Flow in Foreign Language Learning

Teksti | Alina Leminen , Berenice Rivera-Macias , Hilkka Lydén , Samu Heikinmatti

This article examines the concept of flow in foreign language learning, considers its relationship with intrinsic motivation and focusing on its applicability in the Multisensory Approaches to Language Learning (MALL/MAKU) project. Flow, characterized by intense concentration and reduced self-awareness, is considered as a means to create rewarding and enjoyable language learning experiences. Intrinsic motivation, autonomy, and teacher facilitation are identified as key factors contributing to flow in the language learning setting. We conclude that understanding and integrating flow can enhance language learning, particularly in workplace environment, providing a foundation for effective pedagogical approaches that prioritise enjoyment and engagement in the language learning process.

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Photo by Piotr Łaskawski on Unsplash


Flow refers to a psychophysical state in which concentration is so comprehensive that there is no room for any extraneous thoughts. In a state of flow, attention does not fixate on anything irrelevant, and concerns about problems attenuate. Self-awareness is also diminished in a state of flow, and sense of time may disappear. The activity that produces flow experiences is inherently so satisfying that a person engages in it without considering the practical benefits or possible disadvantages of the activity (Csikszentmihalyi 1991).

In this article, we examine foreign language learning with respect to the concept of flow. How can we create conditions in which learning a language is so rewarding that one becomes fully immersed in the process, and learning becomes enjoyable? Additionally, we want to explore flow and some of its interrelated concepts with the objective of looking into its potential relevance to the Multisensory approaches to language learning (MALL/in Finnish: Moniaistinen kosketus uuteen kieleen, MAKU) project. The project aims towards developing methods for supporting immigrants in the enhancement of their work-related Finnish language skills through the application of social design. By integrating the concept of flow within the project’s framework, we might better understand how different learning situations and environments in which immigrants learn Finnish language influence their learning processes (Albert 2021). Please note that this article accompanies another one focused on the more practical aspects of flow in foreign language learning, which has been published in this same journal (Rivera-Macias, Lydén, Heikinmatti & Leminen 2023).

Intrinsic motivation in language learning

Learning occurs best when the learner is internally motivated. In order for a person to act enthusiastically, they must be motivated by what they are doing. According to Martela and Jarenko (2014, 6-14), motivation can be divided into internal (or intrinsic) and external motivation: external motivation is based on rewards and sanctions, while internal motivation comes from a person’s own desire or enthusiasm. Internal motivation is much more likely to maintain a long-term commitment.

According to the well-established theory of self-determination by Ryan and Deci (2000), intrinsic motivation occurs when a person has 1) a sufficient level of competence or expertise for the task at hand, 2) a suitable level of autonomy, that is, independence and self-governance, and 3) the necessary degree of involvement or a sense of relatedness to others in their activities. This is depicted in Figure 1.

Furthermore, Piniel and Albert (2017, 99) found that the more motivation a language learner has with the urge and curiosity to take part in the learning process, the more likely they will become immersed in language learning tasks and experience flow in the classroom.

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Figure 1: Self-determination theory. Adapted from Ryan & Deci (2000) by Lydén 2023.

Dewaele and MacIntyre (2014) have examined enjoyment related to language learning and identified similar factors as defined by Ryan and Deci. In their study, learners experienced most enjoyment during empowering tasks in which they had at least some degree of autonomy in execution, encouraged creativity, and supported interconnection among their peers. Being in a state of flow can also momentarily lift inhibitions or social restrictions on classroom behaviour because the sense of self recedes into the background (Marszalek et al. 2022). This can be achieved with the guidance from language teachers, who can create and promote a classroom environment with conditions facilitating flow (Egbert 2003). In this sense, teachers would not only contribute to the matching of tasks with skills, but also by setting goals and giving clear and immediate feedback to the learners (Albert 2021; Marszalek et al. 2022). Figure 2 illustrates how increasing skills and task complexity raises a risk of either anxiety or boredom if the tasks do not match well the learner’s abilities.

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Figure 2: Optimal Challenging Activity Flow Zone according to Csikszentmihalyi (1991). Lydén, 2023.

The teacher’s role and own experience is also crucial, since they also experience flow in their practice due to their intrinsic motivation. This has been observed through research where teachers and learners expressed that interest and involvement, authentic communication, and dialogical experiences of language learning create a learning environment where intrinsic motivation can create experiences of flow (Tardy & Snyder 2004). This is the area that we explore in the article focused on flow in practice (Rivera-Macias & et al. 2023).

In the case of the MALL project, we focus on language learning in the workplace setting, where motivation to learn could be considered as intrinsic, meaning the learner has a strong desire to function well in their everyday activities in their working environment. If we consider flow as enjoyment and focused attention, it would be beneficial to recognize how individuals experience their everyday interactions at work in relation to language acquisition and its development. This perspective gives us new insights on how the MALL project could help language learners, colleagues, and teachers alike increase enjoyment and flow in language learning while they perform their jobs.

Attentional involvement, competence valuation and enjoyment

Attentional involvement refers to the extent to which we dedicate our attention to the task that we are engaged with, and it takes place during an ongoing experience (Abuhamdeh & Csikszentmihalyi 2012). Departing from Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow” model (see Figure 2), it has been noted that a balance between a person’s skills supports the attention that they give to the task at hand, repurposing such attention away from unrelated stimuli (Abuhamdeh & Csikszentmihalyi 2012).

Marty-Dugas & Smilek (2019) reported a positive correlation between flow and attention, indicating that people experiencing flow appear to be more focused on the activity at hand, which consistently helps them to avoid making errors or letting their mind wander away. Being aware of such correlation can be relevant for Finnish language learning. Since learners, either at the language centre or at their working place, have already acquired Finnish language skills and are skilled at the work that they do, attentional involvement can help them to refocus their language learning despite situations of stress or self-awareness, for instance.

Language learning can indeed be enjoyable even if the learner underperforms a given task, because they have been so involved and engaged with such task that they take pleasure in it (Abuhamdeh & Csikszentmihalyi 2012). This can be due to competence valuation, that is, the degree to which someone cares about their own performance. According to Abuhamdeh and Csikszentmihalyi’s (2012) findings, competence valuation and enjoyment are fully influenced by attentional involvement. Hence, despite not performing according to own expectations, the person may still enjoy and consider their performance acceptable due to their attention to the ongoing activity redirecting it away from personal concerns.

The notions of competence valuation, enjoyment, and motivation are interlinked, and largely corroborate Bandura’s conceptualization of perceived self-efficacy (Bandura 1993; Bandura & Locke 2003). Self-efficacy can influence one’s motivation to learn a foreign language (Jacobs & Morgan 2022; Piniel & Albert, 2017b; Piniel & Csizér 2013). Language learners, akin to other learners, are agents capable of producing the desired effects, who have the power to act towards achieving a set goal (Bandura & Locke 2003), such as learning Finnish in the context of the MALL project. Thus, language learners may encounter different motivators. Motivators can be external (lessons planned, teachers’ own motivation and personality, class type -hybrid, online, physical, virtual) or they can be internal (language level, various literacies levels, life situations). Learners can assess those motivators in order to have a positive learning experience (Piniel & Csizér 2013). A positive language learning experience will lead to flow. Lastly, it is important to include the notions of competence valuation, enjoyment and motivation as variables influencing the learners’ self-perception and experience of flow.

Closing remarks

Drawing upon prior research on the concept of flow in language learning, the promotion of practices fostering the state of flow in Finnish language learning should be encouraged. The MALL project’s focus is on immigrants’ improvement of Finnish language skills in the workplace setting, where they should have opportunities to practise Finnish together with peers and colleagues, as well as with their supervisors. Foreign language learning at the workplace brings to the fore a connection with the real world, a clear purpose, which is essential to the experience of flow (Albert 2021). Furthermore, this theoretical knowledge can inform the planning, adaptation, and potential development of digital technologies to enhance the experience of flow in Finnish language learning.

Thus, incorporating the concept of flow into our work with participants in the MALL project seems beneficial as it allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the different dimensions of their language learning journey. This knowledge helps us design and improve language learning methodologies that prioritize the enjoyment of learning itself, leading to more enriching and effective experiences and pedagogical approaches.

The publication has been created as a part of the ESF+ funded MALL project coordinated by Laurea University of Applied Sciences, where various approaches for learning the language needed in the working life are being tested, studied, and developed. The project is designed in response to the need to promote the rapid employment of immigrants, especially in the fields experiencing workforce shortage. The project involves Haaga-Helia, Arffman Ltd., and Lingsoft Ltd. (MAKU-Hanke – Laurea-Ammattikorkeakoulu, n.d.).


  • Alina Leminen (PhD, Docent) is a cognitive scientist, who works in Laurea as Chief RDI officer. She has conducted research on, e.g., language learning, multilingualism, and the language development of immigrants. She is the Research Director in the MALL project.
  • Hilkka Lydén (MScN, RN) works at Laurea University of Applied Sciences, C-unit, as an RDI Specialist and Project Manager. She has previously worked, for example, as a refugee counsellor in immigration services and as a nurse at a reception centre. She is a doctoral researcher at the Faculty of Art and Design at the University of Lapland, investigating the support of integration through design. In the MALL project, she is the Principal Investigator and project manager.
  • Berenice Rivera-Macias (PhD) is a sociologist and psychologist working at Laurea as Project Specialist (MALL project). She has done research, for instance, on topics related to learning and teaching in higher education, and meso- and micro-level experiences of staff at public institutions.
  • Samu Heikinmatti (MA in Finnish language) is an integration coach and Finnish teacher. He has been teaching Finnish for foreigners for 14 years of which 8 years online. He is specialized in e-learning, drama and gamification. Currently he is working in Arffman Finland as a coach and Project Worker in the MALL project.


URN http://urn.fi/URN:NBN:fi-fe2024062056140

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