Motivating Students to Learn Foreign Languages for Life. Is this a Myth or Reality?

Dr Mario Pace
University of Malta Malta


Teaching a foreign language is quite challenging. Gone are the days where all students in class spoke the same language, had the same values, came from similar cultural backgrounds. The question is: how can we, as educators, transform the challenges in class into motivational tools? Very often, when speaking about motivation in class, we think of the students/ learners and how these can be motivated to learn. But what about the teachers themselves? Need they not be motivated too? Is it possible to find ways and means of motivating both at the same time? 

Teachers of foreign languages today face great challenges when it comes to motivate the students and to create adequate learning programmes. Among these is the fact that students find it hard to learn grammar and vocabulary – especially where grammar is given too much weight – and consequently “languages, as taught in schools, are not considered as useful and relevant in life as other subjects, especially in situations where teachers insist on correct but essentially unused grammatical constructions” (Pace. 2017). What makes it worse is that, very often, students feel that they are not progressing in language acquisition and proficiency and consequently feel discouraged and demotivated.

Keywords: motivation; foreign language teaching; classroom challenges.

Changing Scenarios

The social changes that have taken place over the past decades have left their mark even at classroom level and teachers of languages have to take note of these new socio-cultural and linguistic classroom realities. I will only mention a few here. To begin with, the physical classroom itself has changed. We have moved from the whiteboard to the Interactive Smart board to technology enhanced learning & teaching. The classroom is no longer confined to the four walls and has no boundaries. Printed books have been replaced by eBooks, encyclopedias by internet whilst tablets and other electronic devices have become the order of the day. Classrooms are now multicultural, multilingual and multi-ethnic offering new challenges both on the organization and discipline level as well as on the pedagogical level. Students coming from different countries sitting next to each other, having different cultural and educational backgrounds with varying linguistic abilities create an environment which is charged with diversity. Even the students themselves have changed. For today’s generation of digital-natives the social media has become the main source of communication and of forming social and interpersonal relations. Web 2.0 has transformed the teaching and learning process, enabling youths to collaborate and share information online via social media, blogging and Web-based communities. This has led today’s youths to become multitaskers, find it difficult to concentrate on a specific task, are more autonomous and prefer active participation to being passive recipients. On a societal level, mobility and competitiveness are no longer the exception but have become the rule. Even the way “learning a foreign language” is perceived has changed. We have moved from the need of just knowing a foreign language to knowing how to use it in different circumstances to being able to integrate in society using the target language and, above all, to becoming autonomous learners. As a direct consequence, the teaching of foreign languages has changed too. What is presented in class has to be relevant and practical, centred around the students’ needs. Students’ diversities need to be acknowledged, accepted and respected, making the teaching/learning process more student-centered and personalised.                    


In view of these changing scenarios, one of the key predictors of success in foreign language teaching and learning is motivation and the biggest challenge for a language teacher is how to motivate students to become autonomous lifelong learners. Schunk et al., (2008) state that motivated students are more likely to pay attention during course activities, take the time to use effective learning and study strategies, and seek help from others when needed. Shipp (2011) on his part, defines motivation as what happens inside a teen when someone helps them discover who they are and what they want to do. He argues that if teachers want to help teens motivate themselves, they must engage, inspire, and empower them.

Indeed, motivating students in class requires a large amount of reflection and action and the greatest challenge is how to keep language learners’ motivation at a high level all the time in classes made up of learners who all have different interests and expectations. And it is very often in the details of the everyday running of the class that teachers need to work hard on to motivate their students. To start with, learning has to be associated to fun. The more students enjoy themselves in class, the more learning will take place. For lessons to be fun, some aspects play a pivotal role. These include “learning” of notions that are practical and relevant to the students’ needs. Variety, both in lesson presentation and delivery as well as in content, is also of fundamental importance. Activities need to focus on the students’ interests, backgrounds and future goals, where students become active participants of the learning process and not passive receivers of the teaching process. Cooperative learning, problem solving activities, class and group projects, information gap activities are examples of how students can be actively engaged in a foreign language classroom. Novelty and challenge are also crucial. Teachers must incessantly surprise students with innovative and original ways of introducing, developing and concluding lessons, including some form of intellectual and, at times, even physical challenge. Students like challenges and strive to achieve high expectations so long as they believe those goals to be within their reach. A sense of accomplishment is vital in motivating students as it helps them direct their own studies and learning outcomes. Students who, on the other hand, seem to struggle need positive feedback and reinforcement as this increases students’ self-confidence, competence, and self-esteem.

The linguistic input and material presented in class is to be comprehensible to the students and adequate to their needs, levels of attainment and age. According to Lightbrown & Spada (2006) teachers can make a positive contribution to students’ motivation to learn if classrooms are places that students enjoy coming to because the content is interesting and relevant to their age and level of ability. The chosen topics and the types of medium used should appeal to the students’ interests and are to be varied in nature, be it songs, films or videos, web sites, as these help students connect the learning process to their everyday life. The learning process should engage with the students’ emotions and feelings by asking students themselves to provide the needed resources in class. Making use of social media enables them to relate their foreign language classroom experience to their outside interests and activities.


Having said all this, the most influential factor to student motivation in the foreign language classroom remains the teacher’s self-motivation. The attitude, charisma, professional preparedness and ongoing professional development and training, availability to students, are all determining factors that help motivate students in class. Teacher self-motivation is central in empowering students to become active participants in the learning process. The teachers’ projection of enthusiasm, a strong interest in the subject matter and the amount of effort exerted in teaching, definitely have a very strong impact on the students’ motivational dispositions towards lifelong learning.


Lightbrown, P. & Spada, N. (2006). How Languages are Learned. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pace, M. (2017). How can Teachers Motivate their Learners? 10th Int. Conference ICT for Language Learning. edizioni. Padova.

Schunk, D. H., Pintrich, P. R., & Meece, J. L. (2008). Motivation in education: Theory, research, and applications. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Shipp, J. (2011, 10). MOTIVATING STUDENTS? Leadership for Student Activities, 40, 16-18. Retrieved from