Building A Better Language Learner

What mental habits breed success?

In a fascinating article, psychologist Steven Stosny examines the creation of mental habits that work, and boy oh boy have we ever got some insights for the languages classroom.

To sum it up briefly, as Hebb put it nearly fifty years ago, “neurons that fire together wire together.” When the brain undergoes sustained, repetitive (but not boring) focus on ____, the connections– the actual physical links between neurons, the synapses– physically grow thicker, and more able to do a “mental move” quicker, with less energy, and more automatically…more easily.

This has been studied in everyone from athletes to readers to doctors. As a rock climber, for me most moves are now “wired in,” and when confronted with a crux, I often find myself doing the sequences– left foot up, smear right, throw right, reset right foot, etc– automatically. As I get older, I get less physically strong, but mentally way more on top of things.

One of the reasons Michael Phelps, before he retired to a life of marriage to supermodels and eating whatever he damned well feels like, was the winningest swimmer and Olympian of all time was that he practiced literally everything over and over. Phelps– in addition to weightlifting, aerobic workouts, feedback from coaches on technique, etc– practiced everything. What if his goggles filled with water, as they did in Beijing? He’d practiced swimming without. What if he was off-stroke at a turnaround? He’d practiced turnarounds thousands of times. What about the insane stress pre-comp? Easy: he had a ritual: a set breakfast, a specific set of music on his MP3 player, a specific set of exercises to warm up, a specific set of clothes to wear. He got rid of as much variation as possible to focus his mental and physical energy on swimming fast and dealing with problems automatically.

Stosny also refers to the psychological literature dealing with “mental bandwidth,” that is, how much processing we can do at a given time. It turns out that mental bandwidth is not unlimited, and that when we are under stress, we “use up” more of that bandwidth. Stosny therefore suggests that the best way to deal with stress (or new situations/information) is to have as many of the needed skills– calming oneself; knowing the language; knowing the climbing moves– as possible automatised. If I am climbing, and I’m thirty feet above crappy gear on hard moves, I am much better off if I don’t have to think about the moves, but can just do them, and focus on placing gear, or getting to a rest, or managing the fear, etc.

In his article, Stosny talks about his work as a psychologist who dealt with clients who were abusive towards their wives, but not self-unaware. Stosny initially functioned on the epiphany-leads-to-change model, where he’d guide the client to a moment of realisation– hitting my wife is toxic or I am this way cos of what my Dad did to my Mom– and then hopefully that moment of new awareness would lead to change. What Stosny discovered was that, for various reasons, these epiphanies rarely led to any kind of change. His clients went back to being abusive, or drinking, or whatever.

What Stosny finally did find worked was, basically, a focus on new habits. He had to have his patients visualising new, better behaviour– I will take ten deep breaths if my wife gets under my skin— and practising this behaviour. Thinking about the past, feeling regrets, etc, were not what helped. What needed to be done was single-minded focus on the right outcome, and practising that outcome. Actually, “outcome” is the wrong word– the right word is something like “right action in the moment.” When Stosny had a client who habitually beat his wife, the wrong thing to do with a freak-out coming on was to visualise a happy marriage. The right thing to do was to focus on specific, immediate steps and behaviours. I will breathe. I will walk away. I will punch a pillow, not my wife. In other words, if you want to score a goal, think about the kick, not the crowd yelling your name; a journey of a hundred miles starts with one step.

For the language classroom, we can learn a ton from Phelps and Stosny to start building a better language learner:

a) We should eliminate distractions. If students are focused on quality comprehensible input, that’s all we need. Get rid of phones, side chatter, zillions of posters and verb charts on the wall, grammar explanations, etc. If we focus on the meaning of the language, it will be acquired.

b) We should eliminate goals and focus on process. There’s all this modern edu-babble about portfolios, goal-setting, self-monitoring, peer feedback, self-evaluation, bla bla bla. Wrong! If we focus on the process— listening to, and reading, quality comprehensible input– the goals (speaking and writing and understanding a language) will come. Phelps doesn’t train by thinking about winning– he trains to move fast, turn efficiently, deal with stress, etc. If he does all that well, he wins. In the language classroom, process equals product.

c) We should do only what is necessary. We are going to get way more bang for our pedagogical buck by teaching limited, high-frequency, useful vocab (in interesting ways) than we are by dithering with huge word lists of things that are seldom used, or used only in super-specific contexts. Indeed, it has been suggested that you can do 90% of the work in any language with just seven verbs: goes, wants, has, is, likes, feels, needs.

d) We should practice till it’s perfect. Phelps does thousands of turnarounds, laps, etc; Stosny makes his clients practice various techniques hundreds of times; I’ve spent thousands of hours on rock faces doing moves. Do it enough, properly, and it will get “wired in.” It’s stressful being in a foreign country trying to buy train tickets or dinner or whatever. If we get things wired in, we “free up” mental bandwidth for managing emotions, thinking, danger, new situations, etc.  If it’s automatic, everything else gets easier.

In Delhi, or Mumbasa, or Kinshasa, what you want is to be able to say I’d like to please buy a _____ without thinking, and know enough numbers and whatever to understand the answer. What you don’t need to do is be able to say “gosh, that was an -er verb, conjugated in the imparfait, so I should say ____ .”  If we automatise the basics, we “free up” brainpower for listening, managing stress, remembering, etc.

Less, done better, is more.

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