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 moments – those 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.
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.
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.
— alex rees (@maybealexislost) August 6, 2019
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!