I recently started to brush up my German. I last studied German many years ago at school and I can’t say that it was a great success. In fact, I failed the exam and had to retake it. Hardly surprising, as I seem to remember spending a good portion of the exam time writing out David Bowie lyrics!
I clearly wasn’t very motivated. Why not? I think partly it was because I didn’t get much encouragement at home. My mother spoke French fluently, and was much keener for me to continue with that (I went on to study French at A-level). I also found the case system horribly confusing. Like most of my generation, I had never been taught to understand English grammar and so the concepts of direct and indirect objects meant nothing to me. And finally, I hadn’t yet understood that learning a language requires regular effort and practice, especially when you don’t live in the country where the language is spoken.
So why am I learning German again now? Most of my motivation is intrinsic (self-motivation). Since leaving school, I have learnt other languages (Portuguese, Polish and some Spanish) and I enjoy the challenge. In fact, a recent study found that learning new words in a foreign language stimulates the same pleasure centres in the brain as eating chocolate or having sex. I probably don’t enjoy it that much, but it is satisfying. I also love being able to communicate with people in another language, and I plan to go to Zurich in January and Munich next November.
Students often have a certain level of extrinsic motivation – they need the language to pass an exam get a promotion, or even to keep their job. However, I think it’s very difficult for students to stay motivated without intrinsic motivation.
One of the things that helps students to be intrinsically motivated is a belief that they have the skills to succeed. This is something that I don’t think I had at school, but having successfully learnt a few languages, including one with seven cases, I now do. This is why I think it’s important to encourage students to find strategies and skills that work for them.
It’s also important for students to have a sense of ownership of the language learning process, so remember that what works for you, is not necessarily what will motivate them.
Having said that, a sense of progress is important for everyone. Regular feedback and low stakes tests in which they can succeed can really help with motivation. One of the ways in which I’ve been learning German is to use the popular language app Duolingo. I think there are a number of problems with this app (the methodology, the choice of items to learn) but there is no doubt that the icon which tells me what percentage of the course I’ve now done is very motivating (even if I don’t believe for a minute that I’m 20% fluent!)
Probably the most motivating thing about Duolingo is the way that it rewards you for practising every day, and reminds you when you don’t. I definitely think that little and often is the key to learning a language.
As I progress, I know that I will need to do more with my German than decontextualised exercises, if I want to remain motivated. Definitely the most motivating thing is being able to communicate successfully, but being able to read in German, or listen to or watch programmes in the language would also keep me wanting to learn. So, as teachers, the content of our lessons is also very important. We need to provide texts and topics that students really want to engage with so that we can use their motivation to discuss or find out more about the topic, as well as their motivation to learn the language.
I’m teaching myself German, but I believe that the motivation of the teacher is also of paramount importance. If we love what we teach, that enthusiasm is catching. So if you want motivated students, look first to yourself.