Fear. Stress. Boredom. Language learning can stir up a host of negative emotions.
One minute you’re yawning over a grammar book and the next you’re cowering under the table for fear of sounding like a cross between a 2 year old and Tarzan.
These bad feelings are bad news for language learners, because negative emotions like stress and boredom can wreak havoc in your brain and make it more difficult to learn and remember new things.
Your brain on stress
When our brains detect a stressful situation, the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis (that’s a system of glands that release hormones, not an 80s hair metal band) pumps out stress hormones, like cortisol.
These stress hormones stimulate the fight or flight response, which came in very handy when we were living in caves as they helped us react quickly to threats, like saber-toothed tigers. Even today, small amounts are good as they keep us alert and focused on the task at hand.
But large amounts of these hormones suppress systems that aren’t deemed important for survival, like the ability to learn new information. And when you think about it, learning to conjugate a French verb probably isn’t all that important when you’re being chased by a tiger.
Too much stress is bad for your memory
Our problem is that we’re learning a language, not running away from big cats, and too much stress gets in the way of this learning process.
Studies show that people under stress have difficulties learning new words, which is linked to an excess of cortisol (Kuhlmann et al. 2005). Cortisol interferes with an important learning and memory centre in the brain, the hippocampus (which, alas, does not look like a hippo, but more like an upside down seahorse). It also stimulates the amygdala, the part of our brain which deals with emotions like fear. Psychologist Daniel Goleman (2006) explains that too much cortisol focuses our attention on the emotions we feel and limits our ability to take in new information.
Excessive stress can cause a whole of host of problems for learners like the shrinking of the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that regulates concentration, amongst other things – and fewer new brain cells being generated (Radley et al. 2004; Chen et al. 2008).
At this point you’d be forgiven for wondering why you chose such a strenuous hobby, instead of a lovely relaxing pastime like crochet or baking cupcakes.
The good news is that language learning also lends itself very well to positive learning experiences like fun and laughter. And research shows us that by capitalising on these positive emotions, we can enhance our ability to learn new information.
The science of joyful learning
French teacher Alfred Mercier once said what we learn with pleasure, we remember. Positive emotions boost our performance in a variety of areas including problem solving, learning, memory and verbal fluency. Scientists believe that this positivity advantage comes in part from increased levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter sometimes described as “the feel-good chemical”.
Dopamine plays a major role in several types of memory which are essential for language learning:
– working memory (when you repeat a word or sentence you’ve just heard)
– implicit memory (when you “pick things up” automatically)
– explicit memory (when you memorise new words or grammar rules).
Neuroscientist Martha Burns describes dopamine as “the save button” of the brain. When we learn something, the brain encodes the new information through neuronal connections, known as synapses. Burns says that the presence of dopamine strengthens the connections between synapses, making the new information easier to remember at a later date. This means that when we learn in a way that’s fun and rewarding, not only do we feel better, we learn better too.
One of the best ways to keep our brains receptive to learning is laughter. Studies of university professors reveal that using comedy in lectures helps students understand and remember the material better (Garner 2006). Laughter reduces hormones that inhibit learning, like cortisol, and activates regions of the brain associated with dopamine release (Berk et al 1989, Mobbs et al. 2003). Injecting humour into language learning reduces anxiety, increases motivation and helps things stick.
It’s time we started taking fun more seriously. To turn our brains into learning powerhouses, we need to develop strategies that help us manage negative emotions and learn with more enthusiasm and laughter. With this in mind, here are 13 ideas to make language learning less stressful and inject some fun into the process.
13 ways to make language learning joyful:
1. Laugh at your mistakes
We language learners take ourselves far to seriously. Sometimes, we’re so worried about making mistakes that the idea of speaking causes lots of anxiety. But with the right attitude, mistakes are a perfect opportunity to lighten up and have some fun with native speakers. Many of my friendships with French and Italian speakers have been solidified by us laughing tears over something ridiculous I said by accident.
2. Play games
Over the last few years there’s been an explosion of online games which help you learn a language and have fun at the same time. Two of the most popular, duolingo and memrise, are available as apps, so you can download them and learn a language instead of playing candy crush.
3. Accept ambiguity
Languages don’t always follow logical rules. And even when they do, the rules sometimes feel out of reach as our brain isn’t ready to pick them up yet. Trying to grasp everything at once creates tension and gets in the way of learning. Accept that some things are still a mystery and they’ll be revealed little by little as you continue learning. When you approach languages with patience and curiosity (and don’t stress about what you don’t know yet) you’ll learn much faster.
4. Give yourself an eff it day
You know those days. When your brain just says eff it and sabotages all of your good intentions to study. These days are risky, because once you miss one session, it’s easier to skip the next one, then you start to feel guilty and it’s hard to get back on the study train. My secret weapon for these days (which happen pretty often) is to let my brain chill out by doing “lazy” activities in my target language, like watching TV, films or listening to music. If I’m feeling inspired, I might look up the odd word or grammar point that comes up, but I don’t force myself to do anything strenuous. This way I can stay on the study train without stressing myself out.
5. Do what makes you tick
What do you enjoy doing in your native language? Whatever it is, try doing it in the language you’re learning. If you like going to the pub, set up a language exchange at the pub. If you like reading news websites, find one in your target language and use the google translate add-on to quickly translate new words. If you like watching TV, look for similar programmes in your target language. If music’s your thing, try finding a group you like and translating the lyrics. Finding resources you enjoy is essential for bringing a spirit of fun to your learning.
6. Make it relevant
Learning grammar and vocabulary in an abstract way can be frustrating because it’s difficult to see how they will be useful to us in the real world. Whenever you learn a new word or grammar point, make it more concrete by linking it to real things and situations in your own life.
7. Find the right level
Too high and it’s frustrating, too low and it’s boring. When choosing resources, try and find that sweet spot where the learning flows easily: materials should reinforce what you already know and throw in a few new things without being overwhelming. Graded readers are great for this purpose as they’re specially designed to introduce a little new vocabulary and grammar at each level.
8. Shake it up
Routines are good as they help us work consistently. But ruts are bad, as they mean our minds aren’t stimulated enough. Shake things up every now and then by using the language in new ways. Visiting the country is a great way to do this, but there are plenty of ways to get new stimuli at home too. A few examples are language exchanges, joining a meet up group, writing a diary or recording yourself speaking.
9. Know when to call it a day
If you’re using a textbook or course that stresses you out or bores you to tears, change it! Often it’s the resources that are causing tension, rather than the language learning itself. There’s a right way for everyone to learn, and sometimes you have to experiment with a few different methods before you find yours. That said, be careful to avoid shiny object syndrome, where you keep collecting resources and not using any of them! Aim to find the right balance between trying new things and getting stuff done.
10. Use music
Music is a well-known dopamine booster and is great for learning a language in a fun and stress free way. Learn the words to some songs in your target language and listen to them whenever you can. You can even sing along while you’re in the car or cleaning the shower!
11. Find the right people
When you’re practicing speaking, some people will stress you out more than others. It’s normal. Try and spend as much time as possible with people who make you feel relaxed and comfortable. Italki is a great place to find like-minded language partners and patient teachers.
12. Don’t forget to breathe
I tend to speak in a slightly higher pitch when I’m speaking another language, which is probably due to a higher level of tension involved in speaking a second language. I find it helps to breathe steadily and focus on bringing my tone closer to my native one. I don’t always remember, but when I do it makes a huge difference as I feel much calmer and my speech flows better.
13. Give yourself rewards
Levels of dopamine increase in response to things that we know lead to rewards. For example, smelling cookies boosts dopamine because we know that the smell is usually followed by eating cookies. Neurologist Judy Willis says that giving yourself little treats at the end of study sessions helps your brain associate studying with rewards, boosting dopamine and motivating you to study more.
Those were my tips on how to make language learning more fun, I’m sure you have lots more! Now I’d like to hear from you: Do you find language learning stressful sometimes? What do you do to relax? Which of the above tips do you think would be the most useful in your own language learning?
Berk, L., Tan, S., Fry, W., Napier, B., Lee, J., Hubbard, R., Lewis, J., Eby, W., Neuroendocrine and Stress Hormone Changes During Mirthful Laughter, The American Journal of the Medical Sciences, 298
Burns, M (2012) Dopamine and learning: what the brain’s reward center can teach educators. The Science of learning blog: https://www.scilearn.com/blog/dopamine-learning-brains-reward-center-teach-educators
Chen Y, Dubé C, Rice CJ, Baram TZ (2008) Rapid loss of dendritic spines after stress involves derangement of spine dynamics by corticotropin-releasing hormone. Journal of Neuroscience, 28.
Garner, R. L. (2006). Humor in pedagogy: How ha-ha can lead to aha! College Teaching, 54
Radley, J., Sisti, H.M., Hao, J., Rocher, A.B., McCall, T., Hof, P.R., McEwen, B.S. Morrison, J.H., (2005) Chronic behavioral stress induces apical dendritic reorganization in pyramidal neurons of the medial prefrontal cortex Neuroscience, 130
One of the best things about working on the joy of languages blog is that our readers are always sharing smart ideas about how to learn a language. This week’s post is inspired by Anne, Ken and Vanessa, who suggested keeping a journal as a way to improve your speaking skills in a foreign language.
I loved this idea and wanted to get as many people involved as possible, so I’ve decided to set up a language diary challenge on Instagram, together with a little giveaway (more on this later).
First, let’s talk a little about how keeping a language diary can boost your speaking skills.
Writing to improve speaking
Writing to improve your speaking may seem counterintuitive at first. But writing helps develop the skills you need to communicate fluently. To speak a language well, you need to:
- practice organising your thoughts into sentences
- learn vocabulary to talk about everyday events
- identify gaps in your knowledge
A language diary helps with all of these things on a daily basis. It’s a powerful way to improve your vocabulary, grammar and ability to express your ideas – all essential for speaking.
When you keep a language diary, you’ll:
1. Learn useful things
By writing about your day, you’ll be practicing using the vocabulary and grammatical structures that you need to talk about day to day stuff. You’ll learn how to communicate about things that are important to you and the people around you, which is much more useful than the random word lists most language courses give you.
2. Remember faster
Humans are hardwired to remember stories better than other types of information. The little snippets in your diary act like mini stories, which make the grammar and vocabulary easier to remember and reuse. You’re also likely to repeat a lot of the same words and structures, which naturally makes them more memorable.
3. Use the language
When we learn a language, most of us focus on “passive activities” like reading and listening. But if we want to use the language to communicate, we should focus more on activities that help us produce the language. A language diary helps you draw from the vocabulary and grammar you’ve been learning to build sentences you can use in real conversations.
4. Learn consistently
Keeping a diary is a great way to add consistency to your language learning and make sure that you practice using the language you’re learning in some way every day.
I started the language diary challenge on Instagram so that we can work together to help each other learn a foreign language. Research shows that people are more likely to achieve their goals when they work together as a team, so I thought it would be great way to get a community of language learners together.
And Instagram is the perfect place to write a little something in the language you’re learning each day.
- It’s based around photos, which makes it visual and fun
- Pictures facilitate memory
- You can connect with the language learning community on Instagram, which includes support and corrections from native speakers.
To join in, all you have to do is post a photo or video to Instagram, write a word or phrase about it in the language you’re learning and use the hashtags #languagediarychallenge and #joyoflanguages.
What level do I have to be?
You can join in at any level. If you’re a complete beginner, you could use the challenge to learn simple sentences, or individual words. For example, you could post a picture of a beer and write the word “beer” in the language you’re learning. If you’re advanced, you can write sentences with sophisticated vocabulary and a variety of tenses. The important thing is to write a little something in the language you’re learning.
In each #languagediarychallenge, I team up with a top language learning company to give away a language themed prize. So far, we’ve given away awesome prizes from italki, add1challenge, FlashSticks, Lindsay Does Languages and irregular.endings.
Join the #languagediarychallenge
I hope you’re feeling inspired to join us for the language diary challenge! To recap, there are 2 steps to join in:
1. Post your picture or video on Instagram and write a word or sentence about it in the language you’re learning.
2. Use the hashtags #languagediarychallenge and #joyoflanguages.
That’s it! I’m looking forward to seeing your photos and videos over on Instagram.
Now I’d like to hear from you: Do you keep a language diary? What do you write about? Let us know in the comments below!
p.s. Joy of languages readers get a 10% discount on FlashSticks. Just use this code over on the FlashSticks website: JOYOFLANGUAGES10
A bad memory is one of the top excuses people give for not learning another language.
We see pages of unfamiliar words, or hear streams of sounds we can’t decipher and think “I’ll never be able to cram enough words into my brain to understand that”.
I used to worry that my own crappy memory would make me a bad language learner: I’m the type of person who can’t remember anything I learned at school, the last film I saw or what I ate for breakfast. Thankfully, once I got into language learning I realised that it doesn’t have to stop me from remembering vocabulary.
In fact, lots of language learners with average memories manage to learn thousands of words and make it look easy.
The spaced repetition technique
Many learners swear by flashcard systems, which involve studying words or sentences in the language you’re learning on one side of a card with a translation or picture on the other.
Nowadays, people use apps like memrise and anki which show flashcards at specific intervals to optimise learning. This technique, known as spaced repetition, is based on observations by memory researcher Hermann Ebbinghaus, who noticed that we’re better at remembering information learned a few times over a longer period of time compared to many times within a short space of time. This means that we can learn more vocabulary with less effort, by spreading out our study sessions.
Love them or hate them
Despite their merits, flashcards have caused quite a stir in the language learning community. For each successful language learner who swears by them, there’s another who wouldn’t touch them with a 10 foot pole.
That’s because learning vocabulary is more complex than memorising a bunch of words. When we focus too much on flashcards, there’s a danger we’ll end up recognising lots of words without knowing how to use them in real life. Also, languages are about communication – spending too much time with your head in an app is boring and it sucks the soul out of learning. Finally, if you don’t dedicate enough time to engaging with the language in a real way by listening, reading and talking to native speakers, you’ll never learn how people actually talk.
Importantly, the flashcard haters are a testimony to the fact that it is absolutely possible to learn a language without them.
My experience with flashcards
These conflicting viewpoints are the reason why my relationship with flashcards has been more on and off than a Justin Bieber love story.
In the honeymoon period, I’d get excited by all the words that seemed to pop into my head at just the right moment. But after a while, I’d notice that lots of words I was learning didn’t come to me when I needed them in real life. Eventually, I’d get frustrated and delete the app.
But without flashcards, I’d start to get this nagging feeling that my vocabulary learning had slowed down dramatically. So I’d download the app and start the cycle all over again.
The right way to remember words
Over the last few months I’ve been using flashcards consistently for the first time ever and they’ve become my trusty secret for speedy word learning.
I realised that there is a right way (and a wrong way!) to learn vocabulary. So I’ve been integrating wisdom from memory research, together with advice from renowned polyglots, to find ways to make flashcards more effective and minimise their shortcomings.
I’ve broken it down into 8 strategies that will help you get the most out of flashcards. When you put these ideas into practice, you’ll be able to remember lots of words without taking up too much time or turning study sessions into a yawn fest.
1. Make your own
This one’s first on the list because it’s by far the most important. Flashcard apps usually give you two options: use your own, or the sets other people have made. Making your own takes a little more effort in the beginning, but it’s infinitely better to use words you have met in real contexts through listening, reading or conversations. This is because memory is highly context dependent – decades of research show that we remember information more easily when we associate it with the context we first learned it in. When you make your own sets with words you’ve already met, you can link them back to the original context and remember them much faster.
A man named Harry walks into a café. Eliza Doolittle, who is working in the restaurant as a waitress, greets him with her dodgy cockney accent, “Ari”. He orders a slice of cake with layers of sponge, cream and forest fruit: a “gateaux”. When Elisa brings over his order, Ari looks at the gateaux, and says “thank you”.
Ari-gatou – you’ve just learned how to say thank you in Japanese through mnemonics, a memorisation strategy inspired by the ancient Greeks and endorsed by memory champions as the most effective way to quickly remember large amounts of information. Linking new words to things you already know such as images or rhymes makes them instantly easier to remember. The more detailed and unusual the imagery, the better – think Eliza Doolittle with a black forest gateaux in hand.
3. Be ruthless
It’s really tempting to record every new word you come across. Don’t do it. I know it sometimes feels like you need to learn the word for bunsen burner in Spanish, but you don’t. The impulse to learn everything is an asset, but if you don’t keep it in check you’ll soon find yourself with unmanageably longs lists of words you’ll never actually learn. Our mental and time resources are precious and we need to spend them on stuff that’s going to be useful. Choose words that are important for you, add those to your flashcard sets and forget the rest for now.
4. Make flashcards Robin, not Batman
Flashcards should be your trusty sidekick, not the star of the show. When you spend too much time using flashcards, you have less time to engage with language in a real way and meet words in authentic and varied contexts, aka the most important stuff. Also, turning a language into nothing more than a list of words makes it more boring than eating rice cakes.
5. Learn little and often
Flashcards work best when we study in short 5-10 minute bursts. Longer periods of time lead to inefficient learning as our brains get tired and can’t absorb new information as easily.
6. Learn whole sentences
There’s no point in learning lots of isolated words without knowing how to use them. Recording the whole sentence (or a short snippet if it’s too long) gives you information about the sentence structure so that you can build new sentences with your word. Learning sentences also helps you associate the word with the original context, giving you an extra memory boost.
7. See it in your mind’s eye
Associate new words with images you already have in your mind. For instance, if you review the word “el río” in Spanish, try conjuring up a mental image of a river. This technique helps you link new words to your existing mental representations, making them more relevant and memorable.
8. Use it or lose it
The more you use your new words, the faster you’ll remember them. There are lots of different ways to put this into practice: you can build new sentences in your mind, write a few examples, or try throwing the words into a conversation when opportunity arises. Always be on the look out for opportunities to bring your new words out of books and apps and into real life contexts.
Et voilà, 8 different ways to make the most out of flashcards. Everyone has different learning styles so I highly recommend giving them a go to see if they work for you.
If you choose not to go the flashcard route, the above tips can be integrated into almost any vocabulary learning strategy to help you remember words faster.
Now I’d love to hear from you. How do you like to study vocabulary? Let us know in the comments below!