Motivation plays a fundamental part in everything that we set out to do. The more motivated we are, the more likely we are to venture out of our comfort zone, potentially ignoring the opinions of others, regardless of the amount of effort and energy it may require. The same is valid for language learning as well. There are many factors that affect the process of language learning such as, aptitude, personality, anxiety, etc., but motivation is considered one of the main driving forces – regardless if we are talking about the home- or majority-language, or any additional language. And, even though it might sound intuitive and easy to some, creating meaningfully motivating and rewarding moments for bilingual learners might end up being quite the challenge, especially as they get older.
Which language(s) our children pursue might also be decisive when determining what incentives they would need. Language is deeply anchored in our identity, it shapes our self-perception and the way others see us. For instance, my first language is Bulgarian – an Eastern European language that does not have a particularly high social standing – just the opposite – it’s simply not cool, unlike, say, French or Italian. When my son was younger, we used to take the train daily and converse in Bulgarian during our ride. People would stare at us in a weirdly disapproving way, which he noticed and commented on multiple times. He didn’t fully understand the true meaning of it back then but it was most certainly not a rewarding experience that would motivate any child to maintain and develop that language.
But what is motivation actually? According to a working paper by Harvard University, “motivation is the result of neurons (brain cells) in specific regions sending chemical signals to other regions […], creating pathways for future signals to follow.” So, essentially, the motivation to do something is intertwined with our memories and feelings of similar past situations with the expectation of some form of a rewarding experience. For instance, if my son would keep having similar encounters of rejection when speaking Bulgarian in public, it might be rather difficult to motivate him to keep working on it.
Two main types of motivation have been identified – approach motivation and avoidance motivation. The former (highly motivated by the expectation of an incentive) is crucial to most forms of learning. The best results are achieved when we are driven by internal motive forces, promoted by positive feedback. If addressed consciously and consistently, its fundament can become quite robust. For example, being able to have conversations with people in your home language or the approval and awe that your child has mastered the language even though they live in a different country could do the trick. But the truth is that children are egocentric and very much focused on themselves rather than the world around them. Every experience they have is seen through the lens of their own reality and needs, learning about the world and their place in it. And, since the foundation of the motivation system starts establishing itself very early, all these experiences leave their mark on its development. When flooded by negative and/or unpleasant feedback or when feeling that their efforts are not being honoured or somehow (satisfyingly) rewarded, children might start to shy away from the situations (or similar ones) that caused them. Imagine a child who has been dropped in a new school, with a new language, for example. They have tried to communicate several times but were corrected or even scolded by the teacher in public, or laughed at by children during recess. Odds are that child will have a hard time motivating themselves to speak out in that language for quite some time.
Motivation and bilingual learners
Motivation is one of the most important factors in language learning. And the attitudes towards a language, not only the child’s but also the family’s, are crucial. If, for example, each parent has a different home language but they do not show support for or much interest in each other’s language, that might be a reason for the child to not feel motivated to develop that language. It just might not feel important enough. However, motivation is very dynamic. Often one unpleasant or off-putting episode can lead to losing the desire to learn another language but a learner’s mindset and personality as well as the way they view themselves would determine if they would be able to recover and bounce back.
When raising bilingual children, a multitude of factors play a role, influencing their success (or lack thereof) on their language journey – the attitudes they form towards these languages, the social groups connected with them, their personality, the way they want to be seen within their peer group, direct or indirect feedback, etc., especially for teenagers. And, as I just mentioned, we can add the ‘coolness’ factor of a language to the list, especially when it comes to the home language. The same applies if their school is unsupportive of their home language(s) and a child feels different, unaccepted and left out, leading to hesitancy to engage with or have difficulties sustaining the home language, prolonging the learning of the school language or creating a profound feeling of insecurity to speak it. We have probably all been there and know frustrating that could be, causing insecurity and tension in the family as well as affecting the child’s well-being.
Therefore, coming up with strategies that will provide the ‘reward experience’ is a sure-fire way for a child to feel motivated. Striving to create a favourable and safe environment where they can express themselves and feel supported will open the door to them being more prone to sharing, thus also strengthening the familial emotional bond. This practice will also provide an insight into your child’s inner world and how they feel about their languages, if they are accepted by their peers, how they think they are perceived by them, giving you an opportunity to utilise that information to create meaningfully motivating strategies for language learning and to adjust the family language plan. Understanding the process behind motivation will help with the intervention.
“The motivation to act requires some expectation of success.” so don’t set the bar too high and provide your child with positive feedback and reinforcement, even if you think the achievement was not anything substantial. Every family is unique and should try to align their strategy with their own circumstances – child personality, amount of support available, school and friend environment, country of residence, opportunities to travel, community constellation, etc. Staying flexible and adapting your language plan as you go is an excellent starting point. And don’t get discouraged too quickly; if one approach doesn’t seem to motivate your child, try another one. Keep in mind that some people also have a stronger aptitude for languages than others. Some children are better at art, others – at maths or music. Have frequent conversations with your child, explaining your motives and asking for their opinion and contributions. Utilise these contributions and communicate. There is a reason behind the ways your child acts and going after the reasons will help you respond in the most adequate and productive way. That will not only help sustain your relationship with your child but keep the dialogue going, which is a potential prerequisite for success.
There are various strategies to motivate bilingual children to develop and maintain their home language and the societal/school language. Watch this space as I will be exploring some of them in the future.
- Dörnyei, Z. (2019). From Integrative Motivation to Directed Motivational Currents: The Evolution of the Understanding of L2 Motivation over Three Decades. In: Lamb, M., Csizér, K., Henry, A., Ryan, S. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Motivation for Language Learning. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
- National Scientific Council of the Developing Child (2018). Understanding Motivation: Building the Brain Architecture that Supports Learning, Health, and Community Participation: Working Paper No. 14. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu
- Paradis, J., Genesee, F. and Crago, M. B. (2011) Dual language development and disorders. A handbook on bilingualism & second language learning. 2nd edn. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
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 National Scientific Council of the Developing Child (2018: 1). Understanding Motivation: Building the Brain Architecture that Supports Learning, Health, and Community Participation: Working Paper No. 14. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu
 National Scientific Council of the Developing Child (2018: 6). Understanding Motivation: Building the Brain Architecture that Supports Learning, Health, and Community Participation: Working Paper No. 14. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu