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Mindset in learning

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Serpent
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 Message 1 of 15
26 August 2014 at 4:54am | IP Logged 
Whether you think you can, or you think you can't – you're right.

I've always got pretty sceptic responses to my posts about mindset, so I was delighted when it was mentioned in a Coursera class on learning how to learn. Actually, the course contained an interview with Benny Lewis, and he mentioned the quote that I started this post with - it happens to be one of my favourites. I've explored the topic of mindset further in the peer-assessed assignment. (My submission is here)


Specifically, the course mentioned the four components of a habit:

1. the cue
2. the routine
3. the reward
4. the belief

We'll focus on that last one - after all, language is a habit too.

Let's list some obviously harmful kinds of mindset:

- I'm not wired for languages
- This language is too difficult and impossible to learn
- Instead of being responsible for my own learning, I can rely on my teacher/course book and follow the instructions mindlessly
- Effort is for losers, I'm going to use the miracle method I've seen in advertising
- I need to wait until the circumstances are perfect

These are pretty self-explanatory. But many other mindsets can have both positive and negative effects. Let's look at some of the common ones.


learning vs fun [vs neutral, information-hunting etc]

This is seemingly the most simple opposition, especially in its basic form. Many of us separate our language learning into "serious" and "fun", or other similar labels. It's common to use the various language learning challenges to push yourself to do more "hardcore learning", and some look down upon logging all the fun activities you do, especially in your best languages. The whole idea of the 6 Week Challenge is to do some serious learning in a language where you're below B2 and presumably can't read or watch movies for fun yet.

The obvious idea here is to do as much formal learning as you can and have as much fun as your free time allows. This works well for many... but not for everyone.

Things get more complicated when we turn the opposition into a continuum - after all, not everything we do fits these neat categories. Two major exceptions are work and searching for information. For example, many people can use languages that they neither speak nor learn, the mutually intelligible languages like Swedish/Norwegian/Danish or Spanish/Portuguese/Italian. So, when one does start learning a related language, it may seem pointless and counterintuitive to consume the content that you could already understand without learning.

The missing piece is the mindset, though. Heritage speakers and specifically the phenomenon of code switching is one of the most extreme examples: without sufficient motivation, it's surprisingly easy to neglect the details, with the long-term effect of being unable to produce consistent speech in the heritage language, or in some cases having virtually no speaking skills at all. For adult learners, deliberate practice can be needed for transferring the knowledge between different sets of skills, such as the productive and receptive ones. The most common solution is doing exercises, learning the grammar, using coursebooks. However, AJATT and Antimoon have proven that this can be substituted the combination of native content and spaced repetition (using sentences), especially for those who dislike grammar. Making your own exercises is a shorter-term equivalent to that. Attentive reading also uses the power of a correct mindset as you notice and perhaps underline all the elements that make the text coherent and eloquent.

One more aspect is that for some learners, the border between learning and fun is more fuzzy, especially if they prefer the "fun-oriented" methods I mentioned. Ironically, it appears that some learners need to have fun at every moment of their learning, while others enjoy the "fun" materials less if they treat them as learning. (the latter is something Zimena told me, for example - of course that's just anecdata, but one istance is enough to disprove a claim saying that's impossible.)


native vs foreign

I first saw this in Success with Foreign Languages, which is basically a well-organized collection of case studies. Specifically, it contrasts a learner who openly says he's okay with not being native-like "because [he]'ll never be mistaken for a Chinese" with those who are eager to be a part of the community, copy their roommates' speech etc. The mindset is vital for developing the right pronunciation habits.

Nevertheless, sometimes there are downsides to having a good pronunciation, as attested by some of those who have a natural talent for it. Non-specialists often base their estimate of learners' level on their pronunciation, so if you can imitate the native accent while still a beginner, chances are you'll get a response which is way above your level.

Even more importantly, when there's a clash between your mindset and expectations, it can cause perfectionism and procrastination as you try and fail to improve your accent to or achieve something else that pushes your limits. Simply acknowledging it is already a good beginning - after all, most learners don't need to speak perfectly.


accepting the 'armony vs cracking the code

Some learners, such as the founder of AJATT, have a very zen attitude. They treat the language as a custom, a tradition, something that you repeat without questioning. Many others think they need to know how the language works, and some actually have an internal need for that knowledge - linguists, language geeks, possibly some programmers. That's an important distinction, in my opinion. If you are simply used to having explanations, but don't really care, you can discard most of them (assuming you're not taking a grammar-focused class).

I'm inclined to think that this is where diffuse and focused thinking come into play. Structured learning, deciphering and deliberate practice all require focused, linear attention. On the other hand, it's often easier to accept quirky wording as it is by randomly linking it to concepts that feel similar, regardless of whether the connections really make sense. Just let your mind wander...

Nevertheless, it's important to keep in mind that every learner needs to use both modes of thinking. There will always be some things that need to be accepted as they are and some structures that need to be examined systematically. This can obviously vary between learners, and yet another benefit of learning on your own is being able to decide which kind of thinking to apply, as well as allowing yourself the time to try both.

EDIT: see also the blog of a fellow learner. Here's the part about focused and diffuse thinking.

Edited by Serpent on 30 August 2014 at 12:36pm

14 persons have voted this message useful



rdearman
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 Message 2 of 15
26 August 2014 at 1:00pm | IP Logged 
Since we're doing favourite quotations, mine is: "If you're going through hell, keep going." - Winston Churchill.

I've read extensively on habits and willpower. One thing I know is "Habit trumps Willpower" unless you are really focused on overcoming the habit. In addition willpower has been shown in some studies to be a limited resource (although not all psychologists agree) and consistent exercise of willpower is tiring. You can increase your willpower, and train it but a habit is something which is automatic and requires no focus or effort of will.

Habits have a bad connotation for most people since habits are normally associated with bad ones, like smoking, etc. If however you cultivate a good habit then it requires no effort to maintain and continues to assist you throughout your life. An example of this might be the habit of flossing your teeth each day, or jogging, etc.

So I believe it is more important when you are learning (anything not just a language) to make a habit of your studies.

So I may have the mindset; "Chinese is difficult", but if I have the habit of reviewing my ANKI decks each day and spending at least 1/2 hour in active study of the language then I will learn to speak & read Mandarin. It is inevitable.

serpent wrote:

Let's list some obviously harmful kinds of mindset:

- I'm not wired for languages
- This language is too difficult and impossible to learn
- Instead of being responsible for my own learning, I can rely on my teacher/course book and follow the instructions mindlessly
- Effort is for losers, I'm going to use the miracle method I've seen in advertising
- I need to wait until the circumstances are perfect


Regarding the list of examples you've given habit will conquer the first two easily, and would make a dent in the third one. The last two mindsets are more of an issue.

"Effort is for losers, I'm going to use the miracle method I've seen in advertising"
This is a knowledge problem (or a marketing one) where the individual just doesn't know how to learn and is relying on some advertisement or poor recommendations.

"I need to wait until the circumstances are perfect"
This is a psychological problem of perfectionism which a lot of people fall afoul of, but if they can overcome the psychological barrier then a good habit will help them.

serpent wrote:

without sufficient motivation, it's surprisingly easy to neglect the details, with the long-term effect of being unable to produce consistent speech in the heritage language, or in some cases having virtually no speaking skills at all.


The problem with motivation is it starts to evaporates at the first struggle, and a little bit more is stripped away after sequential challenges. So motivation and mindset alone aren't the answer.

I believe the way to learn is:

1) Start a success spiral.
2) Build a daily habit.
3) Repeat

What do I mean?

A "success spiral" is much like the downward depression cycle people can fall into, but going the other direction. First you establish some daily goal which are easy to reach, and you are successful! Yay. Continue this building a habit, but slowly increasing the target, but making sure you can succeed. After this has become a habit, create another success spiral & another habit.

Let's say you wanted to do 50 push-ups per day and 50 sit-ups per day. For most of people it wouldn't be possible to just lay on the floor and pump out 50 push-ups and 50 sit-ups. However just about everybody could do 1 push-up and 1 sit-up, so if you start on Monday and do 1 push-up and 1 sit-up, then you have a success! Do that for 1 week and the next week add another push-up and another sit-up, you succeed (because you've been training!) and now you've started the success spiral.

If you started on the first of January and added 1 rep each week at the end of the year, you'd be doing 52 reps per year, and it wouldn't be hard for you.

Success breed success, so when you are all pumped up and motivated, before that evaporates when the going gets tough, use that motivation to plan out what habits you can create. Because it is the habit that will get you to the goal.

Sorry for the long wandering reply, but I think I'm agreeing with you. :)


6 persons have voted this message useful



Bao
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 Message 3 of 15
26 August 2014 at 1:26pm | IP Logged 
rdearman wrote:
Regarding the list of examples you've given habit will conquer the first two easily, and would make a dent in the third one. The last two mindsets are more of an issue.


From what I've read, it seems that people need different amounts of time and practice to develop the same habit. Some people have it down after a month or two, while for others it takes the better part of a year to form a new habit.

I think you conveniently forget that in order to make yourself practice every day for several months to form a habit, you must have the attitude that if you just practice enough, you will become better eventually. (Or you must love wasting your time doing things that are aimed at progess expecting not to make any progress.)

"I am not wired for languages" is a static attitude.
If you believe that continuous practice will change your aptitude, your attitude would be closer to "I have no experience with learning languages and I will need to change the way my brain is organized to get better at it." That would be dynamic and oriented towards progress.

Also consider "This language is too difficult and impossible to learn" vs.
"This language is extremely difficult and it will take me a very long time to learn."
3 persons have voted this message useful



shk00design
Triglot
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 Message 4 of 15
27 August 2014 at 6:34am | IP Logged 
Once upon a time we think of some people as being talented. A friend with a German father & a Dutch
mother being brought up in an English-speaking world. He did not speak either with his parents even as
he was taking 3 separate languages in high school including French, German & Latin. He was getting top
marks in the class but was not fluent. It was after he joined the Catholic seminary and moved to Europe
where he became fluent.

Part of the problem people have with learning is that they were brought up to think most of the learning
they are getting is in the classroom and that when a teacher is not present, they can't learn or would
end up making many mistakes.

Being a member of a local band each member of the music group is given pieces to work on and a time
schedule. Beside rehearsal time in a church once a week, much of the practicing is done at home. If we
haven't done a lot of practice, our conductor would know. Anybody who read the book: "Battle Hymns of
the Tiger Mother" by Chinese-American author Amy Chua would come to the same conclusion. Ms.
Chua as a mother pushed her older daughter into practicing piano everyday. Many of us expect the
teacher to do all the teaching and we would sit in class and absorb info like a sponge. In actual fact,
polyglots like Tim Donner & Moses McCormick would go out of their way to interact with natives in
order to pick up foreign languages.

A few months ago exchanged messages with someone living in Mainland China online who spoke 5
languages including English, French, Spanish, Cantonese & Mandarin. The topic was acquiring Mandarin
as a Cantonese-speaker. Basically, the 2 languages share the same Chinese characters besides a few
add-on characters for Cantonese. The difficulty is the pronunciation. The man in China was telling me
that it took him only 2 months to become fluent in Mandarin as a Cantonese native. However, I know 1
person who enrolled in Mandarin class and quit after 6 months. He was not able to progress beyond 你
好 & 谢谢, the Mandarin equivalent of bonjour & merci. Why would 1 man find it easy to pick up
Mandarin while another with the same background find it next to impossible? Is it getting enough
exposure to the language like talking to native-speakers? TV & radio broadcasts? Or does 1 man have
more abilities to acquire languages?

Edited by shk00design on 28 August 2014 at 2:03am

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kujichagulia
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 Message 5 of 15
27 August 2014 at 7:54am | IP Logged 
rdearman wrote:
I've read extensively on habits and willpower. One thing I know is "Habit trumps Willpower" unless you are really focused on overcoming the habit. In addition willpower has been shown in some studies to be a limited resource (although not all psychologists agree) and consistent exercise of willpower is tiring. You can increase your willpower, and train it but a habit is something which is automatic and requires no focus or effort of will.

Sounds like a very nice and helpful article I read before and still refer to from time to time. :)
2 persons have voted this message useful



AlexTG
Diglot
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 Message 6 of 15
27 August 2014 at 8:32am | IP Logged 
The Destination vs The Journey
Many failed language learners fail because they were too destination focused. They
spend some time moving slowly but steadily towards their destination, which is years
away, and then say to themselves, "Arg I'm still not there, this is hopeless I'll never
make it!" and give up.

Others just go round in circles learning the same thing over and over again, constantly
doing beginners courses, too scared to move on to native materials. They're stuck in a
journey without a destination.

To successfully learn a language you need to embrace the journey but make sure it's
leading somewhere.


Edited by AlexTG on 27 August 2014 at 8:50am

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Vos
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 Message 7 of 15
27 August 2014 at 2:18pm | IP Logged 
Very interesting topic and one I've done a bit of reading and work on whilst at uni.

Mindset is undoubtedly a very important aspect in language learning and any kind of learning for that matter.
The outlook and views with which one attempts to do or does something will ultimately affect how succesful they
are in that endeavour.

For example I spent 9 months studying advanced high school mathematics via correspondence whilst at uni as I
hadn't done it in high school and needed it for my degree. I absolutely hated doing that course and as such I
struggled with it for 2 to 3 hours daily for 9 months, and although I managed to get the required mark (don't ask
me how), I'm pretty certain that if you were to present me any one of the questions from the course right now, I
wouldn't have any idea how to answer it, as as soon as I'd completed the final exam and had received my grade,
it became no longer relevant and my brain got rid of it. Now if I had enjoyed doing that course and had a better
mindset, I'm sure I would have retained that knowledge a hell of a lot better, and also it wouldn't have taken as
long to complete in the first place.

Einstein talked about the phenomena of when you reach that place where you're so involved in your work,
because it utterly captivates and enthrals you, that tiredness vanishes and time becomes meaningless, as you
simply fail to notice its passing and you’re able to work for hours on end without succumbing to fatigue or
lethargy. Now this is cleary someone who so profoundly loves what they're learning and doing, that nothing
becomes unachievable, indeed achieving something, like learning a language, really isn't of any great concern
whilst in that state, it isn't the driving force of that enthusiasm and sharp intense focus, but rather a guiding
voice in the background. This to me seems to be a point of great importance, as AlexTG mentioned above.
Loving the process means that the goal or destination isn’t the primary source of motivation, but merely a
guiding hand, a reminder of where, how and why we started, and what truly motivates is simply being engaged
with your interest. This lack of focusing on the end goal and letting it take a guiding backseat role, and simply
enjoying every moment (or at least most of the moments) of the journey, ultimately means that you will have a
very high level of (personal) success (and ultimately fulfillment) in what you do.

I rather like that truth, it's very zen at its heart; to achieve one's goals, one must put them aside, and take
pleasure in the process.

It is true though that we all begin (I imagine) with some kind of general goal (I’m going to learn to dance bachata,
I’m going to learn to cook, I’m going to learn to...), and that is what initially motivates us to do anything (ok,
maybe we begin with curiosity, which then leads into a goal if we feel it’s for us). Then as we begin to create a
routine and good habits of engaging with that interest form, the actual engaging with the interest becomes the
primary source of motivation (as engaging is now enjoyable), with the end goal losing its importance as the
primary source of motivation, yet still playing a guiding role. Like people who say I’m going to pick up soccer (the
interest) to get fit (the goal). Initially it’s the getting fit which pushes them to get out of bed and go and play, but
eventually as they grow to enjoy the game and love playing it, getting fit becomes an afterthought, a beneficial
byproduct by simply doing what they enjoy.

Ok I feel I've gone out on some tangant here and have just woken up to realise I'm merely thinking out loud now.
But good, curiosity, initial goal, the formation of good habits and the evolution of those habits into an enjoyable
hobby, seems to be a process that many of us (perhaps all of us) take and go through. And if we stick with that
newly formed interest and continue to engage with it, it will lead to personal success in and the acquiring of a
new skill, and more importantly, the finding of something which we very much enjoy, and which brings meaning
and fulfillment to our days.
3 persons have voted this message useful



sctroyenne
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 Message 8 of 15
27 August 2014 at 5:44pm | IP Logged 
Vos wrote:

Einstein talked about the phenomena of when you reach that place where you're so
involved in your work,
because it utterly captivates and enthrals you, that tiredness vanishes and time
becomes meaningless, as you
simply fail to notice its passing and you’re able to work for hours on end without
succumbing to fatigue or
lethargy. Now this is cleary someone who so profoundly loves what they're learning and
doing, that nothing
becomes unachievable, indeed achieving something, like learning a language, really
isn't of any great concern
whilst in that state, it isn't the driving force of that enthusiasm and sharp intense
focus, but rather a guiding
voice in the background. This to me seems to be a point of great importance, as AlexTG
mentioned above.


This is what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes as "Flow" in his book of the same name -
a state of hyperfocus and true enjoyment while working on a project or completing a
task.

A quick summary of the conditions of Flow from
Wikipedia:

Quote:

  • One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress.
    This adds direction and structure to the task.

  • The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person
    negotiate any changing demands and allows them to adjust their performance to maintain
    the flow state.

  • One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand
    and their own perceived skills. One must have confidence in one's ability to complete
    the task at hand.


While working or studying in a "flow" state you lose your perception of time and you
can do higher quality work for longer since you're not stressed and your attention
isn't wandering. It explains how people can "lose themselves" in deep study or
practice.


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