* Motivation 2


This post is the result of a late night discussion I had on Friday with my friend Connie O’Grady.  She remarked that while motivation was a key factor in learning a foreign language, nobody had managed to talk with much more than intuitive insights about it.   Along the years, Connie’s fans (i.e. those who sought her opinion and enjoyed shooting the breeze with her) include Earl Stevick, John Faneslow , George Yule and Phillip Riley. They all agreed with Connie that “motivation” was the most slippery of constructs, and they all confessed that they were unable to pin it down.  What follows are my thoughts on the matter; I’m guided by Keblawi’s (2006) article.

Nobody doubts the importance of motivation in explaining success in learning a foreign language. The problem is, nobody doubts the importance of motivation in explaining success in most areas of life. Dörnyei, Csizér & Németh (2006) point to the general confusion in the literature about the construct of motivation. They see it as little more than an “obsolete umbrella” under which shelter a confusing range of concepts which, among them, try to explain “nothing less than the reasons for human behaviour”.

So how can we pinpoint this powerful term in such a way that it helps us explain SLA?

Historically, we can start with Gardner’s Socio-educational Model (Gardner, 1985). Gardner defines motivation as a “combination of effort plus desire to achieve the goal of learning the language plus favourable attitudes towards learning the language”.  Gardner distinguishes two types of motivation: integrative and instrumental. Integrative motivation takes pride of place: it refers to a learner’s desire to be part of the target language community.  Instrumental motivation refers to more practical, functional reasons for learning, such as getting a better job.

Gardner created a a test called the AMBT (Attitude / Motivation Test Battery) which tried to operationalise his key component of integrative motivation. If you got a high score on responses to certain statements (not to be too cruel, they amounted to saying that you wanted to be part of the L2 community), then you were deemed to have high integrative motivation and thus be more likely to be successful at learning a foreign language. Gardner tried to defend his construct in the face of mounting opposition by stressing the differences among its components, particularly “orientations” and “motivations”. It’s a long story, but it’s one of rear-guard attempts to rescue an intuitively-appealing construct from detailed examination and criticism.

The problem is exactly what we might expect: the term is understood in different, often contradictory ways by different researchers. Integrative motivation has been defined in a way in which almost every reason one can think of for studying the language of the target community can fall within its range (Clement & Kruidenier, 1983).  Just for example, the orientation to travel is considered instrumental by some but integrative by others. In another example, it was noted that reasons such as having friends who speak English, or knowing more about English art, literature and culture could be classified as either instrumental or integrative depending on the intention of the respondent and his or her understanding. As Keblawi adds,  “instrumental motivation is not assigned a status that is congruent with its weight”.

Building on Gardner’s work, more “cognitive” approaches were developed. Three of the most important are self-determination theory; attribution theory, and goal theory. No room here to go into detail, but, in essence, all 3 approaches try to improve on Gardner by pinpointing the construct of motivation in a more individual, more psycholinguistic framework. And all 3, IMHO, fail. They fail because, like Gardner, their constructs use circular terms: they don’t explain, they describe, and they describe as if the description were an explanation.  The self-determination theory replaces Gardner’s terms with “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” motivation. The first refers to “internal rewards” such as joy, pleasure and satisfaction of curiosity; extrinsic motivation differs little from Gardner’s instrumental motivation. And neither term can be pinned down any more successfully than Gardner’s. Attribution theory is interesting. It suggests that “how individuals attribute their past successes or failures shape their motivational disposition” (Dörnyei, 2001). Very interesting, no doubt, but, again, alas, there is no successful attempt to provide an operational construct of motivation. As for goal theory, well, it’s more “practical”, more “grounded”, but, once again, there’s no clear construct in sight.

So far, then, almost nothing. We have various attempts to describe motivation, but none that serves to explain. I’m tempted here to climb onto my favourite hobbyhorse: explanation, but suffice it to say that if we remain at the level of definitions, descriptions, taxonomies, we won’t get to an explanation. All we’ll get are circular “arguments”, and the jist of all of them is that successful learners are highly motivated. It’s similar to “aptitude”, don’t you think?  To answer the question “Why did Bill learn the L2 faster / better than Jane?” by saying that Bill was more motivated, or had “better” aptitude than Jane is to say almost nothing. It reminds me of Tarone’s and Ellis’ daft stuff about “Variable Competence”; in all cases, the explanation is profoundly vacuous. What’s missing is a hypothesis or theory that boldly suggests a causal relationship between a well-defined construct and SLA.

And now, here comes Dörnyei (2005) with his “L2 Motivational Self System”, which, he says “represents a major reformation of previous motivational thinking by its explicit utilisation of psychological theories of the self”. The “system” has 3 components:

(1) Ideal L2 Self, which is the L2-specific facet of one’s ‘ideal self’: if the person we would like to become speaks an L2, the ‘ideal L2 self’ is a powerful motivator to learn the L2 because of the desire to reduce the discrepancy between our actual and ideal selves. Traditional integrative and internalised instrumental motives would typically belong to this component.

(2) Ought-to L2 Self, which concerns the attributes that one believes one ought to possess to meet expectations and to avoid possible negative outcomes. This dimension corresponds to Higgins’s ought self and thus to the more extrinsic (i.e. less internalised) types of instrumental motives.

(3) L2 Learning Experience, which concerns situated, ‘executive’ motives related to the immediate learning environment and experience (e.g. the impact of the teacher, the curriculum, the peer group, the experience of success). This component is conceptualised at a different level from the two self-guides and future research will hopefully elaborate on the self aspects of this bottom-up process.

I suggest that you read Dörnyei’s work for yourself, and the 2007 reference below is,  I think, a good place to start – it’s Chapter 2 of a very good collection. What Dörnyei has done is to accept that motivation needs to be anchored to psychology. So the question gets a new focus which amounts to something like: “Are you ready for SLA?” In my opinion it does nothing to help explain the SLA process and represents a serious step backwards in Dörnyei’s work. Such “constructs” as “the person I would like to become” do nothing but send the search for an explanation of the role motivation plays in SLA one step back: we’re worse off than we were before, and I personally regard it as a blind alley, although I’m sure millions of postgraduate students will be encouraged by their tutors to charge down it.

So, here’s the rub: Can we make of “Motivation” a construct that can be used in the service of a theory of SLA? Can we, that is, operationalize the term in such a way that it can be used in a hypothesis which is both empirically testable and capable of forming part of a wider general theory of SLA?

Onward through the fog.


Clément, R. & Kruidenier, B. (1983) Orientations in second language acquisition: 1. The effects of ethnicity, milieu and target language on their emergence. Language Learning, 33, 273-91.

Dörnyei, Z. (2001) Teaching and researching motivation. Harlow, England: Longman.

Dörnyei, Z. (2005) The psychology of the language learner: Individual differences in second language acquisition. Mahwah, USA: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Dörnyei, Z. (2007)   L2 Motivational Self System http://www.zoltandornyei.co.uk/uploads/2009-dornyei-mm.pdf

Dörnyei, Z., Csizér, K. Németh, N. (2006) Motivation, Language Attitudes and Globalisation: A Hungarian Perspective. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters

Gardner, R. C (1985) Social psychology and second language learning: The role of attitudes and motivation. London: Edward Arnold.

Keblawi, F. (2005) A review of language learning motivation. Retrieved from  http://www.qsm.ac.il/mrakez/asdarat/jamiea/12/eng-2-faris%20keblawi.pdf  8/12/2013

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