Comprendre la motivation est essentiel pour les apprenants adultes qui se lancent dans l’apprentissage d’une langue étrangère comme l’anglais. Cet article présente la Théorie de l’Auto-Détermination de manière simple et claire, offrant des pistes pour transformer les motivations externes en motivations personnelles.


September is a good time for making new starts in our continuing education as adult second language learners. Motivation is high. We are rested after a summer holiday and feel up to the challenge. 

And yet, as adult learners, we are also very much aware of the finicky and somewhat unreliable nature of motivation. It comes and it goes. But mostly it goes. And when it does, effort dies and learning stops. 

Having a better understanding of the nature of motivation is an essential tool for making our language-learning goals reality. When we are able to identify the source of our motivation (or lack of it !) at a given moment, we are in a better position to fan the flame.


Motivation means to be moved into action. It is the reason why we engage in an activity and why we persevere. It is the motor, or driving force behind goal-oriented behaviour such as cleaning a house, climbing a mountain, or learning a second language. 

Motivation is vital because it influences how much effort we put into achieving our goals and ultimately how successful we are. 


Scientists have been deeply interested in the mechanisms involved in motivation and have been conducting research to better understand these for over a hundred years. It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that there are just about as many motivation theories as there are languages.

However, since the 1950’s, researchers have come to recognize two main types of motivation for human behaviour : intrinsic and extrinsic.


Intrinsic motivation refers to behavior that stems from a natural curiosity and desire to explore and learn. When we are intrinsically motivated we do not expect or need any other reward or outcome than the pleasure we derive from an activity we find interesting. 


It has been repeatedly demonstrated in educational contexts and elsewhere, that intrinsic motivation is « superior » to extrinsic motivation. People are more persistant, creative and productive when powered by this particularly potent type of motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1991) ; Sheldon, Ryan, Rawsthorne, & Hardi, 1997.


In contrast to intrinsic motivation that is self-driven, extrinsic motivation is controlled by factors external to ourselves. Extrinsically motivated activity is powered by a system of rewards, punishments and separable outcomes. 



Although there is nothing « wrong » with extrinsically motivated behavior—afterall, it gets the job done—we know that it isn’t optimal. Therefore, the question naturally becomes : is it possible to transform extrinsic motivation into something more intrinsic and positive ? According to experts Ryan and Deci, the answer is, yes !


In 1985, researchers Richard Ryan and Edward Deci presented their ground-breaking Self-Determination Theory (SDT) which views humans as being naturally endowed with intrinsic motivational tendancies that can be facilitated or thwarted by environmental factors. 

Intrinsic motivation is facilitated, they say, when an individual’s 3 basic psychological needs are met. These are the need for autonomy (free choice), the need for competence (self-efficacy), and the need for relatedness (connection with others). 

However, according to Ryan and Deci, this principal only applies if the individual finds the activity intrinsically interesting.

This means that for adult L2 learners like ourselves, no matter how much support we get from our environment, if we find that grammar exercise too dull to do, we will need to muster extrinsic motivation to compel us into action. 

The good news is that Self-Determination Theory proposes that there are different types of extrinsic motivation, and these are distinguished by their varying degrees of autonomy. In other words, some types of extrinsic motivation are in part self-determined, therefore closer to that good intrinsic energy we’d like to enjoy more often ! 


  1. Amotivation : This state, the first on the continuum, is one of no motivation to act at all. At best, we just go through the motions.  


     – Patty bought the Spanish course book, but it is still on the shelf, unopened.

     – Alfie goes to French class, but just sits in the back, doodling.

Amotivation has potentially three causes : not valuing an activity (Ryan, 1995) not feeling competent (Bandura, 1986), or not expecting the activity to yield a desired outcome (Seligman, 1975).

  1. External Regulation : This is the first of the truly motivated behaviors and corresponds to the original « extrinsic motivation » referred to earlier. It is the least autonomous of the types of externally motivated behaviors. Actions are performed to satisfy an external demand or reward. 


     –  Patty did her lesson because she promised herself an ice cream afterwards.

     –  Alfie goes to French class because he gets to sit next to Emily. 

  1. Introjected Regulation : This type of extrinsic motivation is a bit less externally regulated. Motivated in this way, we are performing actions in order to avoid guilt or anxiety, or for ego gratification and feelings of self-worth (Deci & Ryan, 1995).


     –  Patty memorized 5 new words so she could check it off her to-do list. 

     – Alfie does his homework because he doesn’t want to look stupid in class.

It is evident that Introjected Regulation is an effective motivating force. Studies have shown that students will put in more time and effort when self-esteem is at stake. However, this also makes them vulnerable to feelings of anxiety, and leaves them ill-equipped to deal with failure (Ryan and Connell, 1989).

  1. Identified Regulation : This is a more autonomous or self-determined form of extrinsic motivation. Here, we become conscious that the behavioral goal is valuable and personally important, but there is only partial internalization.


     –  Patty is studying Spanish so she can speak to her son-in-law’s family.

     –  Alfie is trying to improve his French so he can negotiate better with Antoine.

  1. Integrated Regulation : This is the most autonomous, or self-determined type of extrinsic motivation. We have integrated the behavior into our « self ». It has become a part of our identity. We engage in these actions because they are in harmony with our values and our identity. 


     –  Patty did her grammar lesson because she is a linguist and values family.  

     –  Alfie learned the vocabulary because he now likes Paris and wants to belong.  

  1. Intrinsic Regulation : This form of motivation corresponds to the original definition of intrinsic motivation. The action is performed for the pleasure we feel while engaged in it, and no other reward is needed or desired.


     –  Patty loses track of time when she is translating Cervantes. 

     –  Alfie was so absorbed by his grammar lesson, he forgot the match on TV.


According to Ryan and Deci and SDT, the types of motivation discussed above reflect the varying degrees to which the value and the regulation of a particular behavior have been internalized and integrated into our sense of self. 

This internalization and integration is a transformative process during which we will experience a growing sense of autonomy in action as these become more and more intrinsically motivated.  

Indeed, this process is helped or hindered by environmental factors. There have been many studies done involving younger students, investigating their relationship with their parents, their teachers, the school environment, and the task ; but we are adult learners, and that is different. 

Because we are adults, we are naturally more autonomous. We have more life experience, are more self-aware, and our belief-systems and values, though always in movement, have been fashioned over time. If we are studying a foreign language, usually, it is because we have chosen to do so, for whatever reason.

If we are wondering how to transform a lesser form of extrinsic motivation into a more positive one that makes us feel energized and helps us persevere, as adult learners, it would seem that the first step to take would be to look inward. Since this transformative process involves progressively owning and adopting behaviors valuable to the self, it is logical that the « self » will provide the information we need.

Taking a few moments for introspection to ask, « why am I doing this ? » should enable us to determine the type of motivation we are mobilizing at a given moment, then, depending on the answer, take action. A daily reminder, perhaps in the form of a hand-written note card on our fridge, of the intrinsically important, underlying reasons we are studying a language—reasons rooted in our need to learn and grow, feel competent, connect with others—could help us transform a dull grammar exercise into a personally meaningful task we actually enjoy.   




  1. finicky : capricieux


  1. fan the flame : attiser la flamme


  1. ground-breaking : révolutionnaire


  1. thwarted : contrarié


  1. muster : mobiliser


  1. compel : forcer


  1. go through the motions : faire sans conviction


  1. doodling : griffonner


  1. sense of self : identité


  1. hindered : entravé


Sources : 

Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2000) Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist. 68-78


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