You can learn any language.
There, I said it.
How can I make such a bold claim, without knowing you personally?
Because I know you have thoughts.
And by using your thoughts to develop a “growth mindset,” you can absolutely learn a foreign language.
Yes, even if you’ve never learned a language before or if you think your memory isn’t the sharpest.
And for those of you who have been learning languages steadily for some time now, if this is the first you’ve heard of a growth mindset, prepare to be amazed.
I’ve taken the five main elements of a growth mindset and applied them to language learning, sharing specific actions you can take today for incredible results. Are you ready to redesign your mind?
What Is a Growth Mindset?
You might not have seen the name Carol Dweck before now, but this world-renowned Stanford University psychology professor is a bit of a celebrity in the field of motivation. She has spent decades studying why people succeed, and that research is what led to her revolutionary discovery of mindsets—which we’ll be using to succeed in learning a language.
In her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” Dweck explains that there are two contrasting mindsets people may have: fixed and growth. While this isn’t a black-and-white situation—you probably fall somewhere on a scale between the two, depending on the situation—we’re going to look at them individually to better understand each.
People with a fixed mindset are concerned with judgement, afraid of failure and cannot self-correct. They generally stick to what they’re good at so that others will view them as successful, and they think intelligence is somewhat fixed.
People with a growth mindset see value in improving and learning, love challenges, self-correct and believe in effort. They’re not afraid to make mistakes while trying something new, as they know that’s simply what’s necessary when you learn by doing. They agree you can significantly change how intelligent you are, at any point in time.
Not only will a growth mindset help you learn new skills and overcome setbacks in any area of your life, but it’s also the key to learning a foreign language, as you’ll see in the five tips below.
How to Unleash Your Mind Power: 5 Ways to Learn Any Language with a Growth Mindset
1. Change Your Inner Dialogue
Depending on where you currently fall on the fixed/growth mindset scale, acquiring a growth mindset can be a big change, and will require development. You’ll literally need to change the way you think, and I have some action items below which will help you do this.
But bear with me here, because this step is vital to learning a foreign language. Dweck writes in her book:
“The view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life.”
It’s equally true that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects how well you learn a language. So, how should you think of yourself with a growth mindset? First, no more “I can’t ~” or “I’m so bad at ~” statements. While it is important to be able to identify your weaknesses (as we’ll see in #5), the language you use to pinpoint these matters.
Then, we need to eliminate fear of failure, and furthermore, the idea of “failure” altogether. Especially in today’s society with pristine profiles, photos, websites and online portfolios plastered all over the Internet, many of us have this false idea that anything less than perfect is failure.
What you usually don’t see online is the behind the scenes—the grit, effort (and mistakes!) it took to get there. Being imperfect is not failure; it’s perfectly natural. And when you begin learning a new language, there’s a ton you won’t know. That’s because you’ve just started learning!
When there’s a lot you don’t know, you’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to feel unsure and you’re going to have questions. This is how you acquire new knowledge and abilities.
People with a growth mindset understand to their core that qualities can be cultivated; you’re not “born with it.” By putting in continual effort and following the four tips to come, you can learn a foreign language. Take your focus away from success/failure, and place it on the learning.
Here’s an example of how you might change your thoughts:
Fixed mindset: I’m so bad at Chinese; people never understand me and I can never remember the words for what I want to say!
Growth mindset: Today people had some trouble understanding me, so I’m going to work on my pronunciation with my language partner. It may be hard for me to remember words right now, but I will study with FluentU to improve over time.
I highly recommend reading “Mindset” to help you develop this type of thinking, but here are three actions you can do which will also set you on the “growth mindset” path.
Actions to change your inner thoughts:
- Create inspirational quotes: Find some relevant quotes in English (such as any of these, these or these) and translate them into your target language. If you’re not a beginner, go ahead and search for the quotes directly in your target language, skipping the translation process. Write them out by hand on notecards and post them up in your room. Put one on the bathroom mirror and read it aloud every morning and night, and bring a few more quotes (or copies) to work. Change your phone and computer backgrounds to one of these quotes. Read it again and again, and you’ll actually begin to change your thinking.
- Identify worry/fears: To help overcome any fears of “failure” or leaving your comfort zone (#2), I recommend using Dale Carnegie’s method to overcome worry from his lovely book “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.” For any situation that makes you uneasy, ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could possibly happen?” Mentally picture the worst that might happen, and write it down. Then, accept the worst (pretend that’s what has happened), and try to improve on it.
- Stop comparing: You can gain awesome motivation and tips from polyglot stars, but don’t let yourself into the comparing trap (i.e., “I’ll never be like him…,” “But she went to an immersion high school!,” etc.) Be on the lookout for comparing—especially when browsing social media or interacting with fellow language learners in your class or at language exchanges. You need to catch yourself in the act, and then change your internal dialogue. The next time you come across someone with a higher skill level in your target language, rather than compare, ask them for advice! Remember, they were once at your exact level.
2. Push Outside of Your Comfort Zone
Another big characteristic of people with a growth mindset is that they push beyond their comfort zone. Pushing beyond this zone will feel, well, uncomfortable!—but it’s necessary to gain new skills, like speaking a foreign language.
If you want something to become easy and familiar, you have to do it over and over; you can’t avoid it. Our natural hesitancy, however, is to stick to the comfortable. To remind me to watch out for this tendency, I have a quote up in my room that says:
“Choose growth over comfort.”
Any time I’m hesitant to make a phone call in French, for example, those four words remind me that being uncomfortable or nervous for the duration of a quick phone call will only help me become more at ease in the long run. The more I do it, the less of a big deal it will seem.
If you’re just starting out learning a language, you’ll soon become comfortable with the present tense, or some basic words when speaking and writing. It’s a lot easier to say “I went” than to learn and use a more accurate description such as “I fled,” “I drove,” “I set off,” “I moseyed on over,” etc. Our third action item below will help you get past this very language comfort.
Another phrase to remember is “Start before you’re ready.”
So many people unfortunately take away their own opportunities to learn by thinking they aren’t ready. “I’m not good enough for a conversation partner,” “I couldn’t understand a movie” or “I can’t order from an all-Chinese menu” are all thoughts that will prevent you from improving.
Again, it’s doing the actions that will make you “ready,” or rather, allow you to progress. The sooner you jump in and leave your comfort zone, the sooner that zone will expand to where you’ve gone.
Don’t forget that you can also push outside of your comfort zone when it comes to learning methods. Maybe you’ve been sticking to homework assigned in your language class, or to one favorite language learning app, for example. Expand your learning tools and give some new methods a try.
Actions to push your comfort zone:
- Go to a language exchange: Go to a language exchange or have a video call with a native speaker before you’re “ready.” If you’ve never done this before, now is the time. If you’re nervous, know that all of the other language learners were once in your exact shoes; they had to start somewhere. Prepare a quick intro and a few questions ahead of time, so that you have somewhere to start. Remind yourself throughout that it’s all a learning experience.
- Make calls on G+: Every two weeks, load up $5 on Google Hangouts, call a business/hotel/restaurant/university somewhere in the world where your target language is spoken and ask them some basic questions. Even if it’s your first month of language learning, you can do this! The distance and triviality of the call should make you much calmer and relaxed. Make several calls during a single session, and feel free to choose a target topic/phrases each week to focus the calls.
- Eliminate five: Choose five foreign words that you use most frequently (i.e., “good,” “bad,” “go,” etc.). For the next week, you’re not allowed to say or write these words. Instead, look up synonyms before the week begins, and carry them around with you. You could do a week of adjectives, another week of five verbs, etc. If you aren’t using your target language that frequently, feel free to extend the “ban” to several weeks or a month—though we recommend increasing your frequency too!
- Block sites: Use a free site blocker (like this Chrome extension) to block your “regular” news site and delete any news apps you might have in your native language from your devices. Replace it with a news site in your target language by adding it to your browser’s favorites bar and downloading any apps. For the next three weeks, every time you want to check the news, use the site in your target language.
- Have a weekly “hour of attack”: Keep a running list of the hardest/scariest/most confusing topics for you right now. If you were an English learner, for example, topics might include “if” clauses, “who” vs. “whom,” “take” vs. “bring” or how to ask questions. Spend one hour each week investigating these topics in-depth. (Feel free to break this into two half-hour sessions, by the way.) Start with the first topic on your list and look up various explanations of the concept (blog posts, websites, workbooks, etc.). Ask a tutor or teacher for help if it’s still unclear after referencing a variety of sources.
Then, look for usage examples in various media (podcasts, shows, FluentU clips, magazines, etc.).
While I’ve personally only used this technique with tricky grammatical topics (after all, those are often the “scary” topics we want to avoid), you can certainly adapt it for themes as well. You might explore broad themes like “home” and “weather,” or more specific topics like a current event, ordering food at a restaurant or writing an email.
3. Pursue Your Curiosities
People with a growth mindset plunge in wholeheartedly, because they have a genuine desire to know more. Perhaps the language itself is a huge curiosity for you, but more likely you can pair another interest with your target language to authentically get pulled in.
Julia Child’s account of learning to cook French cuisine in her delightful book “My Life in France” is absolutely fascinating. At the age of 37, upon moving overseas to Paris for her husband’s job, she became so curious about and interested in French cuisine that it ended up shaping the rest of her life.
It was speaking with the vendors at the local markets and with chefs at restaurants that helped her French to progress. She wanted to know more about the foods and their preparation, so she needed the language to find answers. Here are two quotes from the book that show just how strong Julia’s passion was for French cuisine:
“One of the things I loved about French cooking was the way that basic themes could be made in a seemingly infinite number of variations… I wanted to try them all, and I did. I learned how to do things professionally, like how to fix properly a piece of fish in thirteen different ways, or how to use the specialized vocabulary of the kitchen—‘petits dés’ are vegetables ‘diced quite finely’; a douille is the tin nozzle of a pastry pan that lets you squeeze a cake decoration as the icing blurps out.”
“When I wasn’t at school, I was experimenting at home, and became a bit of a Mad Scientist. I did hours of research on mayonnaise, for instance, and although no one else seemed to care about it, I thought it was utterly fascinating.”
Julia admits that she made so much mayonnaise during that phase of experimentation that she and her husband could hardly stand to eat it anymore, so she actually started dumping batches down the toilet! “What a shame,” writes Julia, “But in this way I had finally discovered a foolproof recipe, which was glory!” Clearly Julia was propelled forward by the desire to know more about French cuisine.
Some interests may align strongly with a language’s culture, but definitely don’t limit yourself to cooking in French, dancing tango in Spanish or doing taekwondo in Korean, for example.
Actions to pursue your curiosities:
- Use Google or Wikipedia to look up curiosities: Often, when I have a small curiosity to learn about something, I’ll do a quick search on Google or Wikipedia to learn a bit about it. I’m assuming you probably do the same. So for one week each month, do every single Google and Wikipedia search in your target language. For that week, you could change your Google location to a country where your target language is spoken (here’s how to do that). Or, you can change your home page to the Google domain of a country that speaks your target language (e.g., www.google.co.jp is Japan’s Google domain). Here’s a list of Google domains. On Wikipedia, the language settings are on the left-side panel.
- Start a passion project: Start a focused project exploring something you’re excited about. This is something you’d do in your free time purely out of interest and pleasure. Today, the term “passion project” is often equated with a small side business, but generating income is not what we’re aiming to do here. For a quick non-language-related example, Sarah Coyne loves national parks, sending snail mail and painting, so she began a personal project called Post for the Parks—which uniquely combines all three interests.
Here are some ideas for your project: writing a children’s book in your target language, interviewing immigrants (or natives of another country—don’t forget you can do Skype interviews too!) about a topic of your choice, making a calendar in your target language tracking an event (political, historical, current, science, etc.) or composing a song with lyrics in your target language. For more ideas, consider tweaking one of these school project ideas to involve your target language and interests.
4. Take On Challenges That Will Stretch You
A fourth quality of people with a growth mindset is that they won’t shy away from a hearty challenge. In this instance, I’m using the word “challenge” to signify an undertaking that should be quite difficult—think 48 Hour Film Project, Tough Mudder or “The Big Moment” (Anyone else remember that 90s TV show?).
So ideally there should be a hard deadline, a shorter timeline (from two days to three months), and it should feel like a sprint. It’s not something you could do all the time, such as “Study 10 minutes every day this month.” Rather, this is on top of your regular language practice time.
Make sure your challenge lines up with your learning objectives. For example, if you’re learning German in order to read original works of German philosophers, a speaking challenge clearly won’t be the best way for you to get there.
Once you’ve chosen your challenge and start date, begin telling all of your friends and family about it. This will help hold you accountable. You might even find someone who wants to do the challenge with you, which would be excellent for accountability! Share your progress throughout the challenge so you don’t lose steam.
Like the passion project, your challenges could take on many shapes and sizes (and should be interesting to you), but here are a few ideas to get you started.
Possible challenges to take on:
- 1000 Words Challenge: If you’re a total beginner, try the 1000 Words Challenge, created by Vocab Express in association with Oxford University Press. You get a free account with a simple registration (email, username, password), which lasts the duration of the 1000 Words campaign. The current languages offered in this particular platform are French, Spanish, German, Italian, Mandarin, Polish, Portuguese and Arabic. Vocab Express has organized the 1000 words by category, and it teaches you the vocab through various learn modes and tracks how much you’ve learned. You’ll have to give yourself your own deadline, though. How about three months?
- Add1Challenge: The Add1Challenge was designed specifically for language learners. The goal is to hold a 15-minute conversation with a native speaker in 90 days—even if you’re starting from zero. The challenge is for serious participants only, as you must pay 97 USD to join the community. What’s more, if you don’t submit a required video by the deadline, for example, you’ll be removed from the Facebook group—no refund. But if you’re all in, the support from the community and structure of this challenge can produce incredible results.
- Ignite presentation: Ignite—whose tagline is “Enlighten us, but make it quick”—is a type of presentation where you have 20 slides, which automatically change every 15 seconds. That means you have 5 minutes to give the presentation. For a language challenge, prepare and give an Ignite presentation in your target language about something important to you. Due to the automatic advancement of the slides, you’ll have to practice to get your timing right—so those repetitions will be great for getting comfortable in your target language. Choose a specific deadline that’s honestly challenging for you. Olivia Mitchell, who prepared her first Ignite presentation in 3 hours, shares her tips for speedy preparation here.
5. Examine Yourself and Self-correct
The final major quality of people with a growth mindset is that they regularly examine themselves and confront the truth—good or bad—to self-correct. If you don’t know what’s not working, how can you fix it?
We said earlier that you should eliminate negative language from your internal dialogue (i.e., “I can’t ~”), but positive, talent-based praise is also a slippery slope. If you repeatedly tell yourself “I’m so good at vocabulary,” a fixed mindset would want to prove that statement true, which makes it hard to admit when something needs attention. (A better praise, by the way, would be one that praises effort—not ability—such as, “I’m working so hard to learn this vocabulary. Gold star for me!”)
Since people with a growth mindset know it’s effort that produces results, and aren’t afraid to be seen as “failing,” they more accurately assess their progress, strengths and weaknesses. Regularly assessing your language-learning progress from day one will allow you to spend your study time more efficiently, working on what actually needs the most attention. This, in turn, will drastically speed you closer to your goals.
Keep in mind that you’ll want to measure both your language skills and your language-learning methods. Maybe you’ve been listening to podcasts for Japanese learners every day on your way to work, but you’re often distracted by the traffic and haven’t held on to a single phrase that was taught. Taking the time to stop and reflect on your methods will allow you to realize something needs to change—perhaps you should listen to Japanese music on the way to work instead, and listen to the podcast in the evening with a transcript in front of you, for example.
Actions to examine yourself and self-correct:
- Set specific goals: In order to examine your progress, the first step is to know where you’re headed. Sit down for 15 minutes and write down your language goals. Use this guide to set effective language-learning goals, and you can download a free goal planning sheet here made specifically for language learners by Lindsay Does Languages. The worksheet is great because in addition to your goals, it has you pinpoint exactly how you’ll measure your progress. You might end up inventing some sorts of tests so that you can track hard numbers/documentation, to see change over time. (I record a video of myself speaking unscripted in French for about 5 minutes each month as one of my ways to measure progress, for example.)
- Have monthly check-ins: Check in at least monthly. Block off 15 minutes at the end of each month by writing it in your planner or scheduling it on a calendar app. A good time to do this scheduling is right once you’ve finished your goal setting; go ahead and pencil them in for the next 6 to 12 months. When you sit down, look at what you’ve tracked over the previous month. Ask yourself basic questions: “What went well? What didn’t go well? Are my methods effective?” Celebrate your progress and make a plan of attack that adjusts your methods and hones in on your weakest skills.
- Keep a color calendar: Last spring, I used four different colored highlighters to track how much time I was spending on the four skills—speaking, reading, writing and listening—in my paper planner. When I went to a language exchange, I colored in that time slot with the color for speaking. When I watched a movie in French, I colored in listening. At the end of each week I would look back and easily see how I had spent my time, and plan for the next week accordingly. I tracked all four skills because I wanted to learn all four, and I used paper because I prefer it, but you might want to track something else or use a slightly different system. Note that time doesn’t necessarily equal progress in that skill, but this is a nice basic way to get you started self-examining.
- Ask for feedback: Tell your private tutor/classroom teacher/language exchange partner that you’d like to know the top three areas where you need the most work. Give them some notice so that your teacher/tutor/partner can pay attention during the next couple of class periods/sessions to give you accurate feedback. This will help you fix mistakes much quicker because they’ll be clearly identified for you!
By developing these five qualities of a growth mindset, you can nurture thoughts that will not only help you learn any language—but change your entire life.
Rebecca Thering is a writer, editor and English teacher who has lived abroad in Spain, South Korea and France. Valuing education and things that aren’t things, she inspires and helps others by blogging about her experiences abroad, cultural insights and self-improvement pursuits at Rebe With a Clause.
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