Can You Really Motivate Someone to Learn a Language?

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By Olessya Akimenko

Motivation is generally considered to be an important factor that can affect a learner’s success in English as an additional language (EAL). On the internet, you can find countless articles about how to motivate your EAL learners. The authors of these articles suggest multiple ways how this could be done, ranging from “triggering students’ interests” (Lesley University, n.d.) to “giving them a little friendly competition” (Pesce, n.d.) However, is it really possible to motivate a learner if they are not really interested?

First of all, let’s define motivation. According to Dörnyei and Skehan (2003), “motivation is responsible for why people decide to do something, how long they are willing to sustain the activity, and how hard they are going to pursue it” (p. 614). Speaking from my personal experience, as an EAL teacher with 10+ years of teaching experience, I don’t think it is possible to motivate someone to learn, unless they are already motivated. I believe that either a learner already comes motivated to learn or they don’t. The only thing that the teacher can do is not to let the learner lose this precious motivation. If they aren’t already motivated, there isn’t much that could be done.  

In this essay, I’d like to talk about how we as EAL teachers can create an environment for the learner, so they wouldn’t lose the motivation that they already have to learn a language. First of all, we do this by letting each and every learner contribute to the classroom practices and activities. It’s easy to lose motivation if you are not given an opportunity to actively participate. For example, Norton (1997) in her article “Language, Identity, and the Ownership of English” describes the experiences of an EAL learner who mentions how frustrating it can be to listen to only one student speak throughout the whole lesson. This student eventually drops the course feeling that she “didn’t learn at all”.

Second, we make sure that that the needs of all learners are addressed. People come to language classrooms with various needs, such as to get a (better) job or pursue post-secondary education, and those needs should be the main priority for the teacher. This, of course, might be harder to do in larger classrooms, but maybe this means that the classrooms do not need to be large.

Norton (2015) also suggests that classroom practices need to draw from and legitimize learners’ cultural capital, i.e., their prior knowledge and experience. Therefore, it is important to choose materials and activities that learners can relate to. Canada is a multicultural and multilingual country. However, do the learning materials for EAL students always reflect this cultural and linguistic diversity?

These are some of the ways that I believe can help teachers retain the motivation of their EAL students. And I am positive many teachers are already applying them. However, if you don’t, it’s probably high time to start.

Now, going back to my original idea that a learner either comes motivated to learn or they don’t, you may ask then why people come to learn a language if they are not really motivated? Can you really motivate them to learn? Well, this is something I’d like to hear your ideas on!

Olessya’s Bio

Olessya Akimenko is a PhD Candidate in the Languages, Cultures and Literacies program at SFU. She is currently conducting research for her thesis related to the professional identity negotiations of teachers of English as an additional language (EAL). Her other research and educational interests include dialogic pedagogy and the pedagogy of multiliteracies. Olessya also teaches at the Faculty of Education at SFU. Prior to starting her PhD program Olessya worked as an EAL teacher in Kazakhstan for more than 10 years.

References

Dörnyei, Z., & Skehan, P. (2003). Individual differences in second language learning. In C. J. Doughty & M. H. Long (Eds.), The handbook of second language acquisition (pp. 589-630). Blackwell.

Lesley University. (n.d.). 3 strategies for motivating ESL students. https://lesley.edu/article/3-strategies-for-motivating-esl-students

Norton, B. (1997). Language, identity, and the ownership of English. TESOL quarterly, 31(3), 409-429.

Norton, B. (2015). Identity, investment, and faces of English internationally. Chinese Journal of Applied Linguistics, 38(4), 375-391. Pesce, C. (n.d.). How to motivate ESL students: The 10 best ways to increase teenage student motivation. Busy Teacher. https://busyteacher.org/3644-how-to-motivate-esl-students.html