What motivates you to learn a language?

Para basahin ang artikulong ito sa Tagalog/Filipino, ipindot mo ito.

 motivation mugNeed a cup of motivation?

A more simpler question would be “Why are you learning a language?”. I’ve written another article earlier entitled “Why learn Language X?“, which you can check out. This article is more or less an update. Currently I’ve been studying again in a course related to second language teaching. One of the topics I encountered during my studies is regarding motivation. Also I’ve also been teaching English as a second language in the Philippines, which is why I’ve been busy and haven’t been able to update my blog much. During my teachings, I have made a common observation regarding the motivations of my students in learning a particular language especially English. I’ll say this right now. How successful you are or how much you enjoy learning a language will largely depend on your motivation. You need some kind of motivation not just for learning a language but pretty much anything. Whether you want to learn how to play basketball, dancing, how to cook a delicious meal or learn about the universe. You need motivation. During my studies, I have learnt that there are two kinds of motivation which either one may determine your success and enjoyment in learning a particular language: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Extrinsic Motivation

I’ll start with extrinsic motivation because this seems to be the most common. What does extrinsic mean? It means that as a learner, you are motivated by external influences or circumstances you didn’t create. Basically it means that you’re learning it because someone told you or something made you. You are learning a language for some kind of end result whether it be a reward or a benefit. Chances are you are one of these kinds of people:

  1. You want to do well in Spanish so you can just pass the subject and eventually the grade level.
  2. You are learning Chinese to impress your Chinese boyfriend
  3. You live in a country/region that speaks that language therefore it is necessary to learn it
  4. You want to be good at speaking English because most high-paying jobs require high fluency in English and/or those jobs are outside of your non English-speaking country
  5. You learn French because (you think) people see French-speaking people as high class intellectuals

The last two seem to be the most common reasons why non-English speakers (or at least my students) really want to learn English. No. 3 is actually a big help in learning a language as you are immersed in the language and culture of the region. It was one factor that allowed me to learn a lot of Tagalog. When I asked my students why they’re learning English or what do they think of the English language, the most common answers have usually been that English is “very important” or that it is the “international language”. The role of English in today’s society may have altered the way people see English and compare its “importance” to other languages and language learning but that’s another story for another article. This attitude towards English is pretty common in Asia especially here in the Philippines. The culture of the English language and American culture is very evident in majority of aspects in modern Philippine society including education and entertainment. In schools, there have been controversies of students being punished for speaking mother tongues and not English. Schools actually reward students who show high proficiency in English including rewards like English Speaker of the Month. It is commonly said that the higher your proficiency is in English, the higher the chance of you getting a high salary job especially in the call center industry. This perception of the high status of English is mainly due to the colonial empires of Europe mainly British, French, Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese who have conquered lands across Asia, Africa and the Americas and imposed their culture and languages on the indigenous populations. Since then, the languages of the colonisers have always been seen as of high class and prestige over the indigenous languages. Despite me having written this, this should not stop you from learning languages like Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and especially English as a form of protest or resistance. At the same time, do learn the other indigenous languages. Whatever the reason whether it be history, social or peer pressure, any kind of outside influence that influences you or doing it for some kind of reward or recognition are factors to having extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation, as the name suggests refers to motivation coming from within you. Mainly it means you’re learning the language because you are interested in it or you have your own reasons. Why would you be interested? Probably because:

  1. You are interested in the culture of the language, its speakers and/or the country/ies where the language is spoken or originated from
  2. You are interested in the different influences from other languages that make up that particular language
  3. You’d like to compare it to another language that is similar
  4. You are just plain curious
  5. Or maybe you want to learn the language of your ancestors in order to get close to your heritage

I’ll be honest the last part was the main reason why I took it upon myself to learn Tagalog. Personally I believe that it’s stronger to be intrinsically motivated to learn a language. Intrinsic motivation is also the main reason why I’ve taught myself the different languages I know including the not-so-common languages. You would have to be intrinsically motivated to learn languages like Quechua, Latvian or Romansh and not care about those languages having less speakers or not having much “economic opportunities” compared to Mandarin or Spanish. You learn the language because you are just plain interested or curious.

Another reason is that if you learn a language because you have to and not because you want to, sooner or later you will find yourself frustrated if you’re not getting it and eventually you’ll just give up. If you’re still interested you’ll find ways to invest time and resources in order to learn a language. For every mistake, you make you would persevere, learn from them and strive to improve your command and not worry about people doubting you or mocking you.

For some of you who have to learn a language because they need to pass the subject in school and eventually pass the year level (extrinsic motivation), that’s fine. However, it would be such a waste if you’d deliberately forget it because you don’t need it anymore. How wasteful was all that time and effort in learning that subject regardless if it was your favourite subject or not. It’s still knowledge.

Other language learners may have different approaches or opinions regarding motivation and may say the opposite of what I’ve said. So I’m happy to hear them. Needing a language for school or work is not enough. In order to successfully learn a language and have fun, you really need to ask yourself:

Are you learning the language because you expect a reward or because you are plain interested?

Happy learning! At the end of the day, everyone has their own interests and motivations.


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