Desire to learn: motivation in L2 education

It is no secret that a motivated person can achieve whatever goal he/she pursues, sometimes in spite of physical or environmental limitations. And it is no secret that every now and then, teachers face one or two students in a class whose interest in what is being learnt is absolutely zero. Unfortunately, sometimes it is a whole class which is totally uninterested in learning an L2.


Let’s start talking about motivation by defining it:

The motivated individual

‘is one who wants to achieve a particular goal, devotes considerable effort to achieve this goal, and experiences satisfaction in the activities associated with achieving this goal’ (Gardner and MacIntyre 1993, p. 2).

If we analyse the definition above, supposing the definition properly describes the complex phenomena of human motivation, what we have can be simplified as follows,

A motivated learner is one who:

  • Desires to learn a second language (L2).
  • Devotes considerable effort to learn an L2.
  • Experiences satisfaction in the activities associated with L2 learning. motivation-and-L2-learning

If you come across a class where every student has the desire, puts the effort and experiences satisfaction in learning the L2, then you are in heaven! Or you are teaching adults who are clear about why they are in your class or young learners who will learn anything you teach provided it is by playing.

For the rest of the teachers, lack of students’ motivation is usually a day-to-day challenge. Motivation in L2 learning is a complex phenomenon which can be defined in terms of two factors: learners’ communicative needs and their attitudes towards the second language community.

If learners need to speak the second language in a wide range of social situations or to fulfil professional ambitions, they will perceive the communicative value of the second language and will, therefore, be motivated to acquire proficiency in it. Likewise, if learners have favourable attitudes towards the speakers of the language, they will desire more contact with them.

Robert Gardner and Wallace Lambert (1972) coined the terms

  • Integrative motivation: language learning for personal growth and cultural enrichment
  • Instrumental motivation: language learning for more immediate or practical goals.

Research has shown that these types of motivation are related to success in second language learning. On the other hand, we should keep in mind that an individual’s identity is closely linked with the way he or she speaks. It follows that when speaking a new language one is adopting some of the identity markers of another cultural group. Depending on the learner’s attitudes, learning a second language can be a source of enrichment or a source of resentment. If the speaker’s only reason for learning the second language is external pressure, internal motivation may be minimal and general attitudes towards learning may be negative.

Looking at motivation from a different perspective

There are very good reasons to learn an L2, but for every reason, you will probably receive a good counter-argument when learners are unwilling to learn. Look at the examples I recall from my years of teaching,

counter arguments not ot learn English

If we cannot convince the learner of good reasons to learn an L2, why not starting the other way round?

Let’s go back again to the motivated learner,

We said that a motivated learner is one who:

  • Desires to learn a second language (L2).
  • Devotes considerable effort to learn an L2.
  • Experiences satisfaction in the activities associated with L2 learning.


Let’s help the learner to experience satisfaction in the L2 activities. How?

  • The content is interesting and relevant to their age and level of ability.
  • The learning goals are challenging yet manageable and clear.
  • The atmosphere is supportive and non-threatening.
  • Tell students about forthcoming activities (at the opening stages of lessons and within transitions)
  • Varying the activities, tasks, and materials.
    • Despite the importance of keeping class routines on which students can depend on (especially for students with special learning needs), lessons which always consist of the same routines, patterns, and formats have been shown to lead to a decrease in attention and an increase in boredom.
    • Varying the activities, tasks, and materials can help to avoid this and increase students’ interest levels.
  • Using co-operative rather than competitive goals.
    • Co-operative learning activities are those in which students must work together in order to complete a task or solve a problem.
    • These techniques have been found to increase the self-confidence of students, including weaker ones because every participant in a co-operative task has an important role to play.
    • Knowing that their team-mates are counting on them can increase students’ motivation.
    • Cultural and age differences will determine the most appropriate way for teachers to motivate students. In some classrooms, students may thrive on competitive interaction, while in others, co-operative activities will be more successful. (Graham Crookes and Richard Schmidt, 1991).

Motivation and L2 learning

William Glasser says, “we are born with specific needs that we are genetically instructed to satisfy” (cited in Sullo, 2007). Natural curiosity is built into our genetic makeup to help us best meet our basic needs, survive, and thrive as humans. These basic psychological needs are:

  • Belonging or connecting
    • The classroom communities need to provide a space where students feel safe and welcomed by the teacher and their classmates.
    • The teacher/student relationship sets the tone for the classroom. Research shows that teachers who developed good relationships with their students have fewer discipline problems than teachers who do not make that effort (Sullo, 2007).

motivation and L2_learning

  • Power or competence: it relates to the ability to do something successfully.
    • When we teach our students how to learn, we provide them with the confidence, skills, and tools they need to be competent and successful individuals and they are willing to take risks in their learning.
    • Modelling and feedback are important parts of mastering skills so here your attitudes and actions towards learning are important: share your experience as a language learner, tell them which strategies you use when faced with the unknown, discuss the pros and cons of a strategy according to the situation, let them share their strategies and skills with their classmates, etc.
  • Freedom: by including learners in the decision-making process, they have more ownership of that process.
    • It can start with the students determining the classroom rules for the academic year or could be as simple as what topic they will write their essays about or as thoughtful as determining the criteria for grading that essay.
    • Students that have a voice in the classroom are more invested in the work they are producing for that classroom and thus more motivated.
  • Fun: everything is better when there is a fun element and it does not need to be through a game all the time. An enthusiastic teacher brings passion, excitement, pleasure, and joy to the classroom. They bring their classroom to life, engage their students, and encourage exploration.


If the students enjoy the activities they do in class, they will soon start to devote more attention and effort to fulfil them and as both things happen, they will learn the L2 almost incidentally, which in turn will reinforce their desire to keep learning.

Click here and subscribe to receive in your inbox a free handout with many ideas to motivate your class! Plus my last newsletter to evaluate and choose L2 coursebooks

References and further reading

For a fuller treatment of the social psychological perspective on learners’ differences refer to Gardner (1985), Skehan (1989), and Ellis (1994, pp. 467- 560).

Church, E.B. (2003). Building community in the classroom. Retrieved July 24, 2015 from

Crookes, G., & Schmidt, R. W. (1991). Motivation: Reopening the research agenda. Language learning, 41(4), 469-512.

Dornyei, Z. (2006). Individual differences in second language acquisition. AILA Review, 19, 42-68.

Skehan, P. (1989). Individual Differences in Second Language Learning. London: Edward Arnold Associates.

Sullo, B. (2007). Activating the Desire to Learn. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Summary of main points of ‘Activate the desire to learn’