Inspiration and Motivaion – I once had a one-to-one student who literally started crying in class sometimes when she spoke English. She explained to me it was because she felt emotional and it took her back to her teenage years when she used to love going to her English classes.

Last weekend, I went to the “Toulouse-Lautrec em Vermelho” exhibition at the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP). I found myself sympathizing with my former student as I felt tears welling up when I came face to face with certain works of art in the flesh. When I was a teenager, I went through a “Toulouse-Lautrec” phase. I used to copy his pictures and write the words in French and perhaps it was one of the reasons why I went on to study French. I remember when I was a teenager, my friends and I used to have a ritual. We would go to town on Saturdays, mooch around the shops and end up buying some art postcards and posters. Then later at home, I would sit for hours reproducing what I saw in the pictures.

Apparently, our teenage years have a significant effect on our lives. In an article called “Why do we love the music we heard as teenagers?” Mark Joseph Stern explains that “researchers have uncovered evidence that suggests our brains bind us to the music we heard as teenagers more tightly than anything we’ll hear as adults—a connection that doesn’t weaken as we age.” He goes on to say that “between the ages of 12 and 22, our brains undergo rapid neurological development—and the music we love during that decade seems to get wired into our lobes for good. When we make neural connections to a song, we also create a strong memory trace that becomes laden with heightened emotion, thanks partly to a surfeit of pubertal growth hormones.” In the same article, Mark says that when we are young we often discover music through our friends. We often listen to the music they like so we can belong to a certain social group. This melds the music to our sense of identity.

All of this got me thinking about how to inspire and motivate both our teenage and adult students when learning a language. Concerning teenagers, I believe the more opportunities we can give young people to discover a wide array of interests, the better. For example: culture (art exhibitions, museums, plays, shows, different kinds of music genres, learning an instrument, dance, films, series, books, drawing, drama clubs, chess clubs, etc); science (taking part in science fairs, outings to observatories/science museums/science events, etc); sports (learning about sports in other countries, taking part and going to sports events, etc) and other pastimes such as playing video games. Hobbies and interests are extremely important as individuals choose to pursue them in their spare time, and therefore are motivated. Although young people may have taken up a hobby in their first language, they can explain their experiences to their peers in the language they are learning or even teach them how to do whatever they like doing.

Once I had a teenage student who was not particularly interested in English classes. I asked his mother if I could talk to him after class for a few weeks to get to know him better and see what made him tick. He told me that he loved skateboarding and listening to reggae music. Those were two things that he adored doing when he didn´t have to go school or do extracurricular activities. I asked him to tell me and show me some skateboarding moves and also write a biography about Bob Marley. I remember that he changed his attitude in the classes after giving him a little attention.

Regarding implications for adults, as language teachers perhaps we need to find out what was important to them in their teenage years. By important, I mean what got them pumped up. Was it a band, a singer, an artist, an event they went to, a trip they went on, a class they used to attend? Whatever motivated them then will probably bring back positive memories and maybe that is how we can inspire them in their current busy lives. Asking them to go on a trip down memory lane might strike a chord and get them inspired. Below are some possible questions you could ask them.

When you were a teenager…

  • What kind of music did you use to listen to?

  • Did you belong to any clubs (sports/drama/chess/choir…)? Tell me about your experiences.

  • What did you typically used to do at weekends?

  • Did you go to any memorable shows/events? What were they like?

  • Tell me about any trips you went on with friends or family?

  • What did you use to do with your friends?

To sum up, talking about positive experiences when you are/were a teenager could have an effect on language learning as it may trigger something in the brain. The more we get to know our students and what motivates them, the better the odds are of being in tune with their learning process.

If you are interested in reading the article by Mark Joseph Stern, you can find the link at: