Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho
It’s time to talk. After thirteen weeks the ‘I’m new here’ excuse is starting to wear thin, and I am beginning to understand why Schmidt described his silent period as “maddening”. It’s time I opened my mouth and said something, but there’s a problem: I’m afraid to.
My only consolation is that I’m not the only one. It’s taken for granted in language teaching literature that learners experience some degree of nervousness when speaking in the L2, and for some researchers, “anxiety is quite possibly the affective factor that most pervasively obstructs the learning process” (Arnold & Brown, 1999, p8). The idea of anxiety as a barrier to learning is probably best known to most teachers in the form of Dulay and Burt’s (1977) ‘affective filter’ – a psychological barrier of nervous tension that prevents students from absorbing the target language.
Anxiety should not be misinterpreted as simple fear, however. The intriguingly-named Yerkes-Dodson law suggests that a certain amount of nervousness actually sharpens your wits and promotes better performance, a perception that has long held sway for musicians and athletes (Dörnyei, 2005). It’s only when anxiety levels reach a certain point that the affective filter really kicks in, and from then on things go downhill pretty rapidly as nerves take hold.
So if anxiety isn’t the crux of the problem, what is? The answer is mindset. In a study that is neatly summarised in this video, psychologist Carol Dweck asked children to complete a task and then praised them in one of two ways, either for their effort or for their intelligence. What happened as a result was that the children praised for their intelligence developed a ‘fixed mindset’, in which they felt they were valued for their high IQ, which they had established at a certain unchanging level. The other group, praised for effort, developed a ‘growth mindset’, characterised by an understanding of ability as something that could be developed through hard work, rather than as a fixed trait.
Dweck then presented both groups of children with a second, much harder task, and the results were quite astounding:
Maybe the most striking thing about [the fixed mindset] group was how quickly they began to denigrate their abilities and blame their intelligence for the failures, saying things like “I guess I’m not very smart,” “I never did have a good memory,” and “I’m no good at things like this.”
…What did the students in the mastery-oriented [growth mind-set] group blame? The answer, which surprised us, was that they did not blame anything. They didn’t focus on reasons for the failures. In fact, they didn’t even seem to consider themselves to be failing….
(Dweck, 2000, p. 7)
Unsurprisingly, the children in the growth mindset group outperformed their fixed mindset peers on the harder task quite dramatically. The latter responded to the difficult task by giving up, reporting that they were bored, or attempting to distract the researcher, while their growth mindset counterparts willingly persisted with the task and developed more sophisticated strategies as a result. What is remarkable is that the only difference between these two groups of children was their psychological outlook, not their age, not their motivation, not their experience and not their intelligence. Just mindset.
It’s easy to see how mindset theory translates to language learning: those with a fixed mindset are afraid to be seen as poor communicators and won’t speak for fear of losing face, while students with a growth mindset understand that their level is not fixed and is actually under their control, and will actively seek out opportunities to use the language despite the difficulties involved. Unfortunately, language learning “is a domain in which the fixed mindset may be particularly prevalent, given the widespread belief in the importance of natural talent or aptitude in successful language learning” (Mercer & Ryan, 2010, p. 444).
The challenge for me, then, is to change my mindset. And it’s a challenge that many language learners face, which means that teachers need to be able to do something about it. Growth mindsets can be fostered by:
- Praising effort over achievement, e.g. “well done, you worked really hard”, rather than “well done, you’re good at this”
- Finding ways to encourage learners to reflect on their personal progress over time, rather than comparing themselves with others at discrete moments
- Explicitly discussing beliefs about language learning and the roles of talent and effort in class, in order to emphasise the importance of the latter
- Providing students with the metacognitive strategies and autonomy to allow them to channel their language learning efforts productively (Mercer & Ryan, 2010)
Since I don’t have a teacher yet I need to change my mindset myself, by focusing on the first two points above. I’ll be documenting my efforts each day so that I have something to praise myself for, and to provide a point of reference in the coming months that will hopefully demonstrate how much progress I’ve made.
Ultimately a growth mindset is about understanding that mistakes don’t happen because you’re crap at languages, they happen because learning a language is a massive undertaking that requires tremendous time and effort, and that given that time and effort, your L2 will develop. It’s a message that most students would benefit from hearing more often.
So with that in mind, I’m off to speak some Malay!
Arnold, J., & Brown, H. D. (1999). A map of the terrain. In J. Arnold (Ed.), Affect in language learning (pp. 1–24). Cambridge: CUP.
Dörnyei, Z. (2005). The psychology of the language learner: individual differences in second language acquisition. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Dulay, H. and Burt, M. (1977). Remarks on creativity in language acquisition. In M. Burt, H. Dulay and M. Finnochiaro (Eds.), Viewpoints on English as a second language (pp. 95-126). New York: Regents.
Dweck, C.S. (2000). Self-theories: their role in motivation, personality, and development. Philadelphia, P.A.: Psychology Press.
Mercer, S., & Ryan, S. (2010). A mindset for EFL: learners’ beliefs about the role of natural talent. ELT Journal 64(4), pp. 436-444.