I recently read a book, "Ungifted," by Scott Kaufman who is a psychologist that works in the field of intelligence. One of the chapters in the book dealt with passion and had a subsection on inspiration. This led me to starting thinking about various ways for both my students and myself to become more inspired about language learning.
Looking at the "Pros"
One of the easiest ways for me to get inspired in other realms of my life is by reading or watching videos about the "pros" in that field. I put pros inside quotation marks because not all of the people I get inspiration from are actually paid or hold a license in their field. For example, the sport of powerlifting doesn't really have professionals in the same sense as baseball or football, but their are elite lifters that regularly write and post videos about the sport.
These videos are huge sources of inspiration for me. Whenever I do not feel like going to the gym or eating another bowl of food, I can always open YouTube or my RSS reader and find something to get inspired from. The videos in particular are an easy way to get enthusiastic about training. A quick search on YouTube will find you thousands of videos of the top level powerlifters in the world lifting inhuman weights that top out over 1,000 pounds. Just try watching a video of a person lifting 1,000 pounds and tell me don't get a jolt of energy.
However, this is exactly the aspect of language learning that is difficult to capture on video. The actual performance of speaking or writing in a foreign language by the world's best polyglots does not give the same lightning bolt of energy. This is because they are so good at using their languages that it seems normal. Watching someone speak is an everyday occurrence. There is nothing out of the ordinary about it the way watching someone lift 1,000 pounds is.
This represents a fundamental difference between language demonstration and other complex skills being demonstrated. The expert demonstration of language is simply not as inspiring as an expert performance of an instrument, athletics, or even race car driving. Millions of people tune into these sorts of demonstrations every week because of the visual awe they instill in the audience. There is no such corollary with language speaking.
As I think more and more about the topic, I keep going back to the ideas in "Ungifted". The author makes the point that inspiration is about possibility. This occurs in three stages: evocation, transcendence, and motivation. The first step occurs when something evokes a new possibility. A role model, such as what I described above, is a perfect way for evocation to happen. This evocation leads directly to the feeling of transcendence, which includes the feeling of being able to surpass current ability levels. The new possibility sheds light on your current limitations and provides evidence that further growth is possible. Finally, by seeing and experiencing the fact that new possibilities are available, you feel a strong sense of motivation to actualize these potentials. According to the Thrash and Elliot who are quoted in the book, "inspiration involves both being inspired by something and acting on that inspiration."
So where does this lead me in my thoughts on language inspiration? First, we are doing it wrong in classrooms. There is very little evocation of possibilities and hence difficulty in gaining transcendence and motivation. What possibilities do we invoke as teachers? The possibility of doing more grammar, uninteresting readings, and some mock conversations. This are hardly inspiring.
When I watch the "pros" I mentioned earlier, I am inspired because of the high level of performance they demonstrate, not the practice endured to get there. However, most of classroom work is entirely practice oriented with little to no focus on performance. This is why the idea of communicative language teaching has caught like fire in the teaching community. It attempts to inspire transcendence and motivation through communicative performance, rather than practice. However, much of this teaching style is still isolated from the real world.
I believe focusing on more real world performances of "peer" language learners would be much inspiring than the current state of language classrooms. In this sense, peers would be anyone learning a language at a level only slightly beyond current students. Watching a polyglot spout off 20 languages on YouTube is too far fetched a performance for most students and they wind up believing that the polyglot is "gifted" or "talented", rather than the product of hard deliberate practice over many thousands of hours.
Instead, showing students the possibility of the next level only could work better. Watching a series of YouTube videos as a learner goes from complete novice to intermediate. Seeing him or her make countless mistakes and errors, but gradually get better over the course of the series. These are sources of inspiration that show real possibilities for most learners.
The same is true for writing. Showing several written products of learners that have come before could work very well as a source of writing inspiration. A series of five to ten written products that show short, broken, error riddled texts that gradually turn into well written and organized texts over time can help to evoke that possibility that perhaps it is possible to improve gradually throughout the course of a quarter, semester, or year.
If inspiration is truly about the evocation of possibilities and the transcendence that you too are capable of growing outside current limitations, then we as language teachers needs to do a far better job of providing those possibilities in engaging formats. There is little we can do as teachers to directly motivate students, however, inspiring them can indirectly lead to a sense of strong motivation as detailed by Thrash and Elliot above.
One source of inspiration that never fails to induce motivation in myself is watching a peer perform an action just beyond what I have done myself. While watching a pro complete a 1,000 pound squat is awesome to watch on YouTube, seeing my best friend lift five pounds more than I was able is an even greater source of motivation. I am able to relate myself to my friends and peers. I am able to sit back and wonder, "If he can do it, why not me?" The real truth is usually that I am able to do it, it just takes a little bit more time and hard work. With enough peer "competition" over time, the pros become more and more attainable as well. Suddenly they don't look like impossibly high benchmarks, but just the next step in the further development of my own expertise.