The Importance of Motivation in Second Language Acquisition

Term Paper, 2020

15 Pages, Grade: 2,3



Table of Contents


1. Introduction

2. Motivation
2.1 Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic motivation
2.2 Acquisition vs. Learning
2.3 Motivation in language learning

3. The Critical Period Hypothesis

4. The role of motivation in second language acquisition

5. Conclusion



This paper will look at one important factor in mastering the acquisition of a second language - motivation. It will be argued that the development of positive attitudes and motivation has a great impact on an individual’s success in second language learning. Evidence for these claims will be based on different studies, including one by Moyer (1999) on highly motivated subjects learning German and another by Pfenninger and Singleton (2016) which compares data from motivation questionnaires and language experience essays completed by 200 Swiss learners of English at both the beginning and the end of secondary school. Various researchers believe that age is the one factor which determines whether a subject is able to master a second language to a native-like level or not. However, in this paper it is argued that other factors such as motivational matters also play a vital role in the acquisition of a second language. If indeed this is the case, different concepts of motivation need to be taken into consideration.

1. Introduction

In the lengthy debate on influences on the outcome of second language learners, many studies consider age to be the one important variable. Some of them state age as the only necessary variable which needs to be focused on in the context of language learning. Others maintain that variables conflating with age play a vital role as well and still others even see factors such as motivation as the decisive variable for mastering a second language.

Moyer’s study in 1999, which by mistake identified one tested subject as a native speaker, has drawn interest in fields other than age which enable learners to acquire a second language perfectly. In this case, what distinguished him from the other learners was his motivation to sound like a native German. This observation suggests that motivation might have a greater impact on language learning than previously assumed. For this reason, this paper will have a look at the role of motivation in second language acquisition.

Motivation influences people’s behavior in various situations. Intrinsic as well as extrinsic motivations determine our actions. If motivation is the reason for many of people’s actions and reactions, the question arises whether motivational aspects can also make a difference in the acquisition of a language. As the acquisition of a second language in most cases is a voluntary decision and often related to specific desires, it is more linked to ambitions than the acquisition of a first language. Therefore, this paper aims at presenting studies focusing on motivational matters in the context of second language acquisition and critically discussing the different facets of motivation and the influence of motivation on second language acquisition.

In section 2, the phenomenon of motivation will be defined, followed by a differentiation between learning and acquisition to fully understand the terms used in this paper. Next, the significance of motivation in language learning will be examined. Section 3 looks at the Critical Period Hypothesis in order to illustrate the importance of age in language learning. In section 4, the relevance of motivation in second language acquisition will be argued, presenting different studies in the field of motivation. A brief overview of the main observations and arguments in the paper will be offered in the conclusion.

2. Motivation

Motivation can be defined as an “individually, dynamically, and adaptively defined phenomenon which varies across time frameworks and contexts” (Saito et al. 2017: 629). As this phenomenon consists of different aspects, it seems necessary to take a closer look at the term motivation.

2.1 Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic motivation

If we talk about motivation, there are two aspects which need to be considered. Motivation can be either intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation refers to behaviors which are performed for interest and enjoyment in the first place (Levesque et al. 2010: 618). Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, “underlies behaviors performed to obtain separable rewards or avoid negative outcomes” (ibid.). A student whose motivation to learn is intrinsic, for instance, focusses on the studying itself rather than the benefits arising from it. This student enjoys acquiring new skills and improving knowledge for personal reasons and does not pay much attention to external rewards. A student with extrinsic motivation to learn is more interested in the external reward, which, for example, might enable him to find a better paid job in the future (Zaccone & Pedrini 2019: 2).

Levesque et al. distinguish between self-determined and non-self-determined forms of extrinsic motivation. Whereas self-determined forms of extrinsic motivation as well as intrinsic motivation contribute to positive outcomes like well-being, non-self-determined forms of extrinsic motivation occur in the context of negative outcomes like anxiety (Levesque et al. 2010: 618).

Zaccone and Pedrini claim that feeling well is the consequence of satisfying one’s need for competence, which means believing in being able to carry out tasks in the environment. People who are doing so act according to their intrinsic motivation. On the contrary, those who are not able to fulfil such needs act according to extrinsic motivation (Zaccone & Pedrini 2019: 1).

In the context of learning, the differentiation between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation plays an important role. According to Zaccone and Pedrini, students with high intrinsic motivation and low extrinsic motivation learn more effectively than students who are motivated in a more extrinsic way (ibid.).

To sum up, motivation guides behavior in order to achieve the desired goal (Sansone & Harackiewicz 2000: 1). In learning situations, students’ goals differ and therefore the motivational aspects differ, too.

2.2 Acquisition vs. Learning

The terms acquisition and learning are often used interchangeably in the context of first and second language. Nevertheless, researchers like Krashen make a clear distinction between these concepts. In his Monitor Model Krashen claims that whereas acquiring a language is a subconscious process, learning a language is an active and conscious process. Learning therefore depends on the learner’s mood and his feelings towards learning a second language (Derivic & Spahic 2018: 391). The subconscious process of acquisition is often compared with the process of children acquiring their native language. In this process, people pay less attention to the form of their utterances but rather to the messages they try to convey and understand (Krashen 1981: 1). Language learning, on the other hand, “results in knowing about the language” (Derivic & Spahic 2018: 393) by using rules and being instructed and corrected. The conscious process of learning is often used in the context of school settings. Acquisition, however, is said to take place outside of school contexts, often in the country of the target language. Hence, it is a more naturalistic environment in which the term acquisition is used (Mitchell et al. 2013: 42).

However, the contrast between the naturalistic and the classroom environment is not the main issue of differentiation. Furthermore, it is also difficult to determine whether the process is conscious or subconscious. For this reason, the important claim is to differentiate between meaningful communication and conscious attention to form (Mitchell et al. 2013: 42). Both can occur in the language classroom and in naturalistic settings. Besides, language processes in the school setting “will supposedly trigger subconscious acquisition processes” (ibid). In short, the learning environment is not a reliable predictor of conscious versus subconscious processes.

Due to the mentioned reasons regarding the difficulty to differentiate between acquisition and learning, the terms of acquisition and learning will be used synonymously and both refer to the same process in this paper.

2.3 Motivation in language learning

According to Gardner, motivation in language learning is defined as “the extent to which a person tries to learn the language because of the desire to do so and the satisfaction experienced in this activity” (Gardner 1985: 10). The concept of motivation can be described as a multifaceted construct involving “effort (motivational intensity), cognitions (desire), affect (attitude), and goal” (Choubsatz & Choubsatz 2014: 393). Gardner remarks that effort alone cannot signify motivation as effort can be also produced by the desire to please someone or by social pressures. However, those aspects do not necessarily motivate students to learn a language (Gardner 1985:10). Therefore, it is the combination of the facets of effort, desire, affect and goal which defines motivation.

The goal of motivation in the context of second language acquisition is to learn the language and to feel satisfied by experiencing the activity of learning (Garnder 1985: 10). Even though the learners’ goal of motivation is the same for everybody in second language acquisition, the reasons for having this goal vary. Whereas some learners’ motivation is to gain social recognition, other learners seek to gain economic advantages through knowing a foreign language (ibid.).

Choubsatz and Choubsatz distinguish between instrumental and integrative motivation. Instrumental motivation refers to language learning for “education, vocational reasons, status achievement, personal success, self-enhancement, self-actualization, and so forth” (Choubsatz & Choubsatz 2014: 393). Integrative motivation, on the other hand, focusses more on social and interpersonal issues. Learners with integrative motivation aspire to become a representative member of the second language community (ibid.).

The environment in which a student acquires the second language plays a significant role in the development of students’ motivation. Pfenninger and Singleton observed that learners perceive the motivational states of their peers and in some cases adjust to them. They speak of a positive group affect, which can increase motivation. Furthermore, teaching in small groups with more intensity contributes to a more motivational attitude towards language learning for young learners (Pfenninger & Singleton 2016: 313).

However, Moyer points out that the construct of motivation is not completely clarified. According to her, further research needs to be done in order to “address possible connections between stated goals, intention, and behaviors or actions such as seeking contact and feedback to enhance L2 accuracy and fluency” (Moyer 1999: 96).

3. The Critical Period Hypothesis

Dealing with the topic of the acquisition of a second language requires taking the factor “age” into account. As many researchers talk of a critical period and the Age Factor in the context of language learning, this part of the paper is going to give a short overview of the Critical Period Hypothesis.

The Critical Period Hypothesis (CPH) is the claim that in the acquisition of language there is a limited phase during which a language must be completely acquired in order to achieve the native level of proficiency. According to Lenneberg, the critical period lasts from the age of two until puberty (Singleton & Ryan 2004: 33). The reason for this period of time is the cerebral lateralization, the specialization of the left hemisphere, of language function, which begins at the age of two and is completed around puberty. One assumption of the Critical Period Hypothesis is that whilst behavior can be acquired beyond the period when it is normally acquired, it will progress differently and less effectively (Harley 1986: 6).

The Critical Period Hypothesis is seen controversially in terms of the existence and the reason for the limits of this period (Shirai 2018: 85). For this reason, some researchers distinguish between a weaker and a stronger version of the Critical Period Hypothesis. The weaker version states that the sooner the acquisition starts at the onset of the critical period the more successful it is, and that successful acquisition will be difficult after the end of the period. The stronger version, however, asserts that language acquisition is impossible beyond this period (Singleton & Ryan 2004: 33). According to this version, people who start to acquire a language after the end of this period will never be able to acquire the language perfectly. Consequently, children need to receive input between the age of two and puberty in order to acquire a language to a native level.

With respect to motivation this means that according to the Critical Period Hypothesis motivational aspects do not matter in the context of perfect second language acquisition, as reaching a native level only depends on the period of time in which you learn the language.

However, the perfect mastering of a second language does not unconditionally relate to a native-like level but rather to reaching the ultimate attainment. The term ultimate attainment refers to the highest level of proficiency a second language learner can reach. Although learners of a second language are said not to be able to master the language native-like across language domains and tasks, they still can reach a very high level of proficiency in some cases (Granena & Long 2013: 181). Ultimate attainment thus characterizes the individual but stable endpoint of proficiency at which acquisition other than of vocabulary is completed (Hopp 2007: 19).

4. The role of motivation in second language acquisition

Some researchers argue that even though age was found to have a great impact on the acquisition of a second language, there are other variables which influence language learning in a significant way. Beyond the critical period, few studies even point out the factor of motivation to outperform age. This part of the paper therefore gives some examples of studies dealing with motivation and its role in second language acquisition.

Pfenninger and Singleton, for example, believe in the correlation of motivation and age in the context of second language acquisition. Their data refers to a study (2016) in which they tested 200 Swiss learners of English as a second language both at the beginning and the end of secondary school. In order to ascertain if early instructed second language learners outperform late instructed second language learners in the long run, the tested subjects differed in age at their starting point of second language acquisition (early starters and late starters). ‘Long run’ in this context “refers to attainment at the end of mandatory schooling in Switzerland” (Pfenninger & Singleton 2016: 315). They collected language experience essays as well as motivation questionnaire data to receive information about the impact of motivation on the outcome. Furthermore, they focused on the development of the learners’ motivation and attitudes towards the acquisition of the second language.


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The Importance of Motivation in Second Language Acquisition
University of Cologne
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motivation, SLA, second language acquisition
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Anonymous, 2020, The Importance of Motivation in Second Language Acquisition, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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