Do you want to know the ultimate tool for learning a new language?
It’s a simple, 7-letter word.
Can you guess what it is?
It fuels and motivates you. It’s the very key to conquering any language.
I’m talking about your mindset.
It’s the most powerful force in learning. It can turn night into day and day into night. It’s the secret why polyglots acquire new tongues as if by magic. It’s also the culprit behind many language learning failures. Ever wonder why some people never pick up a language even if you offer them all the tools and resources in the world?
The whole game is all about mindsets. It’s all about what goes on inside your head. But what are mindsets? And why are they so powerful?
That’s exactly what we’ll talk about next. Then, later, we’ll dive into 5 of the most potent language learning mindsets exploited by the greatest language learners today.
What’s a Mindset?
A mindset is a way of thinking.
Mindsets are powerful because they’re our “stubborn beliefs” about something. They guide our thoughts and determine our actions. For example, if you believe that you’re the hottest guy in the room, you’ll act accordingly—swaggering like a million bucks—even if nobody notices. Or, if you believe you’re bad at sports, you’ll be oblivious to the fact that you happen to be a great bowler or rower.
It’s because your mindset is your reality. Your truth. In many ways, a mindset is “set.” It resists challenges to the contrary. It would take a ton of evidence to make you abandon a well-entrenched belief.
For example, if you believe that you’re no good at math, you’ll always be on the lookout for experiences (a.k.a. evidence) that prove exactly that. On the other hand, you’d discount, overlook and even deny experiences to the contrary. You’d still believe that you’re terrible with numbers even when in standardized tests it was proven that you’re in the 95th percentile (meaning that you’re better than 95% of all those who took the same test).
You’d also probably not notice that you’re doing mental math all the time and are actually quite proficient at it.
Mindsets are that important. They determine what we think and how we act.
When Lincoln freed the slaves, it was born out of the belief that “all men are created equal” or, arguably, his set determination to end the Civil War. When Tom chases Jerry into a hole, it’s because of a mindset.
And guess what? The speed with which you acquire a second language, or if you acquire it at all, hinges on what specific mindsets are rattling in your head.
Why Is It Important to Have the Right Mindset for Language Learning?
It’s the “Map to the Mine”
There are a million-and-one things you can do in order to learn a language. There are a thousand-and-one tools available online that can take you to where you want to go.
You can enroll in a language class or you can fly off to the country of your target language. You can create flashcards, sign up for online courses, download apps, read books, download free e-books, listen to audiobooks, track down podcasts and watch videos and movies.
Some of these will work for you, others won’t.
Now, out of the myriad choices, how will you navigate the road to language acquisition? How will you take your pick?
Easy. Your mindset does the choosing.
If you believe learning a new language costs an arm and a leg, then you’ll go for those expensive and prestigious courses. If you believe that learning a new language takes years and a serious commitment of time, then you’ll gravitate to those more long-term courses often taking place inside the classroom.
If you believe second language learning is only for the brightest fellas, you may not even start or try.
Like a map, your language learning mindsets will determine what route you’re gonna take, how far you’ll go or if you’re even gonna take the journey in the first place. It’s very important that you have the correct map to guide you through the maze that is language learning.
Your language learning mindsets won’t always lead you to the promised land. Sometimes, they’ll lead you astray. Sometimes they’ll lead you around in circles, into dark alleys and dead ends. So if you’re learning French and getting nowhere in spite your best efforts, it may be time to take a clear accounting of your mindsets. Because they may be the very things that are tripping you up.
It’s for the Rainy Days
Language learning is an adventure. There will be days when it seems like you’re unstoppable in your German studies. There are nights when Spanish verb conjugation is a breeze or when French pronunciation feels like ABC.
But then again, there are those times when nothing seems to be working and, no matter what you do, you see no improvement in your Mandarin efforts. You seem to have hit a plateau and you feel like banging your head against the Great Wall of China. “Why did they have to create tonal language?” you ask.
You know what will rescue you from the pits? Right! Your language learning mindsets.
If you’ve got the right ones in your head, they’ll be in there telling you, “Hey, don’t worry ‘bout your mistakes buddy, they’re normal.”
“Why don’t you try talking to that native Chinese speaker you just met? He can teach you so much about his language.”
“Okay. It’s movie night. Wanna watch a Spanish foreign classic and hit two birds with one stone?”
You see, your “stubborn beliefs” will pull you through the difficult times. When you’d rather give up and be contented with your basic “Hola” and “Buenos días,” your mindsets will give you the strength to push on. Assuming, of course, that you’re holding onto some very useful ones.
The next section contains five of the most awesome mindsets to have when learning a language. The most successful polyglots on the planet today swear by them.
How to Learn a Foreign Language with Brainpower: 5 Winning Mindsets
1. Selfishness Can Be a Good Thing
So why do you want to learn Spanish? Why Korean? What makes Russian your choice?
The truth is, there’s no one answer to these questions. Everyone has a personal reason for learning a particular language. So, now’s the time to get a little selfish and tap into what you really want!
Perhaps an overseas promotion hinges on you picking up the country’s language. You may have met someone new, and she happens to be Italian and speaks very little English. Perhaps you’ve always fancied yourself speaking fluent French, eating and feeling at home in French restaurants. Whatever your motivation may be, it’s as valid as the next man’s.
Personal motivation is very important in language learning. That’s the reason why very little retention happens for schoolchildren who were enrolled in foreign language schools and classes by their parents—lack of personal motivation. They didn’t choose to be in that class. Their parents enrolled them thinking it would serve them well later in life. There was no personal motivation, only parental motivation.
Personal motivation is a very important factor in second language acquisition. To be an effective learner, you have to really know the purpose of why you’re putting in the hours. What’s your reason?
Remember, any reason will do as long as it makes sense for you, regardless of what other people think. Some may think it’s superficial that you’re learning Korean because of the hot chick who lives next door, but if that’s what it takes to make you “Anyong haseyo” through the night, then that’s what it takes.
Don’t be stuck on the judgment of others. Only you know what’s important for you. The best language learners always know why they’re doing things. And their reasons often come from somewhere deep within themselves, something organic that they themselves determine. It’s not thrusted on them. They’re nothing like those schoolboys who forget their lessons as soon as the examinations are over.
Like I said, this selfishness-is-okay mindset will save you. On nights when you’d rather flip on the TV and watch a sitcom in your native language, you’ll remember to stick with your learning. So always ask yourself this very important question: “Why am I doing this? What’s in it for me?”
In fact, do this exercise. Write that very question on a piece of paper and then try answering it. You don’t have to give just one answer. You may have more than one reason. The important thing is that you make your personal reason(s) crystal clear in your head. Be selfish for once, and focus on what you truly want.
When you’ve found your answer(s), you’ll have truly found something precious. You’ll have found your personal North Star that’ll guide you and light your way on those dark and cold nights. This personal motivation is key to succeeding in any major endeavor, including language learning. Watch this video to see an illustration of this concept at work.
2. Language Mistakes Won’t Kill You
This one’s a biggie.
We know that people can be divided into two camps: (1) those who try to learn a new language and (2) those who never found the time, tendency or reason for doing so.
The people who actually try to learn a language can also be divided into two camps: (1) those people who try and succeed and (2) those who try and give up after a few weeks or sessions.
This mindset right here—that language mistakes aren’t going to kill you—pretty much determines who succeeds and who bows out.
If you think you’re going to achieve fluency with a mindset that says, “obsess over the grammar and make as few mistakes as possible,” then you’re living in La-La Land. In fact, one of the most famous polyglots today, Benny Lewis, is the first one to say that mistakes are okay. One shouldn’t take them personally.
Mistakes are normal features of language acquisition. Mistakes aren’t precious. They’re a dime a dozen. The native speakers who you think never makes mistakes actually made tons of them growing up—and they still make mistakes to this day.
In fact, making mistakes has always been the way to learn something. One of the reasons why children pick up languages like a dry sponge is because they aren’t afraid to commit mistakes and make fools of themselves. A little girl could say “She eated my cookies, mommy,” without a care for the grammar police. Mommy will correct her and say “She ate, honey,” and her ego will remain intact.
Adults, on the other hand are quite fragile china pieces. After a dozen years in a classroom setting and thousands of exams, we learn that mistakes are injurious to our grades. And so we try to make the least number of them. We bring this grade-conscious mindset into adult language learning and shoot ourselves in the foot.
You have to accept that when learning a language you’re going to make mistakes. A lot. A lot of mistakes. They’re not to be avoided. They’re to be learned from. Check in with Luca Lampariello on this—he’s yet another famous polyglot and proponent of learning from mistakes.
In order to be a successful language learner, you have to be capable of learning from your mistakes. But that presupposes that you’re hard at work trying, guessing, estimating, being unsure and committing those mistakes.
So how does this mindset lead to language learning success?
For example, you’re doing Spanish verb conjugations. This is probably one of the most challenging (but also one of the most important) topics in Spanish. You better have a thick skin, otherwise those Spanish verbs will make you feel 3 inches tall.
Here’s what happens when you take mistakes seriously: At first you’ll lose steam. You put off working on verbs until later in the day. Then instead of going at it daily, you start skipping some days and start slacking in your sessions. Before long, you’ve quit. Another one bites the dust.
But if you just laugh every time you trip and don’t take yourself too seriously, everything will be a matter of time. Learning the language will really be inevitable. You’ll tame the language soon enough, and your ego won’t take a beating because of it.
Here’s what you do next time you commit a mistake. Whether it’s vocabulary-related or grammar-related, doesn’t matter. Go in front of a mirror. Then smile. Yes, smile. See that face? You’re ok, right? It’s not a matter of life and death, right? Smile and realize that you’re gonna be fine. It’s not the end of the world. You made a mistake, so what.
Smile. And then smile some more. (Okay, maybe not too much, that’s creepy.)
3. Inconsistency Kills
If mistakes don’t kill you, inconsistency will definitely leave you out to dry. It’s true what they say: Never put off for later the things that you can do right now.
Here’s the thing. The best language learners are also the most consistent ones. Their mindset is along the lines of, “I’m gonna learn German today. Just like I did yesterday. And guess what, I’m gonna learn German tomorrow too!”
You can practically measure your success by the consistency with which you go into the learning sessions. Even the best polyglots around admit that their learning becomes ineffective when they aren’t consistent. It’s because consistency translates into the number of hours you put into learning.
You won’t really learn a language if you do it only once a week. You can’t treat it like a hobby and practice only when you feel like it. No, you can’t pick it up where you left it last year. You’ve already lost last year’s lessons. You’ve got to do it daily.
Remember the kid who was enrolled in a language class and forced to study a second language? He doesn’t remember any of it now, does he? Why? Lack of consistency. It’s been years since he revisited his textbooks. He never brushed up on his vocabulary, much less added to it. He never practiced the language at home or with the people he meets. There was no consistent practice, consistent exposure and consistent improvement. So he got the grades and passed the course, but he never got the language.
So how can you build consistency? Have a daily goal that you stick to no matter what.
An example would be to set a certain number of minutes that you’ll devote to learning the language every night. Other learners decide on a set number of vocabulary words that they’ll commit to memory each day. Still others commit to a set of activities that they’ll do every day in order to practice the language.
For example, you can do SRS (spaced-repetition system) on a daily basis so those vocabulary words remain clear and fresh in your head. An app that can help you with that is Anki. It’s a free program that makes remembering anything easy.
Olly Richards (a polyglot who we’ll talk about more later in this post), has a guide out called “Make Words Stick.” It’s all about how to use electronic flashcards and spaced-repetition software more effectively for foreign language vocabulary.
Make sure that there are things that you do during the day to bring yourself closer to your ultimate goal. Consistency is the way to fluency.
4. Immersion Is the Ultimate Time Saver
When you hear a person begin a story with, “I spent a few years in X country…” remember that you’re listening to a story about learning a language. You’re listening to a story of immersion.
Immersion is the act of putting yourself at the mercy of a new language. Dedicated language learners often leave their home countries, along with their familiar traditions and customs, to go the country where native speakers of their target language live. The goal is to interact with and learn from the people there. Picking up the language in this setting is virtually unavoidable. They learn how greet, eat, work and play using the target language.
In this situation, learning really not an option. It’s either you sink or swim. Immersion indeed! The only out is to totally avoid locals and hang out among expats.
Immersion is the ultimate time saver because, in a foreign country, you don’t wait for a class to start or log into your account to start a learning session. It’s happening 24/7. It’s everywhere you go. That solves the consistency issue immediately.
The best language learners actively seek immersion experiences. They often put themselves into sink or swim situations. But immersion doesn’t necessarily mean going to other countries. In fact, the famous Brit polyglot, Olly Richards, didn’t need to go to China in order to learn Cantonese. He was in Qatar at the time.
Fortunately, technology has done a great deal to help in the immersion experience. Videos, for example, can be your best friends. They’ll teach you a language and you’ll never even have to leave your living room. For example, you’ve got FluentU, a leading provider of language learning videos, on your side.
FluentU houses a huge collection of educational videos, newscasts, interviews, movie trailers and concerts that trick your brain into thinking that you’re in a foreign country—but you’re really just lounging in your room. Plus, FluentU provides plenty of tools like interactive subtitles, multimedia flashcards and vocabulary lists. That means you can actively practice the language in all the videos you’ve been watching.
italki is a tool that provides an immersive experience by connecting eager learners with willing native speakers. You don’t have to travel far to be in the shadow of a native speaker these days. You can simply video chat him or her, perhaps while you’re having breakfast on the other side of the world.
You can even use italki to hire a private language tutor if you’re looking to invest in a more professional touch.
If you want real human contact, you still don’t need to leave your home country. Instead, go to Polyglot Club and find language partners, parties and meetups right in your own city.
Like I said, everything is deliciously served on a silver platter and presented to the language learners of today. All of these resources are available through that smartphone you’re holding or at the click of a mouse. But you won’t even notice them, much less take a bite, if your mindset tells you that immersion is all about riding a plane and going to live in a different country.
It could take you years to save up for your trip that costs thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, thousands are getting first class language lessons through FluentU, italki and Polyglot Club right this very second. I’m telling you, get on those three sites now and be part of that smart group.
5. “Doing It” Is Different from “Learning How to Do It”
This one’s another biggie because doing it and learning how to do it look like the exact same thing. But I assure you, they’re not. Here’s the difference.
When you’re doing it, you’re actually using the language. That means you’re talking and, you know, moving your jaw up and down, enunciating words and stringing together sentences. It doesn’t matter that you’re butchering the pronunciation or grammar.
But when you’re studying grammar rules, memorizing vocabulary, messing around on YouTube, listening to podcasts, reading e-books—all those moments when you aren’t applying your skills in the real world—you’re learning how to do it. The most effective learners not only know the difference, they know that doing it—actually exercising their skills—is ultimately what matters. So if that’s your mindset, how does it look in practice?
- You speak to a native even when you know you’re not fluent.
- In your attempts to construct a sentence, you throw out English words when you don’t know the other language’s equivalent.
- You open yourself to constructive criticism and ask your language partner how you’re doing.
- You laugh at your mistakes and don’t feel like a little part of you dies every time you butcher a vocabulary word or a grammar rule.
Many people don’t want to start really practicing the language until they’ve read every grammar book, mastered the pronunciation keys and memorized hundreds of vocabulary words. They hold off on writing or talking until they have all the linguistic elements down pat. These are coincidentally the very same people who are afraid of making mistakes. So they enroll in every course and get every lesson out there, but they never take their language skills for a spin.
Well, that’s like trying to learn how to swim without actually jumping in the water until you’ve read all the swimming books.
For sure, studying up on the language is necessary. But there comes a point when you just have to put down the books and start talking. How can you learn how to speak a language when you don’t even try speaking it?
Do you want to go the way of the best language learners? Then do this exercise. I want you to ask yourself this question: Have I practiced speaking or writing the language today? Ask this of yourself daily. If the answer is “no” or “not yet,” then go on the offensive and do these things:
1. Read some vocabulary words and phrases out loud. Then read them again.
2. Reach out to one of your language partners (it’s always better to have more than one) and start practicing dialogues, lines, etc.
Find a native speaker friend on those sites and do everything you can to get your mouth moving. Role play if you want, just get those learned vocabulary, grammar patterns and phrases into actual conversations. Don’t worry, native speakers are usually pretty gracious to learners of their language.
So there you go, five mindsets and their corresponding critical actions.
But the question remains: How can you have those mindsets for yourself? How do you genuinely acquire them? Here’s the brief answer: Look around.
I want you to open your eyes for evidence that the five mindsets indeed work. Ask polyglots and the most effective language learners online, search psychology and language acquisition research journals, devour articles and absorb scientific studies. Don’t just take my word for it. In the end, I bet that I’ll be telling you “I told you so.”
See for yourself. So you can believe for yourself.
Open your eyes and tell me what you find.
That’s it for now, friends. I’ll see you again soon.
Have a great, wonderful and awesome time “doing it.”
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