I never had a problem with English. I cannot recall learning to read or write, but I remember that once I was able to, I was not able to stay away from reading everything I could get my hands on and scribbling sentences on sheets of paper. In Daniel H. Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he introduces that motivational factors fall into two categories classified as either extrinsic or intrinsic. Extrinsic motivations often include a reward for a task, such as money or food or anything else a person can get material or physical pleasure from.
Intrinsic motivations are, instead, the gratification of the task, as “[t]he joy of the task was its own reward” (Pink, 3). I would classify my interest in reading and writing as intrinsic motivation, as it was by my own human curiosity and inclination to learn that I indulged in them frequently. I was one of the children that was able to write their name the soonest, I would always read ahead in class, and English was always a class I had no problem in. However, despite how fluid I was with English, learning Spanish was a special torture for me, as I had no natural propensity to learn it.
I learned to read, write, and talk in English, and I was comfortable advancing those skills at home and at kindergarten, but in the first grade I hit an abrupt halt. My parents had decided that they wanted me to learn Spanish to compliment my Hispanic lineage, and they wanted to do so by enrolling me into a school that would gradually introduce the language to me. The younger the students, the more English was used, but Spanish in the classroom would increase as the students grew older.
Unfortunately, the school that offered that means of learning was out of my district and there was no room for me to apply as an out-of-district student, so my parents looked to an alternative. Similar to the kind of school they wanted me to attend was another school that had the same method of teaching students a second core language, but it went off of the basis that Spanish was its student’s first language. I attended that one instead. Understandably, because English was my first language and I was not introduced to Spanish yet, I did not do well.
I was a first grader that had no idea what was going on, and each of my classmates spoke Spanish, and I did not. I attended that school until my fourth grade year, and each moment of it was torture. I was always behind as a student, and I struggled continually with grasping what my assignments meant. I could hardly understand what people around me were saying, so reading and writing were near impossible tasks for me. A lot of my learning was done at home just so that I could keep pace with the very basics of what I was supposed to know.
I have vivid memories of sitting on my mom’s lap going through packets and packets of flashcards with vocabulary terms on them, and I know somewhere in a drawer those same flashcards are still in our house. While in the car I had to read books in Spanish aloud and highlight all of the words that I didn’t know. Whenever I did homework, there was always a Spanish-English dictionary by my side. Dictionaries were my best friend because I had so many of them wherever I went.
My parents put in a lot of effort to help me learn, but their motivation was lost on me. Despite my efforts through the years, I was still the poorest student in the class, and my position as a student was often threatened because the district wanted to drop me. None of what I did was interesting to me, and I was not ever given a reason for why I had to do what I was doing. Pink explains in his book that letting a worker know why they are doing what they are doing dramatically increases their productivity.
In a study of employees, those who were told the reasoning behind their work “raised more than twice as much money” than the control group because the “brief reminder of the purpose of their worked doubled their performance” (138). I was never given much meaning to learning, aside from that I would get punished if I did not do it. I was never told that it was so I could be closer to my heritage or that it would help me talk to people in the future or that it is fun to know another language, and that was detrimental to me because it felt as though all of my efforts were meaningless.
The reasons behind my parents subjecting me to this lifestyle were lost on me at such a young age, and all I knew was that I felt discouraged and lost. I was getting no rewards for my efforts, and no matter how hard I tried, I kept receiving punishments for my failures. Pink spends his book talking about how there needs to be an upgrade to the world’s current system of motivation, which he calls Motivation 2. 0. Its definition is that people are incited by rewards and punishments, and when you set out to do a task it is only because of the negative or positive repercussions.
It is a rudimentary formula because, do to observations from behaviorists, society knows that there are other motivating factors. Those other motivating factors take the shape of intrinsic motivators, and those are what make up Motivation 3. 0, the system that Pink says society should develop. Motivation 2. 0 is “deeply unreliable” in Pink’s words, as “many times it doesn’t [work]” and that is why people should aspire to work by Motivation 3. 0 standards (19). However, I had no intrinsic motivation to learn Spanish.
I only had a motivation 2. 0, where I was punished by repeating assignments until their completion or rewarded by finally getting free time, to spur me on. There was no hope of me using Motivation 3. 0 to help me, and I got to experience how unreliable Motivation 2. 0 is. At that time, it felt as though I were forced to learn Spanish. Pink describes in his book a scenario where rich men that own cars would take them on leisurely drives for fun, but had they been required to drive, the activity of driving becomes undesirable.
The explanation for the sudden shift in attitude towards the same activity is called the Sawyer Effect, and it describes “practices that can either turn play into work or turn work into play” (35). As I have grown older, I have found that I have a natural passion for learning about language and how it works and sounds, and I am sure that it goes back to how I was so excited to learn to read and write when I was younger. However, since Spanish was introduced to me in such a stressful way, I was never allowed to explore it as anything but an unenjoyable requirement.
At this point in my life, I still really like to learn about other languages, and I get excited about them, but when it comes to Spanish I quickly lose interest because I have grown to have such a negative connotation towards it. The “play” that I have with other languages is not applicable to Spanish because I was made to see it as work, and it dispelled any of my motivation to do it. I think what really kept me struggling while I was in that school were the teachers that I had.
The school I attended was a really low-income school, and looking back at my teachers, I realize that they were not the most supportive or effective. A lot of times when I would express how much I was struggling with my teachers, they would not take the time to explain instructions or sentences to me, and often they would just tell me to figure it out. I understand that they had a whole classroom filled with other students to pay attention to, but I was really left drowning by my instructors, as asking my peers for help would only test their patience as well.
Since a lot of my time in class was spent floundering for help, instead of getting it, most of the support I got was when I was at home. Both of my parents worked incredible hours when I was younger, though, so they did not have all of the time it would have required to teach me all that I needed either. I just did not have enough nurturing exposure. Even though I was surrounded by a lot of material, I had no one to explain it to me.
Behavioral scientists have determined through studies that autonomy has “a powerful effect on individual performance and attitude” and it increases “greater conceptual understanding, better grades, enhanced persistence at school, higher productivity”, and several other great pay-offs. Taking on something independently encourages people to do something for themselves, and allows them to take on a task their own way, but I was not able to fully grasp that. I was a too young to really take on the responsibility of learning it all by myself, so I had too much autonomy for someone who just needed instruction at that age.
It took a lot of work and patience, but by the time I was at my last year in the school, I could keep up the pace. I was not necessarily fluent, but I was able to comprehend a majority of what I had to understand. It was all of the drilling my mom put me through each night with those flashcards and the four dictionaries that I had wherever I needed them that carried me. I was never able to find an intrinsic motivation to get me to learn what I needed to, and I instead used the extrinsic factor of punishment to get me through.