In Part 1 of this article I explained how important our emotions are for our learning. In Part 2 we will look at strategies that use emotions to learn languages better.
Researchers believe that we remember negative emotions more easily than positive ones. This is possibly because when humans had to work harder to survive, it was critical that we learn from our mistakes. So when something frustrating or stressful happens in your learning, that memory is stronger than the fun you also had in that class.
To rewire our brains we have to work a little bit harder than we usually do to build up positive associations. One thing we can do is intentionally notice and cultivate the positive feelings you have. In English a word for this is “to savor.” Like after you eat something delicious, you might say, “mmmmmm.”
So the next time you finish a great language class, or when you have learned 15 phrasal verbs, or after you told a joke in your target language and somebody laughed…. Pause, take at least 30 seconds and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment, success, or connection you feel.
Take a few deep breaths and let yourself notice and feel good about what you just experienced. How did it feel to see in someone’s face that they understood you, or to find just the right word to express yourself? The more you can connect with positive feelings, the more motivated, attentive and aware you will be when you study.
Change Negative Self Talk
Sometimes if you listen to your ‘inner voice’ you can hear yourself saying things like, “I’ll never learn this.” or “I’ll always have a strong accent” or “I’m so stupid!” or “I’m too old to speak fluently” or “I don’t have time.”
While it’s healthy to acknowledge and give a voice to negativity (see below) when it repeats silently in your head it might not be helping you. It creates a negative cycle - if you think “I’m never going to be able to speak fluently” and then in a lesson you make a mistake, then your brain takes that experience and reinforces that belief. “See! You made a mistake, you never will learn…”
So, be aware of your thinking. You might need to quiet your mind and meditate in order to hear your inner voice. If you hear negative things; see if you can change the thought. Some people call this “reframing.”
For example If you make a mistake and then think, “There I go again making mistakes because I’m a bad student and I didn’t study enough….” you might want to reframe into something realistic but more gentle. Like, “OK, I made a mistake. I can learn from it. I am learning a lot of English in this class.” or “I’ve struggled with English in the past, but now I’m on a successful path.”
One rule researchers suggest is: only say something to yourself that you would say to someone else. Would you say to someone “you’re stupid you’ll never learn!”? Probably not, yet many of us say similar things to ourselves. Here are some negative things we might say and some reframes --
I’ll never learn this language! reframe: I’m learning step by step and making progress!
I’m stupid... reframe: In the past I’ve struggled, but now I’m on a successful path
I never study enough.... reframe: I study as much as I can and that’s OK!
Some people have had negative experiences in their past language schooling. But here, on verbling, your relationship with your teacher can be different. You are allowed - encouraged - to say what you need and want. Your teacher is an expert and they are focusing on your needs.
So share your feelings with your teacher! You are in charge of your own learning process. Here are a few suggestions to use emotions to increase your learning in lessons:
It’s always good to speak at the beginning of class and share with your teacher anything that might be affecting your ability to learn. Are you feeling tired, or in a hurry, or worried about something that is going to happen after class? Just talking about it for a minute can help you refocus on your class.
If you struggle, share it with your teacher. Your teacher can’t change things in your life! But your teacher cares about you. Probably they will respond with empathy. Studies show when you share your emotions with someone who shows empathy, you usually feel better.
Make a realistic study plan with your teacher. It’s a waste of energy to feel bad that you aren’t studying enough. If you can’t study as much as you would like, make a plan that you can achieve - and feel good about!
Finally, the more you feel in the language you are studying, the most you will remember what you learn and the more you will integrate it into your life. So read articles in your target language about subjects that you are really interested in. Watch a series that makes you laugh, or cry. Listen to podcasts that have some useful information in them. Write a journal in your target language about how you feel and important experiences. Be sure that you enjoy the material you study with. If you don’t - ask your teacher for something else.
The more we can integrate our whole experience in the language we are learning, the faster and more deeply we will learn. I hope these ideas will help and inspire you to include your emotions more in your language learning. Good luck!!