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What Motivates Us To Learn New Languages?

Language acquisition has been often studied as a case study or litmus test for a variety of linguistic theories. And whether second language learners are just casual travelers, linguistic enthusiasts, or professionals intent on assimilating in their new work cultures, language acquisition is more popular than ever before. With so many people connected through new learned experiences abroad or exposure to foreign language media and social networks, people from all walks of life are finding new ways to communicate. Yet, what motivates us to grow this skillset? There are a handful of places where multilingualism is beneficial (e.g. China, Switzerland, the United States, etc.) But, what gets language learners engaged and motivated? Let’s go over some theories in practice.

Starting Early

It’s a common truism in education and linguistics alike. Language acquisition is best learned when introduced at a young age. In fact, the best language classes for introducing second or third languages target children between the ages of 2 and 12.

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So, how are children who have barely mastered their own native languages better equipped to learn new ways of communicating as opposed to teens and adults who’ve been through formal schooling for much longer?

The answer lies in how brain chemistry differs in children and adults. From a biological standpoint, children’s brains are built to absorb as much information as possible. This enables them to learn not just language acquisition, but many auxiliary skills such as playing and mastering a musical instrument, learning a visual art form, and more.

Integrative Motivation

Aside from early language acquisition, teens and adults can fare much better with learning foreign languages when they’re fully immersed. Consider the case of an American relocating to Japan for work. As Japan is noted as one of the most monolingual countries in the world where English language fluency and media aren’t very widespread, even in cosmopolitan urban areas, an American English speaker would be more motivated to acclimate to this new culture by any means possible, whether to converse with coworkers, clients, and social contacts. This is an example of integrative motivation. According to an interview with The Guardian, linguistics professor John Schumann says, “”Integrative motivation is the motivation to learn a language in order to get to know, to be with, to interact with and perhaps become like the speakers of the target language.”

Integrative motivation may also refer to a relationship one has with a culture, not just individuals. As stated earlier, this can be seen in places where multilingualism has had historic roots. For example, bilingualism is commonplace in many parts of Quebec where Canadian French and English may be spoken interchangeably in areas where English and French speakers live side by side. This may also be seen in Switzerland, where the country is divided into regions where French, Italian, Romanish, and German are spoken.

Other instances of integrative motivation occur when descendents of native speakers trace their own cultural roots. For instance, a second-generation Iranian-American may be more motivated to learn Farsi than a native English speaker with no cultural affiliation to the language.

Instrumental Motivation

According to an educational column in The Telegraph, anyone studying a foreign language to achieve a certain goal is demonstrating instrumental motivation. In these instances, fluency isn’t the goal in itself, but a means to achieving some professional or educational recognition.

This is the case with most second language learners in formal schooling. Additionally, university students and professionals may demonstrate instrumental motivation to bolster their credentials.

While language acquisition itself is generally seen as more effective in terms of conversational fluency, instrumental motivation still has its purposes. Although, it may still be a challenging route to take when learning new languages. In the Anglophone world (areas where English speakers form the majority,) US English speakers, English language natives in the UK, New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia may find that second language acquisition proves to be quite difficult, even when formal schooling offers rigorous language classes. Though English is considered to be the world’s lingua franca with representation in media, commerce, and diplomacy, this puts English language natives at a particular disadvantage. For instance, English speakers attempting to converse in German with beginner or intermediary skills may be met with German counterparts instinctively switching to English as the latter has been commonly taught as a second language for generations. Both Germans learning English and English speakers learning German as a second language demonstrate instrumental motivation. However, the contexts and goals for which they’re learning those second languages differ greatly.

Linguistic Confidence

Ultimately, language acquisition for adults and children alike comes from a desire to communicate well in professional, educational, or personal situations. Whether new language learners are honing their skills for a new job, an academic credit, or just to get by in a new home, language acquisition is a fascinating way for analyzing what drives us to engage and build new connections.

Author Bio:

Alex G Forrester, a freelance content marketer and consultant, with nearly 7 years of content writing experience about everything from marketing and technology to family and travel. When he’s not brushing up against a deadline, he can be found on the beach with his black lab, Louie. You can find Alex on Twitter and Facebook.

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