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Getting Closer: How to Figure Out Your Integrative Motivation

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Photographer's mantra: "Come closer" - works for learning languages as well.

“So, where are you guys from?”

We had just finished a delicious paella and were settling the bill with a charming Spanish waiter. The city was British (well – Welsh), the restaurant – Spanish. All around us, people were easing into what promised to be a nice, sunny weekend – many languages, nationalities and styles. It felt right to be asked, and OK to be able to answer the way we did.

“We’re from Poland,” we said. The waiter smiled and told us that his girlfriend was Polish. Then, switching into Polish all of a sudden, he said:

Ja mówię trochę po polsku, bo mieszkałem kiedyś w Warszawie” – I speak a bit of Polish, because I used to live in Warsaw.

We were pleasantly surprised, and resolved to come back for tapas and salsa pretty soon. It wasn’t until we got home, though, that I started to think about what happened there. Now, as I’m writing this down, I’m expecting this to be more of a rave / rant than a structured piece, but hey. It’s a bloggers privilege.


Learning a language – a word about motivation

There are thousands of reasons for picking up a language, signing up for a class, deciding to speak. Our waiter had clearly come to a conclusion, one fine day, that Spanish wasn’t enough – that he was going to have to learn a bit of Polish. Now think carefully, Sherlock…what made him do so?

He wanted to speak to his girlfriend, that’s for sure. But he also spent some time in Warsaw. This brings us to integrative motivation – one of the most common motivations behind learning foreign languages.

In short, integrative motivation is a desire to learn a language driven by a need – or desire – to blend in with the community, to integrate with the people around you – or the people of the community you admire. This, in itself, is pretty obvious, but this type of motivation comes in all shapes and sizes:


– It can be a young girl’s dream to learn English, because she wants to be part of the “cool, English-speaking girls” club at school.

– It can be our waiter’s decision to speak Polish to his girlfriend, and the people in Warsaw – not because he needs to (he would get by on his English, as so many people before) – but because he wants to “be closer” to the life around him.

– It can be my ambition to learn Welsh, to discover all my current community’s voices and figure out its history, culture and heritage.


You can already see that integrative motivation stems from one driving force: being closer to people.


“Integrative motivation is nice, but not profitable.”

This is a common opinion among language teachers: either you’re this idealistic person who wants to know all the Beatles’ lyrics, read all Roald Dahl’s books and spend hours talking English to people to feel “more English” – or you’re this cold-blooded, calculating Business English learner, who treats his tutors like car mechanics and his language like a giant toolbox. “Give me this, show me how to use that, does this replace that, OK, I’m done, let’s earn money.” Within such a model, integrative motivation makes you the nice guy – and ultimately may even help you learn better – but doesn’t guarantee this quick, progress-driven pace – not to mention financial benefits.


Think about it for a second. How can language teachers and learners be so short-sighted?


Integrative motivation can be just as “profitable” as any other kind. It can turn a language learner into a caring, creative and indispensable individual. It enables people to carry out what Seth Godin describes as “emotional labour” – caring about something and deciding that it’s important.

Integrative motivation makes you notice more. It makes you pick up various bits and pieces of language from conversations with strangers, signs on doors, newspapers. It makes you a weird and chaotic language learner – but also a determined and flexible one.

Finally – this kind of motivation ultimately leads to people. It’s not focused on status reports and powerpoint slides. It’s not aimed at business terms and writing contracts. These things are necessary and important, of course – but without the human aspect, I think, they turn into just another set of tools. Which is one way of looking at language, I guess. But not always my way.


Figuring out your integrative motivation – a quick exercise

Imagine this situation: you are given a chance to learn one language well enough to fully, seamlessly integrate with a given community (community = about the size of a small town).

– What language would you choose?

– Which community would you like to “sink into”?

– How and when would you most use the language?

– How would you feel when using the language in that way?

– Now, if you had to start learning this language, knowing that you couldn’t fail, what would be your first step?

– What would you do then – what would you start doing regularly?

– What would you stop doing?


If you feel like it, share your answers in the comments below!

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2 Responsesso far.

  1. John Wolf says:

    Integrative orientation to motivation leads to people – very true. Integrating into a foreign culture demands communicative and intercultural competence, gained from lived experiences that we have with people. They are more memorable than things we read in book, especially language books.

    Integrative motivation is ultimately intrinsic, in my opinion, which is also a very powerful type of motivation. “Intrinsically motivated behaviors are aimed at bringing about certain internally rewarding consequences, namely, feelings of competence and self-determination.” – Edward Deci.

  2. Wiktor K. says:

    John – that’s spot-on. That kind of motivation is both stronger and leads to more memorable exchanges. Also, I think, more permanent? The external factors may change faster than the drive you get to learn and explore. If you’re lucky, that is.