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6 Science-Supported Tips for Learning a New Language

6 Science-Supported Tips for Learning a New Language

Learning a new language is one of the most challenging but also most rewarding things a person can do. It makes a perfect New Year’s resolution because it is tough, will expand your horizons, and is really easy to give up on. You don’t have to fight the battle alone, however. Science is in your corner and researchers are hard at work finding out what works and what doesn’t in the quest to learn a new language.

1. Relax

If your decision to learn a new language is motivated by needing it for your job or preparing for a fast-approaching trip, the whole enterprise can become very stressful. As the days tick away and you move at a snail’s pace through the material for your new language you might become overwhelmed and frustrated. None of this will help you. Research from the Journal of Neuroscience has shown that relaxation is a key component in your ability to learn anything, languages in particular. So put your feet up, crack a beer, and laugh a little. Reducing anxiety will go a long way to helping you achieve your goal.

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2. Mix things up

Another thing that has been shown to offer a real boost to learning a new language is to be flexible in your strategies. In other words, don’t spend hour after hour pouring over textbooks, or listening to audiotapes, or doing online tests. Instead, do all three. while you’re at it, watch movies and television shows in your chosen language. The Electronic Journal for English as a Second Language advises that using multiple strategies will improve your effectiveness.

3. Stay motivated

Science also tells us that a person’s motivation to learn is usually a great predictor of their success. It only makes sense that the more driven you are to keep studying, the harder you will try and the more you will accomplish. This is supported by research in the Journal of Language Learning. So make language learning into a competition with your friend or partner. Give yourself incentives, like chocolate for every test you score over 90% on. Pretty soon you will be a new language dynamo.

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4. Immerse yourself

Studies cited in the Review of Educational Research point towards immersion as another great strategy in picking up a new language. Find places you can go where you can interact with as many native speakers of your new language as possible. Watch movies, read books, and listen to the radio in the language you are trying to learn. Going back to the first tip, it will certainly help you relax if you know you will probably get a whole lot better as soon as you leave for your trip.

5. Negotiate

If your quest for language immersion takes you into shops where you can interact with native speakers of the new language you are learning, maybe try bartering to get a better price on whatever they try to sell you. According to the Journal of Language Learning, negotiation is a very effective way to get better at a new language. Negotiation forces you to quickly comprehend words and phrases and keeps you motivated to get the best possible outcome.

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6. Flex your memory muscles

Finally, don’t be afraid to force some vocabulary learning by using memory techniques to help you along. Research in the Journal of Turkish Science Education argues that mnemonic devices are a great way to link words you are trying to learn to ones you already know. To borrow an example from the website MindTools.com, if you are trying to learn the French word for a rug or carpet (tapis) it might be helpful to picture a nice Persian rug with a tap popping up in the middle of it.

Featured photo credit: Les Editeurs cafe/Dan via flickr.com

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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