Understanding students’ motivation for learning languages

AI created illustration of motivated and engaged language learners

In every language class, there will be a wide variety of reasons why students are participating in the course. For some, the motivation will be inspired by a desire to progress at work or in their studies, whilst for others, the opportunity to enhance overseas travel or to better understand a new culture will be front of mind. In all cases, it’s important for language educators to understand these motivations as they help inform the best language teaching approach to deploy and highlight how learning should be carefully personalised to meet learners’ needs.

However, these individual motivations can be broadly grouped into four main reasons why students are learning a second language. This blog post looks at those main groups in further detail and proposes some tips for language educators to bear in mind when teaching these groups of students.

Of course, many learners will be studying a language as part of their formal school education. However, given that they have not actively chosen to participate in those courses, we’ve not included them in this piece.


Learning for work

For many language learners, embarking on a new language learning course will be driven by employment considerations – either to help them get a job or climb the ladder in a career that they already have.

In an increasingly global job market, candidates have to explore every angle to stand out from the crowd. Mastery of a globally-relevant language (e.g English, Japanese or Spanish) is a great way to increase your chances of getting a new role, particularly if your preferred employer has a range of international locations or operations.

Equally, many smaller employers will insist that you’re able to read, speak and write fluently in the national language as part of the application. If you’re looking to work in rural France or in northern Finland, for example, strong local language skills are a must for any serious job applicant.

For educators of this group of language learners, it’s important to remember that most students will be adults and content should therefore be appropriately targeted. Content should also be focused on helping students into employment. Learning should prepare them for environments and scenarios they might encounter and should also support them in finding work (e.g interview practice, CV writing, etc).


As part of academic study

As well as learning a new language to get a new job, some learners will be taking a course to improve their chances of pursuing their studies internationally. If you want to do a PhD on the work of film director Pedro Almodóvar, for example, then having excellent Spanish language skills will be essential. Particularly if you decide that you want to study in Spain, of course!

Many students in global Higher Education institutions also have to select additional courses to supplement their core subject. Language studies remain a very popular choice for a variety of reasons. Firstly, graduates often cite foreign language courses as some of the most valuable courses at university because of the communication skills developed in the process. Moreover, students also tend to appreciate how the study of foreign languages also increases their knowledge and understanding of their own culture and language.

Studying at university often marks the beginning of a young person’s independence and an increasing interest in how the world works. Taking a foreign language course can help foster a deeper understanding of and respect for other cultures and forms part of a traditional “liberal” education. In other words, it encourages students to seek to better understand the world and to educate themselves and others about it.


For travel

The opportunity to travel to exciting new global destinations is now within the reach of most people. This boom in international travel has generated increasing interest in language courses as travellers seek to make the most of their trip. Evidently, travelling to a different country where you speak the language completely transforms the experience – you feel less like a tourist and more like a local.

A key part of the motivation is because strong language skills simply open doors that would otherwise remain closed – you’ll gain access to events and meet new / interesting people if you’re able to engage them in their own language. Moreover the new breed of traveller wants to immerse themselves fully in the local culture and customs – again that’s only really possible if you’ve taken the time to learn the language.

Of course, it’s still possible to travel internationally without learning a new language, especially if you have good skills in English or Spanish, for example. But if you intend to visit a country frequently or to stay for a significant period of time, then do take the time to learn the language and make the most of the opportunity.

For educators of these students, it’s vital to ensure that their learning experience is as authentic as possible. Use resources that mirror what they’ll find when they’re on their travels and encourage them to practise their skills in real-life situations (e.g in restaurants, stations and shops).


For the experience or for self-improvement

Many language learners will simply be motivated by a desire to learn a new skill and to enjoy the experience of doing so, rather than to achieve a particular life objective. In these cases, they’re often looking to improve themselves and their understanding of the world around them.

These learners appreciate that language learning (at whatever age) can help improve skills such as confidence, creativity, listening, memory and problem solving. It also helps generate more positive attitudes and understanding of those who are different from them and who can help expand their view of the world. Particularly through film, food, literature and music.

However these students can present a challenge to language educators and institutions. Without a powerful motivation behind them, their engagement with the course can be patchy and educators need to ensure that course content maintains their interest. It’s also important to ensure that these students continually see the progress that they’re making – otherwise they can quickly lose heart and move onto studying something else.


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