The Science of Motivation

"Wanting something is not enough. You must hunger for it. Your motivation must be absolutely compelling in order to overcome the obstacles that will invariably come your way." - Les Brown

Have you ever had to try to learn something that you had no interest in? For instance, was there a class in school that you dreaded, that had homework that bored you to tears? Chances are that you didn't look forward to this forced activity — it probably felt like a chore. If you've had an experience like this one, then you likely know just how important motivation can be to the learning process. 

How exactly do you define motivation? You might know someone who seems to possess it in spades: a friend who gets up every morning at 5 to hit the gym, or a colleague who attends night classes three times a week to work towards that advanced degree. What secret drive makes this behavior seem easier for some people than for others?

One factor of motivation unique to language learners, integrativeness, captures an important trait of second language learning. Students learning a new language must learn to "incorporate speech sounds, grammatical structures, behavior patterns, and the like that are characteristic of another culture.” Where other topics you might study — music or psychology, for instance — will at least fall within the framework of your native culture, learning a new language comes with a separate set of associations and challenges. Because of this, some factors that you might not expect will influence your Spanish-learning success, specifically whether or not you have a positive attitude towards the culture and community of native speakers. While it’s an important factor, integrativeness is not the only influence on language learning success. Your attitude towards learning, whether you have language anxiety, your level of self-confidence, and the quality and quantity of  feedback you receive can each play a vital role in a student’s long-term success with and enjoyment of a foreign language.

Knowing this, how much can you control your own motivation? Recent research shows that motivation in online classes can be even more important than motivation in traditional classroom settings, so you don’t want to just close your eyes and hope for the best. There are a number of ways that you can help yourself get or stay inspired to keep up with your language studies. Try one or several of these approaches:

  • Set reasonable goals. Since self-confidence is an important influence on staying motivated, make an effort to set attainable goals. If you sit down to practice on day one expecting to master every grammar topic immediately or to be fluent by day three, you’re probably setting yourself up for disappointment.
  • Be your own source of positive feedback and reward yourself. Especially when you don’t have a human teacher in front of you to provide feedback, think of ways to be your own source of affirmation. That might be something as simple as giving yourself a pat on the back every day that you remember to practice, or it might be something as grandiose as taking yourself on a vacation to Peru when you attain a certain level of Spanish fluency.
  • Be willing to make mistakes.  We’ve talked about this before, because it’s just that important! Language anxiety — the worry that you’ll make mistakes when communicating in a foreign language — can be a huge obstacle to motivation and practice. Letting go of anxiety and being ok with taking risks and making mistakes are important parts of learning a foreign language.
  • Find ways to take part in and celebrate your target language’s culture or community. Since an appreciation for the people who speak the language you’re trying to learn is so important to your motivation and success, find ways to become more involved. That might mean trying to speak with coworkers or family members who know the language, going to cultural centers, or learning the history of the language and the people who speak it.

Of course, these aren’t the only ways to keep yourself on the right track. People find different ways to stay galvanized about things that excite them — remember to focus on why you decided to learning Spanish (or French, or Italian, or Japanese) in the first place!

What keeps you motivated? Let us know in the comments! And don't forget to sign up using the form below to stay in the know when we publish new blog posts!