Key Figures in Education 2: Zoltán Dörnyei

In this series we introduce key figures in education, and take a look at pivotal areas of their thinking. Educational research draws on reasearch from a number of fields, and these in turn influence our approaches to designing our lessons and courses. Our aim is to inspire you to revisit these theories and to suggest ways of applying them in your classes.

Zoltán Dörnyei

Zoltán Dörnyei

We continue our journey with Zoltán Dörnyei and explore his influence on motivational research in the fields of psycholinguistics and second-language education.

Who is Dörnyei?

Zoltán Dörnyei (born in 1960) is a Hungarian psychologist and psycholinguist, who is best known for his work in second language acquisition, individual differences and motivation research.

What are his main theories?

Dörnyei has carried out significant research into how individual differences affect the outcomes of second-language learning. Some of the main individual difference variables are personality, language aptitude or language giftedness, motivation, and according to some researchers, learner styles and cognitive styles, too. Dörnyei’s greatest interest is in language-learning motivation. He has also published important works on communication strategies and research methodology.

The L2 Motivational Self System

Dörnyei developed Higgins’s self-discrepancy theory into the L2 Motivational Self System theory. There are  three main components of this system.

  • The ideal L2 self: Your imagined and desirable ideal future self as a second language learner.
  • The ought-to L2 self: Your ought-to self has attributions you believe you should have. This is influenced by expectations of others and avoidance of negative outcomes, which are extrinsic motivational factors.
  • The L2 learning experience: This combines the environment in which your language-learning process takes places and the situations in which it unfolds. We learn from Dörnyei and Ryan (2015) that this immediate learning environment includes the language teacher, the curriculum, the group and the experience of success.

Complex Dynamic Systems Approach

Dörnyei pointed out that individual learner characteristics are unstable complex systems. In his 2015 book, co-authored with Stephen Ryan, he explains that individuals are influenced by constant interactions between their individual attributes and the contexts they live in, and these attributes make up a holistic dynamic framework. The future self-guides of the L2 Motivational Self System are viewed as dynamic constructs here. We are not talking about fixed targets learners would like to reach, instead it suggests that the actual and future selves of the learners interact with this process.

How can we use his ideas in the classroom?

Reasearch into student motivation and teacher’s motivational practices show that there is a strong correlation between the two. This implies that the application of motivational strategies and practices are very likely to influence your student’s language-learning motivation.

Look at this article to have some initial ideas on reading motivation: Motivation and Reading.

Who did he influence?

He has an ongoing influence into psycholinguistics research, focussing on motivation and individual differences, and these research projects are still in progress in many countries all over the world.

Where can we learn more about Dörnyei’s research?

Visit Zoltán Dörnyei’s website to get access to downloadable articles and research projects:

You can also use his resource book The Principled Communicative Approach, co-authored with Jane Arnold and Chaz Pugliese, published in the Helbling Resourcesful Teacher Series.


Dörnyei, Z. & Ryan, S. (2015). The psychology of the language learner revisited. London: Routledge.

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