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5 Psychology quirks which meddle with your language learning

psychology in language learningThis blog usually praises language learners for all the hard work they do. And with good reason: learning a foreign language is a wonderful hobby and a great project to undertake. Today’s post is a bit more devious. Are there things happening to language learners which are perhaps not so productive? And is there something in their psychology which bilinguals should be wary of?

Before we begin, a word of caution: just because these phenomena exist, it doesn’t mean that all foreign language speakers or students must deal with all of them all the time. It’s good to be aware of them – it’s probably too much to suspect all of them at play in your case – and it’s certainly not wise to blame all of them for your language study work not happening!

With that said, let’s start with…

1. Confirmation bias: the reason why “I knew it!” has such a bitter-sweet taste.

You’re convinced that French is the most romantic language of all. So you’re willing to overlook the hilariously elaborate grammar sequences just because every now and then, a word such as “une hirondelle” comes along to sweep you off your feet. That’s what turns you on, that’s what you remember about French!
Or maybe: you’re convinced that your grammar tutor is really bad. So the next time you look at your test results, the good answers get overlooked – and you tend to hone in on the two or three grammar questions that didn’t go well. “There, see, I told you,” you proclaim triumphantly. “She’s hopeless, I need to change my teacher, this just won’t do.”
Confirmation bias is the tendency to look for things that reinforce our point of view or make our theory fit our vision better. It can be motivating (you need those cute French words to go on, otherwise it’s just heaps of grammar), or detrimental (what did you actually do well on your test?). Look out for it, speak to others and check their perspective on everything you study or speak about.

2. Placebo effect: when anything can feel like language learning…does language learning count for anything?

Ten minutes of clicking through pictures and sounds. Five levels of a memory game in Spanish. Or even an hour on Skype, but firmly within your comfort zone – talking about things which feel safe, using words and phrases you know by heart.
It’s sweet and secure to feel you’re making progress – to accept a new badge, to “level up.” Learning app makers know this so well (why do you think Duolingo is so similar to Candy Crush Saga in its design?). But when there’s no learning there, this effect – the placebo effect – gives you a false sense of accomplishment. The best solution? Setting your own real-life goals and stopping frequently to measure how well you’re doing.
Are there any positives to the placebo effect in language learning? Well, an important state exam made my students nervous, but also capable of memorizing lots of English vocab and producing good results. This is akin to placebo – in learning, it’s called the “washback effect.” Take lots of tests in your language to generate deadlines, motivate yourself and learn more – but only if this works for you.

3. Forgetting curve – or why it pays to keep revising.

You learn a word in your Spanish class. You use it in an exercise, then you use it once more in a role-play. You come back home and proudly say it to your boyfriend over dinner.
Next week, the word pops up on a quick revision quiz. You’re convinced you’ve never heard that word. It’s literally looking brand new to you.
Magic? Actually, no. This is one of the best-studied phenomena in psychology. Memory and forgetfulness are two sides of one coin, and researchers are able to determine one thing for sure: if you don’t use it, you will forget it.
The remedy is simple. Revise! Flashcards are good for this, but so is frequent and authentic language use which will regularly require you to flex your fluency muscles and reach for new words or phrases.

4. Affective filter

This is possibly the most convoluted one of them all – but hey, a linguistic superhero called Stephen Krashen thought of that, so there’s got to be something to it, right?
Think about a language lesson taught in two contexts. The same words, the same tasks, and the same material is covered. The only difference is that lesson A is taught by a new, strict, dictatorial teacher who moves too fast, raises his voice and corrects mistakes in a menacing manner – and lesson B is taught by a familiar, relaxed teacher who knows the tempo, correction methods and learning style which you prefer.
If you guessed that lesson A would make you more reluctant to use a foreign language – and more likely to forget (or fail to learn) anything that was taught, you’re confirming the existence of the affective filter. Krashen argued that foreign language tends to come in and out of our system through this “filter” – when we’re relaxed, we remember and produce more. When we’re stressed, we won’t produce and we won’t remember as much.
So how are you going to make your lessons more relaxing? Well, I saved the best for last.

5. Pleasure principle

Your instinct tells you to seek the good things, and to avoid the pain. Replace “instinct” with “id,” or “habits,” as you please. This is a force which is hard to deny, and it shows in most of the things we do.
Combine this with “delayed gratification” and you have one of the most legendary psychological experiments of them all: a series of kids locked in a room with a cookie, right after being told that they can have this cookie now or two cookies if they just wait for some time without eating the first. (Watch this on video if you can…you’ve never seen so many determined seven-year-olds)
What of it for us, bilingual wannabes? Well, the pleasure principle can combine with motivation. In my case, being able to listen to Brazilian songs and have much cooler and relaxed conversations in Portuguese – something I’d attempted on a few occasions. This is the source of pleasure, and it’s useful to define what motivates you just like that.
As for the delayed gratification, this is the thing those kids staring at cookies got right: “I’m going through hell right now, but two cookies are soooooo worth it.” That scary Chinese exam will mean that you’ll definitely get included in next year’s business trip to Hong Kong. And all those reams of Polish grammar activities just mean you’ll be able to enjoy the lazy town square evenings even more, and hold your own with your friends when you’re back.

I hope that helped you understand the psychology of language learning at least a bit better. Do you have any favourite mind tricks which bilingualism helped you understand? Why don’t you share those on Facebook or Twitter with us?

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