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 because I feel a bit tense. 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.
What do you think?
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
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.
How to remember words in a foreign language
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 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.
What do you think?
How do you like to study vocabulary? Let us know in the comments below!
From crash diets to language hacking, the world is becoming obsessed with quick fixes.
The idea of learning a language in next to no time is certainly appealing. Recently, I did a language challenge to learn as much German as possible in 90 days. And I have to say, I was thrilled with the results as I went from zero knowledge of German to being able to hold a basic conversation in 3 just months.
But then I let my intensive study patterns slide a bit and I started to forget German almost as quickly as I’d learned it. Which is perhaps not that surprising, given that I’ve had blocks of Parmesan cheese for longer than I studied German.
Quick to learn, quick to forget
The experience of forgetting a language in this way is new to me. Usually when I put a language aside for a few weeks or months, it’s still there when I pick it up again. Sure, it feels like I’m speaking with a sock in my mouth for the first few minutes, but it soon comes flooding back.
So why did my brain hang onto the other languages, while my German disappeared in a puff of smoke?
Because I didn’t cram the other languages. I studied them little and often, spread out over a longer time period. I let the words, sounds and sentence structures swim around my brain and settle in my memory in their own sweet time.
Slow learning builds long-term memories
Studies show that we remember information better when we learn it in short sessions spread out over several days compared to in the same amount of hours crammed together. This means that if we learn something over the space of a week, we’re much more likely to remember it if we study for an hour a day compared to seven hours squeezed in over the weekend.
Why? Because because sleep is really important for building long-term memories. Remember in school when you studied really hard for a few days to pass an exam, only to forget everything a few days later? When we cram, we don’t get enough sleeps between study sessions, which makes it harder for our brains to consolidate the information we learn.
By spreading our study sessions out, we give our brains plenty of opportunity to strengthen our long-term memories during sleep. That’s why learning languages little by little makes them easier to remember in the long run.
Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed my 3 month German sprint and I got a lot out of it. But if we want lasting progress, sooner or later we have to get into the tortoise mentality and build study habits that are sustainable over longer periods of time.
Why people resist slow and steady
The main reason people fail to create sustainable learning habits is the level of effort and commitment required. On the whole, we humans struggle with slow and steady. We want results straight away and when we don’t get them we give up. Or we go at it as fast as we can and burn out before we’ve really got started. This explains why diets, exercise programmes and most attempts at language learning fizzle out after the first few weeks.
Be the tortoise: 6 ways to build lasting study habits
The good news is, it’s actually quite easy to build sustainable study habits, once you’ve got the right strategies in place. These six steps will help you harness the power of slow to build lasting study habits and get that language firmly lodged in your brain:
1. Focus on the small things
Emily Dickinson once said, “If you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves”. The ability to focus on the smaller picture is essential when taking on mammoth projects like language learning. When you break your learning into tiny units and put all your energy into getting that done, the bigger picture will take care of itself. For example, I’m focusing on getting 60 minutes of German study done per day. If I can manage that most days, I should be able to speak German pretty well after a year. But I’m not thinking about that too much yet – it would be overwhelming. I’m just focusing on getting my hour done, day after day, week after week. It’s the repetition that’s key here – you can choose any amount of time that fits in with your schedule. Even 10 minutes a day can add up to big results over time.
2. Don’t break the chain
You may have already heard of comedian Seinfeld’s popular productivity tip. To hone his comedy skills, he decided to write one joke per day and mark a big cross on the calendar for each day he did it. This simple technique works brilliantly for building long-term habits – once you’ve got a streak going, you get so much satisfaction from looking at that row of crosses that you’ll do anything not to break the chain. The method has become very popular over the last year or so and there is now a selection of fancy apps that help you record your crosses. I like Chains.cc as it allows you to share your progress with others, which gives you another reason to stay consistent (more on this in a moment). That said, a good old fashioned calendar does the trick just as well.
3. Go social
It’s easy to keep putting things off when you know no one’s watching. When you make your progress public, you become accountable to others, making you far more likely to keep showing up for your goals. Another advantage to sharing your progress with others is the level of community spirit and support you get from other learners. There are plenty of ways you can share your learning progress: you could start a blog or join the lovely community of language learners on Instagram by taking part in the language diary challenge.
4. Let yourself off the hook
There’ll probably be times when you miss a day or two (or three or four). Whether it’s a deadline at work, visitors, or a holiday, sometimes life gets in the way. Feeling guilty about skipped study sessions is counterproductive: it creates tension and makes it more difficult to get started again. When you find yourself off track, let it go and get back on it.
5. Be lazy
During the weekend, my German study mostly consists of me sitting in my pyjamas watching German TV. Even during the week, if I don’t feel like taxing my grey matter, I’ll make myself a cup of tea and watch something light on YouTube. Forcing yourself to do heavier stuff like studying grammar or writing when you don’t feel like it doesn’t make for sustainable language learning – sooner or later you’ll burn out and give up.
6. Track your progress with videos
Learning a language is a bit like digging a tunnel: if you keep chipping away with your head down the whole time, you won’t see the results of your hard work. Making videos or recording audio of yourself speaking helps you step back and appreciate the accumulative effect of your study sessions. Watch the video from a few months ago and you’ll see that your pronunciation is better, your vocabulary is more advanced and your grammar is more precise. And you’ll want to keep it up so that you can see more progress a few months from now. Don’t worry if you’re camera shy, or the sound of your own voice makes you cringe a bit (mine certainly does!) these recordings can be for your eyes and ears only. Or, if you’re up for it, you can post your progress videos on YouTube to benefit from the accountability and support that goes along with sharing your language goals. I’ll be posting my German videos on my YouTube channel, and I’d love to see some of you over there too.
What do you think?
Have you ever learned a language and then forgotten it? Or are you trying to learn a language and struggling to stick with it? Which of the six tips can you start doing now to help you be more consistent in your language learning? Let us know in the comments below!