English teenagers are the worst in Europe at learning a second language. But is that any surprise, given how widely spoken English is? Anne Merritt looks at what motivates us to learn foreign languages.
Does this matter? Readers have commented that, because English is the predominant language of global communication, English students are less compelled to learn foreign languages.
With the global ESL [English as a Second Language] industry booming, what motivates native English speakers to study foreign languages?
Linguists have studied motivation and language learning for decades. We can broadly categorise motivation into two types: integrative and instrumental. Here’s a quick look at what those terms actually mean.
There’s a saying that a language is “best learned between the sheets”. Indeed, cross-cultural romance is a common form of integrative motivation. Learners who study a language with the aim of better understanding a culture, language, and society are integratively motivated.
In this case, language aptitude is the tool for building relationships and meaningful communication. Linguistic studies show that integrative motivation yields faster and more effective language learning results than other types.
The desire to communicate with a partner and honour their culture can accelerate language learning. Of course, this doesn’t apply to romantic relationships exclusively. Cross-cultural friendships can fuel one’s integrative motivation. An in-law or distant relative with no English ability can also motivate language learning, out of love or simply as a gesture of respect.
Integrative motivation also applies to relationships with cultures, not just individuals. Learners from multilingual nations can be integratively motivated to learn their national languages as a way of connecting with their countrymen: English and French in Canada; German, French and Italian in Switzerland; Hindi and regional languages in India.
Individuals with family roots in another culture can also be integratively motivated. An American with Irish roots learning Gaelic, or a British-born Iranian learning Persian, are motivated to engage with a culture that is personally meaningful to them.
Interestingly, integratively motivated learners with positive attitudes towards the target culture are better at picking up pronunciation and accent. These learners often communicate more with foreign language speakers, and are more exposed to spoken language. Also, an empathy towards those speakers can compel learners to accurately imitate speech.
Learners who study a foreign language in order to achieve another goal are instrumentally motivated. In these cases, language competence isn’t the goal in itself, but rather the vehicle to achieving a separate professional or personal accomplishment.
For many students, language learning is pursued only in school, as an academic requirement. Though they made enjoy the learning process and become engaged in the target culture, the primary motivation in this case is an instrumental one: to gain academic credit and move forward in school.
For university students and professionals, language learning is often motivated by career. Many adults study foreign languages to fortify their CVs and qualify for work in target industries or companies. In this case, the goal is often based on a credential, such as certificates, university credit, or proficiency exam scores. Again, the motivation here is to land a job or promotion. Language learning is a step in achieving that goal.
While studies find a high correlation between integrative motivation and language proficiency, this doesn’t mean that instrumental motivation isn’t important. The structural nature of this type of study can help discipline language students. Formal deadlines, test dates, and target grades can help focus a language learner.
Instrumental motivation in itself is not problematic. However, a learner with zero cultural curiosity for the target language, or even prejudices about the target culture, will likely struggle with language learning. No matter how big the pay raise at the end of that proficiency test, the learning process will be more difficult than for those with integrative motivation.