You never fail until you stop trying. Albert Einstein.

Happy (nearly) New Year everyone!

As one year draws to a close, our thoughts often turn to how we can better ourselves in the coming year. Learning a language is something that always features highly on people’s lists.

That said, many of you will be familiar with the dismal statistic which states that only 8% of people actually stick to their New Year’s resolutions. This means that by February, most people’s language projects will be but a distant memory.

Research-backed ways to succeed

Thankfully, not all resolutions are destined for the same fate. Research on the psychology and neuroscience of motivation is full of useful tidbits to help you stay on track.

Here are two of my favourites that will increase your chances of seeing your language projects through to 2017.

1.  Boost motivation through teamwork

How often do you keep the promises you make to yourself?

Flying solo towards your goals might seem like a good idea at first, but most people run out of steam in the first few weeks.

Almost everyone puts more effort into the commitments they make as part of a team compared to the ones they make as individuals. Research at Stanford University shows that people who feel like they’re working in a team (even though they may not physically be working together) are more interested in the task and more likely to perform better.

Language learning is often a solitary activity, but that doesn’t mean you can’t reap the benefits of teamwork. There are increasing numbers of online communities which provide the opportunity to work together with other language learners.

Lately, I’ve experienced the value of teamwork in the language learning process first hand. I’m currently learning German as part of the Add1 Challenge, a three month online programme which unites language learners from all over the world. Even though we’re all working on different language projects, everyone is moving towards the common goal of having a 15 minute conversation with a native speaker. Being part of such a community makes you accountable to other people (making you far more likely to actually study) and gives you access to a friendly support network.

Get into the team spirit by participating in an online language learning community such as the Add1 challenge or the one on Benny Lewis’s site.

2. Set tiny goals

Working towards a large goal like “learn language X in 2016” can be overwhelming. In the past, I used to struggle with vast and ill-defined targets, a well known motivation killer.

Research shows that setting smaller subgoals is highly beneficial to learning. For example, Bandura and Shunk (1982) demonstrated that, over 7 sessions, people who were instructed to complete 6 pages of maths problems per session completed the task faster and more accurately than people who were given 42 pages from the outset.

Reaching a goal (no matter how big or small) gives you a little hit of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with reward and pleasure (Schultz 2002). Setting tiny targets and achieving them regularly boosts your mood and keeps you feeling positive about your language learning.

One strategy that has been working well for me lately is to set mini daily goals, for example, to complete one lesson from a textbook, or to study for half an hour. Such goals are generally easier to reach and give you the chance to celebrate each tiny step on the language learning journey.

What about you?

Now I’d like to hear about your language learning plans. Have you got any language goals for 2016? Are you planning on using teamwork or tiny goals to help you succeed? Let us know in the comments below!

 

References

Bandura, A., & Schunk, D. H. (1981). Cultivating competence, self-efficacy, and intrinsic interest through proximal self-motivationJournal of Personality and Social Psychology41(3), 586.

Priyanka B. Carr, Gregory M. Walton (2014) Cues of working together fuel intrinsic motivation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 53, 169.

Schultz, W (2002) Getting formal with dopamine and reward, Neuron, 36, 241.

Christmas is a time when most of us joyfully leave our good intentions at the door (glass of bubbly and Ferrero Roche at 10.30am, anyone?)

For many, this means putting language learning on hold until January. However, there’s one sneaky technique you can use to practice your languages without lifting a finger (leaving your hands free to raise that glass of bubbly). There’s no need for computers, books or pens. You don’t even need to be alone. You can do it wherever you are and whoever you’re with.

The little voice in your head

Most of us are familiar with the internal dialogue in which we silently talk to ourselves, for example, when adding up numbers, remembering things people said earlier or imagining future conversations. That little voice in your head, or “inner speech” as psychologists call it, can be your best friend when it comes to language learning.

Thinking in a second language is often viewed as something reserved for very advanced levels, akin to dreaming in a second language. However, speaking silently in your head in another language is something you can choose to do at any level.

For example, if you’re just starting out on your language learning journey, take a look around the room and see which words you recognise: Do you know how to say tree? Chocolate? Cat? What about knife, fork and plate? Do you know how to describe family members? Can you use basic grammatical structures to make short sentences about the people and things around you?

For more advanced levels, try listening to your own inner dialogue and the conversations around you: can you say these things in your target language?

Make it a habit

The process can feel a little slow and unnatural at first, but the more you practice, the more automatic it becomes. I’ve been using this trick for years and I believe it helps me speak more fluently because it gives me lots of practice in building sentences.

Of course, with new languages, you might not always find the perfect words and sentence structures for each situation. However, by force of habit, you’ll be surprised how quickly your inner voice starts chatting away, making use of the words and structures you already know.

Learning new things

Now let’s imagine you see uncle Bob slumped in the corner after Christmas dinner and you suddenly realise you don’t know the words for “uncle” or “drunk”. Going through this thought process is valuable as it helps you to identify gaps in your knowledge. Then, if you get chance, you can quickly look the word up on your smartphone.

One advantage of this method is that new information is learned through familiar situations and emotional connections, which makes things easier to remember. Phrases relating to real-life situations, like “uncle Bob is drunk again” are far more likely to stick in your head compared to boring sentences found in textbooks.

Consolidating 

Let’s imagine you’re at the dinner table, or you don’t have a smartphone with you. Even when it’s just you and your noggin, you can still use inner speech to strengthen your language skills.

In this case, you can practice organising the words and grammar you already know into meaningful sentences. Building sentences is a key skill for speaking a second language, so having a simple technique that allows you to practice is invaluable.

So go ahead and pour yourself a second Glas Wein or grab another cioccolato. You can be safe in the knowledge that no matter what happens to your waistline come January, your language skills will be in tiptop shape.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Or should that be… Buon Natale, Feliz Navidad, Joyeux Noël, Frohe Weihnachten…

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times. Bruce Lee

Goals. Most of us are pros at getting started but a bit clueless when it comes to actually crossing the finishing line.

I recently had a similar experience in my own language learning missions. Despite a lot of initial enthusiasm (or wild optimism?) my accomplishments turned out to be a bit flat.

My first goal was part of the italki challenge, where I did six lessons with native Mandarin speakers over the space of two weeks. My aim for this challenge was to describe my friends and family in Chinese.

The second was to learn some basic German phrases to use in shops, restaurants and travel situations.

Looking back, I can see I did one thing right, but I missed something really important which ultimately slowed my progress.

What I did right

I followed the #1 rule for achieving just about anything and everything:

Set small, well-defined goals

One of the main reasons people give up on languages is the sheer volume of new things to learn. When you think about a language as a whole, each new word or grammar rule feels hopelessely insignificant by comparison. Vague goals compound the problem as they make it impossible to track progress and give the impression that you’re getting nowhere, in spite of all your hard work.

Ill-defined goals such as “to get by” are kryptonite to motivation. What does “get by” even mean? How will you know when you get there?

Over 50 years of studies in goal-setting theory show that setting specific goals leads to higher success rates. For example, the idea of earning 500 dollars a month produces far better results when compared to the more general goal of earning some extra cash.

The same principle applies to language learning.  Dividing the mammoth task into small, well-defined goals gives you a clear destination to aim for. More importantly, you can track your progress and give yourself a little pat on the back when you get there.

Where I went wrong

Although my goals were small and well-defined, I didn’t give nearly enough thought to how I would bring them to fruition in the real world.

For example, a lot of my study time in German was based around audio and texts from my self-study book, with relatively little time practicing the actual skills I was trying to develop. Which brings me to rule number 2:

Practice practice practice. Then practice some more. 

If your goal is to order in shops and restaurants, you should practice ordering in shops and restaurants. It sounds so simple, but it’s easily overlooked. How many people focus diligently on grammar rules and vocabulary lists even though their primary goal is to communicate in everyday situations?

This tactic rarely works because the brain learns new information in a way that is context dependent. This means, if you spend a lot of time memorising grammar rules and vocabulary, you’ll get good at remembering grammar rules and vocabulary. But unless you put them into practice, you’ll probably struggle to use them in the real world.

Once you’ve got a goal in mind, think of ways to integrate plenty of practice time into your study sessions. For example, you could simulate ordering in a restaurant with an online teacher, a language partner, a friend, your dog, a tape recorder, a mirror… the list is endless. The important thing is to act out a situation where you use the language in a way that’s similar to the goal you’re working on.

When you nail these skills at home, you can draw from them far more easily in real communication situations.  And voilà, before you know it, you’ll have mastered that goal and it’ll be time to move onto the next.

What about you?

What are your language goals? How are you putting them into practice? Let us know in the comments below!

The science of never giving up: how to keep learning a foreign language

As one year draws to a close, our thoughts often turn to how we can better ourselves in the coming year. Learning a language is something that always features highly on people’s lists.
That said, many of you will be familiar with the dismal statistic which states that only 8% of people actually stick to their New Year’s resolutions. This means that by February, most people’s language projects will be but a distant memory.

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