Language learning can be a serious business. It often requires time alone with nothing but a desk and some books. You'll often feel isolated when studying, and your mind may drift when thinking about activities which are a lot more fun.
I also sometimes consider how many people at school said they would not miss studying French or German when they left school. For them, language learning was dull and complicated. Besides, what did they actually need French or German for? They didn't plan on moving to France or Germany anytime soon. They thought time spent studying a language was better used on more profitable activities.
I thought my friends at school were a little short-sighted. You can never really tell what life has in store for you. If I had known I'd end up working in India for nearly three years, I would have got to grips with Hindi a lot sooner. But the question remains in my mind: why do people see learning English, or any other language, to be boring or difficult?
There is an answer to this question, and using modern research we can find ways to make studying a language much more fun.
Your previous experiences determine your outlook on life. If an activity is instantly pleasurable, like some video games, you are more likely to practice it more often. If an activity seems difficult or uncomfortable at first then the quit rate will be very high. If you have ever become a winner in a race or competition, you will know that before getting the pleasure of becoming a winner you had to do a lot of hard work.
The thrill of winning is so pleasurable, it can spur some people on to working harder and harder to achieve a relatively short lived high. This is what language learners can study and learn from. A goal such as winning should be at the top of your to do list. Why are you studying and what do you want the outcome to be? Do you want a dream job in a foreign country, or to get to know someone better who does not speak your language?
Now consider your previous experience of studying a foreign language. Do you think grim thoughts of being stuck in a bedroom all by yourself and chained to a desk? If this is your previous experience of learning a language then we need to look how you formed your viewpoint and how we can change it.
This stands for post traumatic stress disorder. It is an extreme condition created by terrible previous experiences. Our brains make connections, and in uncomfortable situations they can connect a subject, place and even sounds or smells to a bad event we once witnessed. This makes it harder for us to be in a place which reminds us of an unpleasant event.
I am not suggesting you have PTSD but showing that your brain makes connections all the time which makes something either pleasurable or painful.
As an example, let's consider a situation in which someone is studying a language:
John comes home to an empty home. He goes to his bedroom and begins to study German. The light in his bedroom is flickering, and there is noisy construction work going on in the street below. John finds it hard to concentrate and it is now 8pm at night and he is getting tired. Frustrated at this lack of progress, due to the noise and light distractions, he gives up studying. He decides to log onto social media and spends ninety minutes playing games and checking status updates. He then goes to bed and feels disappointed in himself that he didn't get much done.
You may have had a similar experience to John's where you sat down, became distracted, and then felt guilty about not studying. The experience was not pleasant, but now your brain has made a connection that studying a language equals feeling guilty and therefore bad. Is John likely to look forward to studying a language again? Not likely.
Now let's take another example of John studying but where everything goes right for him:
John's college class starts at 10am. He has decided that he will study German from 8am to 9.30am. If he does this successfully, he has decided to reward himself by having some breakfast at McDonald's. He makes himself a large cup of his favourite coffee, then gets comfortable at his desk and studies. He reaches his goal, and feels good that he has been disciplined. When he tells his mother what he has done, she encourages him by offering to pay for his breakfast.
We see that John's second experience of studying was much more pleasant. His brain will now connect studying with a fun and emotionally rewarding experience. As a result, John is more likely to study a foreign language.
Your brain is very adaptable and with practice can make more and more connections. It has been found that taxi drivers in London have seen a part of their brain, known as the hippocampus, become larger due to their need of a good memory. Please Google this if you find it hard to believe, but due to their needs for a more effective memory to remember street names and places their brains grow in size.
If your brain is struggling to concentrate, with more and more practice you will be able to focus better and for longer periods of time. Couple this with giving yourself a reward for doing an activity which is slightly challenging and you can reprogramme your mind for success by making pleasurable connections.
Try keeping a diary for one week and make a note of which activities gave you pleasure and which ones did not. Consider how you could make the boring or difficult activities easier for yourself. Do you have to work a longer shift on Monday than the other days of the week? Then make Monday night your night off and do something fun like meet a friend for dinner, or play video games with your friends. Change your thinking from Monday is a dread day to a day that you really look forward to.
2. Put humour into your studies
When I taught English to my students, I often found they tried watching movies to help improve their English. I thought this was a great idea and would ask what kind of movies they would watch. They all, universally, seemed to mention very serious dramas or scary horror movies. Again, considering our brains make connections I thought this was a little misguided considering the content of the movies they were watching. Do you want to connect learning English with people being blown up on a battlefield or tortured in some hostel in Eastern Europe?
I don't think so. It would be better to alternate your choice of movies with some light-hearted comedies. For English I 'd recommend the television show 'Faulty Towers' or any number of popular American sitcoms.
3. Diet and exercise
The internet abounds with superfoods and drinks which can make you feel better and give your brain a boost. There are now almost too many foods and supplements to mention, but many are worth a try. As they say 'you are what you eat' and also drink.
I started to drink green tea years ago and it is known to improve memory, increase performance, and to calm people down by increasing dopamine in the brain. Maybe you can do some research yourself and replace sugary or fatty foods with something healthier that can also improve the cognitive function of your brain.
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