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Motivation of teenagers towards learning a foreign language

This article reviews, necessarily briefly, various interesting theoretical aspects of the topic of learner motivation that have been studied and discussed in the literature.

First and foremost it has to be emphasised that various studies have found that motivation is very strongly related to achievement in language learning (e.g. Gardner and Lambert, 1972; Gardner, 1980). Moreover, a well-known study (Naiman,1978) tends towards the claim that motivation is ultimately more important than a natural aptitude for learning languages. Therefore, this chapter will describe some of these theories of motivation which are the most relevant for the classroom and have important implications for language teachers.


One such theory is Maslow's (1970) and his hierarchy of needs. It represents the humanistic approach to motivation. The main assumption of the theory is that people are motivated by their needs to do the actions which they think will help them fulfil those needs. Furthermore, in later research (Locke and Latham's, 1990) the concept of a 'need' has been replaced by the more specific construct of a goal. Which is seen as the 'engine' to fire the action and provide the direction in which to act.

Maslow claimed that people satisfy needs in a certain order, beginning with the most essential ones and then moving on to higher levels. The hierarchy of needs proposed by Maslow is presented below:

I. Deficiency needs:
1. Physiological needs - eat, drink, etc.
2. Safety - physical and psychological security.
3. Belonging - love, respect and acceptance from others.
4. Self-esteem - achievement, approval, recognition.

II. Growth needs:
1. Cognitive needs - understanding (e.g. knowledge) and exploring.
2. Aesthetic needs - symmetry, order, beauty.
3. Self-actualisation - self-fulfilment, realising one's potential.
4. Self-transcendence - helping others realise their potential.

This hierarchy means that a person will not seek to fulfil growth needs if deficiency needs are not satisfied first. However, growth needs can never be fully satisfied and the motivation to achieve them does not ever cease.

Many aspects of Maslow's theory have important implications for English teachers of teenagers who must have observed it in practice. First of all, the teenagers who come to school hungry or sick will not be interested in learning anything (physiological needs). Similarly, those who have problems at home, e. g. lack of love, attention or acceptance from parents, will not have any motivation to learn (belonging needs). There are also learners suffering from lack of peer approval (self-esteem). Such learners will more eagerly do what the group tell them to do which often means ignoring or even defying the teacher.

The theory, therefore, provides some insight into learners' motifs and behaviours, and now it is the teacher's task to think about the solutions. Unfortunately, there is little the teacher can do about family problems.

However, as Szóstak points out (2003), when it comes to problems with self-esteem the teacher is not entirely helpless. The most important thing which has to be done is concentrating on what learners are good at and helping them develop the abilities they possess instead of criticising them for what they cannot do. If the teacher decides that some learners are not good at English, it is necessary to find out if they have any other talents, e.g. artistic. If not, such teenagers should at least be able to help the teacher with the equipment, to distribute or collect books or handouts. According to Szóstak , it does not matter 'whether the teacher really needs such help or not – the point is that no learner should feel ignored or rejected in the classroom' (2003: 43). Thus, by giving our 'undisciplined' students something to do, teacher gives them a feeling of importance and satisfaction, and therefore, helps them to develop a positive attitude towards themselves, and gradually, also towards other people.

Another important step in dealing with low self-esteem is changing the relationship between the teacher and students into dialogue and co-operation: 'motivation (...) is as much a matter of concern for the teacher as it is for the learner; it depends as much on the attitudes of the students' (Rogers, 1996:66). To achieve this, the teacher should, first of all, encourage learners to formulate their own learning goals. Thus, short-term goals are more appropriate at work with 'undisciplined' students. According to Harmer (2001:53) short-term goals are by their nature much closer to such learner's day-to-day reality. Moreover, it is much easier for them to focus on the end of the week and check their knowledge then and not on forward to the end of the year or semester.

In general, goal-setting is an important aspect of motivation and pupils who decide on their own goals in any learning activity are more likely to achieve them than the learners for whom the teacher decides. The goals must be very specific so that the learners decide not only what to do but also in what time and how to do it. The teacher can help by providing a range of tasks to choose from.

Furthermore, Szóstak also points out the importance of informational feedback given to pupils by a teacher (i. e. the feedback in which the teacher gives reasons for evaluation of learners' work). Such feedback helps them to perform subsequent tasks more successfully and with a greater degree of independence.

Finally, by setting their own goals and making their own decisions about learning, juvenile delinquents develop internal locus of control – 'the internal belief that they are personally responsible for their progress and achievement, which in turn enhances their self-esteem and confidence as learners, and increases their motivation to learn' (Szóstak, 2003 : 44).

Another theory which puts understanding of motivation in a new light is Vallerand's (1997) self-determination theory. This approach has also an important part to play in classroom motivation and can be at least partially accessible to teacher influence.

Thus, the author considers three different types of motivation that learners bring to the classroom: intrinsic, extrinsic and amotivation. The first type, the intrinsic motivation, forms such factors as interest or curiosity and is associated with the activities which pupils enjoy doing. The second (extrinsic motivation) is created by external factors, for example, pleasing the teacher or parents, obtaining a good grade, passing an exam or simply avoiding punishment. Furthermore among these outside factors can be also situated the hope of financial reward (e.g. a well-paid job in future) or the possibility of future travel. Nevertheless, this type of motivation is appropriate for most students, for whom, extrinsic rewards such as the teacher's praise or a good grade are sufficient incentives to work on the task. Unfortunately, there are also learners for whom – as teachers say – 'nothing works'.

Thus, Vallerand (1997) distinguishes four types of extrinsic motivation:
- external regulation (e.g. teacher's praise or parental confrontation),
- introjected regulation (e.g. rules against paying truant),
- identified regulation (e.g. learning a language which is necessary to pursue one's hobbies or interests, financial reward),
- integrated regulation (e.g. learning English because its proficiency is part of an educated cosmopolitan culture one has adopted).

Thus, the first type, external regulation, refers to the least self – determined from of extrinsic motivation, coming entirely from external sources such as rewards or threats. The second type, introjected regulation, involves externally imposed rules that the student accepts as norms to be followed in order not to feel guilty. The third type of extrinsic motivation distinguished by Vallerand, identified regulation, occurs when the person engages in an activity because he or she highly values and identifies with the behaviour and sees its usefulness. Finally, the last type is integrated regulation which is the most developmentally advanced from of extrinsic motivation, and it involves choiceful behaviour that is fully assimilated with the individual's other needs, values and identity.

There are some actions that can be taken by teachers in order to increase the extrinsic motivation (Hoitt, 2001):
1. Provide clear expectations.
2. Give corrective feedback.
3. Provide valuable rewards.
4. Make rewards available.

Furthermore, according to Deci and Ryan (1985), especially these two types of intrinsic and extrinsic 'regulation', exist and can be placed on a continuum between self-determined (intrinsic) and controlled (extrinsic) from of motivation depending on how 'internalised' they are. In other words, the degree of accommodation, either intrinsic, or extrinsic type of motivation is depended on how much regulation has been transformed from outside to inside the individual. As Deci and Ryan argue, if they are sufficiently self determined and internalised, extrinsic motivation. Thus, as Harmer (2001:51) claims intrinsic motivation is especially important for encouraging success among pupils, which seems to be a step further than being motivated only by 'extrinsic rewards'.

Thus, for the sake of the present article, the intrinsic motivation, according to the author, is especially important at work with undisciplined students and therefore this approach will be further analysed.

Vallerand (1997) distinguishes three subtypes of intrinsic motivation:
- towards achievement (engaging in an activity for the satisfaction of surpassing oneself,
accomplishing or creating something or coping with challenges);
- to learn (engaging in an activity for the pleasure and satisfaction of understanding
something new, satisfying one's curiosity and exploring the world);
- to experience stimulation (engaging in an activity to experience pleasant sensations).

Learners with intrinsic motivation usually have learning goals, for example, their aim is to improve their abilities as well as increase understanding and broaden their knowledge. Such learners prefer challenging tasks and are not afraid of failure because they find the every process of learning intrinsically rewarding. Especially disobedient students do not usually have motivation for all the school subjects but only for those they are interested in. Furthermore, these minors who come to class with no motivation at all must be provided with extrinsic rewards to start learning and once they do, the teacher can start working on their intrinsic motivation. There are some actions that can be taken by teachers in order to increase the intrinsic motivation (Hoitt, 2001):
1. Explain and show why learning a particular event or skill is important.
2. Create and/or maintain curiosity.
3. Provide variety of activities and sensory simulations.
4. Provide games and simulations.
5. Set goals for learning.
6. Relate learning to student needs.
7. Help student develop plan of action.

All in all, each teacher has a great influence learning environment. One of these unconventional teaching methods which, undoubtedly, highly motivate undisciplined students at mainstream school is using of music during English lesson. English songs can also at least a bit more motivate these 'demotivated' towards working with the language on their own.

1. Gardner, R. 1980. On the validity of affective variables in second language acquisition: conceptual, contextual and statistical considerations. Learning Language, 30, pp. 255-270. Newbury: Newbury House Publishers.
2. Gardner, R. C. and W. E. Lambert. 1972. Attitudes and Motivation in Second - Language Learning. Newbury: Newbury House Publishers.
3. Harmer, J. 2001. The Practice of English Language Teaching. Edinburgh: Longman.
4. Naiman, N., Froelich, M., Stern, H.H. ad Todesco, A. 1978. The Good Language Learner, Research in Education Series, No.7, Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (Ellis, 1994 : 283).
5. Rogers, A. 1996. Teaching Adults. Philadelphia: Open University Press.
6. Szóstak, W. 2003. "Psychology and the Teacher: What do we know about motivation to learn?", 'The teacher' 12: 41-45
7. Vallerand 1997. Toward a hierarchical model of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. New York: Academic Press.

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