The Role of Motivation in Second Language Learning

Having motivation is an essential component to the process of learning a language. In psychology, ‘motivation’ is defined as “The process by which activities are started, directed, and sustained so that certain needs are met, either psychological or physical. […] The idea is that motivation is what guides us to accomplish a goal. It is our desire to do things that lead us to set and attain our goals.” (Angers, 2018)


According to the Self-Determination Theory, there are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic (Deci & Ryan, 1985) This theory has laid the framework for later theories concerning motivation.

“Intrinsic motivation is based on the organismic need to be competent and self-determining in dealing with one’s surroundings.” Essentially, intrinsic motivation is doing something for one’s own personal gratification, while extrinsic motivation is the exact opposite. It is defined as doing something to avoid negative consequences or to adhere to outside pressures. (i.e. doing what one thinks they’re supposed to do).

While both varieties possess their own strengths, they are not mutually exclusive. According to a 40-year study investigating how motivation predicts performance, it was concluded that “incentives can influence the predictive validity of intrinsic motivation; but more importantly, intrinsic motivation remains a moderate to strong predictor of performance regardless of whether incentives are present. […] our research demonstrates the joint impact of incentives and intrinsic motivation is critical to performance.” (Cerasoli, Nicklin, & Ford, 2014)

However, regardless of the variety, motivation is a driving force, when applied to the context of second language learning, it seems obvious that it plays a significant role in the process of successfully learning a language; everyone has experienced trying to accomplish something without being motivated to do so, it always seems as if it’s next to impossible.

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The task drags on and on and it feels as if it’s the greatest burden, to have to do something you have no desire to do. While, it’s the exact opposite if it’s something you’re passionate about and want to do. That is the effect of motivation. Although motivation isn’t the only crucial factor in successful language learning, “even gifted individuals cannot accomplish long-term goals; whatever the curricula and whoever the teachers are.” (Rajab, Far & Etemadzadeh, 2012) This seems to say that being gifted in other aspects of language learning is important, too, but motivation is what ties all of those skills together to equate to notable language learning. Based on those experiences alone, no matter the significance of the task, it’s startling to realize that the discussion of motivation as an affective construct “has only been conducted in general terms, without adopting a theoretical framework.” (Lee & Lo, 2017) This is likely due to the qualitative and fluctuating nature of one’s motivation. (Karaoglu, 2008)

Literature Review

Several linguists have undertaken the task of understanding and defining how motivation functions in regards to language learning. However, as mentioned above, it has been difficult due to the wavering nature of motivation. However, that is the point of a lot of more modern motivation studies; “researchers have been focusing increasingly on the dynamic and changeable nature of the motivation process” (Waninge, Dornyei, & De Bot, 2014). Learners will have various periods and reasons of motivation, it’s not supposed to remain stagnant because that is not how a person’s emotions work; change is inevitable.

The aforementioned ideas of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation coincide with Dornyei’s L2 Motivational Self System in which there are two constructs representing different types of motivation. Dornyei based his theory off of the previous word of Gardner and the idea that emphasizes the importance of cultural significance and attitudes toward the L2 and the instrumentality, or what purpose the L2 can serve. Because of the international reach of English becoming a “disembodied language,” it has helped support the the reframing of L2 motivation being affiliated with internalized notions of self and identity.” (Ushioda & Dornyei, 2017).

First, the “ideal L2 self,” “ which is the representation of all the attributes that a person would like to possess (e.g., hopes, aspirations, desires)” (Csizér & Dörnyei, 2005). This would be a learner visualizing themself as being a proficient speaker of their L2 because of their own internal goals, whether that’s because they think it’s an interesting challenge, they want to move to a different country or visit, etc… They’re internalized, so it functions as an intrinsic motivation.

The second factor of Dornyei’s theory is the “ought-to L2 self,” which represents the opposite of the ideal L2 self. “This self-guide refers to the attributes that one believes one ought to possess (i.e., various duties, obligations, or responsibilities) and that therefore may bear little resemblance to one’s own desires or wishes.”(Csizér & Dörnyei, 2005). While they are both similar in the fact that they are motivation toward a goal, they are different in their origin. This is important to note because they could possibly garner different results while still having the same end goal: to become proficient in the TL.

While the ideal L2 self is focused on how to attain its goal, it is focused on improving and becoming the self of their dreams. It is an overtly positive reinforcement. This differs from the ought-to L2 self which can be neutral or negative in that it may exist to combat contrary ideas of what they should not be. In a classroom, one can assume that a learner doesn’t want to be the student that openly struggles or falls behind, this can ostracize them from the group. They don’t want to appear incompetent in their language learning. In order not to be those things, they do what they ought to in order to avoid that outcome. The ought-to L2 self is constantly fighting to do what they should to avoid similar possibilities. While these may not appear too different, it can give a negative tone to the experience. If one has a positive goal that they’re fighting to achieve, getting closer to the ideal L2 self, the experience in general may be more positive and healthy. While a learner whose main goal is not to be a poor learner or someone who needs help may have a more adverse or grueling experience, simply because the basis for the motivation may have those characteristics. Yet, most learners are going to have a combination of the two, and it’s not to say that negative/neutral emotions can’t fuel significant growth toward a goal. Several people thrive on proving to others that they defy unfavorable expectations. For example, Thompson’s study of the anti-ought-to self, a student said the following on their experience and motivation. “… And the end of my first semester, my TA from China told me I wasn’t very good at China- Chinese, I should learn another language … That motivated me a lot.” This is a prime example of a preventive motivation causing success, by the end of the study this same student had moved to China to teach ESL and had found the process so rewarding that afterwards they became a Chinese instructor. It’s amazing what someone can do with the proper type of motivation; it all depends on what it is compelling to the learner.

Dornyei’s L2 Motivational Self-System was based on other theories, such as Gardner’s Socio-Educational Model from 1985 and Higgins’ Self-Discrepancy theory from 1987 which first introduced the idea of selves, the ideal self and the ought-to self which he (Dornyei) expanded upon in the 2000s. Gardner’s theory is similar because it consisted of three dimensions of for motivation: personal investment, effort, and enjoyment. Before the Socio-Educational Model, Gardner and Lambert in 1972, came up with the notions of integrative and instrumental motivation. Those were based on the whether the learner had a practical reason for learning the language (i.e. for a class) or for a more personal reason, such as an interest in the culture or a significant other etc… The first describes instrumental motivation, while the latter refers to integrative. It’s interesting to compare the different theories because they all circle around the same ideas of whether the motivation is personal/internal or if it’s more practical in nature. However, all types can yield positive results in their practice. It’s not a matter of which method is better, but instead depends on what works for the learner and how to maintain it.

Because motivation is now perceived as dynamic and complex, it’s understood that there may be periods of time in which motivation declines; this is to be expected. There are several causes but one of the most common causes is the perception of stationary progress. Many learners will reach a point in which they feel they are not making progress anymore, this can be a difficult time because they will feel discouraged. According to Busse’s study in 2013, a student’s “perceived lack of progress is linked to decreasing enjoyment and motivational lows.” In order to stay motivated, one needs positive reinforcement that all of their hard work is making a difference. “Motivation is enhanced when students perceive they are making progress in learning. In turn, as students work on tasks and become more skilful, they maintain a sense of self-efficacy for performing well.” (Schunk, 1991)


Not all learners have the same abilities and strengths, so there have to be different methods to finding success in the process of language learning. Some may be particularly good at understanding grammar, others may derive success from practicing their speaking and reading in the TL, while others may benefit from sheer drive, even if they aren’t remarkably great at the other aspects of the technique. For example, sheer will power to learn a language can be the basis for a lot of success. For example, a participant, Athena, in a study of Swedish learners, moved to Sweden not knowing a word of the language and within 18 months, she had applied to an undergraduate program in one of their universities. (Henry, Davydenko & Dörnyei, 2015) This was due to what Dornyei refers to as a “directed motivational current,” which is an intense period of motivation which can support long-term behaviors, such as learning a language.

Because language acquisition applies to children who are introduced to a language before puberty, when neural plasticity slows down, and therefore acquire native or native-like proficiency, the term “language learner,” generally applies to older teenagers and adults who have taken on the task of learning a language. Throughout all of the literature, the term motivation was always in reference to language learners and not acquirers, which means that this is an aspect of adult language learning. This isn’t to say that children don’t have to put in any effort to acquire language but they don’t require the same level of commitment that adults do to learn a second language. Because adult learners have an entire language with which they can base their learning, and have transfer, they really have to think, practice, and understand. They have to have the motivation to persevere, make mistakes, and understand that proficiency in the TL will not occur without hardwork. It’s really a necessary component because learning a language isn’t easy, many would give up without having some sort of driving force.


To conclude, in conjunction with other favorable characteristics, a learner’s motivation plays an imperative role in the successful learning of their TL. As was stated by Rajab et al., “motivation is a very important factor in language learning without which even gifted individuals cannot accomplish long-term goals; whatever the curricula and whoever the teachers are.” Motivation can help to explain why learners of different backgrounds and abilities can all successful learners. Passion is a part of motivation; humans can accomplish many things in its name. This also helps compensate for the slower neural plasticity of older teenagers and adults as they navigate the journey to proficiency of language learning.

The two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic, are not mutually exclusive and there is often a combination of the two when it comes to language learning. They correspond with the concepts of the “ideal L2 self” and the “ought-to L2 self,” that Dornyei expanded upon in 2005. The ideal L2 self is very similar to intrinsic motivation because of the internal gratification and push that it entails, while the ought-to L2 self is comparable to extrinsic motivation because they are both based upon external forces. Dornyei’s L2 Motivational Self system really supports the idea of how motivation benefits the learner. It is concordance with Cerasoli et al.’s study of whether motivation can predict success because they correlate.

In present day theory, linguists can now better understand the role of a learner’s motivation than in past decades. This is due to the regenerated insight on how to examine and study it. It is now understood that a learner’s motivation can change and fluctuate and that this is normal; it matches their perceived growth, or stagnancy, and wanes with the results. Because a student’s motivation can decrease because of too much stress and emphasis on the subject or because they don’t believe themself to be progressing very much, if at all, it can give foreign language instructors the knowledge they need to help keep students from feeling dejected and unmotivated in the classroom. There will be periods in which students may be highly motivated and times when this decreases, it is normal and reflects the multifaceted individuality of each and every second language learner.


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The Role of Motivation in Second Language Learning. (2022, Jul 30). Retrieved from

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