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Feb 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Empathy as a Source of Motivation in Language Learning and Language Teaching

Csilla Jaray-Benn holds a Master’s degree in English language and literature and teaching English as a foreign language from ELTE Budapest as well as a Master’s degree in French language and literature and a French pre-doctoral degree (DEA) in theatre from Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3. She teaches English to adults and teenagers at her own training organisation Business English Services ( in Grenoble and trains teachers at the Université Grenoble Alpes. She is a regular conference presenter and has published articles in the Teaching Times, Revue d’Esthétique and HLT. Her current professional interests are in collaborative and creative ways of educating in the 21st century. She was Vice-President, then President of TESOL France ( in 2015-2017. Email:



The ideas in the following article were first presented at the IATEFL Conference 2016 in Birmingham under the title “Empathy as a source of motivation: collaborative and creative strategies” as part of the Forum on motivation.



“The only way to learn is by encounters,” says Martin Buber who saw dialogue as the pivotal element in acquiring skills and knowledge (Krznaric 2015). The philosopher defined learning as the process of ‘search for meaning’ (Buber 1947) and believed that it could only happen in the context of a multitude of relationships and constant dialogue (Nguyen 2014), as foundations of our human existence. Learning and transmitting knowledge are intrinsically intertwined in the relationship between the learner and the teacher emerging from a sincere dialogue between two human beings. Buber also elucidates the importance of the teacher’s ability to ‘apprehend his students’ in order to transmit knowledge to them. Martin Buber’s thoughts in 1923 resonate surprisingly well with current motivational research findings according to which the most prevailing motivational power is the teacher who ‘sets a personal example’ to students, while the second one is ‘a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere in the classroom.’ (Csizér & Dörnyei 1998). In this vein, learning is determined by the quality of relationships and the context in which it is situated. Learners are part of a network of relations for which Ema Ushioda coins the term ‘person-in-context’ and proposes to “view motivation as an organic process that emerges through the complex system of interrelations.” In more concrete terms she suggests looking at “the mutually constitutive relationship between persons and the context in which they act – a relationship that is dynamic, complex and non-linear.” (Ushioda 2009). This complex, dynamic and non-linear relationship is established and nurtured via our innate ability to see, feel and understand what other people see, feel and think, which resumes in the concept of empathy.

The following article aims to put forward a few ideas about the nature of empathy and look at it as a process, which plays a crucial role in first language acquisition and foreign language learning, as well as in the use of language for dialogue and connection building between humans. Having these theoretical points in mind might help teachers adapt their approach and tailor their activities to the fluctuating individual needs of their students in an ever-changing context of relationships.

Ushioda’s relational view from the perspective of motivational research and the dialogical principle of learning by Buber resonate with the wide-scale theory by Jeremy Rifkin economic and social theorist, who sees society as a whole, held together by a universal human trait, empathy. As he puts it, “Empathy becomes the thread that weaves an increasingly differentiated and individualized society into an integrated social tapestry, allowing the social organism to function as a whole.” (Rifkin 2009) Their innate empathic skill conditions humans to build and maintain relationships, to connect through dialogue and create a social context. If we accept that learning happens through connections, looking more closely at empathy as the basis for human relations can bring us closer to understanding what, how and why a teacher can motivate their students and facilitate learning.


A brief history of the term ‘empathy'

Throughout history, the term ‘empathy’ was used in various contexts starting with psychology and aesthetics in relation with arts, then by neuroscientists when discovering the mirror neurons, and most recently it has been studied from a socio-cultural perspective. The Greeks used the term ‘empathicus’ meaning ‘understanding others by entering their worlds,’ a definition which is still valid. After a long hiatus, it reappears in Theodor Lipps, German philosopher’s theory of aesthetics in 1903 as an aesthetic value meaning ‘Einfühlung’ or ‘feeling into,’ describing our ability to delve into a piece of artwork and admire it. In 1909, Edward Eichener, American psychologist translated ‘empathy’ into English and used it with the meaning of ‘introspection,’ observing one's feelings and ‘inner imitation’ as the basis of all mental activities. In 1983, Howard Gardner included empathy among Multiple Intelligences, then Daniel Goleman added it to emotional intelligences, along with motivation. In 1996, Giacomo Rizolatti, Italian neurophysiologist detected the mirror neurons, also called ‘empathy neurons,’ in macaque rhesus monkeys, when they found out that the same neurons in the frontal cortex were activated when the monkey reached out for a peanut, or when he watched someone do the same movement. This scientific discovery challenged the Cartesian dichotomy of mind/body and gave way to bridge the gap between cognition and biology and most importantly, it reinforced the idea of our genetic disposition for an empathic response. We can observe ourselves when someone shows sadness we also tend to put on a sad facial expression, and when someone is smiling, we smile as well.


Perspectives on empathy

Rifkin’s idea that we are ‘wired for empathy’ and that empathy is the main driving force that assembles individuals into a group, society and civilisation finds its scientific explanation in the mirror neurons. The ‘third industrial revolution’ that Rifkin announces, when individualistic values give way to collaborative values, and competition is replaced by collaboration, is based on our innate empathic skills. These approaches demonstrate that empathy is a complex and multidimensional phenomenon linking individuals as biological, psychological and social beings together. We have all been born with empathic capacity, but each individual uses it to different degrees and in different ways depending on the situation. Empathy is, by all means, a multifaceted construct changing over time and place, ‘a system of continuous flux’ according to Cameron (quoted in Mercer 2016), therefore it can be enhanced and adapted to various contexts, such as health care, education, business, intercultural communication, socio-cultural contexts, macro politics as well as resolution of global issues. The language classroom is a particularly relevant place for empathic skill development, and it needs to be looked at from several different angles. Before addressing the specific features of the language and language-learning-related empathy, let us look at a few definitions to see what empathy is and what empathy is not.

Empathy is not to be confused with sympathy or compassion. When we sympathize with someone we do not share the same emotion, I see you are sad, but I won’t be sad. (Mercer 2016). Neither is empathy about projecting one’s feelings to another person to express how much we feel the same way, and it is by no means feeling sorry for someone. Empathy has been defined in numerous ways, such as “the capacity to imagine oneself in the other person’s situation, and to experience, to some degree, the emotions that the other is experiencing.” (Nickerson, Butler & Carlin 2009), or “the process of reaching beyond the self and understanding and feeling what another person is understanding or feeling.” (Brown 2000). We can imagine walking in someone else's shoes; however this is not enough to be qualified for an empathic person. In order to grasp the essence of this dynamic and multidimensional process, three components must be combined; imagining, understanding and taking action. These three elements are highlighted by Baron-Cohen, who viewed empathy as “…the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions.” (Baron-Cohen 2011 quoted in Krznaric 2015). The three facets correspond to different types of empathy, such as emotional, cognitive empathy, and empathic concern. A recent book by Lou Agosta presents a way of looking at empathy as a construct with four dimensions; empathic receptivity, empathic interpretation, empathic understanding, empathic responsiveness (Agosta 2018).

Drawing on the definition by Baron-Cohen and considering Agosta’s dimensions, we can also see empathy as a four-step process beginning with observation, followed by imagination, then understanding and finally be completed by action. The phase of observation creates the contact between our inner and the outside world, the context for dialogue, should it be real or imaginary. Imagination leads to temporarily identifying oneself with the other person, or seeing oneself in another situation to finally trigger action. This empathy framework reveals that empathy is a highly complex and dynamic construct and we can quickly realise that each of its components plays a crucial role both in first language acquisition and when learning a foreign language. Interestingly, looking at empathy from this multi-angle view brings it very close to the motivational theory by Zoltán Dörnyei placing vision at the heart of language learners’ motivation (Dörnyei & Kubanyiova  2014).


The Empathy framework and motivation in L1 acquisition and L2 learning

Empathy and language are related in two different ways. Language acts both as the vehicle and outcome of empathy. “Language is one of the primary means of empathising”, states Brown (Brown 1973) and at the same time, empathy plays a crucial role in language acquisition and language learning process. If we look at first language acquisition as a learning process conditioned by the relation with another person, we can find certain similarities between the way the first language is acquired by infants and the steps of the empathy as mentioned earlier. In the first eight months of their lives, infants only listen to the language, observe the speaker, then they start imitating by repetition, identifying themselves with the speaker, using their ‘empathy neurons’, understand the meaning of words (see theories by Vygotsky, Piaget), and finally they start using relevant words, structures in relevant situations. We can identify here the four phases of the empathy framework: observing in the listening phase, imagining and identifying oneself with the speaker in the imitation/repetition phase, understanding meaning in the cognitive phase and taking action in the final stage of language production. These phases, of course, overlap in a dynamic and highly sophisticated way, so we could say that probably without our innate empathic competence we would not be able to learn our first language.

The infant’s L1 acquisition process is highly supported by regular positive reinforcement from the mother or another person, becoming therefore the first example of ‘dialogical learning’, supported by the same two factors which have emerged from the motivational research mentioned above; ‘personal example’ and ‘pleasant, relaxed atmosphere’ (Csizér & Dörnyei 1998). If we look into how the personal example and pleasant atmosphere is established in the case of L1 acquisition, we can find the mother's empathy toward her infant transmitted via the language she uses as the primary source. She observes, understands, repeats, and sometimes imitates her child. Motivation is thus fuelled by the various phases of the empathy framework through language. The acquisition of L1 becomes an outcome of a relational learning process, a dynamic interplay between elements of two complex constructs; empathy and motivation while they mutually enhance each other.

The correlation between empathy, namely emotional empathy and academic achievement in general, has been proven (Brown 2000), as well as its impact on foreign language learning (Guiora, Brannon, Dull 1972). This impact is mainly valid when looking at empathy as a socio-cultural competence that facilitates interaction and understanding between individuals as well as different cultures (Mercer 2016). Empathy as a social skill showing different levels in different individuals might be one of the numerous reasons why some people learn languages easier than others when they focus on communicative competence development. Looking at empathy as a process, and considering it as the basis of relational learning, could reveal some similarities between L1 acquisition and L2 learning, and shed light on some possible ways foreign languages are learnt and how learners can be motivated.

Baron-Cohen highlighted the main aspects of empathy that led us to the four-step empathy framework. As quoted above, he defines empathy as “…the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions.” (Baron-Cohen 2011). These observations resonate surprisingly with the theory of motivation elaborated by Zoltán Dörnyei placing vision at the heart of language learning motivation. He states, “motivating (…) is to help students to ‘see’ themselves as potentially competent L2 users, to become excited about the value of knowing a foreign language in their own lives and, subsequently, to take action.” (Dörnyei & Kubanyiova 2014). The two researchers in different areas, see the same elements in empathy and learning a foreign language; observing, imagining, understanding and taking action. Let us look at the ways these phases take form in foreign language learning.



Successful language learning certainly includes a phase of observation in the receptive skills such as listening, watching a film or reading. Listening is a popular activity used for enhancing empathic competency, and it is a crucial part of language learning. Besides absorbing vocabulary, formulaic language and pronunciation, learners might find a model, with whom they may wish to identify themselves, either consciously or unconsciously. Mirror neurons come into play in this phase. “To engage in learning a second language is to step into a new world. This act of extending the self to take on a new identity is (…) an important factor in language learning", observes Guiora who was one of the first ones to study empathy in relation with language learning (Guiora 1972). Observing and listening are the first steps towards this identification. Reading and narratives also open learners’ eyes and ears to observe and enter an imaginary world.



The main motivational force according to Dörnyei is for the learners “to ‘see’ themselves as potentially competent L2 users” (Dörnyei & Kubanyiova 2014). This vision will draw the path towards their success and motivate to achieve it. The clearer the vision of this possible L2-self, the stronger the motivation. Guided imagery or other language activities can be used to create, enhance and maintain this vision (Dörnyei & Hadfield 2013). As mentioned above, seeing oneself in someone else’s shoes is one of the most common interpretations of empathy. So, can’t we help students imagine themselves in a different context and behave in a different way, such as speaking a different language and through role-plays help them identify themselves with this new ‘me’, their L2-self? By doing this, we would rely on and at the same time enhance their empathic competence, as well as strengthen their motivation.



Language learners’ success is very much dependent on personal characteristics, which includes their capacity for understanding and accepting differences of all types, including linguistic, cultural, ethnic and existential differences. It is not enough to merely observe, or imagine people and contexts that differ from theirs, but they need to adopt a positive attitude towards them thanks to understanding their words, feelings and actions. Without this element of cognitive empathy, they will probably not “become excited about the value of knowing a foreign language” (Dörnyei & Kubanyiova 2014), and they will lack either confidence or willingness as well as openness to communicate. Lack of understanding the context can easily lead to a sudden drop in motivation. Language activities that stimulate question formation, critical thinking and creativity will improve learners' cognitive empathy and help maintain their motivation.


Taking action

The decisive element both in empathy and motivation is the action that follows the observation, vision and understanding. In the case of the language learner, this action means the use of language in a relational context that is in meaningful, interpersonal communication. Brown puts it clearly, “Communication requires a sophisticated degree of empathy. In order to communicate effectively, a learner needs to be able to understand the other person’s affective and cognitive states” (Brown 2000). Communicative language activities that encourage learners to use language naturally in authentic situations will further enhance their empathic skills. Once they can efficiently produce language, they can engage in a ‘meaning-making process’ (Nguyen 2014 quoting Buber) to learn about other people and the world as defined by Martin Buber, who said, “All real life is meeting” (Buber 2000). As we can see, the empathic competency which enabled them to learn a foreign language, will navigate them through the ‘social tapestry’ (Rifkin 2009) of myriads of connections, and help them connect with the world and people to be able to ‘learn through encounters’. Empathy viewed as a dynamic process seems to be a guiding factor both in language learning and language use.


The motivating empathic language teacher

Language learners go through the four phases of empathy in their inner world when learning a foreign language and they rely on the same four aspects when they use that language in various contexts in the outside world. Language teachers’ role is pivotal in guiding them through this process in both aspects. So, what if that hidden quality which makes the relationship between teachers and their students suitable for creating ‘a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere in the classroom' (Csizér & Dörnyei 1998) to acquire new skills and knowledge, in particular learning a foreign language, is empathy? What if empathy is that secret ingredient which makes a teacher the primary motivational factor in learning a foreign language? What if it is thanks to the empathic competence conditioned by mirror neurons that learners would look upon their teacher as a model? The relationship between language teachers and their learners is rooted in empathy interpreted as a dynamic system. In this framework, the teacher-student relationship becomes a back-and-forth constantly changing process. Students identify themselves with the teacher thanks to their empathic capacity, and this favours language learning, while teachers adapt their teaching method and content to the students' aspirations and capacities, as a result of their empathic skill of observing, understanding what the students need. An empathic teacher will ‘apprehend his students’ (Buber 1947) and use this knowledge to take action, that is to say, tailor activities to the ‘person-in-context’ (Ushioda 2009). We can, therefore, conclude that the empathic teacher is a motivating teacher and an empathic learner is a motivated learner who learns through encounters to be able to build new connections with the world and other individuals.

Activities corresponding to each phase of the empathy process will ensure authenticity, show that the teacher cares about the student. Listening activities, narratives, real role-plays as personal expression (Jaray-Benn 2015), activities enhancing critical thinking and creativity, authentic and live projects are excellent ways to develop students’ empathic skills. The empathic language classroom is a classroom open to the world and is built on mutually nurtured empathy through the relation between the teacher and the student.



Empathy has recently become a ‘trendy’ term in our society, politics, business world and education. However, my feeling is that we have not explored it in its full potential. Bridging theory and practice can benefit learners and learning, so I aimed to argue that empathy goes beyond connectedness, kindness and altruism. It has deep links with language learning, language use and motivation. If we consider it in its complex and dynamic aspects, it can become a guiding principle in the way we teach languages, develop materials and connect with our students.



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Nguyen, V., (2014). Martin Buber's Educational Theory, Retrieved from

Oxford, L. R., (2016). ‘Toward a Psychology of Well-Being for Language Learners: The ‘EMPATHICS’ Vision’, In MacIntyre, P., Gregersen, T. & Mercer, S. (Eds.) (2016) Positive Psychology in SLA, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Rifkin, J., (2009). The Empathic Civilization. The race of global consciousness in a world in crisis, Cambridge: Polity Press

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Please check the How to Motivate Your Students course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Pilgrims courses at Pilgrims website.

Please check the English Course for Teachers and School Staff at Pilgrims website.

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  • The “Hidden” Humanistic Teachers: Rudolph Steiner’s Followers in the Waldorf Schools Round the World
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  • Empathy as a Source of Motivation in Language Learning and Language Teaching
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