The Mindset in Language Learning

Surprisingly enough, I've met quite negative reactions when trying to discuss the mindset, so I was delighted when the course about learning how to learn confirmed that it does, in fact, matter.

Specifically, it mentioned the four components of a habit:

1. the cue

2. the routine

3. the reward

4. the belief

This post will focus on the final part - after all, a language is definitely a habit.

First, let me list some obviously harmful kinds of mindset:

  • I'm not wired for languages
  • This language is too difficult and impossible to learn
  • Instead of being responsible for my own learning, I can rely on my teacher/course book and follow the instructions mindlessly
  • Effort is for losers, I'm going to use the miracle method I've seen in advertising
  • I need to wait until the circumstances are perfect

These are pretty self-explanatory. But many other mindsets can have both positive and negative effects. Let's look at some of the common ones.


learning vs fun [vs neutral, information-hunting etc]

This is seemingly the most simple opposition, especially in its basic form. Many of us separate our language learning into "serious" and "fun", or other similar labels. It's common among independent learners to use the various language learning challenges to push themselves to do more "hardcore learning", and some look down upon logging all the fun activities you do, especially in your best languages. The whole idea of the 6 Week Challenge is to do some serious learning in a language where you're below B2 and presumably can't read or watch movies for fun yet.

The obvious idea here is to do as much formal learning as you can and have as much fun as your free time allows. This works well for many... but not for everyone.

Things get more complicated when we turn the opposition into a continuum - after all, not everything we do fits these neat categories. Two major exceptions are work and searching for information. For example, many people can use languages that they neither speak nor learn, the mutually intelligible languages like Swedish/Norwegian/Danish or Spanish/Portuguese/Italian. So, when one does start learning a related language, it may seem pointless and counterintuitive to consume the content that you could already understand without learning.

The missing piece is the mindset, though. Heritage speakers and specifically the phenomenon of code switching is one of the most extreme examples: without sufficient motivation, it's surprisingly easy to neglect the details, with the long-term effect of being unable to produce consistent speech in the heritage language, or in some cases having virtually no speaking skills at all. For adult learners, deliberate practice can be needed for transferring the knowledge between different sets of skills, such as the productive and receptive ones. The most common solution is doing exercises, learning the grammar, using coursebooks. However, AJATT and Antimoon have proven that this can be substituted the combination of native content and spaced repetition (using sentences), especially for those who dislike grammar. Making your own exercises is a shorter-term equivalent to that. Attentive reading also uses the power of a correct mindset as you notice and perhaps underline all the elements that make the text coherent and eloquent.

One more aspect is that for some learners, the border between learning and fun is more fuzzy, especially if they prefer the "fun-oriented" methods I mentioned. Ironically, it appears that some learners need to have fun at every moment of their learning, while others enjoy the "fun" materials less if they treat them as learning.


native vs foreign

I've seen this first in Success with Foreign Languages, which is basically a well-organized collection of case studies. Specifically, it contrasts a learner who openly says he's okay with not being native-like "because [he]'ll never be mistaken for a Chinese" with those who are eager to be a part of the community, copy their roommates' speech etc. The mindset is vital for developing the right pronunciation habits.

Nevertheless, sometimes there are downsides to having a good pronunciation, as attested by some of those who have a natural talent for it. Non-specialists often base their estimate of learners' level on their pronunciation, so if you can imitate the native accent while still a beginner, chances are you'll get a response which is way above your level.

Even more importantly, when there's a clash between your mindset and expectations, it can cause perfectionism and procrastination as you try and fail to improve your accent to or achieve something else that pushes your limits. Simply acknowledging it is already a good beginning - after all, most learners don't need to speak perfectly.


accepting the 'armony vs cracking the code

Some learners, such as the founder of AJATT (see above), have a very zen attitude. They treat the language as a custom, a tradition, something that you repeat without questioning. Many others think they need to know how the language works, and some actually have an internal need for that knowledge - linguists, language geeks, possibly some programmers. That's an important distinction, in my opinion. If you are simply used to having explanations, but don't really care, you can discard most of them (assuming you're not taking a grammar-focused class).

I'm inclined to think that this is where diffuse and focused thinking come into play. Structured learning, deciphering and deliberate practice all require focused, linear attention. On the other hand, it's often easier to accept quirky wording as it is by randomly linking it to concepts that feel similar, regardless of whether the connections really make sense. Just let your mind wander...

Nevertheless, it's important to keep in mind that every learner needs to use both modes of thinking. There will always be some things that need to be accepted as they are and some structures that need to be examined systematically. This can obviously vary between learners, and yet another benefit of learning on your own is being able to decide which kind of thinking to apply, as well as allowing yourself the time to try both.