Meta-learning - know your brain (Image from freeimages.com)

How polyglot brains handle cross-language interference

Paranoid polyglots beware. After years of brushing off comments like “don’t you ever get mixed up with all those languages?“, it happened to me recently: I noticed a significant interference from one language to another.

The pernicious pair of languages comprised German, my longest and strongest project, and the not-too-distantly related Norwegian, which I started much later, but also speak reasonably well. The culprit? The word for vegetarian. After years of being perfectly aware that the German translation is “der Vegetarier“, I found myself starting to say “der Vegetarianer” instead. Norwegian shuffles and looks sheepishly at its feet in the corner; the norsk equivalent is “vegetarianer“. Guilty!

Since adding Norwegian to my languages, it seemed I had also added an extra syllable to a German word, too.

This kind of interference is especially common with close sibling and cousin languages. For example, difference can arise when close languages borrow words differently, ending up with mismatched genders for cognates as in this example. Similarly, when I first attempted to speak Polish, the interference from my similarly Slavic Russian was inescapable.

Evidently, polyglots are regularly learning material that lends itself to cross-confusion and interference. But we often worry about it, or characterise it as some kind of failure of method, when there is good reason not to.

Bilingual brains

Firstly, interference is a wholly normal feature of using more than one language regularly. Research into bilinguals reveals that even two native languages are not immune from interference.

But more importantly, cognitive linguists studying bilingual subjects have illuminated some of the brain processes that monitor and catch such slip-ups, and, crucially, learn from them. Now, polyglot language learners are not quite analogue with bilinguals. But these conclusions go some way to explaining processes that affect us all, and more practically, reassure the paranoid polyglot.

Our inner sentinel

The key topic of interest in cognitive psychology here is conflict monitoring theory. This approach to understanding thought probes what happens in the brain when errors creep into our conscious stream. One particular structure, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), appears to be our inner sentinel, monitoring activity and sounding the alarm when “competing representations” come into focus.

Interference is monitored by the anterior cingulate cortex.

The location of the anterior cingulate cortex in the brain. Image via Wikipedia.

Note that it is our own brains doing the detection. We know, on some level, that we have made a mistake. That in itself should be sweet reassurance to the worried learner. Our brains are simply not constructed to rattle off mistakes without recourse to self-correction. If you are familiar with the material, interference will always ring bells.

However, the anterior cingulate cortex appears to do its work beneath the level of conscious control. We are not even aware of it, save for the mental jolt we get when we realise something was amiss. That neatly explains that familiar niggling feeling when something questionable leaves our mouths!

Intuiting interference – some strategies

In fact, the research goes beyond plain reassurance. One study of bilinguals concluded that regular language switching will increase error detection. That will be music to the ears of polyglots pondering the sense of studying more than one language at once. It suggests a strategy for success: cycling through your languages regularly, rather than focusing on one at a time. This chop-and-change approach may help keep your ACC sentinel fired up to ambush errors.

Some platforms such as Duolingo are perfect for switching to and fro between active languages like this. It was using this very resource that I noticed my own Vegetarier-vegetarianer interference slip above. The site’s multichoice flavour of questioning in particular is a great way to flex the brain in terms of conflict monitoring and error correction. Faced with one correct response and two – often subtly – incorrect ones (often cheekily bearing a resemblance to another red herring language), those mental circuits receive a proper taxing.

Finally, let’s not forget regular speaking practice using online services like iTalki, too. Once, I would fret at the potential confusion from practising three or four different languages in a week. As it turns out, that could be just what we all need.

And those pesky Russian interferences in my Polish? Well, after a bunch of lessons, and a fair bit of forehead-slapping and self-chastising, they have thankfully vanished. Like my interference errors, yours will struggle to escape the watchful eye of your anterior cingulate cortex in the end, too.

The take-home message? Don’t fret too much about interference, and revel in your multiple languages. Your anterior cingulate cortex has your back!

 

Streamers

I Get So Emotional, Bébé : Using Positive Emotion to Improve Vocabulary Recall

That positive emotion enhances learning seems intuitive to us. How much more do we learn feeling motivated and wired, compared to those times we try to cram when feeling flat and uninspired?

Unsurprisingly, there is a heap of research that backs up the intuition. Some investigations, such as this 2017 paper, focus on the exact mechanism operating between emotion and memory. A key factor in enhanced learning, and later recall, appears to be the way positive, heightened emotion focuses the attention tightly on the stimulus – our learning material. The brain attaches a greater salience to the stimulus, encoding the information for readier recall later.

The importance of these “focal enhancements” of emotion on memory has spawned rafts of scientific papers on the subject. Classroom educators are already working these findings into their practice.

So how can it help us language learners?

Once more, with feeling

Firstly, creating happy thoughts at the point of initial memorisation is not always the easiest place to start happying up your learning. It is rather impractical to set up all-singing, all-dancing scenarios during your systematic vocabulary work. Regular, planned drilling with tools like Anki will always be a rather straightforward and plain – though invaluable – technique.

But you can plan to use new material in a way that associates material with a positive emotional response later. This takes a little forward-thinking, and involves setting up occasions where language use triggers smile momentsthose socially rewarding, oxytocin-bound interactions that feed our social reward circuits and give us warm, fuzzy feelings. Precisely those feelings are the ones to give our words and phrases salience within the recording brain.

If you have face-to-face lessons, for example, is there a humorous or colloquial phrase using new vocabulary that you can roll off to your tutor? Quotation archive sites are great to search for these. Similarly, could you Google a joke or pun using some of your recent word additions, and reel it off to your captive audience?

Making a conversation partner smile or laugh with an unexpected aphorism is a wonderful way to unleash that elusive burst of pride / surprise / joy. Chances are that you will recall the associated words or phrases much more readily than otherwise. You will have tied the material to the lived experience of positive feedback.

Anticipated emotion

Setting the scene for future reward leads us to another key link between emotion and learning: anticipation. Looking forward to the fruits of your mental labour is an extremely powerful motivator. Just the expectation of feedback is enough to increase engagement and focus – and through that, memory. For example, one particular research paper concludes that simply anticipating speedy feedback sufficed to increase performance.

The easiest practical lesson to take from this is that we need something to look forward to when learning. Working with a tutor who supplies constructive, regular feedback is one route. But even as a lone learner, there are some simple ways to build anticipation into your positive feedback loop.

Informal test-based feedback, for example, is available in all sorts of languages online. This German self-test on the Goethe Institute site is a great example. On the other hand, if you like your feedback more formalised, cultural institutes frequently offer official exams of proficiency. Many lone learners work towards gaining accreditation such as the Bergenstest in Norwegian, or the JLPT in Japanese. The anticipation of getting solid results can drive a learner forward, especially in the absence of direct teacher or peer feedback. Failing that, even the goal of doing well on a competitive platform like Duolingo can inspire a positive buzz.

Returning to our gregarious friend oxytocin, social anticipation can be the warmest and fuzziest kind. Using your languages socially need not mean a fully-fledged trip abroad, of course. Any kind of interaction, be it at a local language café group, with native speakers at work, or just fellow learners, can be the emotional carrot to your language learning donkey.

Clowning around

Of course, humour is something that works particularly well in these social settings. Getting a laugh from creative, or – let’s joyfully admit it – silly use of language, can be a nice way to make vocabulary stick, too.

The proof of this is written all over the internet, and it starts with Duolingo. The behemoth of online language learning resources famously uses comedic sentences throughout its language modelling. People who find something funny want to talk about it, naturally. And Duolingo users have turned to one particular feed (forgive the name) to share their favourite eccentricities of the platform.

The moral of the tale? Use inane, ridiculous, silly language to practise. Be a clown. Talk about it. Share it with fellow learners and subject your wider family and friends to it. Laugh – and remember.

 

The joy of teaching

Finally, it is hard to underestimate one joy close to the hearts of linguaphiles: the joy of teaching. The fact that teaching others helps our own learning is well documented. But that thrill of seeing something click for someone else plays right along with the positive emotion game.

Bust this myth before you start: you do not have to be an expert to teach something. You just need a bit of knowledge you can share with someone else. If you have a learning buddy, or compliant family member or friend, share with them your most recent observations about your target language. Make your explanation as interesting and illuminating as possible – and enjoy the click when it happens. Remembering the moment you taught the material to another person will be a superb hook to remember the material itself.

Little and often

As the examples show, working positive emotion into your learning routine does not mean maintaining constant jollity. Emotional content need not be dramatic or earth-shattering. In fact, it should not be so. The same research suggests that strong, negative emotional states like stress can have the opposite effect.

What’s more, we clearly cannot sustain an environment of constant emotional excitement. Even if that were possible, it would be counter-productive. Our brains are not so easily tricked. It would simply become our new ‘normal’, and all the salience benefits lost.

Instead, the methods outlined above are some routes to routinely and subtly get happy with your language learning and practice. Stay positive, stay connected, and enjoy all those motivation and memory benefits!

 

Going for gold - the goal of self-improvement. And language learning should be a big part of that. (Image from freeimages.com)

Language Superhero: Why languages belong in every self-improvement regime

Self-improvement. Doesn’t the mere sound of that phrase get you motivated?

As a kid, I was obsessed with it, this magical idea that you could train yourself to be better and better, turn yourself into something special – something more than human.

Consequently, the kinds of TV shows and films I loved centred on superhuman abilities – especially heightened mental faculties. Superman, Short Circuit, D.A.R.Y.L., Quantum Leap, Inspector Gadget (for Penny, not Gadget!) and other shows centered on genius protagonists (natural or created) were par for the course in the life of a kid who dreamt of building up his own special powers.

Reading an entire book in under a minute, performing complex programming feats with the swift tap of a few keys, solving impossible mathematical equations in mere seconds. Humans – or at least humanoids – but more than that. What a goal!

Only human

Now, you might worry that these kinds of unreachable ideals might set up a kid for a real inferiority complex. The antidote to that is to admit that there is no shame in being human. We do have our natural limitations; bionic brains haven’t been invented (yet).

But, taken with a pinch of salt, these superhuman ideals were a great motivator to a young Rich. They still keep me going today. And not just me, given the colossal wealth of self-improvement titles on sale for decades and decades.

Becoming a better version of yourself doesn’t happen overnight, though (barring radioactive spider bites and cosmic gamma rays). Self-improvement takes planning.

And so, on the back of all my grand superhero designs, was born a love and respect for the regime. Organising yourself is a prerequisite of treading the path to a better you. Discovering new tools to help build those regimes is a favourite pastime of mine. But what do you include in the regime? Physical fitness, mental agility, musical ability, social skills…

What about languages?

Superlinguist

Languages are an excellent candidate for a key pillar in any self-improvement plan. Becoming a superlinguist comes with many very desirable qualities, some of which you might already recognise from your own learning path.

So what kind of better you do languages create?

A cleverer you

The question of how language learning positively affects the brain is important enough to attract a lot of research. The phenomenon of brain plasticity, for example, is particularly evident in neuroscientific studies into language learning. If you need evidence that minds are not fixed, but malleable and flexible, look no further than second language acquisition.

The positive changes we can make to our brains through language learning are many. Certain physical changes effected on the hippocampus by language acquisition may result in better memory overall, for example. There is even some evidence that language learning can slow brain ageing, even offsetting the effects of degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’sThat is a superpower that could change a lot of lives for the better.

The superpowers that multilingual mastery bestows on the user is a regular staple of TED talks:

As a side note, many of the mental benefits of language learning are shared by music, too – so perhaps languages and music could also make perfect travelling partners on your own self-improvement route.

A more sociable you

I must admit, I was always impressed at how suave language skills seemed in popular depictions in TV and film. Who wouldn’t be impressed at the ease with which James Bond slips into a handy foreign language at the drop of a hat?

The key here is fitting in, passing – being able to slot smoothly into any social situation, regardless of language. For a naturally cautious, reserved youngster, that aspect of languages was more than enough to recommend it for my superskills list.

And, true enough, language learning can be an excellent training ground for improved social skills. Just the need to practise speaking in the wild is great motivation to be brave and put yourself out there. Combined with a healthy dose of not taking yourself too seriously, languages can make you a bolder, more daring human being.

A more articulate you

Spending a lot of time with words has another wonderful side-effect, too: your first language is all the better for it. Firstly, there’s a heightened appreciation for how your own language works – its constituent parts and how they interact. It took my first steps into foreign languages to spell out what nouns, verbs and their kin really were.

Secondly, spending time learning words and phrases increases your exposure to different modes of expression, varied turns of phrase and a much wider vocabulary. That results in a much more articulate you – in any language.

Add to that the layers of world knowledge you gain from diverse cultural exposure, and you will have a lot to talk about, whichever language you choose to do it in. Incidentally, there is evidence to suggest that this makes linguists much more tolerant people, too.

A more successful you

Learning a language can be a lucrative bolt-on for your best life. What superhero isn’t successful?

Money isn’t everything, of course, but the earnings differentials between monolinguals and multilinguals are striking. And what better to spend that extra money on that more self-improvement books and courses?

Seriously, though, an extra language could be the difference between candidates with otherwise identical skills. That is not only added value for a company, but can also indicate a level of commitment to self-improvement that is otherwise invisible on an applicant’s CV. Adding a language might be one of the wisest career choices you make.

Nitro for your self-improvement engine

Languages, then, are like nitro for the engine of any general self-improvement programme. Mental gym, social lubricant, the gift of the gab and career success – the list of power-ups for the budding superhero is long. And, to be clear, I have barely scratched the surface here.

Of course, life does get in the way of idealism now and then. We do have finite capacities. But second language learning may well be a great hack to unlocking an even better you all round.

I’ve been a self-improvement junkie since childhood. Did it work? Well, I’m still grafting. I’m only human, after all.

But trying is the whole point of it.

Following the path to a better you is as rewarding for the journey as it is for the destination (which, by its nature, will keep morphing).

Enjoy your trip to superhero status!

Let your language love burn brightly, but avoid burnout!

Five ways to avoid language learner burnout

Make no mistake – language learning can be challenging. As language lovers, this effort is usually fun and rewarding, but now and again, it can all seem like very hard work. Keeping up this level of mental exertion without respite can be a sure-fire way to hit burnout.

However, the savvy student can plan to be kind to the mind. Managing mental fatigue is as important as organising your learning material, and easy to fit into your routine. With that in mind, here are some top strategies for avoiding burnout.

Organise

Being mentally switched on all the time is a recipe for fatigue. You can use a variety of free tools for organising yourself to ensure some downtime. You could, for example, try Evernote to pace yourself with weekly goals. Or you could try calendar blocking your learning to avoid doubling / tripling / quadrupling up on your learning material.

Importantly, try to be realistic when planning in your goals. There are some ways to routinise your language learning to include some every day. But perhaps give yourself a day or two a week when you only do your Anki flashcards, and leave your books alone.

The Twelve Week Year (below) is one approach I’ve found really helpful in organising my language goals into manageable, spaced chunks.

Communicate and socialise

Slogging it out on your own can be a lonely business. There’s nothing quite like the support of others in a common goal, and seeking out company can be a fantastic way to get some breathing space when study gets heavy.

Find a study buddy, or seek out a language café in your area. If you don’t have the opportunity to meet others in person, try finding a language partner on a site like iTalki. Knowing that there is someone on the journey with you can lighten the heaviest load.

Exercise

You’ve given your brain a workout – so why not shift the effort to your body, instead? There is lots of research that suggests the mental and emotional benefits of exercise. Making physical activity a regular habit helps you to adopt a holistic mind-body approach that can balance, rather than overload you.

It doesn’t have to stand in isolation, either. You can even combine exercise with language learning, training your linguist brain and body at the same time!

Get some Headspace

As surprising as it might sound, many of us may not know instinctively how to switch off and manage stress. Rather, it is a skill that we need to learn. To this end, mindfulness and meditation can be invaluable additions to your mental toolbox.

A superb place to start is the excellent Headspace . This life-saver app offers a gentle, graded and handheld way into these powerful techniques, including a completely free ‘essentials’ course.  If you find that useful, there is a whole library of situation-specific guided meditations to enjoy with a paid subscription. Amongst these, some of the handiest for linguists include study support and productivity packs, as well as anxiety management – absolute gold for a naturally shy linguist like me.

Headspace Logo

Headspace

Allow for exploration

Sometimes we can be too strict on ourselves. For many linguaphiles, I suspect, part of our passion derives from the exploration of language. And, occasionally, we lose sight of that when we are in formal learning mode, demanding progress towards a very specific language goal.

Deviate a little now and then from the planned route. Spend some time learning a brand new language. And don’t feel guilty for doing so! Learning related languages, for example, can be a great way to get a bird’s eye view of your main language and its place in the world. Keep alive the spirit of exploration as a space to be curious rather than purely industrious. Side projects remind us of this.

Letting off steam, and self-kindness in study, are highly individual. Are there any methods you swear by for keeping a fresh head? Please share them in the comments, and help us all to keep the flame burning brightly!

Real-life language can be unpredictable, like this tangle of colourful liquorice sweeties!

Preparing for the unpredictable – developing flexible language thinking

We’ve all been there. You’ve learnt the tenses. Have the vocab down pat. You have a head full of model questions and answers. You are totally ready for to be unleashed onto the target language streets. But – agh – what was that answer that came back at you? What was that word again, and why can’t you remember it now? And why is this so much harder than when you were learning it? Conversation so often doesn’t stick to the script, and we can be totally thrown by the responses to your perfectly practised communication attempts. Real life is just so darn unpredictable!

Well, rest assured that it isn’t just you. There is a psychological phenomenon dubbed ‘context reinstatement’ that explains just what on Earth is going on. It’s a fancy name for something many of us intuitively know anyway – that being perfect in a learn-and-drill situation does not prepare you for the unpredictability of real life.

Underwater understanding

Classic memory research by Godden and Baddeley shows how we find retrieval easier when the context is the same as the original learning environment. The psychologist duo split their subjects into two groups. One group learnt a list of 40 words underwater, and the other group learnt them on the beach. Then, they tested each participant’s recall of the words in either the same, or the alternative environment.

The result? On average, subjects remembered 40% more when tested in the same environment that learning took place in.

The lesson from this is not – disappointingly – that we should all buy scuba gear and go and learn languages in the water. Rather, we can assume that vocabulary and structures will be easier to recall in a classroom if they were first learnt in a classroom. The familiar surroundings contain lots of cues, networked to those original memories, that help them bubble up to the surface. This explains why you may perform brilliantly in a vocab test in class, but struggle to find a word in a shop or restaurant in your target language country.

Context – a blessing and a curse

Superficially, the effect of context on recall can sometimes be a useful tool. If you want to improve recall, then you can attempt to recreate the environment where you first learnt the material. Taking a French/German/Spanish exam? Then take in some familiar objects, like your favourite pencil case or pen. Maybe sit in the same desk for class tests, or even wear the same clothes. There really is some psycho-science behind having ‘lucky’ clothes in this case!

The trouble with extending these techniques is the impracticality, or often, sheer impossibility of them in real life. In reality, we have very little control over scenarios where we want to speak a foreign language! Language happens anywhere and everywhere – by its nature, it is unpredictable.

Training for the unpredictable

So, how can you prepare yourself for, literally, anything that could happen in a target language situation? First off, nobody will be able to do that. That is half the fun and excitement of speaking foreign languages – it’s a rollercoaster ride of social surprises. But you can increase your chances of coping well with that. The trick is to promote flexible, rather than fixed thinking in your learning routines.

Vary your study settings

There is a common study tip based on busting the context-dependency of Godden and Baddeley’s experiment. It is, quite simply, to vary the environment that you learn in. In theory, this prevents specific language memories from becoming too attached to elements that won’t be present in the field.

You can extend this idea of  ‘environment’ to the whole ecosystem you use to learn – the apps, websites and materials that you form your learning materials. Find yourself exclusively using Duolingo to practise languages? Then give Anki a try, and build some custom vocabulary lists. Only using fixed listening material from language courses? Then maybe it’s time to try some podcasts. Take the predictability out of your learning, and you may increase your ability to cope with it in the real world.

Fluid notes

It’s also worth addressing how you keep your phrase lists, crib notes and vocab records, too. A rigid, fixed, linear structure to memorising dialogues, for example, leaves little room for digression in actual conversations. A static list of ten words that you learn in order will, likewise, not really promote flexible use in the day-to-day.

Instead, think about creating frameworks for your vocabulary instead. Rather than complete sentences, learn structures that you can fit many different words into, depending on the situation. I should have…I’ve already … and so on – frames you can grab and fill in your head on the go.

Recycling material in different ways is key here, too. Maybe learning discrete lists of ten words is an effective memorisation technique for you. Stick with that if so, but introduce some variety to the way you practise them. Run through the words in a different order – maybe using a flashcard app like Anki – and challenge yourself to make different, even whacky, sentences with them each time you revise. Mix it up – make sure that no learning session is the same.

Speaking is supreme

Finally, books and static materials will never suffice for training for the unpredictable. Even the immersive, language-in-situ nature of podcasts won’t mimic the two-way dynamic of real-life conversation.

For that end, the old adage always applies: speaking is supreme in language learning. I’ve recently rediscovered the joy of iTalki for face-to-face language practise. I’ve been finding lots of extra time for regular Skype lessons, simply to chat with a real person. It can be hard, and it’s natural to feel an aversion to difficult things and hide from them. But if you stick at it, you’ll reap the confidence rewards of coping better and better with natural language.

Embrace the unpredictable

Human beings are creatures of habit, and love routine. That’s why these techniques might sometimes feel so hard to adopt, even though they seem like common sense. It can be disconcerting to mix up your learning approaches ceaselessly, or throw yourself into environments where you are tested on the spot. But in the long run, you’ll thank yourself for it. Embrace change and variety, and become a more dynamic linguist for it!