Motivation and Learning Contexts

Motivation and Learning Contexts

Successful foreign language learning is dependent on many factors, and it is not surprising that most of the past approaches to teaching methods have been less than totally successful.

The study of linguistic competence and the realization of the abstract and complex nature of language have led linguists away from behavioristic, stimulus-response view of man and language.

Modern linguists recognize that, in order to understand the phenomenon of language acquisition, it is necessary to consider the nature of humans –that they are rational creatures equipped with powers of reasoning and with an innate capacity for language acquisition.

Rather than ignoring such characteristics of people, language teaching methods might do well to utilize them. This is the goal of the cognitive approach.

Success depends on more than teaching methods. One important factor is motivation. Extensive research studies have demonstrated That students are most successful when they study a foreign language because they admire the culture, like the people, and wish to become familiar with (or even part of) the society in which the language is used.

This is called integrative motivation and is distinguished from instrumental motivation where the purpose of foreign language study is more utilitarian (such as meeting a graduation requirement or preparing to apply for a higher paying job). Students with instrumental motivation, not surprisingly, rarely achieve full success in foreign language classes.

The learning context for foreign language study is also important. One can study another language in a classroom setting where opportunities for use of the language are limited to that situation. Or, another language can be studied in a broader environment where it is used in the society at large, as well as in the classroom. In the former case, the language is a foreign language, foreign not only to the learner but also to the context.

 It is sometimes useful to refer to the latter situation as second language learning, since the language actually can be used for normal purposes of communication outside of the classroom.

The level of achievement in second language learning situations is usually much greater than that attained in foreign language contexts. Second language situations, of course, permit greater contact with the language, and this extensive exposure may be a primary factor necessary for success.

Frequently, integrative motivation, a second language situation, and extensive language contact occur together, while instrumental motivation is more commonly found in the foreign language context, associated with limited language contact. For example, a person willing to spend the time and money for a term or a year away from home, studying and using a language in the country where it is spoken, is likely to have integrative motivation.

 Instrumental motivation, however, generally is not sufficiently compelling to lead an individual beyond the readily available foreign language classroom. Type of motivation appears to be a more significant factor than context in successful language learning.

Students with integrative motivation can achieve success in a foreign language situation, whereas those with instrumental motivation may learn little even in a second language context. Of course, amount of exposure is also crucial; no one can acquire a language without sufficient exposure.

The most successful language programs are designed to promote or utilize all three of the factors considered here: integrative motivation, extensive exposure to the language, and a second language context. 

Julia S. Falk