• Sarah

Motivation - What's the Big Deal?

Updated: Oct 1, 2019

Think back to your least favorite subject in school. Everybody had one -- even the biggest nerds (myself included -- I was never a fan of math). What was the subject that you just didn't care about? Or maybe it didn't come easily to you, so you always felt discouraged about it.

Now think about either a) your favorite subject in school (if you had one) or b) your current favorite past-time or hobby. Something you choose to spend time and energy on. Something no one ever has to force you to focus on or do.

Now imagine you can't speak -- you have to find some other way to communicate. Typing, handwriting, sign language, charades, whatever. But pretend you need to have a conversation with someone without speaking. Which of the above subjects -- your favorite or your least favorite -- would you rather have that conversation about, without the ability to speak?

Of course we would all tend choose to converse about topics we find interesting, but the stakes are higher when the ability to converse suddenly becomes harder than it typically is.

If you've ever lost your voice, like me, you might have experienced this first-hand: you have a funny comment to make at the check-out register, or you think of a witty response to a friend's anecdote. But is it really worth pulling out your phone to type it? By the time you do that, the moment is gone. So why bother?

What might really make it worth the effort is either a) having a message that you need to convey (e.g. "Where is the bathroom?"), or b) having something to say that might lead to a substantial interaction that you'll really enjoy.

Keeping in mind the importance of motivation to communicative effort, now think of someone who is still learning their first language -- often an infant or toddler, but this also includes children or adults with language disorders or complex communication needs. The effort they have to put into communicating is at least as much as the effort it would take for you to communicate without speaking.

Now we get to the less-than-intuitive part:

The best thing to do for these language learners is to not require them to communicate.

"In a recent study, researchers compared a program that teaches parents of Late Talkers strategies to encourage language development (Target Word ™) to a control group. They found that children of parents who changed their behavior regarding pressure on the child improved more on expressive vocabulary (Kruythoff-Broekman et al, 2019)."

The above quote is from a fantastic article titled "How Taking the Pressure OFF can Help your Toddler Talk." The take-home message applies just as well to anyone learning to communicate using their first language. Check it out for a more in-depth explanation of why and how reducing communicative demands helps language development.

Okay, we get it. Lower the communicative pressure for language learners. But what about the other side of the coin? We know what not to do, so what do we do? How do we inspire and encourage language learners to communicate without making demands or putting pressure on them?

Ready for a buzz-word? Here it is: intrinsic motivation.

Think back to the example at the very beginning of this post -- the one that asked you to think of your favorite and least-favorite school subjects. What motivated you to go to class for your least-favorite subject? What convinced you to do the homework, or even try on the tests? For many, it's the fear of getting into trouble for cutting class or not completing the required work. For others, maybe it's the desire to get decent grades regardless of interest level. Either way, those reasons came from outside of you -- you wouldn't get yourself in trouble if you skipped class, nor would you be able to give yourself a passing grade if you didn't study. Other people -- or outside forces -- deliver the consequences in this case. We call this extrinsic motivation.

Now remember your favorite subject or hobby. Did you need an outside force to make you go to class, complete the homework, and try your best on the tests? Possibly. Even when it's about the most interesting topic in the world, very few people enjoy tests or busy-work. But it was probably easier to be productive and get things done than it was for other, less-preferred classes or activities. This is because your inherent interest and enthusiasm for the subject itself -- your intrinsic motivation -- helped give you energy to participate and took up some of the slack from the work extrinsic motivators have to do. There's good science behind the fact that our brains learn best when we're enjoying ourselves.

For those with autism or other neurological differences like ADHD, amongst others, certain topics or activities hold so much appeal that they earn the label of restrictive interests.

But if intrinsic motivation -- what we're inherently motivated by without outside influences -- is the key to language learning, can these restrictive interests be useful? Some research and educational experts suggest yes.

Here's a handy graphic that brings a lot of the concepts discussed in this post together (it applies to non-speech communication as well!):

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