Intelligence or Motivation? Which Is The Key To Language Learning Success

Smarts are important for language learning, no doubt, as you memorize thousands of vocabulary words and apply complex grammar rules all while navigating another culture. This isn't easy to do and can take years for a learner to master.
That fact that the language learning journey is one of years is the reason why motivation is the true key behind every successful language learner. Motivation is what sustains a learner over time.
A typical language learner may begin studying a foreign language because of a school requirement. The learner decides to enroll in a particular language class based on several important factors, among them: friends enrolled in the course, perceived language difficulty (or ease), and generous grading scales. Unfortunately, the learner never really connects with the language or culture, but still does relatively well. Several years later, the learner has an opportunity to travel abroad for a conference and discovers that some aspect of the culture is fascinating. Long-forgotten vocabulary resurfaces and suddenly the learner understands that language is for communication, not study. The learner decides to take up the language as a hobby and creates a goal to find an internship working overseas within the next 2 years.
The anecdote above serves to illustrate how motivation changes over time for all language learners. The reason you begin learning a foreign or second language will probably be very different from the reason you will have for continuing your learning six months or six years from today.
Not only does it change over time, there are many different kinds of motivation. For example, you may be intrinsically motivated and learning the language because doing so is enjoyable. Or, maybe you're extrinsically motivated and studying to pass an entrance exam for your graduate studies.
What does the research tell us about the type of motivation you have and your language learning success?
You're probably thinking that the intrinsically motivated learner performs better. That they work smarter and harder than their peers who are working towards a goal or reward. Actually, not really.
Regardless of your reason for wanting to learn (as long as you're not unmotivated), that reason is typically good enough to get you through the immediate task or lesson set ahead of you. In other words, as long as you have a reason to keep learning, you will work as needed to learn the language and meet your goals.
The questions you need to ask yourself are:
  • Why am I learning a foreign language?
  • What happens if that reason changes or goes away?
Think about your answers to these two questions. Chances are very good that these answers - not your overall intelligence - will determine your ultimate language learning success!
Erin N. O'Reilly is a language coach specializing in second and foreign language learning strategies, helping language learners reach their potential. For more tips and strategies, or to ask her a question, check out: