On my language learning path there are a few lightbulb moments that stand out.
I had the major privilege of attending some language training at the beginning of 2014. The trainer was someone who had been studying language for 30+ years, and was very familiar with many types of language learning methods. Her experience had led her to primarily use the Growing Participator Approach (GPA).
Those sessions were like gold. They pulled together much of what I’d picked up along the language learning journey, and made sense of it for me. A definite hat-tip to her for sharing these concepts with me!
If I had to condense my language learning approach, I’d say whatever you do, helps. Keep putting in one hour after another. I’ve also come to appreciate that while something is better than nothing, some things are better than just anything. Here are 3 concepts that will help you put your faithful hours to their best use.
1. Stress and learning are not friends
The idea that people don’t learn well under stress is one I’ve heard many times. Chalk it up to my homeschooling, standardized-test-eschewing background perhaps, but this one just seems obvious. If you’re stressed, your brain can’t perform at its best. Absorbing new information isn’t your priority, getting out of the situation is!
Remember learning about adrenaline in school – the “fight or flight” instinct? When you’re in a stressful situation your brain sends adrenaline shooting across your brain. Your heart rates goes up. Your breathing changes. That adrenaline actually acts as a barrier, blocking information from passing across the nerves.
“Continuous heightened levels of stress hormones can lead to a shrinkage of the hippocampus, the brain’s main memory center, according to a research team in the January 2008 issue of PNAS. Stress hormone stimulates the production of IL-1 beta, a cytokine, or signaling molecule, that creates inflammation in the hippocampus and prevents the formation of new neurons. […] Stressful situations accelerate the activity of adrenergic and noradrenergic neurons. This can have a profound, negative effect on memory, according to a research team in the October 2008 Journal of Neuroscience.” What happens during an adrenaline rush from LiveStrong.com
If you want to learn a lot of new information – say, a new language – you don’t want to be constantly tense. You may be laughing at this point, because people who move cultures are notoriously stressed out! And the act of going from fully-capable adult to looking UP to people who baby-talk in a new language is already enough to send your blood pressure skyward.
Do yourself a favor. Relaxxxxxxx. Don’t voluntarily put yourself in learning environments that are way above your current level. Whether you’re learning with a group or one-on-one, try to incorporate a sense of fun.
Will you still learn if you’re in a tense learning environment? If your language helper is of the drill-instructor type? If you’re in a class way over your ability? Maybe. Some people do rise to the challenge and do well. But how much better would they have done if the atmosphere didn’t induce full-body panic?
Do your best to lighten the mood. Find language helpers who put you at ease – after all, you’re going to be spending hours of your life with them! If you’ve moved across cultures you’ve already got enough stress to last a lifetime. Try to make choices that keep you engaged and focused, but not stressed.
2. The Iceberg Principle
One of the ideas which has most radically impacted my language learning is the Iceberg Principle, taken from GPA.
Sometimes you’re there in the moment struggling to recall a word… finally the person you’re speaking with offers it up. Doh! It was on the tip of your tongue. I used to go away from those (daily) moments discouraged, I guess I don’t really know that word. I’ve never been great with memorizing, especially by sight. Flashcards are an exercise in discouragement for me. But remember how important it is to fight for a positive attitude?
The Iceberg Principle flips that idea on its head. As you can see in the photo above, words we have mastered and can use fluently “on the spot” are just the tip of the iceberg. That’s what people see. The encouraging reality is that everything in the iceberg is a word you “know!”
The example I gave above of having a word on the tip of my tongue? That’s hovering just below the surface. Words rise with repetition. So the next time I need that word, the chances are good that I’ll be able to use it in the moment.
Here’s the key: You could spend hours and hours working to master a few words. Once they’re mastered, the only direction they can go is down! But for the same amount of time you can put lots and lots of words somewhere in the bottom of the iceberg and let them rise over time.
How can you help words rise? By periodically reviewing your notes or vocab book or audio recordings. By trying to use the words you learn as soon as possible. By listening to lots of comprehensible input, which will be using vocab at your level. Maybe [shudder] even making flashcards. There are myriad ways to do this!
Next time you can’t remember a word you’ve learned, instead of beating yourself up about forgetting it, tell yourself “I know that word! It’s in my language iceberg. Next time I’ll come up with it on the spot.”
3. The Growth Zone
Greg Thomson developed the idea of the “Growth Zone,” based on Vygotsky’s “Zone of Proximal Development.” The basic concept is that people learn best when they understand most of the content they are exposed to, while being stretched with new material.
In other words, if all you’re hearing is a wall of noise and comprehend about 10%, not much of the other 90% will stick in your memory. If you understand nearly 100% on the other hand – engaging in small talk conversations you’ve had hundreds of times before, for example – you’re not growing.
Your learning “sweet spot” is the place where you’re understanding about 90%. Then the foreign 10% has a context in your mind already, stands out, and can be retained much more effectively. I was surprised to you should aim for about 90% comprehension. I’d heard many people talk about the importance of comprehensible input, but thought I should be aiming for more like 60% understanding.
This has big implications for which learning situations you put yourself in. On the one hand, your daily life probably resembles less a growth zone, and more like a little kid learning how to water ski. You’re in non-ideal situations all the time, hanging on to maybe 30% understanding and riding the conversation for dear life. Those rare 100% moments like a cool lemonade to your weary ego.
It’s easy to get stuck at that plateau, where you’re very competent at a few things, and then way out of your depth in most others. Going back to that “immersion is the key” myth, the Growth Zone concept helps explain what causes people to plateau.
Years ago I worked as a waitress in a restaurant. I’m pretty sure my boss was a member of the Boston mafia. (Only sorta’ kidding.) The kitchen staff were mostly from Brazil. We could communicate everything we needed to with a combination of gestures and sentence fragments: “2 salads please,” “Big problem, 1 more fast!” “Thanks!” I tried to pick up a few words of Portuguese, and enjoyed the camaraderie it created as they laughed kindly at my poor pronunciation, appreciating the effort. But on breaks we’d end up in 2 different groups – English and Portuguese-speaking. (If you know much about US dialects, here you could insert a joke wondering if the Boston accent counts as English!)
In the restaurant business speed is key. Slowing down and relaxing the atmosphere, giving the someone time to recall words near the iceberg’s surface would have gotten me fired! Just being immersed in that restaurant environment wasn’t enough to boost the Brazilians’ language skills significantly, because they either understood 100% of the basic things said repeatedly, or confronted a wall of sound with little comprehension. No one in that fast-paced environment was able to meet them in their Growth Zone. Simple immersion wasn’t enough to get them a promotion or enable them to join the English conversation. It’s a sad reality many learners experience in one way or another.
Now I’m the newcomer, the foreigner. I’ve definitely had times where I told myself, “I’m drinking from the information fire hose right now, but I’m just going to write everything down and hope some of it sticks.” Some of it did. And I do have a pile of notebooks I can go back and review.
But here’s the thing: If you have the choice, why don’t you spend money on learning that will benefit you the most? Find a language helper who meets you in your Growth Zone. It’s an art to listen and identify where a learner is, and then hang with them at their level while stretching them into new things. You’re looking more for a certain personality in a language helper, less for credentials (Some would say to steer clear of credentials! But that’s another post).
And this isn’t just the case with someone you’re paying or a class you’re taking. Make an effort – especially in the early days – to spent time with people who meet you where you are at, while still stretching you.Not many people are naturally gifted at speaking with foreigners, so treasure them when you find one! This might seem selfish. Of course we don’t want to connect with people just to use them. But for a time this will just be the reality… you can’t connect well with people you don’t understand at all. A few kind, patient people will come your way, inshallah, like the woman who welcomed us into the conference room in the first language post. Praise God for them! What a gift.
Relax. Be encouraged. Your Growth Zone may start as more of a Growth Hula-Hoop, with room for maybe 1 person. But with time that zone will expand. As you grow, your world will expand too. One day you’ll look around and realize your world has expanded to include people with local dialects, unusual accents, riddling their speech with idioms, making frequent jokes and cultural references.
If you put in the hours – especially non-stressed hours in your growth zone – you will get there.