Author: Łukasz Molęda

How to persist in learning?

persistAnyone who has ever started learning a language knows that there is a really great chasm between the desire to do something and bringing it to an end. In many cases reading different motivational texts is not enough. The initial fervor quickly goes out when encountering unforeseen obstacles, and they do not have to be large at all. One tiny little thing can turn upside down the entire study plan. Fortunately, some of these problems can be prevented, and this is exactly what this text will be about. The rest is up to you.

1. Do not force yourself to learn a language

It is true that nowadays knowing foreign languages is a desirable skill. However, you cannot afford to get yourself carried away by trends or promptings of friends. If you do not learn from necessity or because it is a source of direct or indirect pleasure for you, you should simply let go. There is no point in forcing yourself to do something you are not convinced of, when you can devote your leisure time to develop various passions.

2. Do not announce your goal

It is quite widely believed that telling your family and friends about your plan of learning a language will help you achieve that goal. Unfortunately, this is not true and can be even harmful. Language learning is a continuous process in which the limits of fluency are really blurred. It is difficult to objectively assess whether someone has made the expected progress. This can be the cause of unjustified criticism on the part of others, which lowers the motivation for action, or overestimating one’s efforts, with the result that the person stops trying so hard.

Publicly challenging yourself can also end in a different course. It is not uncommon for people from one’s environment not to take such a declaration seriously, to not be concerned about whether someone has actually got cracking. In some cases, this may result in the learner throwing away his or her learning goal completely, feeling insufficient external motivation to continue. In addition, the study of people who have bragged about what they were about to do has shown that it has not helped them, and has even given them the belief that they have done more than they actually did, and due to that their results were worse.

3. Avoid general goals

When learning a language, you cannot suddenly declare that you have learned it. A similar rule applies to reaching the levels of its knowledge – these abstract borders only approximately define  your skills. If you want to measure your progress objectively, you need to set more specific goals instead of general ones, such as going through a chapter or textbook, learning how to order something in a restaurant, memorizing  a list of words, communicating with somebody without having to look into a dictionary or reading a text with a satisfactory understanding, etc. All of these are things achieving of which shows with great accuracy how much you can already do.

4. Plan only as much as necessary

If you think that you are doing it right by planning everything from start to finish, you are unfortunately barking up the wrong tree. Some things are impossible to predict, so the only sensible solution is to limit yourself to write in a notebook (not a computer, mobile or tablet) a plan for one or two days. The complexity of such a list should not be too large. It is best to break the daily study session into small points, each of which can be ticked off after no more than an hour. It helps a lot in focusing on performing a given task and gives you satisfaction when the list for the day is finished.

5. Use time effectively

Studying every day brings the best results. You should assign yourself some more or less fixed time for learning, so that maintaining regularity will become your habit. Moreover, you can also use the time spent when driving a car, bus or train. Your session should consist of no more than 20-minute segments of intensive learning, separated by up to a maximum of 10-minute breaks. You can change its duration according to your taste, as long as you keep a level head and spend a minimum of an hour on it. You do not have to study in one session, because most important is the overall amount of time spent on learning.

6. Set yourself possible goals

Plan on doing just the things that seem to be achievable in the short term. This prevents discouragement caused by waiting too long for visible results. It is also worthwhile to give yourself little challenges in the form of assigning yourself a few percent more than you consider feasible in a given time. If you are successful, it will increase your motivation; and if you fail, you will have no reason to worry, because all the same you have accomplished your basic goal.

7. Isolate yourself from distractions

The modern world is flooding us with a lot of distracting stimuli. The main source of these are people and electronic devices, which together effectively draw us away from language learning. This can be remedied by finding a quiet place, warning others not to disturb us and disabling distracting hardware or even removing it from our field of vision. In situations where we are forced to use them, it is sufficient only to disable or temporarily dispose of digital distractions, for example using browser extensions blocking the most tempting pages (e.g. StayFocusd).

8. Learn right away

Relatively often, when learning a language, a problem occurs with choosing the right materials. Searching for better and better textbooks, courses, or articles on the Internet leads to neglecting real learning. If you do not incorporate immediately the content you found into the to-do list for the day, then gathering a stack of titles and links will be for naught. Besides, just by trying to learn something you can discover the weaknesses of the found materials, the faults of a learning plan or the shortcomings in your knowledge. And from that point, there is a clear way to fixing them and avoiding similar situations in the future with more ease.

The above guidelines help to prevent most problems associated with understanding a foreign language and communicating in it. Generally speaking, it will be enough if you remember to set yourself appropriate goals, make the most of your time, and be serious about learning, then foreign languages will stand open before you.

How beliefs affect your life

Much has been written about how beliefs influence our lives. Various companies exploit this by advertising self-affirmation, offering programs to improve motivation and trying to convince us that we cannot live without it. As a matter of fact, however, the truth may be quite different and may even completely undermine the idealistic picture of self-help from the marketplace.

Self-affirmation theory

In 1988, Claude Steel popularized the theory of self-affirmation, which posited that people feel the need to maintain their personal integrity. Everyone wants to feel good about themselves. In the event of a threat to one of these core values whether it be religion, family, work or hobby, people try consciously and unconsciously to diminish the negative feelings. Moreover, the frequently-occurring phenomenon here is a defensive reaction to diminish or make light of the threat; but also consistent with the theory of self-affirmation is to deal with the threat by referring to those spheres of life that we value equally highly and focusing our attention or action on them.  As a result,  self-esteem increases and this allows for a rational approach to the given issue.

Many experiments have been conducted to confirm this theory which in various ways made use of many personal values measured on scales as published in 1960 by Gordon Allport, Phillip Vernon, and Gardner Lindzey. For example, in the experiments of Mark Reed and Lisa Aspinwall (1998), participants were informed of the risk of a particular disease caused by profuse coffee drinking and then they were instructed to think about situations when they were kind to someone. As a result they were able to accommodate the threat. Similar research was undertaken by Peter Harris and Lucy Napper (2005) regarding women who drank too much alcohol.  It was shown that the test subjects after a month continually considered their habit harmful, although their behavior did not change. It could be that the power of the addiction hindered change.

Reduction of anxiety

Aside from studies of the change of beliefs strengthening the ego, research has been done on the reduction of stress.  What is particularly significant according to Amy Arnsten (2009) is that the excess stress interferes with solving problems and weakens creativity.  Also appearing interesting in this context is the experiment of the team of James Cresswell (2005), which asked participants to rank on a scale of importance items that would improve their mood.  Later, when they performed stressful tasks, the level in their blood of cortisol, a stress hormone, was lower than that of the control group.

A group of scientists led by Lisa Legault (2012) applied a slightly different procedure that recorded a reduction of errors made during the task of choosing correct answers.  The results suggest that self-affirmation helps test subjects focus on how they can perform better.  Additionally, according to the research of Creswell (2013), highly stressed individuals who underwent strengthening of their global self-esteem coped better with solving problems, and thus they associated more easily correlated facts and were more creative. This gives hope to pupils and students who have worse outcomes because of nervousness.

The role of self-Esteem

In 1993, Steele and his colleagues found that people who have high self-esteem and therefore feel above average in regard to various aspects of life are better prepared to manage problems, trying to resolve them instead of rationalizing their ignorance. Such people, however, must first recognize their own psychological resources by becoming aware of how important particular values are for them. Experiments carried out under the leadership of Shelley Taylor (2003) and Mark Seer (2004) make it possible to assume that these results can also be linked to the matter of coping with stress.

High self-esteem turned out to be a crucial influence also in the struggle with a threatening stereotype or when a social role was involved that is widely associated with submissiveness.  A good insight into this issue is the observations by the team of Laura Kray, which pointed out that strong preconceptions reduced the competence of women relative to men in the area of important negotiations. However, this effect disappeared if the point of view was presented that a typical feminine characteristic produced an advantage in this situation. Making different assumptions, however, was Sonia King (2015), who with the help of some colleagues managed to improve the negotiating effectiveness of the psychologically weaker party (when buyer and seller were paired up) by directing his or her attention to other important parts of his or her life.

The effectiveness of positive formulas

In the popular understanding of self-affirmation, positive statements about oneself are repeated in the hope of making them come true. Furthermore, both the concept of freedom of acceptance developed by Muzafer Sherif and Carl Howland in 1961 and the theory of self-comparison quoted and confirmed by Donna Eisenstand and Michael Leippe (1994) and William Swann and Daniel Schroeder (1995) say that one cannot accept claims that differ significantly from the picture that one has of oneself, and it is not significant whether it comes from oneself or one’s environment. In addition, according to Mark Zanna (1993), inconsistent statements can even strengthen us in a negative belief.

This view is also confirmed in the research of the team under the leadership of Joanna Wood (2009), which focused on the influence of self-affirmation on people with high and low self-esteem. The participants expressed their belief about the effectiveness of this form of self-help, and the first group declared their frequent use of it. The experiment revealed that the people with low self-esteem did not benefit from the repetition of positive statements, which might have even slightly worsened their mood.  On the other hand, people with a high level of self-esteem benefited only slightly.  This outcome questions the validity of using self-affirmation because it does not help those who truly need it and gives a false impression of usefulness for the others.

With an alternative to traditional self-affirmation came the research team led by Ibrahim Senay (2010), who first ordered the volunteers to think over whether they could solve anagrams and then asked them to do it.  The control group differed only in that they were to think that they would succeed. The results were that the first group finished significantly more problems.  The next two parts of the experiment were to test the effect of writing down short questions (“Will I”) and their components (“I”, “will”), which were to be seen as connected and separate items.  Here better results were obtained, but only if the participants believed that the phrases and words as presented made any sense.  This last procedure, in addition to the exposure to the question “Will I” also involved an assessment of the participants’ motivation to start or maintain regular physical activity.  After that, the volunteers pointed out which of the twelve possible reasons to do it were most convincing for them.  It turned out that the very contact with the question increased the level of self-motivation for the exercises, which suggests that the question is a mediator between the awakening – even unconsciously – of a thought and the desire for action.

How it relates to language learning?

At this stage you should already be aware that many of the above facts can have a direct impact on your learning. However, the validity of applying the results of these experiments to language acquisition is not conclusive, because the very impact of beliefs on the process of acquiring such knowledge and using it in practice has not yet been adequately examined. From what is known so far, we can draw the assumption that self-affirmation consisting in focusing attention on other important life values can be effective in changing habits related to language learning because they convince you that it is not that hard, they improve communication skills in stressful situations where one party seems to have a psychological advantage, they reduce stress and the number of errors you make and they increase creativity and problem-solving skills through overcoming your nervousness, that is they improve the things that are essential when you take aim at mastering a foreign language. When it comes to simple affirmations for learning languages, I would not bother with them; they are likely to help only those who don’t actually need them. And finally, speculation over whether you will do something seems to be a good idea for improving the motivation to do something.

Further reading

  1. Creswell, J. D., Dutcher, J. M., Klein, W. M., Harris, P. R., & Levine, J. M. (2013). Self-affirmation improves problem-solving under stress. PloS one, 8(5), e62593. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0062593
  2. Kang, S. K., Galinsky, A. D., Kray, L. J., & Shirako, A. (2015). Power Affects Performance When the Pressure Is On Evidence for Low-Power Threat and High-Power Lift. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin41(5), 726-735. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0146167215577365
  3. Legault, L., Al-Khindi, T., & Inzlicht, M. (2012). Preserving integrity in the face of performance threat self-affirmation enhances neurophysiological responsiveness to errors. Psychological science, 0956797612448483. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797612448483
  4. Senay, I., Albarracín, & D., Noguchi, K. (2010). Motivating goal-directed behavior through introspective self-talk the role of the interrogative form of simple future tense. Psychological Science21(4), 499-504. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797610364751
  5. Sherman, D. K., Cohen, & G. L. (2006). The psychology of self-defense: Self-affirmation theory. Advances in experimental social psychology38, 183. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(06)38004-5
  6. Wood, J. V., Perunovic, W. E., & Lee, J. W. (2009). Positive Self-Statements Power for Some, Peril for Others. Psychological Science20(7), 860-866. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02370.x

The role of attention in language learning

Scientists have long debated the extent to which attention and conscious effort improve or harm the process of learning a foreign language. This controversy did not lead to a compromise as each side became entrenched in their respective positions, and the only thing that was changed by the passing years was toning down their positions and making some concessions. This article aims to elucidate the complicated situation on the effective mechanisms of language learning.

Understanding

In 1977. Stephen Krashen put together the observations of previous researchers and created an input hypothesis. It was based on the assumption that the only things required to learn a language are comprehensible spoken or written utterances in the target language that do not greatly exceed the student’s understanding. Krashen believed that it is mostly the absorption of prepared materials similar to the way children learn, and not listening to teacher’s instructions, that leads to mastery of speaking skills. Moreover, in his opinion knowledge of grammar rules does not translate into greater fluency of speaking, but serves only as a tool for conscious checking of its correctness. Until this day, these assumptions continue unchanged.

Every great idea, however, has its opponents. For example Rost (1990) pointed out to Krashen that understanding does not necessarily translate to mastering, because someone can easily guess what something is about but at the same time not know the grammar rules that were used. A similar view was shared by White (1987), who stated that the lack of problems with the interpretation of the meaning does not necessarily contribute to language acquisition. Fuel to the fire was added by Doughty and Williams (1998), who stated that although the dominant view was that a large part of the language can be learned in a natural way, some of its elements can be mastered only with a teacher’s assistance.

Noticing

One of the main opponents of Krashen was, however, Richard Schmidt, who in 1983 came upon the case of an English learner who was still committing significant errors in spite of a long stay in a foreign language environment. Schmidt concluded that his failure could result from not noticing that he speaks in a different way to his interlocutors. His subsequent experiment with the teaching of Portuguese (1986) confirmed his conviction that frequent contact with a foreign language ceases to be significant when the learner does not notice the constructions that are used. In a similar way, not getting a correction may make it difficult to learn from one’s mistakes. This discovery later became the basis on which the noticing hypothesis has been coined as a response to Krashen’s idea.

Of course, Schmidt could not avoid criticism either. One of the most important was the analysis performed by Truscott (1998) who stated that the mastery of grammar rules may not be possible because of the difficulty associated with the conscious noticing of all these abstract rules in an utterance. And he was talking only about drawing attention to them and not understanding them, because according to Schmidt (1990) drawing conclusions is not a part of the process. Due to these reservations, he moderated his postulates two decades later, recognizing that the concept of conscious learning applies mainly to adults.

However, some positive opinions in support Krashen idea also appeared. For example, Ellis (1995) found that most of the features of the language escape learners’ attention if they are not instructed by a teacher. In addition, in the case of things that have a chance to latch on by themselves students do not cope too well with their subsequent use. On the other hand, Rosa and Leow (2004) showed that the very awareness of the existence of certain elements of a language helps in their later acquisition. Subsequent research by scientists such as Takahashi (2005), and Simard (2009) confirmed the importance of learning methods that improve attention that include consciousness raising, emphasing selected parts of source utterances, high exposure to content, etc.

According to Ellis (1997) consciousness raising consists of explaining specific rules of a language and then ordering students to carry out certain tasks with the source materials, which stimulates them to understand how the rules work in practice. An alternative to this technique, described by VanPatten (2004), is to learn the rules and try to achieve some goal, which requires the use of acquired knowledge. The results of Amiran and Sadegi’s experiment (2012) show that consciousness raising is more effective than traditional teaching of grammar, but in the study of Jafarigohar (2015) it came out worse than performing practical tasks.

In the same experiment, emphasing fragments of texts, e.g. using bolds, turned out to have no impact on generating utterances. Moreover, Lee and Huang’s meta-analysis (2008) suggests that this way of increasing noticing might not be very effective or even completely ineffective when it comes to learning grammar and could also hinder understanding of the content. This calls into question the implementation of solutions focused on text enlarging, underlining, bolding, italicising etc.

Many researchers, such as Lightbown and Spada (1993), have confirmed the effectiveness of exercises in which the emphasis is put on communication, and grammatical explanations are only used from time to time, for example when there is an interruption in speech or a teacher decides to take a closer look at some rule that seems to be needed at that time. According to Fotos (1998), this approach is a response to the lack of evidence on the effectiveness of the methods of science in which most attention was paid to grammar. Of significant importance could also be the fact that according to Jean and Simard (2011) rigid learning of rules is considered tedious and demotivating.

Production

However, Krashen did not have to deal only with the supporters of Schmidt’s thesis. The third person who joined the controversy was Merrill Swain. In 1985 she created the output hypothesis, which was kind of a mirror image of Krashen’s claims. It was grew from her observation of participants in a long-term program emphasizing immersion in a foreign language. The results of this study were surprising, because it turned out that although children significantly improved their understanding and pronunciation skills, the level of grammatical competence was far less than the one presented by native speakers. In this respect, they knew only just as much as they needed to cope with normal situations and tests. Based on these findings Swain came to believe that simple contact with a language is not enough to acquire it.

One of the key tenets of the output hypothesis is that the imperfect attempts of communication are essential because they allow people to spot gaps in their knowledge and language skills. On this basis, learners build a picture of what needs to be improved and pick up with greater ease, for example, useful grammatical structures when they come across them in the future. According to Qui and Lapkin (2001), the higher the level of fluency students present, the easier it becomes for them to notice things that need improvement. However, according to Shin (2010) people who know quite a lot also encounter problems with noticing, which may be due to the complexity of the issues that occur at this stage.

Unfortunately up to this point, not enough studies have been performed to fully verify the validity of this hypothesis. The previous findings come mainly from experiments coauthored by Izumi (1999 – 2002), who studied the impact of the production of statements on noticing and obtained ambiguous results. Another attempt was made by Russel (2014), who ordered the subjects to learn the text filled with target structures and then take grammar tests. It turned out that their ability to use the practiced rule improved, although no one had explained to them how it worked.

Conclusion

On the basis of Ünlü’s (2015) words, it can be concluded that a significant number of scientists insist upon maintaining their opposing positions regarding conscious and unconscious language learning. This is particularly visible in Krashen (2013), who does not take into account any significant interaction between the knowledge acquired unconsciously and the one that is learned. The growing amount of research does not help to determine which hypothesis is the right one, because there will always be some counterarguments. Each group may very well be partly right without providing a complete explanation of the process of learning a language. People who are looking for effective prescriptions should then look for insight from the lucky ones who have managed to achieve their language goals, because the dispute among researchers still waits to be resolved.

References:

  1. Ahn, J. I. (2014). Attention, Awareness, and Noticing in SLA: A Methodological Review.MSU Working Papers in Second Language Studies5(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-1770.2001.tb00016.x.
  2. Fotos, S. (1998). Shifting the focus from forms to form in the EFL classroom.ELT Journal,52(4), 301-307. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/elt/52.4.301.
  3. Godfroid, A., & Schmidtke, J. (2013). What do eye movements tell us about awareness? A triangulation of eye-movement data, verbal reports and vocabulary learning scores.Noticing and second language acquisition: Studies in honor of Richard Schmidt, 183-205.
  4. Jafarigohar, M., Hemmati, F., Soleimani, H., & Jalali, M. (2015). An Investigation of the Role of Explicit and Implicit Instruction in Second Language Acquisition: A Case of English Embedded Question.International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature4(3), 98-108. http://dx.doi.org/10.7575/aiac.ijalel.v.4n.3p.98.
  5. Latifi, M., Ketabi, S., & Mohammadi, E. (2013). The Comprehension Hypothesis Today: An Interview with Stephen Krashen.Electronic Journal of Foreign Language Teaching10(2), 221-233.
  6. Rahimi, S. (2014). ON THE ROLE OF INPUT AND INTERACTION IN SECOND LANGUAGE ACQUISITION.
  7. Russell, V. (2014). A closer look at the output hypothesis: The effect of pushed output on noticing and inductive learning of the Spanish future tense.Foreign Language Annals47(1), 25-47. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/flan.12077.
  8. Schmidt, R. (2012). Attention, awareness, and individual differences in language learning.Perspectives on individual characteristics and foreign language education6, 27.
  9. Sarkhosh, M., Soleimani, M., & Abdeli, J. (2012). A Closer Look at Noticing Hypothesis and Focus on Form: An Overview.International Journal of Linguistics4(3), 179. http://dx.doi.org/10.5296/ijl.v4i3.2201.
  10. Ünlü, A. (2015). How Alert should I be to Learn a Language? The Noticing Hypothesis and its Implications for Language Teaching.Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences199, 261-267. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.07.515.