Emotion as the amplifier and the primary motive: Some theories of emotion with relevance to language learning

Main Article Content

Rebecca L. Oxford


Emotion is crucial to living and learning. The powerful intertwining of emotion and cognition ignites learning within a complex dynamic system, which, as several sections of this paper show, also includes societal and cultural influences. As “the primary human motive” (MacIntyre, 2002a, p. 61), emotion operates as an amplifier, which provides energetic intensity to all human behavior, including language learning. This chapter explains major theories of emotion drawn from positive psychology, social psychology, social constructivism, social constructionism, and existential psychotherapy. It also offers implications for language learning related to understanding and managing emotions; expressing emotions appropriately despite cultural and linguistic differences; viewing emotions as transitory social roles; enhancing positive emotions and developing resilience; and recognizing, perhaps paradoxically, both the negative and the positive aspects of anxiety. The chapter concludes with the statement that language learners can become more agentic in dealing with their emotions. This form of self-regulation can lead to greater success in language learning.


Download data is not yet available.

Article Details

How to Cite
Oxford, R. L. (2015). Emotion as the amplifier and the primary motive: Some theories of emotion with relevance to language learning. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 5(3), 371 - 393. https://doi.org/10.14746/ssllt.2015.5.3.2
Author Biography

Rebecca L. Oxford, University of Maryland,7608 Saxon Dr. SW, Huntsville, AL 35802, (Professor Emerita)

Rebecca L. Oxford is Professor Emerita and Distinguished Scholar-Teacher, University of Maryland, USA and is currently an adjunct professor of psychology and language teaching at two branches of the University of Alabama, USA. She has published more than 250 articles and chapters; published a dozen books;and edited or coedited six journal special issues. She is currently coediting two book series, “Transforming Education for the Future” (Lin and Oxford for Information Age Publishing) and “Spirituality, Religion, and Education” (Lin, Oxford, Edwards, and Brantmeier for Palgrave Macmillan). Additionally, she has coedited a language textbook series, “Tapestry” (Heinle), which consists of separate subseries for many parts of the world. She received a Lifetime Achievement Award for research and has presented keynote addresses in 42 countries. She holds two degrees in Russian and two in educational psychology.


  1. Armon-Jones, C. (1985). Prescription, explication and the social construction of emotion. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 15, 1-22.
  2. Armon-Jones, C. (1986). The social functions of emotion. In R. Harré (Ed.), The social construction of emotions (pp. 57-82). Oxford: Blackwell.
  3. Averill, J. R. (1980). A constructivist view of emotion. In R. Plutchik & H. Kellerman (Eds.), Emotion: Theory, research, and experience (pp. 305-339). New York: Academic Press.
  4. Averill, J. (1982). Anger and aggression: An essay on emotion. New York: Springer.
  5. Averill, J. (1985). The social construction of emotion with special reference to love. In K. Gergen & K. Davis (Eds.), The social construction of the person (pp. 173-195). New York: Springer.
  6. Averill, J. R. (1986). The acquisition of emotions during adulthood. In R. Harré (Ed.), The social construction of emotions (pp. 98-118). Oxford: Blackwell.
  7. Averill, J. (1996). Intellectual emotions. In R. Harré & G. Parrott (Eds.), The emotions: Social, cultural, and biological dimensions (pp. 24-39). London: Sage.
  8. Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1967). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. New York: Anchor.
  9. Benard, B. (1991). Fostering resiliency in kids: Protective factors in the family, school, and community. San Francisco: Western Regional Center for Drug Free Schools and Communities, Far West Laboratory.
  10. Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18, 32-42.
  11. Cohn, M. A., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2010). In search of durable positive psychology interventions: Predictors and consequences of long-term positive behavior change. Journal of Positive Psychology, 5, 355-366.
  12. Csikszentmihályi, M. (1998). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: Basic.
  13. Csíkszentmihályi, M. (2008). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (2nd ed.). New York: Harper.
  14. Csikszentmihályi, M. (2013). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Harper Collins.
  15. Csíkszentmihályi, I. S., & Csíkszentmihályi, M. (Eds.). (2006). A life worth living: Contributions to positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
  16. Dewaele, J.-M. (2004a). The emotional force of swearwords and taboo words in the speech of multilinguals. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 25, 204-222.
  17. Dewaele, J-M. (2004b). Perceived language dominance and language preference for emotional speech: The implications of attrition research. In M. S.
  18. Rebecca L. Oxford Schmid, B. Kőpke, M. Kejser, & L. Weilemar (Eds.), First language attrition: Interdisciplinary perspectives on methodological issues (pp. 81-104). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  19. Dewaele, J.-M. (2005). Sociodemographic, psychological, and politico-cultural correlates in Flemish students’ attitudes toward French and English. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 26, 118-137.
  20. Dewaele, J.-M. (2006). Expressing anger in multiple languages. In A. Pavlenko (Ed.), Bilingual minds: Emotional experience, expression, and representation (pp. 118-151). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  21. Dewaele, J.-M. (2013). Emotions and language learning. In M. Byram & A. Hu (Eds.), Routledge encyclopedia of language teaching and learning (2nd ed.) (pp. 217-220). London: Routledge.
  22. Dewaele, J.-M. & MacIntyre, P. (2014). Two faces of Janus? Anxiety and enjoyment in the foreign language classroom. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 4, 237-274.
  23. Dewaele, J.-M., Petrides, K. V., & Furnham, A. (2008). The effects of trait emotional intelligence and sociobiographical variables on communicative anxiety and foreign language anxiety among adult multilinguals: A review and empirical investigation. Language Learning, 58, 911-960.
  24. Dewaele, J.-M., & Thirtle, H. (2009). Why do some young learners drop foreign languages? A focus on learner-internal variables. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 12, 635-649.
  25. Dörnyei, Z. (2009). The psychology of second language acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  26. Ellis, A. (2003). Early theories and practices of rational emotive behavior theory and how they have been augmented and revised during the last three decades. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 21, 219-243.
  27. Frederickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56, 218-226.
  28. Frederickson, B. L. (2003). The value of positive emotions: The emerging science of positive psychology looks into why it’s good to feel good. American Scientist, 91, 330-335.
  29. Frederickson, B. L. (2004). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (Biological Sciences), 359, 1367-1377.
  30. Frederickson, B. L., & Branigan, C. (2005). Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires. Cognition and Emotion, 19, 313-332.
  31. Frederickson, B. L., & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science, 13, 172-175.
  32. Emotion as the amplifier and the primary motive: Some theories of emotion with relevance. . .
  33. Frederickson, B. L., & Levenson, R. W. (1998). Positive emotions speed recovery from the cardiovascular sequelae of negative emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 12, 191-220.
  34. Frederickson, B. L., Tugade, M. M., Waugh, C. E., & Larkin, G. (2003). What good are positive emotions in crises? A prospective study of resilience and emotions following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 365-376.
  35. Gardner, R., Tremblay, P., & Masgoret, A. (1997) Towards a full model of second language learning: An empirical investigation. Modern Language Journal, 81, 344-362.
  36. Gergen, K. J. (1999). An invitation to social constructionism. London: Sage.
  37. Gergen, K. J. (2007). Relational being. New York: Oxford University Press.
  38. Goleman, D. (2005). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ (2nd ed.). New York: Bantam.
  39. Guoira, A. Z. (1983). Introduction: An epistemology for the language sciences. Language Learning, 33, 6-11.
  40. Hacking, I. (1999). Social construction of what? Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  41. Harré, R. (1986). An outline of the social constructionist viewpoint. In R. Harré (Ed.), The social construction of emotions (pp. 2-14). Oxford: Blackwell.
  42. Harré, R. (1995). Emotion and memory: The second cognitive revolution. In A. P. Griffiths (Ed.), Philosophy, psychology, and psychiatry (pp. 25-40). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  43. Harré, R. (2002). Public sources of the personal mind: Social constructionism in context. Theory and Psychology, 12, 611-623.
  44. Harré, R., & Finlay-Jones, R. (1986). Emotion talk across times. In R. Harré (Ed.), The social construction of emotions (pp. 220-233). Oxford: Blackwell.
  45. Hoffman, E. (1990). Lost in translation. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  46. Horwitz, E. (2001). Language anxiety and achievement. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 21, 112-126.
  47. Horwitz, E. (2007). Words fail me: Foreign language anxiety crippling for some students. E. Horwitz interviewed by K. Randall. University of Texas at Austin feature story. Retrieved from http://www.utexas.edu/features/2007/language
  48. Horwitz, E., & Young, D. J. (Eds.). (1991). Language anxiety: From theory and research to classroom implications. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  49. Johnson, G. (2014). Theories of emotion. In The Internet encyclopedia of philosophy. Retrieved from http://www.iep.utm.edu/emotion/#H4
  50. Kao, T.-A., & Oxford, R. L. (2014). Learning language through music: A strategy for building inspiration and motivation. System, 43, 114-120.
  51. Kingston, R. (2011). Public passion: Rethinking the grounds for political justice. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s.
  52. Kitayama, S., Markus, H., & Matsumoto, H. (1995). Culture, self, and emotion: A cultural perspective to “self-conscious” emotions. In J. Tangney & K. Fischer (Eds.), Self-conscious emotions: The psychology of shame, guilt, embarrassment, and pride (pp. 274-301). New York: Guilford.
  53. Le Doux, J. (1998). The emotional brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  54. Lewis, M. (2005). Bridging emotion theory and neurobiology through dynamic systems modeling. Behavior and Brain Science, 28, 169-245.
  55. Lewis, M., Haviland-Jones, J. M., & Barrett, L. F. (2008). Handbook of emotions (3rd ed.). New York: Guilford.
  56. Luthar, S., Cicchetti, D., & Becker, B. (2000). The construct of resilience: A critical evaluation and guidelines for future research. Child Development, 71, 543-562.
  57. Luthar, S., Sawyer, J. A., & Brown, P. J. (2006). Conceptual issues in studies of resilience: Past, present, and future research. In B. M. Lester, A. S. Masten, & B. McEwen (Eds.), Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 1094. Resilience in children (pp. 105-115). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  58. Ma, R., & Oxford, R. L. (2014). A diary study focusing on listening and speaking: The evolving interaction of learning styles and learning strategies in a motivated, advanced ESL learner. System, 43, 101-113.
  59. MacIntyre, P. D. (2002a). Motivation, anxiety, and emotion in second language acquisition. In P. Robinson (Ed.), Individual differences and instructed language learning (pp. 45-68). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  60. MacIntyre, P. D. (2002b). Willingness to communicate, anxiety, perceived competence, and motivation among junior high school French immersion students. Language Learning, 52, 537-564.
  61. Marcos-Llinas, M. & Juan Garau, M. (2009). Effects of language anxiety on three proficiency-level courses of Spanish as a foreign language. Foreign Language Annals, 42, 94-111.
  62. Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98, 224-253.
  63. Maslow, A. H. (1970). Motivation and personality (Rev. ed.). New York: Harper & Row.
  64. Maslow, A. H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature.New York: Penguin Compass.
  65. Masten, A. S., & Obradovic, J. (2006). Competence and resilience in development. In B. M. Lester, A. S. Masten, & B. McEwen (Eds.), Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 1094. Resilience in children (pp. 1-12). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  66. Mercer, S. (2011). The self as a complex dynamic system. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 1, 57-82.
  67. Nakamura, J., & Csíkszentmihályi, M. (2005). The concept of flow. In C. R. Snyder & S. Lopez, Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 89-105). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  68. Emotion as the amplifier and the primary motive: Some theories of emotion with relevance. . .
  69. Oxford, R. L. (1990). Language learning strategies: What every teacher should know. Boston: Heinle.
  70. Oxford, R. L. (1996). When emotion meets (meta)cognition in language learning histories. International Journal of Educational Research, 23(7), 581-594.
  71. Oxford, R. L. (2011a). Meaning-making, border crossings, complexity, and new interpretive techniques: Expanding our understanding of learner narratives. Zeitschrift für Fremdsprachenforschung (Journal of Foreign Language Research), 22, 221-241.
  72. Oxford, R. L. (2011b). Teaching and researching language learning strategies. Harlow: Pearson Longman.
  73. Oxford, R. L. (2013). Understanding language learner narratives. In J. Arnold & T. Murphey (Eds.), Meaningful action: Earl Stevick’s influence on language teaching (pp. 95-110). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  74. Oxford, R. L. (2014). What we can learn about strategies, language learning, and life from two extreme cases. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 4, 593-615.
  75. Oxford, R. L. (2015). How language learners can improve their emotional functioning: Important psychological and psychospiritual theories. Applied Language Learning, 25, 1-15.
  76. Oxford, R. L. & Cuéllar, L. (2014). Positive psychology in cross-cultural narratives: Mexican students discover themselves while learning Chinese. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 2, 173-204.
  77. Oxford, R. L., Ehrman, M. E., & Lavine, R. Z. (1991). Style wars: Teacher-student style conflicts in the language classroom. In S. S. Magnan (Ed.), Challenges for the 1990s for college language programs (pp. 1-25). Boston: Heinle/Thomson Learning.
  78. Oxford, R. L., Lavine, R. Z., Felkins, G., Hollaway, M. E., & Saleh, A. (1996). Telling their stories: Language students use diaries and recollection. In R. L. Oxford (Ed.), Language learning strategies around the world: Cross-cultural perspectives (pp. 19-34). Honolulu: University of Hawaii, Second Language Teaching and Curriculum Center.
  79. Oxford, R. L., Massey, K. R., & Anand, S. (2005). Transforming teacher-student style relationships: Toward a more welcoming and diverse classroom discourse. In C. Holten & J. Frodesen (Eds.), The power of discourse in language learning and teaching (pp. 249-266). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.
  80. Oxford, R. L., Meng, Y., Zhou, Y., Sung, J., & Jain, R. (2007). Uses of adversity: Moving beyond language learning crises. In A. Barfield & S. Brown (Eds.), Reconstructing autonomy in language education: Inquiry and innovation (pp. 131-142). London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  81. Oxford, R. L., Pacheco Acuña, G., Solís Hernández, M., & Smith, A. L. (2014, June). Positive psychology in action: Social and psychological themes reflected in first-person learner histories of bilingual adults. Paper presented at the International Conference on Language and Social Psychology, Honolulu, Hawai’I, USA.
  82. Oxford, R. L., Tomlinson, S., Barcelos, A., Harrington, C., Lavine, R., Saleh, A., &
  83. Longhini, A. (1998). Clashing metaphors about classroom teachers: Toward a systematic typology for the language teaching field. System: An International Journal of Educational Technology and Applied Linguistics, 26(1), 3-51.
  84. Palinscar, A. S. (1998). Social constructivist perspective on teaching and learning. Annual Review of Psychology, 49, 345-375.
  85. Panayiotou, A. (2006). Translating guilt: An endeavor of shame in the Mediterranean? In A. Pavlenko (Ed.), Bilingual minds: Emotional experience, expression, and representation (pp. 183-208). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  86. Pavlenko, A. (2002). Emotions and the body in Russian and English. Pragmatics and Cognition 10, 207-241.
  87. Pavlenko, A. (2006). Bilingual selves. In A. Pavlenko (Ed.), Bilingual minds: Emotional experience, expression, and representation (pp. 1-33). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  88. Pavlenko, A., & Lantolf, J.P. (2000). Second language learning as participation and the (re)construction of selves. In J. P. Lantolf (Ed.), Sociocultural theory and second language learning (pp. 155-177). New York: Oxford University Press.
  89. Peterson, C. (2006). A primer in positive psychology.New York: Oxford University Press.
  90. Peterson, C., Seligman, M. E. P., & Vaillant, G. E. (1988). Pessimistic explanatory style is a risk factor for physical illness: A thirty-five-year longitudinal study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55, 23-27.
  91. Piaget, J. (1981). Intelligence and affectivity: Their relationship during child development. Palo Alto: Annual Reviews.
  92. Piller, I., & Takahashi, K. (2006). A passion for English: Desire and the language market. In A. Pavlenko (Ed.), Bilingual minds: Emotional experience, expression and representation (pp. 59-83). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
  93. Ratner, C. (1989). A social constructionist critique of naturalistic theories of emotion. Journal of Mind and Behavior, 10, 211-230.
  94. Rodriguez, R. (1983/2004). Hunger of memory (2nd ed.). New York: Dial/Random House.
  95. Seligman, M. (2006). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York: Vintage.
  96. Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York: Atria/Simon & Schuster.
  97. Stam, H. J. (2001). Introduction: Social construction and its critiques. Theory and Psychology, 11, 291-296.
  98. Emotion as the amplifier and the primary motive: Some theories of emotion with relevance. . .
  99. Stearns, C. Z., & Stearns, P. N. (Eds.). (1989). Emotion and social change: Toward a new psychohistory. New York: Holmes & Meier.
  100. Truebridge, S. (2014). Resilience begins with beliefs: Building on student strengths for success in school. New York: Teachers College Press.
  101. van Deurzen, E. (2012). Existential counselling and psychotherapy in practice (3rd ed.). London: Sage.
  102. von Glasersfeld, E. (1995). Radical constructivism: A way of knowing and learning. London: Routledge Falmer.
  103. Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  104. Waugh, C. E., Tugade, M. M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2008). Psychophysiology of stress and resilience. In B. Lukey & V. Tepe (Eds.), Biobehavioral resilience to stress (pp. 117-138). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
  105. Weber, H. (2012). What is a social in a social constructionist view on emotion? Emotion Review, 4(3), 234-235.
  106. Werner, E., & Smith, R. (1992). Overcoming the odds: High-risk children from birth to adulthood. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  107. Wierzbicka, A., & Harkins, J. (2001). Introduction. In J. Harkins & A. Wierzbicka (Eds.), Emotions in cross-linguistic perspective (pp. 1-34). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.