What demotivates language learners?

elt motivation Oct 22, 2021

By James Jenkin

Demotivation to learn English, roughly speaking, means losing any enthusiasm to learn the language. Every teacher meets demotivated students. Why have they lost interest?

Some researchers (Arai, 2004; Kojima, 2004) have highlighted internal factors: in particular, a lack of self-confidence, and negative attitudes towards English-language culture. It’s common to hear students despair at their own ability: ‘I’m terrible at languages’ or ‘I’m too old’. Admittedly it’s not so common to hear students say ‘I hate the English-speaking world’, but that might be what they are thinking.

Is demotivation all internal? Wouldn’t students’ learning experiences have an impact on the way they feel?

Indeed, surveys of students have shown that ‘specific external forces’ (Dörnyei, 2001:143) – for most learners, what happens in the classroom – have an enormous impact on the desire to learn English.

A number of studies (e.g. Gorham & Christophel, 1992, Ushioda, 1998, Dörnyei, 2001, Hasegawa, 2004) have found demotivators fall into several broad categories, such as:

•  teacher behavior (personality, enthusiasm, ability, teaching methods)
•  learning activities (course book, presentation of materials, activity types)
•  school environment (exams, classroom equipment, class size, class level)

What we learn is that the teacher is the critical factor. In Gorham & Christophel’s (1992) study, most respondents highlighted issues directly related to the behavior of their teachers, such as ‘not in control of classroom’, ‘loses temper’, ‘boring’, ‘unprepared’, ‘not available for individual help’, ‘not knowledgeable’. Students’ main concerns are teachers’ personality, and lack of commitment and competence (Dörnyei, 2001). Hasegawa (2004:135) concludes it is misguided teacher behaviors that have a ‘strong impact’ on student demotivation.

It’s interesting that it’s not one aspect of teacher behavior that stands out. Teachers’ relationship with students, their ability (or lack of ability) to inspire, their subject knowledge, and the teaching methods they use, all seem equally important.

And teacher behavior is clearly the most interrelated with other factors. From students’ perspective, it’s the teacher who makes the materials interesting, who can deal with problems such as a mixed-ability class, and who can help make students feel confident about a test.

What does this mean for teachers?

It’s a positive message. Students see teachers as central to their success. This feedback from learners highlights the responsibility we have, and the action we need to take. It shows that not only do we shape the immediate learning environment, but also have a big impact at a deeper level on students’ confidence and their perception of the English-speaking world.


Arai, K. (2004). What ‘demotivates’ language learners?: Qualitative study on demotivational factors and learners’ reactions. Bulletin of Toyo Gakuen University, 12(3), 39-47.

Dörnyei, Z. & Ushioda, E. (2001). Teaching and researching motivation. Harlow, England: Pearson Education.

Gorham, J. & Christophel, D. (1992). Students’ perceptions of teacher behaviors as motivating and demotivating factors in college classes. Communication Quarterly, 40(3), 239-252.

Hasegawa, A. (2004). Student demotivation in the foreign language classroom. Takushoku Language Studies, 107(11), 119-136.

Kojima, S. (2004). English learning demotivation in Japanese EFL students: Research in demotivational patterns from the qualitative research results of three different types of high schools. Unpublished master thesis. Kwansei Gakuin University, Hyogo, Japan.

Ushioda, E. (1998). Effective motivational thinking: A cognitive theoretical approach to the study of language learning motivation. In E.A. Soler & V.C. Espurz (eds), Current issues in English language methodology (pp. 77-89). Universitat Jaume I, Catello de la Plana, Spain.

James Jenkin has worked in the field of TESOL for over twenty years as a teacher, teacher trainer, curriculum designer and academic manager. He is an IELTS examiner and has an MA in Applied Linguistics from Monash University, Australia.

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