Candy, Gift Cards & Cold Steel: Thoughts on Foreign Language Student Motivation

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Motivating anyone, but particularly young people, is an individualistic endeavor. Experts have noted that what one learner finds motivating, another will push back against.

You have surely experienced such pushback in your own life; when someone thinks they are goading you into cooperation but quite the opposite, in fact, happens, and you’re more discouraged than before.

When I ponder what motivates me in particular, I think of when I worked in a posh resort’s reservations call center for several years. On one occasion our group of reps had met a sales goal. During the meeting we had immediately after achieving this goal, our manager gathered everyone around the conference table. After congratulating us on the sales victory, she brought out a basket of cheap candies.

One by one, she tossed the little treats through the air to each employee.

Actually, as I edit this, it would be more accurate to say she threw the candies AT each employee.

My coworkers grinned with glee as they unwrapped their heretofore unanticipated goodies.

Target Practice?

As for me? I was flabbergasted, not by the minimal value of the candy but by how condescendingly it was shared with us.

As a corresponding gesture of feigned gratefulness towards the harebrained delivery of these minuscule missiles, I couldn’t help myself; I started clapping and honking like a trained seal right then and there in front of everyone.

How infantilizing this poorly executed motivational tool felt to me!

On another occasion a manager surprised me with a gift certificate for a free massage. On the slip of paper, she simply wrote, “Thank you.” This was a lovely gesture. I was happy to receive the generous gift and am proud that I refrained this time from clapping like a trained seal. Management’s appreciation made manifest by a valuable massage sure beat having candy hurled at me!

Now, not to look a gift certificate horse in the mouth -- but I was never clear on what I had even done to earn her appreciation. 

I was more bewildered than motivated to keep doing what I was doing – because I never ascertained exactly what I was doing that made her happy. Somehow that very fact cheapened the reward.

It seems when we express gratitude, it is helpful to specify exactly what we appreciate.

Now, I know many of my fellow employees were thrilled at the mid-day candy treat irrespective of how it made its way to their mouths. Similarly, a free massage is a free massage. Very nice. Both motivational tools were delivered in good faith, I knew.

But they rather irked me just the same, for reasons that were particular to me. Again, most of my coworkers were perfectly happy with their rewards.

As I realized much later in life, what really motivated me (and still does) is some sort of prestige.  Neither the candy nor the massage provided that for me.

Prestige, You Say?

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

So when, after a couple of years, the head of the division “promoted” me to “management”? Even though my pay went up only a few cents per hour, my responsibilities had little to do with actual managerial tasks, and I was sequestered into an office the size of a large shoebox, I nevertheless felt like I ruled the world. Having had the fruits of my hard work duly acknowledged by my superiors, and rewarded with a fancy new job title, I felt like the proverbial cock of the walk. Now more than ever, I was determined to do my best!

It seems getting it together to motivate each individual where they're at is key.

Let's pivot for a moment and consider motivation in the context of the world languages classroom. Language classes are usually a lot of fun. World language teachers incorporate a wealth of music, videos, songs, games and reading to enhance the learning environment. 

"Here we are now. Entertain us!" crooned Kurt Cobain, but beyond keeping kids engaged, songs and such are top-notch tools in the languages classroom to solidly reinforce language learning. It sure doesn't hurt that an enjoyable class tends to encourage and motivate most children.

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Other factors besides classroom entertainment come into play where the personal incentive to learn another language is concerned: 

  • High achieving students will often find motivation knowing good grades in a language will help carry them into a good college. 
  • There is a decisive sense of pride (and so much joy) that comes with being able to speak even a few halting words of another language. 
  • And who doesn't love watching foreign movies and perking up to hear an unexpected word or phrase they understand!

Of course, most students aren't going to experience the thrill of bilingualism right off the bat. And then there are so many other facets to their education. What can be done? 

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

The best book I’ve read on the subject of motivating students is The Motivation Breakthrough: 6 Secrets to Turning On the Tuned-Out Child (2007) by Rick Lavoie. As an expert on children with special needs, he describes these students and their idiosyncrasies at times, but the principles he outlines are appropriate for any youngster. Heck, he even shares how prestige (in the form of power and recognition) is a motivating factor for some children. Ahem.

As Mr Lavoie points out:

Every learning theorist…has stated that the learning process begins with motivation. Without motivation, there is no learning. Attempting to teach a child who is unmotivated is as futile as hammering on cold steel.

Youth-centric motivators he cites besides power and recognition include gregariousness, autonomy, status, inquisitiveness, aggression, and affiliation. Do any of these sound like something your student might be lacking?

Some quick tips from this marvelous book:

  • Use “unplanned”/random, yet meaningful rewards.
  • Let there be joy in the learning!
  • Avoid emphasis on material rewards such as money.
  • Celebrate the student’s strengths and skills; most especially, praise  effort.

I mean, I may be much older than the kids Mr Lavoie describes, but I will say this: Keep your Tootsie Rolls and Shiatsu, and give the manager (me) some aggrieved callers, squabbling co-workers and broom closet offices any time!

At the end of the day, the “holy grail” goal of intrinsically motivating school children is still a widely studied topic, and I expect it will continue to be for many years hence. Stay tuned!

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