The Psychology of Language Learning

Develop your Inner Game

Learning a language is difficult. As a language teacher and multilingual, I am all too familiar with the fear, frustration, insecurity, and cultural barriers. Yet, on the other side of the coin, there is pride, achievement, joy, connection, and belonging. The inevitable ups and downs are inherent in any journey towards mastery. There are tons of grammar books, numerous language learning apps, and several teaching methodologies; but not enough attention is being paid to the psychology of language learning. In his book The Inner Game of Tennis, Timothy Gallwey writes about the importance of beginners and advanced players alike to focus on the psychological aspects of the sport. He makes a distinction between technical prowess, which he calls the outer game, and psychological fortitude, the inner game. In language learning, the outer game is the knowledge of the language and culture—grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, social norms, social expectations, gestures, eye contact, conversational style, and so forth. The inner game is concerned with confidence, beliefs, identity, emotions, self-knowledge, and resilience. It is crucial to focus on both parts—the outer and inner game—to facilitate learning. One is not better than the other.

The psychology of language learning encompasses several different but interrelated elements. It is multifaceted and impossible to capture completely in a model. Each component should be maximized or minimized to help learners achieve their language potential. What this model tries to achieve is not completeness but usefulness.

What is confidence? Do you believe in yourself? Do you possess a fixed or growth mindset? Do you have high or low self-esteem? Is it possible to increase your confidence? Do you sometimes stop believing in yourself?

Confidence is an all-inclusive term to describe various traits such as competence, self-belief, and self-esteem. Competence is highly context dependent. The more skilled people are in a specific domain, the more confidence they when performing that skill. Self-belief is developing a growth mindset and trusting one’s ability to learn and adapt in uncertain or uncomfortable situations. Self-esteem can mean having faith in one’s skillset or one’s value as a person. Given the second meaning, self-esteem is fragile and unstable, a hungry beast with a voracious appetite. To increase their level of confidence, learners should focus on all three areas. 

Are your beliefs based on logic or assumptions? What are your beliefs about the language learning process? Do you think that you should automatically improve if you put in the time and effort? What’s your relationship with failure? Are your beliefs holding you back from progress and growth? 

The exact relationship between beliefs and behavior is not precisely understood in psychology, but a very practical model to change irrational beliefs based on assumptions exists in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In the not so distant past, psychologists and therapists primarily adopted a Freudian model—exploring the past to understand hidden associations—but in recent years, CBT has become increasingly mainstream. The ABC model explains that an activating event generates a set of beliefs which in turn triggers a series of consequences. To change their action, cognition, and feelings, individuals need to examine and confront their self-sabotaging attitudes, assumptions, desires, emotions, thoughts, and beliefs. Learners should replace negative beliefs with adaptive, constructive, self-helping, rational, and emphatic thinking patterns. One of my favorite thinkers, the philosopher king Marcus Aurelius, wrote that “very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.” 

Are you able to fit into different social groups? Can you adjust your identity? Or do you feel that your identity is completely fixed? Are you able to express who you are in a different language? How do you feel when you can’t?

Identity relates to recognition, affiliation to a social group, and the desire for safety and security. Identity plays on people’s need to belong. Since language is a tool for communication, the importance of the social environment cannot be underestimated. Each social interaction contains power differentials and identity negotiation. Identity negotiation occurs when individuals (targets) establish an agreement with other people (perceivers) on personal identity, social role, and group membership. In the initial stages of interaction, there is often a difference between how a perceiver views a target and how the target views himself or herself, creating conflict points that must be negotiated to create interpersonal harmony. Communication in a second language and power differences make this identity negotiation process lengthier and more strenuous. Speaking to native speakers can be daunting. They are easily able to overpower the conversation, and dynamics in the interaction, purely because they can communicate better in the at language.   

Language is such an important tool for communicating and constructing our identity. When students are unable to reveal who they really are, naturally, they feel inferior and anxious. Any skill, especially for beginners, should be practiced in a safe and supportive environment. Polyglots—individuals competent in several languages—often describe how their identities change depending on the language they use. With each language, you construct a new self.

What’s your relationship with fear? Do you freezer confront or escape? How do you deal with stress and pressure? What about other emotions such as nervousness, self-doubt, anxiety, and envy?

Learning is not a straight path but an inherently messy journey. There will be periods of extreme bliss followed by moments of total despair. There will be times when fear transforms you into a wallflower. There will be times when self-doubt makes you question the meaning of it all. And there will be times when anxiety escorts you back home. To overcome all this negativity, you can summon three companions: mindfulness, resilience, and self-compassion. Mindfulness refers to a nonjudgemental awareness of the present. The key is to let thoughts and feelings come and go, respecting their presence but not letting them consume you. Students should trust the learning process amid the anxiety, fear, and self-doubt. 

Mistakes & Judgement
Do you want to be perfect? Do you judge yourself very harshly? Do you feel stupid when you make mistakes? Is perfect holding you back from good enough? Do you dwell on past mistakes? 

Mistakes and misunderstandings are a natural part of the learning process. On one end of the spectrum, people are perfectionists who view accuracy as a cardinal virtue. They fear judgment and feel deep shame for their personal inadequacy. Mistakes chip away at their self-worth, causing procrastination, paralysis, or even worse, surrender. On the other end of the spectrum, people focus entirely on speed, valuing quantity over quality. They show little improvement overtime because correcting mistakes takes energy and conscious effort. Achieving a balance (fast and accurate) is the winning combination. The antidote to negativity—mindfulness, resilience, self-compassion—equally applies to debilitating self-judgment.

Positivity & Self-compassion
Are you an optimistic or pessimistic person? Do you mostly focus on the positive or the negative aspects of life? How’s your relationship with yourself? Do you easily forgive yourself for mistakes? 

People perceive the world asymmetrically depending on where they direct their attention. In other words, people who focus more on the negative aspects tend to be more pessimistic; and those who tend to look on the bright side experience more positive emotions. Moreover, people generally suffer from a negativity bias in which negative moments are encoded more strongly than positive events of the same magnitude. Therefore, positivity—seeing the glass as half full instead of half empty—requires a lot of effort because it goes against our natural inclinations. According to Frederickson’s broaden-and-build theory, positive emotions broaden people’s thought-action range (play, explore, expand, savor) whereas negative emotions narrow the thought-action repertoire (escape, attack, expel). Positivity literally broadens the world and builds enduring personal resources such as health, knowledge, resilience, social support. Self-criticism and low self-worth get in the way of a healthy relationship with oneself. Students need to practice kindness and compassionately accept their imperfections and stop judging or evaluating themselves.

How well do you know yourself? Do you know your strengths and weaknesses? Do you know your preferred learning style? Do you learn best when you’re alone, with another person, with a group, or in a class (offline or online)? Do you understand your personal productivity? When are your energy levels the highest? Do you think about thinking? 

Modus Operandi in Latin means a habitual pattern of behavior or a particular way of doing something. Most people have a general understanding of who they are but very few can clearly articulate their specific tendencies, habits, beliefs, insecurities, emotions, energy levels, strengths, and weaknesses. Analyzing yourself and how you behave in different relationships and social groups is vital because the self doesn’t exist in a vacuum. A worthwhile intellectual exercise is spending some time writing a personal Modus Operandi and continuously updating this document over time. At the same time, there’s no way to completely capture a person on a piece of paper and categorization reduces complexity, which can lead to pigeonholing. Nonetheless, learning is more effective with continuous self-reflection. 

How do you deal with failure, obstacles, and defeat? Do you give up before trying your best? How do you deal with a lack of progress or growth? Do you get discouraged or do you continue trying? 

Personal resilience is defined as the capacity to develop and survive in the face of adversity. Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, wittingly said that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Change can certainly be added to that list. Change is certain. It will happen. Whether change is an opportunity for growth, or a misfortune depends on a person’s mindset. A person with a fragile mindset treats failure and obstacles as unrecoverable disasters and spirals into negativity. A person with a robust mindset acknowledges the distress and bounces back from hardship. Obstacles and failures are an inescapable part of life. The question is how you deal with them.

Further Reading

  • The Inner Game of Tennis, Timothy Gallwey (1974)