Motivation, memory & the mind: The psychology of learning a language

Motivation, memory & the mind: The psychology of learning a language

What does it take to learn a foreign language? At first glance, it might seem straightforward: with hard work, consistent study, and lots of time, you’ll eventually master the complexities of another tongue. However, in terms of psychology, it’s not so simple.

There are many psychological factors—such as your reasons for learning the language, as well as the methods you use to learn new words—that can drastically affect the language-learning process. Additionally, learning a language confers several practical and cognitive benefits that you might not expect. Here, we’ll take a look at the underlying psychology of language learning by examining the three Ms of foreign languages: motivation, memory, and the mind.

Why falling in love is the best way to learn

It’s no secret that you need to be motivated to learn a language: without motivation, you’ll never find the drive to go to class or pick up your course book. But motivation comes in many different forms. For example, if you’re studying Japanese, you may be motivated to learn the language because you love anime and want to experience it in its original language. Alternatively, you may be motivated because your job is offering a big raise to employees who can communicate with Japanese clients in their mother tongue.

These two examples point out an important distinction between two types of motivation.

Intrinsic motivation comes from within; it’s borne out of personal interest (such as loving anime).

Extrinsic motivation comes from outside; it’s a response to our desire to achieve some sort of unrelated goal (such as getting a raise at work).

As it turns out, intrinsic motivation is the much more powerful of the two: when we’re genuinely interested in learning a language for the sake of learning it, we learn faster and more efficiently.

This is why falling in love with a foreign language speaker is such a great way to become fluent: what could be a stronger intrinsic motivator than communicating with your beloved?

This distinction also explains why language classes often produce lacklustre results. If students are forced to learn a language that doesn’t interest them solely for the sake of passing a test, they are operating entirely on extrinsic motivation, and are unlikely to retain any real language skills.

Intrinsic motivation

Maximising your ability to remember

If we could flawlessly memorise everything we see after looking at it only once, learning a foreign language would be a much faster and easier process. Unfortunately, we still haven’t figured out how to make our memories perfect. But there are some measures we can take to optimise our ability to remember words and phrases, and speed up the language-learning process as much as possible.

Probably the best-known memory strategy in the language-learning world is spaced repetition, which has become something of a buzzword among foreign language learners. Spaced repetition refers to the presentation of vocabulary items throughout long-term intervals. This has been proven to help us remember vocabulary much more robustly than cramming words into a short period of time.

Another simple and actionable way to improve our retention of words is to take advantage of what is known as context-dependent learning. When we remember a given piece of information, our brains also store a lot of extraneous information—such as our environment and surroundings when the memory was formed.

Have you ever had the experience where you remember a certain word or phrase because you can visualise where it was located on the page of your course book? This is because of context-dependent learning: your brain stored irrelevant information (the word’s location on the page), and recalling that information helped you remember the word.

Keep your language-learning context as consistent as possible to maximise the rate at which you retrieve and consolidate memories.

The take-home point here is that you should keep your language-learning context as consistent as possible to maximise the rate at which you retrieve and consolidate memories. For instance, if you’re studying Spanish vocabulary, do so (to the extent that you can) in the same place, at the same time of day, and with the same materials.

How bilingualism benefits your brain

Learning a foreign language allows us to connect with an entirely new population of people and better understand a different culture. It’s also undeniably chic to be able to bust out a different language at a moment’s notice. But in addition to communicating with and impressing those around you, there are some surprising ways that learning another language improves your mind.

We’ve established that memory is an important part of language learning. It should come as no surprise, then, that bilinguals have been shown to have a greater memory capacity than monolinguals. Knowing two (or more) sets of vocabulary, then, expands our ability to remember things in general.

Other studies comparing bilinguals and monolinguals have also shown that bilinguals are better at inhibiting distractions, and show enhanced multitasking skills.

This makes sense when you think about what it means to speak in a foreign tongue: not only do you have to use the foreign language, but you have to inhibit your native language. Therefore, whenever you speak a foreign language (and thus inhibit your mother tongue), you’re prepping your brain to inhibit other distractions, which makes you more efficient in your everyday life.

Finally, the brain-boosting properties of bilingualism can even protect us against neurodegenerative diseases that often appear later in life. Indeed, bilinguals have been shown to have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s than monolinguals. This suggests that learning another language does for your mind what exercise does for your body, enabling you to retain your language skills into old age.

So, in the grand scheme of things, what does this mean for language learners? Well, first, if you’re motivated to learn a language, that’s the first step: congratulations! Next, you’ve just got to arm yourself with memory-improving strategies, like keeping a consistent study space or incorporating spaced repetition software into your language-learning regimen. Then, you’ll be well on your way to fluency -- allowing you to not only speak in another tongue, but also to improve your multitasking skills and say “no” to wasting time by scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed.

What’s your favourite way to get motivated? Got any great memory strategies to share? Have you noticed you’re less distracted after learning a language? Let us know on Twitter or Facebook!