The Motivation of Language Learning, Language Maintenance, and Language Death


Human language is a dynamic entity which moves, changes, develops, and dies. The dynamics of human language is in line with the dynamics of human life and entire phenomena surrounding the human itself including the aspects of psychology, social, economy, politics, and culture. One of the crucial factors that relate those aspects, especially in language context, is the use of the language itself. Therefore, we can find a red thread crossing those aspects by assuming that the dynamics of a language is in accordance with the utilization of the language by its speech community.

The language dynamics as previously mentioned above can be recognized through its movement in terms of the geographical widening of language use, the development of speech community, the change or shift of the word meaning, the emerged new vocabularies, and the death of the language itself. All of these movements are heavily influenced by the use of the language by its speech community as daily communication media internally or inter-speech communities.

We need to “suspect” the motivation underpins certain language use. A community, in using a language, or variation, or dialect, does not only rely on reason that they understand the language, but also the existence of a motivation that pushes the communication attitude to use that language. Without any motivation, the frequency of a language use will be low; and also, the attempt to learn, to understand, and to maintain the language will also be low. This can be proven by fact that most of the people come to learn certain foreign language, where the main reason is not only to use it. We can say that “being able to understand certain language” is a bridge to achieve another purpose; communication has its own purpose. The purpose of communication itself is the motivation of certain language learning, understanding, and using. For example, most of Indonesian learns English in order to have chance to get a job in America, or to read English textbooks, to widen social networking, and so on. In contrary, there must be certain motivation that underpins the attitude of not-learning or not-using certain language like the difficulty of the language, unimportance of the language, and even mental reason like hesitance, and so on. For example, most of urban teenagers are not so motivated to learn local language or vernacular, because it is sometimes considered as traditional language, ancient, and unfortunately it is sometimes considered as antonym to modern. We know that this is a wrong perception, because a language is one of the culture elements that must be maintained.

Up to this point, it can be noted that language dynamics is heavily depended on the language use. Moreover, the language use is heavily influenced by sorts of background motivation underpinning the learning and the utilization of the language itself. In this turn, we need to raise question “what does make a language to die?” This article is written as an attempt to re-consolidate the assumption of the factors causing language death. The description below is based on the sociolinguistics literatures which are synthesized to answer that question.

Language and Social Identity

Language, more than a communication tool, is one of the elements which build identity, whether personal identity or group identity in various scales; as Suleiman (in Omoniyi and White, 2006:51) by citing Maalouf, mentions that language is an important element in the identity composition.

When someone uses a language, he expects that he can be identified, recognized, and differentiated (Le Page and Tabouret Keller, in Coupland, 2007:109). This applies not only on person to person, but also applies on group to group. We can observe how a group identity (for example a race or an ethnic) can be recognized based on the language they use. However, it is also observable that language is learnable, understandable, and usable, by a person without being a member of certain group; at least, it forms his personal identity.

Language lives in a society, and a society tends to be multilingual (using more than one languages to communicate), or at least multi-dialect. This makes sense when we are aware that there are always chances that a society receives new elements to be a part in its social structure. The social classification, gender, the change of inhabitant amount, the complexity of the personal background of each inhabitant in that society, the development of technological and industrial demands, are the entries of multilingualism occurrence.

This dynamic social structure and composition tells us that the identity of a society is also susceptible to changes. If we agree that a society is constructed by persons, then the identity of a society is actually the responsibility of persons. Therefore, if the structure of a society, related to language and identity, does not survive to particular changes, then one of the identities of the society will change, and even die, and one of the identities is language.

Motivation of Language Learning

Ravazi (2014) when citing Daniela Trenkic (a senior lecturer in the New York University of Education), says that relevance and social aspect is the most important thing to maintain learning motivation and learning outcome, including language learning. What has been stated by Trenkic is clear, as the writer has proposed above, that there are sets of sociological assumptions of why an individual learns a language; that is, for the sake of social totality or engagement.

By social totality, we mean the individual awareness as being a part of a social group or a speech community. There is a sense of responsible, sense of belonging, attached to the individual, which requires the individual to learn certain language. This is not only observable from the interaction needs, but also as individual or personal identity in the community.

We can also map the other aspects underpinning the language learning like psychological aspect such as hesitance if the individual does not learn his or her own local language, or being afraid if he or she is considered as not competent in his or her local language. The other aspect like material needs such as in the education field where an individual needs to learn certain language because he or she wants to read certain texts written in that language. For example, a successful learning on Qur’an needs a set of Arabic knowledge.

The language learning motivation, finally, can be divided into two kinds: internal motivation including psychological reason such as the sense of responsible, sense of belonging, and the external motivation like the social needs such as interaction, etc. However, these two kinds of motivation are not separable. An individual learning certain language in order to interact with certain speech community, because by so doing, that individual can be acknowledged, accepted, and served, as he or she needs.

Individual Linguistic Competence and its Influence to the Social Community

We almost cannot imagine how a social interaction can occur without language, although we are also aware that language is not the only one entity which plays important role in a social interaction. As one of the human communication manner, language is also a social identity of every individual. The linguistic competence of every individual has a very essential impact on the existence and the interaction of the individual in the societal structure. The fact is, the social interaction of an individual depends on the linguistic competence the individual has.

The effect of language competence development and social interaction is absolute effect. In this regard, Edward Sapir believes that language is not a natural quotient; although every child born has been decided to be able to speak (they have the ability, but they must learn and master to utilize their ability). Sapir says that the ability to speak is different to the ability to walk. A child, in his development, is able to walk not only because of adults’ guidance but because of muscles adjustment toward his movement demands. Sapir continues, that is different to speak. To be able to speak, a child needs a social environment. If we omit the social environment, then the child is still able to try walking; but the child is not able to learn, acquire, develop, and master the language (Sapir, 1921). In short, it can be said that language is a complex intelligence covering and involving various human life aspects; one of them is social aspects, social interaction.

The important role played by social environment toward language acquisition and language learning of an individual creates a paradigm that an individual grown in his social environment must master the language they use to interact within the social environment. This paradigm develops to an assumption that every individual who comes and grows from certain social group will master the language the group uses. In short, every individual is believed as having his or her local language competence as a socio-cultural heritage of his or her society.

In one side, every individual who is aware his social identity, empathy toward certain social community, will attempt to clarify and maintain his identity. One of the attempts is trying to learn and to master the language which is one of the social identities where he comes from. For example, Chinese offspring in Indonesia learn and use mandarin in their family environment; Arabian offspring do the same. It is also observable when two individuals from similar speech community interact with their local language, where they are in different social environment. By so doing, they find a strong connection socially and mentally. This shows the reason why an individual must learn and master his local language to interact with the other individual who has similar social identity background.

In the other side, every individual may think that it is not important to study a local language used by different speech community by considering that the local language is not one of the items of his social identity. However, the individual may be so active in learning foreign language (e.g. English) although that language is not a part of his social identity, nor he belongs to the English speech community. The individual is motivated to learn English but not to learn neighbor local language.

There is one more thing to say about this. It is an assumption that if an individual does not know his own local language, sometimes, it becomes a disgrace for him in the front of the other members of the local language users. However, if an individual has a foreign language competence, it becomes an acknowledged credit for him.

The point is, having (or not having) certain language competence is really influencing an individual social process. The language or linguistic competence people have is not only influencing their social interaction, but also the process of self identification and socio-mental connection in their own community.

From the description above, it can be seen that there is set of gaps to raise question of the language learning motivation, even the motivation to not learn certain language. Every individual is (or should be) motivated to learn his own local language because it becomes his moral, social, and mental responsibility; certain individual is motivated to learn foreign language because it supports certain processes such as education, trading, social networking, and so on. Whereas, motivation to learn other local languages (neighbor local language) gets the smallest portion but quite crucial, that is, to support the process of interaction with the members of the other speech community. However, if an individual has nothing to do with the members of the other speech community, the motivation to learn the other local language will be decreased; because that individual does not take any responsibility except the need of interaction (except the individual is researching that local language).

Language Death

Up to this point, the writer has provided some general description of human language learning motivation that also shows us how a process of language maintenance occurs. All of these are laid on one word, “motivation”. Most of sociolinguists agree that a language is said dead if there are no more users using the language. However, we need to dig deeper to answer question why it occurs. The motivation of language learning and language maintenance must be the answer. In this section, the writer elaborates how the language death occurs in line with the language learning and language maintenance motivation.

The existence of a language is heavily determined by the existence of a society who uses it. A language will survive if there is still human use it to communicate each other. If a language is no longer used because there is no more speaker of it, then the language is said “dead” (Crystal, 2003). This shows that a language is determined by human. Although language is an independent entity but its existence depends on human. Since human are communicating creature, then languages will exist as the human itself exist. However, certain language dies whereas the others are born. A language is said “dead” or at least “being in danger” when the amount of the speaker is decreased and no attempt done to regenerate the language speaker to learn, maintain, and use it. By “maintain”, we do not mean “recording” the language, but positing the language to its appropriate place as a tool of communication. It means that for a language to remain exist, the language must be used. In line with this, David Crystal mentions that when we find the last speaker of a language, then the language is already dead; because based on the language function as a tool of communication, the language is now useless or dead.

David Crystal continues, if a language is only recorded but no people use it, then the language is not “a living language”, moreover, if the next generation is not interested to learn it anymore (Crystal, 2003:11).

Recalling the discussion in the previous sections, then we can take some notes about the factors of language death as follow:

  • Social factors: a structure of heterogeneous society (multi-class, multi-ethnic society) is one of the causes of why certain language is placed in inappropriate position. It is caused by the dominant use of lingua franca in daily communication.
  • User factors: when a language is not taught, learned, and used, then the language is in danger.
  • Medium factors: by medium, we mean a media used to record the language a proof of the language existence. However, based on the language function, if the language is just recorded but is not used, then the language is an artifact.

The writer has mentioned multilingualism and dominant language. If a society communicate by utilizing more than one language, or dialects, or variations, then multilingualism phenomena is occurring in that society. Even, nowadays, it is difficult to find a society which communicates with a single language.

There are some factors that emerge multilingualism. Some of them can be mentioned here such as:

  • Social heterogeneity: a society which consists of the members from different ethnic background.
  • Multilingual ability: a society which the members can speak more than one language.
  • Language expansion: the language can be brought from outside through trading, colonialism, education, information media, and social media.

In communicating with more than one language, there is a process of code switching and code mixing. However, as the communication needs increased, there will be a language dominantly used rather than the other language. The other chance is, when a multi-ethnic society is communicating each other, there will be a “mediator” language which is dominantly used to avoid too many code switching and code mixing; this is what we call lingua franca. As time goes by, the dominance of the lingua franca among the other available languages, then there must be a chance of bearing new speech community; that is, the community which communicates with the dominant language. This is reasonable if we base our definition of speech community as a group which interacts by using a language (Bloomfield, 1973:42).

When a single language is used dominantly and regenerated, then the next generation that learns or acquires and uses the language will consider it as their native language; although their parents have their own native language. According to Leonard Bloomfield, this occurs because language is not learned biologically but acquired and learned from the social environment (Bloomfield, 1973:43). Bloomfield’s analogy in this case can be illustrated as follows:



L1=First Language

L2=Second Language

L3=Third Language

FL=Foreign Language

LF=Lingua Franca

The illustration above tells us that although parents have their first language (Language X), but they will communicate with lingua franca (Language Z) if the people they communicate with have their own first language (language Y). If the parents do not use their L1 in daily communication in the family environment, then the children as the next generation will find themselves under the dominant language surrounding their daily communication (lingua franca). It is, then, possible that the children understand their parents L1 but they consider it as their L2; and if they try to understand the L1 of people in the environment, it is possible that they consider the language as their L3, or even a foreign language.

This description should tell us that multilingualism and dominant language may become the main actor in a language death. Foremost, if there is no motivation of the children to learn and to use their parents’ first language, then it is possible that the language is going to die; although the other language is going to be born and a new speech community is going to be constructed.


Language death is a part and a fact of language dynamics. Since it is acquired, learned, understood, and used, it is also forgotten, ignored, and left to die. Sociolinguists like Crystal has elaborated how a language is said a “dead language”, but here we can find deeper information why a language dies.

By understanding the motivation underpins language learning and language use; we can understand what motivates a language death. We have taken some notes that some social and psychological reasons are considered as the motivation of language learning, and multilingualism and dominant language can be considered as the factors of language death.

However, further research on this topic is an absolute need. Since this article is a conceptual framework of the writer, more research based proofs are absolutely needed to clarify and justify the validity of the concept. However, the best attempt we can do right now is forming of cadres to learn, to maintain, and to use language, foremost the local language as one of the local heritage and self-identity.


Bloomfield, L. (1973). Language. George Allen & Unwin LTD

Coupland, N. (2007). Style: Language Variation and Identity. Cambridge University Press.

Crystal, D. (2003). Language Death. Cambridge University Press.

Omoniyi, T. & White, G. (2006). Sociolinguistics of Identity. Continuum.

Ravazi, L. (2014). Language Learning: What Motivates Us? Link:  (Accessed on 20/01/2015 12:50)

Sapir, E. (1921). Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech. Harcourt, Brace and World.

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