. 23). He calls the distance between a learner’s ‘actual development’ and the level of ‘potential development’ the Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky cited in Oxford 1994, p. 23). Thus, motivation can only occur within this zone.

As a result, a straightforward definition should include these possible approaches indicated.


The key components of language learning motivation have been identified by a number of researchers. According to Dörnyei (2005, p.19) however, the ‘interrelationships’ have often been subject to debate and a consensus on the exact contribution of the different components has been interpreted in various ways. The dimensions that have been researched are integrative and instrumental motivations; extrinsic or intrinsic motivations and cognitive approaches. Each of these will be discussed in turn. Poststructuralist approaches, which seek to replace the term motivation by the term ‘investment’ (Pavlenko 2002), offer interesting insights, but are beyond the scope of this essay.

Gardner’s popular ‘motivation construct’ has often been comprehended as ‘the interplay of two components,’ which are called integrative and instrumental motivations. They serve to answer the question, why an individual is studying the language and therefore refer to the goal of a L2 learner (Gardner 1985b). Gardner’s integrative motivation is a ‘positive disposition toward the L2 group and the desire to interact with and even become similar to valued members of that community (Doernyei 1994, p.274).’ Integrative motivation has always been considered as relating strongly to language achievement in Gardner’s and Dörnyei’s theories, but there is some disagreement about this claim (see Kruidenier & Clement, 1986). By contrast, the instrumental motivation is ‘related to the potential pragmatic gains of L2 proficiency’ such as earning more money or getting a better job (Dörnyei 1994, p.274).

A further quite popular concept of the components of L2 motivation has been the dichotomy between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation refers to behaviours that ‘the individual performs to receive some extrinsic reward’ such as getting good grades, being praised by the teacher or ‘to avoid punishment. By contrast, intrinsically motivated behaviours are ones that the individual performs to receive some intrinsic reward such as ‘the joy of doing a particular activity or satisfying one’s curiosity (Dörnyei 1994, p.275).’ According to Dörnyei, extrinsically motivated behaviour can ‘undermine’ intrinsic motivation (1994, p.276).

Several studies have shown that students seem to lose their intrinsic motivation if they have to process it in order to meet some extrinsic requirement such as the compulsory readings at school. Some teachers try hard to motivate their students to learn for intrinsic reasons, because there is more joy in meeting the requirement. According to Gottfried (1985) ‘there is also evidence that across grade levels, intrinsic motivation relates positively to learning, achievement, and perceptions of competence, and negatively to anxiety’ (cited in Pintrich & Schunk 2002, p.245-6).’ Deci and Ryan introduced the self-determination theory as an ‘elaboration’ of the extrinsic and intrinsic model. In this model self-determination is seen as a ‘prerequisite for any behaviour to be intrinsically rewarding’ (Deci&Ryan cited in Dörnyei 1994, p.276), but its subdivision into four types is beyond the scope of this essay.


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Motivation and Second language learning
Monash University Melbourne  (School of Linguistics)
Second Language Acquisition
86% (High Distinction)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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This piece of paper was written in my semester abroad at Monash Uni, Melbourne. The term paper examines the importance of motivation in second language learning. A quantitative approach (questionnaires) is compared to a qualitative approach (interviews).
Motivation, Second, Language, Acquisition
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Tanja Lins (Author), 2005, Motivation and Second language learning, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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