Adventures in Language

Science Behind Language Learning | What motivates you to learn a second language?

August 24, 2022 Mango Languages
Adventures in Language
Science Behind Language Learning | What motivates you to learn a second language?
Show Notes Transcript

What does it mean to be a motivated language learner? In our latest episode, Kaitlyn Tagarelli (Linguist, PhD) discusses the role of motivation in second language learning, and the different ways people motivate themselves during their language learning journeys. If you want to learn more about the scientific research consulted for this episode, and how Mango guides learners, take a look at our blog post that accompanies this episode:

Check out the other Mango content mentioned in this episode here:

If you liked this episode, please let us know by following the podcast and leaving us a review! We also invite you to check out our website at: and follow us on social media @MangoLanguages. And remember – language is an adventure. Enjoy the ride!

Wondering what languages were used in today’s episode? 

English | Recording language

Iraqi Arabic  | أهلا (AHlen) and مع السلامة (MA'a AsaLAMA) mean “Hello” and “Goodbye”

Danish | Hej (Hai) and Farvel (fahVEL) mean “Hi” and “Goodbye”

Interested in learning Iraqi Arabic, Danish, or one of the other 70+ languages that the Mango app offers? Click here to start learning!

Kaitlyn Tagarelli (Ph.D., Georgetown University) is a linguist and the Head of Research at Mango Languages. She holds a Ph.D. in Linguistics from Georgetown University, specializing in how the mind and brain learn languages. Aside from geeking out about all things neuroscience and linguistics, she loves hanging out with her family at their Connecticut home, trying to convince them to speak French with her.

George Smith (Ph.D., University of Hawai‛i at Mānoa) is a Linguistics Content Writer at Mango Languages. He holds a Ph.D. in Second Language Studies from the University of Hawai‛i at Mānoa, and conducts research on second language listening, speaking, and vocabulary learning. He is a lifelong teacher and learner who enjoys gabbing about language with his family and friends.

#languageteaching #languageEd #worldlanguageEd #languagelearning

Kaitlyn Tagarelli, PhD:  (AHlen)! Hej (Hai)! Welcome back to Adventures in Language! I’m your guide, Kaitlyn! In this episode of the Science Behind Language Learning, we’re talking about motivation. How much do you want to learn another language? Why? How hard are you willing to work for it? Everyone approaches language learning with a unique set of goals and expectations — but does this affect the learning process and outcomes? Let’s find out!

What is motivation?

Motivation plays a role in so much of what we do on a day-to-day basis. Let’s think about some examples. Jerry has his eye on a promotion at work, so he puts in extra hours. Simi has always dreamed of running a marathon, so she runs a little farther every day. Jamie is committed to animal rights, so they decide to adopt a vegan diet. People are motivated to put in effort or make changes for all kinds of reasons in every facet of their lives. And that effort often comes with rewards. Jerry’s extra hours helped him develop some new skills, Simi is in the best shape of her life, and Jamie’s cholesterol levels are fantastic. 

But what does this have to do with language? Well, to make good progress in language learning, it really helps to have good reasons for studying a language – like wanting to learn more about another culture or obtaining a language certification for work or school – as well as positive attitudes towards a language and culture. But reasons and attitudes alone are not enough – you also need to put in the work. At the end of the day, you are the one who needs to seek opportunities for learning and practice, actively study and remember what you’ve been exposed to, and keep your enthusiasm up over time. This is language learning motivation in a nutshell: the will to start and keep learning a new language. When you look at it that way, it’s no surprise that motivated learners tend to be more successful at second language learning!

Components of Motivation

Like other individual differences related to language learning, motivation isn’t just one “thing” that you have or you don’t; it’s a complex combination of different components. Three components that language researchers often look at are goals, effort, and reflection.


When we talk about goals and language learning motivation, what we’re really talking about are:

  • the reasons you’re learning a language, 
  • the expectations you have for yourself, and 
  • what you want to achieve. 

All of these things reflect your values, attitudes, and beliefs about language learning and the target language community. For example, you might be studying a language because it’s a mandatory school subject or because you want to get a job in another country. Or you might want to speak to your grandparents in their native language or simply fit in with a certain cultural group.

These goals tend to fit into one of two main “orientations,” or guiding forces in language learning. If you are learning a language for practical purposes – for example, to meet a college language requirement – then you are guided by an “instrumental orientation.” However, if you are learning a language because you have a personal interest in the target language and culture – for example, wanting to reconnect with your cultural heritage – then you are guided by an “integrative orientation.” In reality, most second language learners tend to have a mix of both instrumental and integrative orientation, but a higher level of integrative orientation, which is more of an intrinsic drive, may give learners a small edge in terms of language achievement. 


Goals and orientations are a big part of the motivation puzzle, but they don’t count for much if you don’t act on them! Effort is another part of motivation that comes into play during the language learning process itself. What are you actually doing to achieve your goals? Are you putting in the work? And are you keeping up that work over time? Effort is the translation of goals and reasons into action. This could mean doing your homework, studying flashcards, seeking out additional opportunities for learning like podcasts, music, movies, books, and apps, or even setting aside some time to chat with a speaker of the language you are trying to learn. 

The amount of effort that people make when learning a language is, perhaps unsurprisingly, related to internal factors like attitudes and goals. In other words, if you like a language and have compelling reasons for studying it, you’ll probably be more willing to put in extra time! But effort can also be influenced by external factors, like how engaging and rewarding a classroom environment is or what you think others expect of you. In fact, studies show that all of these factors are important predictors of how much effort people put into language learning.


As language learners, our goals change, and effort seems to be pretty easily influenced as well. As a result, motivation isn’t something that is fixed in place – it can actually fluctuate over time. Studies have shown that motivation can change when you enter into a new period of your life. For example, some learners don’t realize the value of speaking another language until they enter the workforce or spend time abroad. Even something as simple as having a really good day in your language class can change your motivation. Reflection, or self-evaluation, plays an important role in understanding these changes. 

Some level of reflection takes place, consciously or unconsciously, any time you do something with your target language. Did you meet the goals that you set for yourself? How much effort did you put into learning? Did this effort pay off? How do you know? And for better or for worse, these reflections feed back into your motivation to continue learning. For example, maybe one day you realize that you’re able to have more meaningful conversations in your second language than before. This could make you more willing to go out and talk to people in the future. Alternatively, maybe you put a lot of effort into studying for a grammar test, but just didn’t get the grade you hoped you would. This could make you less willing to study as hard for your next exam.

But keep in mind that your reflections on a given language experience, as well as how they feed back into your motivation, are affected by the internal and external factors we’ve already discussed – that is, your reasons for studying a language, the amount of effort you put into it, and the environment you’re studying in. So even if you didn’t do so well on that grammar test despite studying really hard, your motivation might withstand the blow if you have a really supportive teacher, or if it’s important to you to connect with your grandmother, who only speaks Vietnamese.

Motivation and You

So what does all of this mean for the average language learner? Well, it may confirm your intuitions that it’s important to find experiences that are interesting, engaging, and achievable – in other words, those that make sense to you and make you want to put in extra effort. This could mean reading your favorite books, listening to podcasts that interest you, playing video games, or even just finding a good way to fit language learning into your daily routine. 

Actually, one of my favorite things about the Mango app is the autoplay feature because it’s hard for me to find time to add language learning to my routine, but this feature allows me to practice Italian while doing other things like taking a walk or doing dishes. 

All of this to say that you should seek out experiences that suit you and your goals.

If you’re not quite sure where to start, try out these 5 research-approved steps to keep up your motivation: 

  1. Number 1: Set goals, work towards them, and evaluate how things are going. To learn more about setting good language learning goals, check out the episode that we’ve linked for you in the description.
  2. Number 2: Set up a study routine and make learning a habit. If you’re using Mango, make sure you turn on study reminders!
  3. Number 3: Make learning social – learn with a friend or in a group! Fun Fact: Every Mango account comes with 5 additional profiles, so you can share the Mango love with your family and friends!
  4. Number 4: Be your own cheerleader! Pat yourself on the back when you hit those language learning goals, and take it easy on yourself when things don’t go so well.
  5. And number 5: Seek out opportunities to learn about and interact with the culture associated with your target language. Cross-cultural contact keeps motivation levels high, helps you develop an integrative orientation, and supports language learning success.

Researchers believe that learners who use these techniques can overcome a lack of motivation or declining enthusiasm, and even come up with new reasons to keep studying their language

So what are you waiting for?

Well, there you have it! Are you feeling motivated?

Let’s recap what we’ve learned!

  1. First: Motivation is the willingness to start and keep learning a new language. It affects things like how willing you are to seek out new opportunities for learning, as well as how much you’ll end up achieving.
  2. Second: Motivation is primarily made up of goals, effort, and reflection. Your attitudes, goals, and reasons for studying a language can affect how much effort you commit to the learning process. So can a positive learning environment. 
  3. Third: Motivation can (and usually does!) fluctuate over time. Reflecting on your language learning experiences can influence your motivation.
  4. Fourth: Motivation really comes down to finding learning experiences that work for you and make you want to work at language learning.

Finally, we covered some tips for keeping up your own language learning motivation. Try them out and let us know how it goes! 

Do you have any other motivation-boosting ideas? We want to hear about them!

If you liked this episode and want to stay tuned for more episodes about the Science Behind Language Learning, make sure you subscribe to the Adventures in Language podcast! If there’s a topic that you want to learn more about, reach out to let us know!

Be sure to check out the description for this episode for some free materials on motivation, including a sample motivation questionnaire that will help you figure out your own motivation profile. Thanks for listening!  مع السلامة (MA'a AsaLAMA)! Farvel (fahVEL)!

Don’t miss our next episode in this series, where we’ll talk about how anxiety comes into play when you learn a new language...and why a little anxiety might be a good thing! Next time on the Science Behind Language Learning."


Want to know more about the scientific research underlying this episode? Here’s some of the research we consulted and/or mentioned in this episode.