Language Learning Fuel: The Power of Intrinsic Motivation

Putting fuel in a car representing the power of intrinsic motivation to power language learning.
Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

You are motivated.  If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be reading this article.  The question isn’t if you are motivated or even how motivated you are but rather what type of motivation you have.  Is it the kind of fuel that will power you to make continuous progress, overcome the challenges and push through to fluency?

In this article, we’ll look at different types of motivation and the significant difference they can make to both your progress and your experience of language learning.

Two kinds of motivation

Motivation broadly falls into two categories, extrinsic and intrinsic:

Extrinsic motivation is driven by external factors, outside of yourself such as rewards when you reach your goal or negative consequences if you don’t.  It might be about the effect on your career or what others might think of you. 

For example, someone might start going to the gym because they want to look more attractive to others or they might start playing the guitar to impress people with their musical skills.  While these motivators might be enough to join the gym or buy the guitar, many people will start to lose interest and feel unmotivated to continue, unless they find some intrinsic motivation to keep them going.

Intrinsic motivation is about internal rewards such as personal interest, satisfaction or enjoyment in an activity.

For example, a person with intrinsic motivation might be going to the gym because they enjoy working out and get satisfaction from the progress they make with each gym visit or practicing the guitar because they love the sound and gain personal satisfaction from making music each time they play.  With this kind of motivation, people get a constant stream of internal rewards as they progress.  It is a continuous fuel source.

“The most potent motivators are internal drives that compel a person to create and innovate for personal satisfaction.”

Edward L. Deci

Language Learning Motivations

Many people decide to start learning a language for a specific reason e.g. to improve their CV, to get that better paid job, etc.  Or maybe they dream of being fluent in another language and imagine how great it would be to speak another language effortlessly, and how impressive that would be.  It’s often about the rewards they will receive when they get to the level they’re aiming for.  There’s nothing wrong with any of these motivations.  We all need a good reason to embark on the journey.

However, making progress in language learning requires consistent effort over time and it can be difficult and frustrating at times.  To maintain progress, we need to be running on a better fuel source.

Whenever I meet a polyglot (someone who has become fluent in several languages), I always see the same thing: They enjoy learning languages, they find the process fascinating and even fun.  They all have intrinsic motivation and that’s how they keep going and reach fluency.

If you’ve been struggling to invest time and effort in language activities and just feel stuck, it may be due to the type of motivation you’ve been using. The good news is that you can switch over to a more powerful intrinsic fuel source.

Transforming Extrinsic Motivation into Intrinsic Motivation

Here are some key things you can do to develop intrinsic motivation for learning any skill or building any strength:

  1. Focus on the journey, not just the outcome – Learn to appreciate where you are now on the journey and the advantages and joys you can experience now, as you progress in your current stage. 
  2. Seek out enjoyable aspects of the activities – Focus on finding joy, not just in completing tasks, but in actually doing them.  Ask yourself what you experience and enjoy when you do your learning activities.
  3. Focus on the satisfaction of increasing mastery and competence – Whatever level you are at, you can remind yourself of what you can do now that you couldn’t do before and look forward to increasing your competence still further.
  4. Align your tasks with your personal values and interests – You will find more satisfaction in learning activities if they connect with what you value and what personally interests you.
  5. Be active in designing your learning programme – It’s your choice to gain this skill, your investment in yourself and you can do it your way.  Personalise your programme with the kinds of activities that fit with your learning style and that are enjoyable for you.  And remember that you can modify them at any time, as needed.

Finding Intrinsic Motivation as a Language Learner

Here are some more specific things you can do to find a greater interest and enjoyment in the process and activities of language learning:

  • Choose content that interests you – What kinds of TV programmes do you usually enjoy watching?  What subjects do you enjoy reading about?  What topics of discussion interest you? Look for videos, audio and reading materials that will help you feel motivated by the content itself.
  • Practice with people you like spending time with – Where possible, try to set up opportunities to chat with people you feel at ease with, who make you smile and who have similar interests to you. 
  • Celebrate every win – There will be those little moments when you realise you have just understood that whole sentence or managed to say what you wanted to without pausing to find the word.  Whatever it is, however small, take the time to notice it and celebrate it.
  • Use methods that you find enjoyable – Different people enjoy different kinds of tasks.  Some people like being organised and structured.  Some people enjoy being creative.  Try out different language learning methods and find ones that you find fun to do.
  • Choose your environment – Some people prefer lively social situations with lots of people while others would find that draining and off-putting and would prefer one-to-one deeper conversations.  Actively plan social situations where you will feel happier and more confident to practice in.
  • Connect with the culture – We access the culture in a deeper way when we learn the language that developed in tandem with that culture.  So, developing a love for the culture can be a powerful motivator in language learning.  Look out for aspects of the culture that interest you.  Is it the music, the food, way people dress or something else?  Whatever it is, It can be a great subject for conversation that interests you and also interests native speakers.
  • Notice what you like about the language itself – Do you like the sound of certain words? Are you fascinated by local expressions?  Do you find the greetings particularly friendly?
  • Have a laugh – Don’t take language learning too seriously.  Make it fun.  Laugh at your silly mistakes – we all make them.  Can you find any jokes or funny stories in your target language?  If you enjoy listening to these (or maybe even re-telling them), that could be a fun language activity.

It’s all about the journey

Research into what makes us happy has shown that often when people finally reach their goal, they aren’t as happy as they thought they would be and they quickly forget about that achievement in the pursuit of another goal. 

However, those that focus on the journey towards a goal, rather than on the goal itself, can find genuine happiness while making progress.  So, as it turns out, intrinsic motivation is not only the best way to stay motivated, it’s also better for your mental health and general happiness in life.

Some Questions to Ask Yourself

  1. What are your motivations for learning a language? 
  2. Are these extrinsic or intrinsic motivations or a mixture of both?
  3. What do you find interesting or enjoyable about the process of learning a language or about the language itself?
  4. What can you change in your language learning strategy to make every language activity a rewarding experience for you?

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If, like me, you find the whole area of motivation fascinating, here are some key books to check out:

1. “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Daniel H. Pink

In this research-backed book, the author asserts that the secret to motivation and performance is our deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world (autonomy, mastery, and purpose). He presents techniques to improve motivation and transform how we think and live.

2. “Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation” by Edward L. Deci with Richard Flaste

Co-authored by one of the leading researchers on intrinsic motivation, the book argues that personal freedom in carrying out a task will stimulate interest and commitment, and is much more effective that a system of reward and punishment. This book provides insight into the factors that encourage intrinsic motivation and how they can be applied to various aspects of life.

3. “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

This book introduces the concept of ‘Flow’ – a state where people experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement in an activity.  This author explains how individuals can achieve this flow state and use it to enhance motivation, performance and happiness.


  • Understanding your motivations, and whether they are extrinsic or intrinsic, can provide you with insights that will really improve your language learning experience and progress.
  • It’s is not just about reaching fluency (or your target level) but also about enjoying the process, finding joy and personal satisfaction in every step of the journey.
  • You can start today by integrating one or two small changes to make your language learning more intrinsically motivated, such as aligning your language materials with your interests, celebrating small wins, or engaging more deeply with the culture.

Have you found this article helpful?  Does it match up with your own experience of language learning and motivation in general?  Let us know in the comments.