The Language Learning Tripod: Attitude
Today I want to talk about what I’ve call the three keys of language learning. Let’s call them the tripod, the tripod of language learning. It’s ‘A’ – Attitude, ‘T’ – Time and ‘N’ – the ability to Notice. You could also call it attentiveness, but it’s the ability to notice, which is something we develop. I’m going to do a video on each one because to me all of language learning boils down to those three letters A, T and N. So today I’m going to talk about attitude.
I think my previous video was about the difficulty that Chinese immigrants have in Canada, the difficulty they have in learning English. The study showed that after seven years a subgroup of Mandarin-speaking immigrants actually made no progress in their English after seven years or very little progress and that a group of Slavic speakers, Russian, Ukrainian, Croatian, whatever they were, made much more progress.
Now, obviously, there are reasons relating to how Mandarin is more different from English than say Slavic languages, but I think the biggest factor is attitude. So the first element of attitude I want to talk about — as usual, I haven’t scripted this out so I just ramble on here, I don’t know what is going to come first and second – is that Chinese people, in particular, have trouble coming out of their own cultural little world. They have a very strong what I would call cultural ego. They have trouble sort of achieving what I have called cultural weightlessness.
In other words, rather than thinking that they’re a Chinese person who is going to learn this foreign language but remain a Chinese person, they would be better off if they said I’m a person, some other group of people are persons, they speak another language, I can learn to speak it just as well as them. I can be part of their group, I want to be part of their group, it doesn’t matter who I am.
When I did go to learn Chinese, I wanted to be Chinese. I didn’t hang back in my English-speaking cultural world and we see this, as well, amongst let’s say English-speaking people. I find in many ways English-speaking people, by no means all and there are many, many exceptions to this, but as a general rule there is this cultural centeredness. All the world should speak English, isn’t it great that everyone speaks English and, therefore, they have trouble, some of them, many of them but certainly not all, just saying I’ll connect with a Chinese speaker or a Spanish speaker or a Russian speaker.
People from smaller countries, in some cases I would say, not always, have less of this cultural ego. Now, it’s not always true. I would say that the southern Europeans, even say if we contrast the French to the Germans, the Germans have less of this cultural ego. They’re more prepared to become a Spaniard or an Italian or something else. I know I’m going to be subject to a lot of criticism because this is the kind of thing that doesn’t apply to all people. I have met Chinese people in China who are absolutely fluent in three languages, have never left the country and were totally into learning those cultures and those languages and the same is true in France. I have met Germans and Swedes who could only speak their own language.
There are always exceptions, so maybe I shouldn’t characterize it as specific to a nationality, but the ability to elevate yourself, get above your own culture and deliberately project yourself into the new culture, the desire to want to be part of that culture and to find aspects of that culture that you enjoy, that attitude is extremely important to language learning. If you can’t find something to enjoy you may still learn it if there’s a very strong necessity, but you won’t learn it as easily as the person who has this genuine interest. Not tied to their culture of origin, but totally committed to the culture of the language that they’re trying to learn. So that is a very, very important attitude and all good learners have that cultural weightlessness. They want to pretend they’re Russian or French or Chinese or Japanese. So that’s one.
The other attitude part is determination. You have to will yourself to learn a language. A book that I often refer to by Jeffrey Schwartz called The Mind and the Brain talks about determination, for example, with patients who have obsessive-compulsive disorder. Rather than taking drugs, he can persuade them that there is activity in their brain, networks in their brain that are causing them to behave in a certain way and they can actually break that. Well, similarly, with language learning if you are very determined to learn, that helps you create the necessary neuro networks to learn the language.
Another aspect of attitude is the confidence that you’re going to succeed, as I’ve often said. If you’re trying to climb a mountain and you don’t think you can reach the peak, you have no idea where the peak is, you’re not likely going to get there. You’re going to give up halfway. People who are confident they can achieve their goal, and that’s very often the case with people who have learnt more than one language, they’re going to do better.
So cultural weightlessness, willpower and confidence, those are all parts of the attitude you have to have. Part of their cultural weightlessness is a liking for that language. You have to have an attitude that you’re going to enjoy the activity and anything you’re enjoying you’re going to do better at. I don’t know what I’ve left out, but I think attitude is 70% of the battle.
So the biggest reason why these Chinese immigrants in Canada have difficulty relates to attitude. They don’t think they can do it. In many cases they’re not so interested. They would almost like to learn the language without the people because they’re not so comfortable interacting with say Canadians, but I’m going to be spending some time with different groups of Chinese immigrants over the next few weeks here and I want to learn more about their attitudes. I’m going to ask them. I’m giving a speech in front of a group of Chinese immigrants and I’m going to get three or four of them up on stage and ask them how they relate to English. What are their feelings about English, what are their feelings about communicating with people in Canada in English, what are their feelings about their own learning experience to try to get at that attitude because I think attitude is absolutely number one.
Another thing that’s very important in terms of attitude is, in my view, not to be a perfectionist, not to get frustrated, not to expect to remember anything and to accept the fact that at first everything is very foggy, whatever you learn you forget, you stumble when you try to speak and you don’t understand no matter how many times you listen. None of this should bother you, it’s part of the process.
Attitude wise I think the thought that if you are exposing yourself to the language, if you are listening and reading, putting in the effort, you are going to improve. The brain learns all the time. The brain learns all the time. There are things that we can do to help it learn, but it learns all the time so you need to have that confidence that you are learning and not to get frustrated. The brain learns all the time, but it learns slowly and so we have to be patient with the brain. The brain takes it time to learn.
So all of those attitudinal things, cultural weightlessness, you know many people resist the language. How many times do I hear people say well, why do they say it that way in that language or people who will deliberately translate sayings or expressions from their own language. They think it’s clever to translate say this into English or if it’s an English expression translate it into French, but you have to leave that behind. You have to leave your own language behind. You have to imitate the cultural behavior of this other group. The further away you get from your own language the better. I mean you need the language for the dictionary and stuff like that.
All of these attitudinal things, that is like 70% of the battle. Cultural weightlessness, confidence, not allowing yourself to be frustrated, not resisting the language, not asking a bunch of questions all the time, why do they say it this way, why do they say it that way and trusting your brain. The brain will learn if you give it enough time and exposure, but recognizing that the brain learns slowly and, of course, enjoying the course.
The three feet of the tripod are attitude, time and noticing, so in my next video I will talk about time. How do we find the time and we need a lot of time. So thanks for listening, bye for now.