Let’s try an experiment.
In a moment, I’m going to ask you to close your eyes. Before you do so, please take a few seconds to read ahead, so you know what I’m asking of you.
When you close your eyes, try to think of all of the red objects in the room. Try to picture these objects in your mind’s eye. Take one minute to mentally estimate how many red objects will be in your field of vision once you open your eyes.
Okay, now really close your eyes and do it.
Take a look around you. Compare your initial estimate of red objects to the number that you can actually see in front of you.
Notice anything strange?
Typically, the quantity of red things that you picture in your head will be much, much less than the quantity of red that is actually around you.
You also might notice that the color red all of a sudden jumps out at you, where earlier you barely noticed it.
I’m going to explain why this works, but before I do that, let’s run through this experiment one more time.
This time, we’ll be looking for a different color.
Once you close your eyes, try to picture all of the blue objects in the room, and take a mental tally of them.
Close your eyes and do that now.
Back with us? Okay!
As with our first experiment, you likely found a lot more blue objects in the room than you had imagined. Moreover, you might feel as if all of the blues in the room are more vibrant than ever, vying for your attention.
Okay. Enough color-finding. What do these simple experiments tell us about the brain?
The Brain, Your Humble Servant
Your brain is a marvelous rationalization machine.
By that, I mean that your brain lives to give you what you want.
It will go out of its way to make sure your reality matches up to your perception. Your brain will do this even in spite of evidence that conflicts with your beliefs.
When you searched for red objects, your brain was not yet accustomed to doing so. You had never placed particular importance on red objects before, so they went ignored. This is why you could only picture a few red items with your eyes closed.
But when you opened your eyes, however, your brain went into overdrive. All of a sudden, your brain saw red where you had never even noticed it before. And chances are, these are things you see every day!
And then we did it again.
In an instant, our recently-vibrant reds faded into the background, revealing an array of beautiful blues that we somehow only just became aware of, despite the fact that we’ve likely spent countless hours in front of them.
The reds, and blues, (and the countless other colors that you could do this exercise with) have always been there, but until you asked your brain to find them and focus on them, it’s as if they never existed. Once your brain did focus on one particular color, it deliberately ignored the others, causing them to quite literally fade into the background.
So, what does this have to do with language learning?
Our above experiments revealed how our brain will heighten our perceptions of details that we ask it to focus on. By contrast, irrelevant details will fade into the background.
This phenomenon is amusing when it comes to picking colors out of a room, but becomes deadly serious when it comes to self-judgments.
What if the question wasn’t “How many red objects (or blue objects) are in this room?” but “Why am I such a bad language learner?”
You’re literally asking your brain to find all of the information it can about how BAD you are at language learning. Since your brain wants to fulfill your request, it will come up with every shred of evidence it can of how poor of a learner you are, including:
- All the study days you missed
- All the times you stayed quiet when you could have spoken
- All of the wrong answers you’ve given
- All the times you’ve misunderstood or been misunderstood
- And the list goes on and on
And, just like your brain enhanced the reds and blues and ignored the other colors, your brain will ignore the information that may conflict with your request. Even if there is plenty of evidence to prove that you are a good language learner, your brain will move right past it.
This is a real problem. If you get into the habit of regularly asking your brain to focus on how bad you are at language learning, you’ll really start to believe that that negative evidence is all there is. With that belief in mind, you’ll eventually come to the conclusion that you’re not good enough to learn a language, and you’ll inevitably give up. Essentially, you’re asking for failure, and giving your brain no choice but to oblige.
It’s as if you started to believe that there was no color but red, or that red was the only color that mattered.
If you only ask your brain to focus on the negative, negative is all you’ll find.
If you’ve found yourself in this situation, where all the world is coming up one (negative) color, the change you need to make is a simple one, but one that will take effort to make into a habit.
Ask the Right Questions
First, just like in our red/blue experiment, you need to start asking different questions. Instead of asking your brain
“Why am I such a bad language learner?”
“Why am I such a good language learner?”
It seems too simple. But that’s it.
You need to flip the mental switch from “bad” to “good”, just as you flipped it from “red” to “blue” earlier.
As before, the longer you dwell on the positive question, your brain has no choice but to get to work coming up with positive evidence.
Suddenly, you’ll remember:
- How many words you’ve already learned
- Successful conversations you’ve had
- All of the once-incomprehensible things that you can now understand
- The smiles you’ve brought to the faces of the people you’ve talked to
- And the list goes on and on
And luckily, the more you focus on the good evidence, the negative evidence will recede into the background, leaving you with a more open and beneficial attitude towards language learning, even when faced with new challenges.
You Have a One-Track Mind
Now, you might be wondering why this works.
I’m not going to get into the neuroscience of this, but here’s the gist in more general terms:
None of us are perfect. In any endeavor, we have both strengths and weaknesses that are ever-present.
Our brains have a hard time with this, however. When you have two opposite states like “strength” and “weakness”, “good” or “bad”, our brains would prefer that everything belong to either one category or the other. The idea of one thing belonging to two opposing categories creates mental discomfort, known as “cognitive dissonance”. We have a hard time conceiving how something could exist in two states at once, so we generally ignore one in favor of the other.
This perception does not match with reality. Something can be both light, and dark. Light can be both a particle and a wave. Good people can do bad things, and bad people can do good things. And you, simultaneously can be both a “good” language learner, and a “bad” one.
In order to get your “single-minded” brain to wrap itself around this dual-state, you need to train it to focus on the side that is the most advantageous to you.
If you’re reading this, I would assume that you would like to be a successful language learner, so that means that you absolutely must train your brain to look for the positive, at the expense of the negative. With more positive thoughts comes positive actions, and with positive actions will come positive results.
Train Your Brain for Success
Now that you know how to train your brain to focus on the things that are of the most benefit to you, you need to do this training every day.
Every day, when you have five minutes free, try to think of ten ways in which you are a good, successful language learner. Better yet, grab a journal and write them down. Make sure that you never end a day without filling out your list of ten.
Complete this short ritual daily for three weeks in a row, and not only will you have lots of evidence for your language learning successes, but you’ll also begin to change the way you think. This new style of thinking will gives you the ability to automatically focus on the good before the bad can rear its ugly head.
Now that you know your new ritual, I’ll leave you to it.
But before you go, I ask you to read one final thought, in the words of Henry David Thoreau:
“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”
Onward and upward,