Deeper Motivations for Learning Foreign Languages

March 9, 2016 (updated May 1, 2016)

"What was your inner motivation to learn languages well before languages became your profession?"

A friend asked me this question the other day after analyzing his own motivation to learn languages. He realized that he actually wasn't much interested in knowing (using) languages any more than he currently does. What really fascinates him is knowing about languages. This gives him insight into philosophy, psychology, and culture.

He sees this as the explanation for why he is not as good at learning languages as he could be. I think I agree, especially for someone who is well past the search for self-identity that typically occurs in young adulthood.

Deeper lifelong motivations like my friend's are practically set in stone and not easily tinkered with. They feed into the "Drive vs. Apathy" dimension of psychosocial competence that I discuss in depth in my book. There, my recommendations serve to help language learners become more aware of what's motivating or demotivating them. Then, they can look for ways to apply more positive motivators and invigorate their language learning.

Today I speak 9 languages and earn most of my income through linguistic activities such as conference interpreting. But my basic motivations have not changed since the age of 17 when I first left the United States for a year in Slovakia. What drove me to try to master Slovak was:

1. to escape shortcomings of the environment I had grown up in
2. to find my place and to belong
3. to become expert at something
4. the sheer pleasure of skill acquisition

These factors, not money earned from my professional activities, are still my main drivers for speaking my key languages better and better. 

Each time people place undue emphasis on the fact that I am a foreigner or "belong to a particular nation" (if you've lived in the Caucasus, you'll know what I'm talking about), try to make me feel more different than I actually feel, or question my rationale for living outside of the United States, this reactivates the first two motivators. 

The better I speak a language, the more I feel that I belong. However, no matter how good my language skills, some locals continue to challenge my decision to live in places like Ukraine or Georgia. After all, according to them, "everyone wants to emigrate to the West" and "everyone knows that life is better in the West." Then there is that small sub-group that thinks I am a spy...

Honestly, a large part of me would prefer to just find my place in a foreign society and forget about the fact that I was born elsewhere, just like many immigrants who have become successful in the U.S. and other immigrant-friendly cultures.

For better or worse, rapid globalization is eroding the very thing I would like to belong to. With each passing decade, there's more and more pressure on foreigners and locals alike to be an English speaking citizen of the world. It's like struggling to get on board a sinking ship as the natives are inflating their lifeboats.  

Very often, the people who are most eager to get on the English language, culture, and information bandwagon are the very ones I would have liked to befriend: adventurous, enterprising, progressive. Our conflicting goals put us at odds.

If I had been born here, I probably would have been one of the first to cast off for distant lands. I believe some people are born to emigrate, probably through a combination of genes (adventurousness) and environment (lack of need fulfillment). 

I will probably still be "defending" my choice to live abroad at age 80. "Don't you regret not having returned to your homeland?" I will be asked on my deathbed. And I'll have that same angry adolescent reaction again, though tempered by age, experience, and a breathing tube.

And it still won't make sense to most people. But if it weren't for those "unclear" motivations, I would never have mastered a foreign language or languages so well.



UPDATE May 1, 2016

A friend sent me a link to the article "Motivation as a Contributing Factor in Second Language Acquisition." The article discusses two main forms of motivation for learning a second language — integrative (characterized by positive attitudes towards the target language group and the desire to integrate into the target language community) and instrumental (having a goal to gain some social or economic reward through language achievement) — and later a third type of motivation — personal (pleasure at being able to read in a language and enjoyment of entertainment in that language). Students with integrative and, to a lesser degree, personal motivations for a learning a language do better than those with instrumental motivation. 

My post above demonstrates how a great hunger for integration has fueled my language achievement. In my book I tell readers how to use the desire for acceptance and social integration as key components of a sustainable long-term language learning practice. 

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(c) 2016-2017 Richard DeLong.