I spend lots of my time learning and writing about psychology. Most of my favorite language bloggers do the same. But why? Isn’t all this psychology stuff just a bunch of touchy-feely mumbo jumbo? Isn’t the only important thing in language learning how much you study? Time on task is indeed paramount to success, but the quantity of learning (although important) matters far less than the quality. And what determines the impact of your language learning time? Your psychology:
- Your confidence in your ability to learn.
- Your feelings about the language and culture.
- Your willingness to try things out.
- Your ability to learn from (and laugh at!) mistakes.
- Your tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity.
Here now are five of the most insidious psychological obstacles standing between you and fluency:
1) Negative Beliefs About Your Ability to Learn the Language
The most common—and arguably most destructive—psychological obstacle in language learning is the belief that you are not good at learning languages. Okay, maybe you didn’t do so well in high school or college Spanish class. But guess what? It’s probably not your fault. In most cases, poor performance in language classes is a reflection not of your inability to learn a language, but rather:
- How ineffective the standard academic approach to language learning tends to be for most people. A small percentage of learners with high linguistic intelligence manage to pick up languages in school, but most people do far better using more natural, immersion-based approaches that leverage multiple intelligences (visual-spatial intelligence, musical intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, etc.). Some teachers do indeed try to integrate such methods, but the limitations imposed by large class sizes and standardized testing make the task all but impossible.
- How few chances you likely had to use the language in fun, meaningful, personally relevant contexts. Your language teacher may have planned some skits and “culture days”, but these are a far cry from the exciting, messy, real world interaction you need to reach conversational fluency.
- The fact you were required to learn a language, especially one you didn’t get to choose. Language learning should be optional. Or at the very least, students should get to choose which language they learn. And I don’t just mean a choice between Spanish and French. There are roughly 6,500 languages spoken in the world today; learners should be able to choose from a larger pool than just 2 or 3 Romance languages. If a particular language isn’t offered at one’s school, why not allow learners to develop a self-study program monitored by a faculty member or parent? The more power an individual has to choose, the more likely they are to take ownership of the learning process and put in the time and effort needed to make tangible progress.
2) Negative Beliefs About the Language & Culture
Looking back at my former English students, the one’s who made the most progress tended to be those who loved American culture, watched American movies, listened to American music, ate American food, and dreamt about traveling to—or living in—the United States. Those that had little interest in Americana (or the cultures of other English speaking countries) made far less progress no matter how important the English language may have been for their academic or professional careers.
In my case, my deep love and respect for Japanese culture gave me the extra fuel needed to continue putting one foot in front of the other even on days I really didn’t feel like studying.
3) The “Wait Until I’m Ready” Delusion
Many learners (especially those with perfectionistic tendencies) spend many years diligently preparing to use a language, flipping flashcard after flashcard, watching foreign films, listening to language podcasts, etc. All of this is well and good, but focusing only on input leads to an imbalanced language acquisition diet. You need to mix in healthy servings of output, too. Speaking and writing are by far the most efficient ways to solidify what you’ve previously learned, identify gaps in your vocabulary and grammar, and remind yourself why you started learning the language in the first place.
Look, I know it’s scary. There are so many things you want to say but don’t yet know how. So many unknown words and structures that fly right over your head. But so what? No matter how long you study, you will eventually have to go through this messy, two-way interaction. Why put off the inevitable? Why let fear stand between you and fluency? Regardless of your level, you can always try to communicate something today. If you only know five words, use those five words. If you don’t know any words yet, use gestures, drawings, inference, etc. to get your meaning across, paying close attention to what words and structures you hear as you go.
Imagine, for example, that you are at a market in Taiwan and want an apple. You don’t know the word yet, so you just point at one. There are many fruits on the table, so the merchant confirms which one by pointing at the pile of apples: “píng guǒ (蘋果)?” Boom, you now know the word for “apple” in Mandarin! He then asks you how many you want, but you don’t understand him. So he asks, “yī gè (一個)?” and holds out the universal gesture for the number one. You now know the number one in Mandarin, or more accurately, the phrase for “one thing”. Not bad for 10 seconds of person to person interaction! Had you tried to learn these words alone at your desk, you would miss out on the opportunity to:
- Eat the delicious apple!
- Mimic proper pronunciation.
- Encode words in a far more robust, multi-sensory way.
4) Fear of Making Mistakes & Looking Stupid in Front of Others
The “Wait Until You’re Ready” delusion above is largely fueled by fear. Fear of being misunderstood. Fear of not understanding others. Fear of making embarrassing mistakes. Fear of ordering the wrong food. Fear of getting on the wrong train. Fear of accidentally saying you’re pregnant in Spanish when you meant to say you are embarrassed! This fear is not completely unjustified. You will indeed make mistakes. Heaps of them. You will order the wrong food and get on the wrong train. You will accidentally insult someone when trying to express praise. But in the vast majority of cases, the only real victim is your pride. And the ego can only be bruised if you let your sense of worth be tied to your perceived ability in the language. Tie your pride instead to your willingness to try things out and laugh off mistakes, not how perfectly (or imperfectly) you can use a language.
As Viktor E. Frankl says in Man’s Search for Meaning:
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
When you say the wrong word, butcher a sentence, misunderstand someone’s question, or make a cultural faux pas, you have a choice about how you respond to the potential embarrassment. Do you get frustrated or have a good chuckle? Do you let the gaffe serve as proof that you suck at the language or interpret it as an opportunity for growth? The choice is yours.
5) Frustration With Not Understanding Everything You Hear & Read
Just as most learners put off speaking and writing practice out of fear of making mistakes, many avoid powerful listening and reading opportunities because they grow frustrated with ambiguity and uncertainty. They stop watching an un-subitled foreign film half way through because they don’t know exactly what’s happening in the story. They limit their reading to bilingual books. They only talk with native speakers who also speak English, allowing them to always fall back on their native tongue when confusion arises.
While it is indeed ideal to choose materials just above one’s current level of understanding, and bilingual speakers do offer some advantages over their monolingual counterparts, don’t let a pursuit of the perfect resource or tutor stop you from getting valuable linguistic exposure right now with whatever and whomever happen to be around. The pursuit of perfection usually just leads to procrastination.