Second Language Learning: Motivation and Attitude’ Role


Motivation and attitude are two integral elements of learning a new language. People who intend to learn a second language without any motivation lack interest in realising their objective (Chalak & Kassaian, 2010). This situation influences the rate of mastering new languages. This paper focuses on the role of motivation in learning English as a second language (L2) among Arabic native speaking learners.

The goal is to evaluate whether attitude and motivation are prime factors in enhancing the learning process for L2 in an Arabic learner’s context. First, the paper offers an overview of the impact of motivation and attitude on learning L2. Next, it proposes a motivation framework that is applicable within its scope. It then discusses factors that influence motivation, strategies of improving it, and its significance in teaching situations based on literature review on motivation and learning L2.

Defining Motivation and Attitude in the Context of Learning a Second Language

Motivation is a mental feature that enables individuals to realise certain ambitions. This paper focuses on the mastery of the English language (L2) among Arabic speaking learners. According to Gardner (2006), there exists no scholarly agreement on the definition of motivation since enthusiasm has several building blocks that make it a complex phenomenon.

Different schools of thought see the phenomenon of motivation from varying contexts. For instance, from the behavioural school of thought, it encompasses an expectation of rewards (Brown, 2000). On the other hand, the cognitive school of thought sees it as related to decisions made by learners. For instance, Daana and Tahaineh (2013, p.162) asserts, ‘The choices that people make as to what experiences or goals they will approach or avoid and the degree of effort they exert in that respect, determine their motivation’. Opposed to this view, constructivists view motivation as determined by both individual decisions and social contexts (Daana & Tahaineh, 2013).

Amid the varying definitions of motivation, the schools accept that motivation is driven by a need. In the context of this paper, the need is to learn English as a new language. For the purposes of ensuing later discussions, it is defined as the impulse that compels people to assume a specific behaviour such as learning L2. This definition implies that motivation is a multifaceted construct that is dictated by people’s attitude. Here, an attitude refers to states, which are internal to a learner, and which determine what he or she is most likely to do (Usioda, 2003).

Theoretical Motivation Framework

Scholarly research on motivation in L2 learning documents different L2 motivation frameworks. In the 1970s and 1980s, Gardner advanced socio-psychological approach to L2 learning motivation. In the 1982 framework, he considered second language acquisition dependent on intelligence, situational anxiety, and learners’ motivation and L2 aptitude (Rahman, 2005). He further claimed that these elements varied from one person to another, as of situation that reveals the difference in L2 acquisition levels among different learners (Crookes & Schmidt, 1991).

Later, in the 1990s, cognitive and situation-specific frameworks of L2 learning motivation emerged. For instance, Williams and Burden (1997) developed a motivation framework based on internal and external situational factors that influence L2 learning motivation as discussed in the section on factors that influence motivation and strategies for improving it. Dörnyei (2001) proposed a process-based motivation framework, which led to the conceptualisation of L2 learning motivation, which is composed of a set of phases, as shown in figure 1. The model is deployed in the discussion of the repercussion of motivation on L2 learning in my teaching situation.

FLL Motivation
Source: Dörnyei (2001)

Motivation and Attitude in Second Language Learning

The literature on motivation and attitude in learning a second language is divided into two broad theoretical paradigms, namely psychological and sociological approaches. The sociological approach asserts that language and society are two inseparable aspects (Moiinvaziri, 2008). This revelation implies that acquiring a first language also involves the inheritance of cultural and social aspects of a given language.

However, learning a second language entails integrating it with cultural and social dimensions of a given a group of people (Ricento, 2009). This situation gives birth to integrative motivation framework in L2 learning. Larsson and Olsson (2012) confirm that teaching English as a second language to people who are speaking other languages entails orienting students to life patterns of the English speaking community.

Psychological perspective appreciates the role played by motivation in enhancing learning L2. Proponents of this approach contend that motivated learners acquire the desired success in learning a second language when they possess the needed attitude towards the learning process. For example, Tremblay and Gardner (1995, p.507) posits, ‘Motivated learners tend to be more active in the learning process’. Cook (2004) adds that highly motivated L2 learners notice that language plays pragmatic functions. Motivation determines the extent of the effort required in a successful learning process for a new language (Oxford & Shearin, 1994).

Scholarly research on the impacts of motivation on learning L2 differentiates between two main types of motivation, namely instrumental and integrative motivation. Integrative motivation refers to a ‘high level of drive on the part of the individual to acquire the language of a valued second language community to facilitate communication with that group and eventually to become a valued member of it’ (Larsson & Olsson, 2012, p.27). Instrumental motivation refers to the desire to learning a second language for a utilitarian purpose or practical reason, such as securing a job or acquiring upward social mobility (Gartner & Lambert, 1972).

The integrative approach in learning a second language suggests that people acquire motivation in learning the language if they like the culture of its native speakers and admire speaking the language. This situation increases the want for integration with the society that speaks the given language.

Ehrman and Dörnyei (1998) contend with this position by further asserting that where an individual lives in a community that speaks a given language that he is not conversant with, he or she develops integrative motivation to gain proficiency in speaking in the language in a bid to fit well in the society. In this extent, integrative motivation encompasses one of the crucial factors that are necessary for enabling people to fit in a given society to the extent that they become one of its members. Finegan (1999) believes that integrative motivation is necessary for learners to learn pronunciations that are similar to those of the second-language native speakers.

The need for gaining something dictates instrumental motivation. Such desires include demanding pay increment, depending on the level of language mastery and proficiency (Hudson, 2000). As opposed to integrative motivation, instrumental motivation is less characterised by the need to integrate with a community that one desires to learn its language. Although instrumental and integrative motivation is essential in learning a second language, Crookes and Schmidt (1991) and Ellis (1997) confirm that integrative motivation facilitates long-term success in learning a second language.

In a study by Gardner and Lambert (1972) as quoted by Finegan (1999), integrative motivation was considered an essential aspect informal learning processes compared to instrumental motivation. Dörnyei and Ushioda (2009) echoed a similar observation claiming that learners with integrative motivation possess more chances of learning beyond intermediate levels compared to those with instrumental motivation. However, Qashoa (2006) and Vaezi (2008) differ with this line of argument by claiming that instrumentally motivated learner can equally attain success in learning L2 with respect to those who have integrative motivation.

Studies on motivation for learning a second language as conducted in different places highlight the importance of both integrative and instrumental motivation in determining the success of learning. Among the Arabic speaking students who seek to learn English as their second language, Al-Quyadi (2000) indicates in the Yemen context that learners depict high levels of motivation in their effort to learn English language. In relation to their mind-set, the study showed that the learners possessed an encouraging stance on English in an attempt to deploy it in both instructive and public environments within Yemen.

Qashoa (2006) was concerned with the role of motivation in Dubai secondary school in learning English as a second language. Using a sample of 100 students, Qashoa (2006) found that the studied students had more instrumental motivation than integrative motivation. The study also identified subjective challenges, including English language structure, spellings, and vocabulary loads as the major sources of de-motivation. Al-Quyadi (2000) and Qashoa (2006) suggest that attitude and motivation are important variables in learning English as a second language from the Arabic context.

Dörnyei (1994) asserts that motivation develops through three phases, namely language, learning situational level, and learners’ levels. Language level involves instrumental and integrative subsystems. The learners’ level has aspects such as anxiety in language use, perception of second language competence, and self-efficacy. In case of learning situation, motivational components that are dictated by teachers such as afflictive motives, motivational components that are dictated by course requirements such as relevance, and group-specific elements determine the rate of success in learning a second language (Dörnyei, 1994).

Dörnyei (2005) revised the above model. However, he still presented motivation for L2 learning in three aspects. The first aspect is the ideal L2 self (Dörnyei, 2010). This element is related to what one wants to become. In case the L2 learner wants to speak fluently in L2 language, L2 ideal self becomes an incredibly important motivator in the L2 learning process. The second aspect is the ‘out-to L2 self’, which refers to the attributes that an individual learning L2 believes that they (attributes) best describe an L2 speaker (Dörnyei, 2010).

It helps in determining any anticipation in the learning process in a bid to curtail potential negative learning outcomes. Learning experience in L2, which is the third aspect of Dörnyei’s (2005) revised motivation model, relates to various situational motives that characterise the immediate learning environment such as the effects of school programme, instructors, group partners, or even achievement experience (Dörnyei, 2010). This observation suggests that motivation in learning L2 is influenced by various factors as discussed in the next section.

Factors that influence Motivation and Strategies to improve it

Scholarly evidence by Daana and Tahaineh (2013) suggests that motivation constitutes a fundamental factor, which influences the ability of people to learn a foreign language (L2) effectively. Much similar to motivation, attitude towards people who speak a particular language or other aspects of their culture may limit or foster the speed and rate of mastery of a foreign language (Cook, 2004). This situation then affects learning motivation.

Hence, cultivating a positive attitude towards learning a new language constitutes a major strategy for enhancing the learning of L2. De Bot, Lowie, and Verspoor (2005) confirm that teachers and researchers appreciate that high motivation and possession of positive attitude towards a given community aids in enhancing learning a second language. This claim suggests that the two factors are crucial in learning a second of language, irrespective of the context under consideration.

From the above expositions, it sounds substantial to confirm that factors that influence motivation in learning L2 can be classified into internal and external factors in line with Williams and Burden (1997) L2 learning framework. Internal factors include perceived intrinsic interest in the learning activity such as arousal of learning curiosity, perceived value of learning activity such as the expected value of learning outcomes, and personal relevance in the L2 skill. Other internal factors are perception of L2 learning urgency, L2 mastery needs such as developing a feeling of language competence, self-concept, and development of a positive attitude towards the target language and the need to integrate with the target language society’s culture (Williams & Burden, 1997).

External factors that influence motivation for L2 learning include other people who act as significant contributors of the enhanced learning process such as parents, peer group members, and more importantly, teachers (Williams & Burden, 1997). To improve motivation in learning L2, these external players need to support learners in a bid to enable them develop a positive intrinsic attitude towards the L2 language and its native speakers’ cultural norms.

A strategy for improving L2 learning from the perspective of the broader context entails the resolution of potential conflicting interests between L2 speakers and the learner and setting achievable societal expectations. The learning environment needs to be comfortable and/or have learning supportive resources (Williams & Burden, 1997). Appropriate ways of interacting with significant others may comprise one of the strategies of ensuring improvement of the motivation for learning L2. For instance, rewarding and praising those who achieve certain pre-set learning goals can immensely serve to motivate Arabic learners.

Implications to My Teaching Situation (Arabic Learners in General)

As quoted by Rahman (2005), Gardner and Lambert (1972) confirm that motivation to learn L2 is a function of a learner’s attitude towards the language. While Lifrieri (2005) contends with this assertion, he asserts that attitude is essential, although it is an inadequate indirect requirement for attaining linguistic proficiency. This claim suggests that attitude is not sufficient to foster learning L2 without motivation to learn the language. Hence, while teaching English to Arabic native speakers, it is necessary to consider motivation and attitude in enhancing its learning.

The paper revealed that learning L2 depends on instrumental and integrative motivation, although scholarly research evidences that the contribution of each depends on the context and internal and external factors. This situation has a direct connotation on teaching English among Arabic speaking students in general.

For instance, as a teacher, I have to identify the primary motive of teaching English and develop motivational strategies around it. For instance, some students may be using an international curriculum. In this context, integrative motivation might play an important role in the development of positive attitude among students who are learning English since effective communication with international scholars requires proficiency in the language if English becomes a universally agreed upon global language.

Upon considering the various factors, which affect L2 learning, any Arabic teacher who teaches English also needs to break down the potential threats to motivation. For instance, breaking cultural stereotypes constitutes one of the essential strategies of enhancing motivation while learning English. This strategy is perhaps effective upon taking into account Daana and Tahaineh’s (2013) claim that from an integrative motivation approach, cultural norms may create conflicting interests among L2 learners with the target language community since learning L2 language entails integrating the speakers’ culture.

Based on Williams and Burden (1997) and Dörnyei’s (2001) frameworks for learning L2, learning situation and self-concept are important factors that determine L2 learning motivation. Self-concept and feeling of competence are shaped by the teachers’ responses to L2 learning evaluations. Evaluation is accomplished using different methodologies.

They include informal observations, official remarks, verbal probing, learners’ evidence investigation, pencil and paper tests, and qualitative estimation among others. In terms of abilities, the main aspects that can be assessed include proficiency and grammatical knowledge in L2 (Dörnyei, 2010). The results of the assessment are normally deployed as an indication of the effectiveness of the teacher in the realisation of the core curriculum objectives.

On the part of teachers, positive results can act as an immense source of motivation. On the other hand, where assessment results indicate that the learners are not responding as anticipated, teachers may be unmotivated. This situation may influence their behaviour towards their work. In case of students, similar impacts can also be experienced. Perhaps, this case can translate into the formation of a negative self-concept, and hence a negative attitude towards learning English among native Arabic speakers. Therefore, in my teaching situation, I need to help students to establish achievable English learning goals and only test the degree of attainment of the set goals. This strategy reduces the challenge of low motivation that is attributed to the failure to achieve vulgar preset learning goals.

From Dörnyei’s (2001) motivation framework, the process of ensuring English learning motivation among Arabic L2 learners will take place when they have a need for achievement and self-confidence that they can effectively learn and become competent in the English language. This plan has the implication that a teacher needs to determine whether learning the language serves instrumental or integrative purposes among the Arabic learners. Indeed, the need for achievement will be fulfilled when a learner attains the objective of learning English.

This claim suggests that with clear set objectives, whether utilitarian or not, Arabic learners will commit their energy in learning the language until a certain need is achieved. Thus, a teacher has an obligation to define the requisite procedures to follow in the English language learning process to ensure that learners achieve their utilitarian needs. Hence, educators should develop and only assess English learning programmes that are not only capable of retaining learners’ interest, but also have easily achievable short-term goals in a bid to keep them motivated.

Similarly, where learners seek to learn English for integrative purposes, they can gain motivation in learning the language when they have clear and unambiguous procedures and learning requirements such as pronunciation issues that enable them fit well within the English speaking community where language is one of the cultural artefacts. However, it is also important to consider the role that cultural experiences and backgrounds of Arabic speaking English learners can play in enhancing the process of conveying the culture of English speaking people within classroom settings.

Despite the fact that English represents extensive cultural expressions, Arabic learners may possess limited and idealised perception about people who speak in the language. It is the obligation of teachers to help learners expand their knowledge and understanding of English speaking nations. In this process, learners’ cultural identity and experience may act as an immense resource, especially when exchange programmes with foreign tertiary learning institutions are incorporated so that students can acquire interest and develop a positive attitude towards English proficiency.


Motivation and positive attitude towards the culture of a targeted language community are important precedents for success in learning L2. The paper has suggested that success in learning English among Arabic speakers depends on their ability to overcome any potential threat to the development of a positive attitude towards the English world. Such challenges impede the development of self-concept and the process of defining the need for learning English. Working against such impediments will favour positive interest in learning the language. As an essential determinant of motivation, interest cannot exist with cultural biasness and myths. Hence, it is important for teachers to encourage and provide platforms for cross-cultural dialogue in the attempt to demystify or overcome the likely cultural friction between Arabic language speakers and English language fanatics.


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