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The link between goal setting and motivation within language learning

By Em Horne

Learning a language has always been a common interest and hobby for many people, even more so within the last few months with the up-haul of normal life and lockdowns in many countries and a need to fill up time. However, in many cases language learning is started with the best intentions and desire to learn yet slowly fades away and can become tiresome and demotivating without the right mental approach and use of goal setting.

Within language learners a common pattern seems to be intense interest and motivation towards learning a new language, perhaps spanning for a few weeks or months, before entering a slump – a dismal chasm of learning where nothing seems to be as interesting, effective, or inspiring anymore. Often this stems from the lack of feeling of achievement, after all no one can learn a language fluently within a few months, especially considering the lack of real life exposure to your target language in most learning cases.

While originally completing a few Duolingo lessons or remembering how that one irritating word is spelled on your first try feels like a goalpost has been reached, these same thresholds appear to shift and become the normal and so lose their rewarding feeling. As a result, this can make learners feel that they aren’t making progress as quickly or as efficiently as they were at the start, and so cause a severe drop in their motivation or the will to carry on with second (or third etc.) language learning. An explanation for this is simply that learners often do not set clear mental end goals and targets for what they want to achieve in learning a second language, as such any progress made towards any sort of end goal is hardly registered, thus giving an overall sense of nothingness or lack of progression even if this is far from the case in reality.

In 2005 Zoltan Dörnyei, a Hungarian-born British Linguist specialising in the nature and impact of motivation within second language acquisition, proposed the idea of the Ideal Self within a second language Motivational Self System in his book ‘The Psychology of the language learner: Individual differences in second language acquisition’. This Ideal Self is the mental vision and representation of all the attributes that a person would like to possess and by associating a trait with your ideal self, whether it be a skill such as cooking or riding a bike or something as simple as a hairstyle or colour.

The suggestion is that through goal setting and a mental realisation and representation of what you’d like to achieve it inspires a more powerful sense of motivation to reduce the discrepancy between ourselves in reality and our Ideal Selves. As such, by associating a mastery of or fluency within your target language with your ideal self your internal desire to gain communicative competence and become an effective second language learner is increased massively. Furthermore, any progress made towards this goal consistently feels like an achievement and something to be proud of, thus providing a positive reinforcement towards language learning which was previously missing, and as a result increasing the desire to continue your language learning journey.

Additionally, a sense of achievement and acknowledgement of progress in your language acquisition, especially when going through a rough patch of learning, increases motivation to continue and move forward and overall creates a more supportive learning environment and experience for yourself. However, fluency or full acquisition of a second language can seem like a daunting task or overall goal to set for yourself so breaking down individual mental goals to be updated as you go may be a more beneficial approach for some; perhaps those who prefer the feeling of constant development and goal achievement in place of simply progression towards a goal.

Consider smaller goals at the start such as the mastery of a certain grammar, the memorisation of a specific set of vocabulary, or the ability to introduce yourself in your target language and hold a small conversation, and work to bridge the gap between reality and these targets. Then once achieved, repeat and set new goals for what your ideal language learning self is.

While motivation is one of the most elusive concepts within the social sciences it underpins the direction and magnitude of human behaviours; the choices behind, the persistence with, and the effort expended on particular actions and events. And so, it can rightly be considered as one of the most influential individual differences when studying and learning a language, thus one of the most vital things to maintain for a consistent attitude towards and eventual successful outcome of second language acquisition.

Good luck with your newly motivated language learning!

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