How to Enjoy Studying a New Language has been transcribed from Steve’s YouTube channel. You can download the audio and study the transcript as a lesson at LingQ.

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. You may know that I was in France for 10 days and I want to talk a little bit about happiness and language learning because these are thoughts that came to me as a result of some of the reading I did while I was in France. I read this book here, which is a book about Francois Premier, called Francois Premier et la Renaissance. It talks about the Renaissance period in France and the life of Francois Premier, who was a very romantic and warlike king.

I’m only a third of the way through the book at this point, so I have lots to learn, but it is, of course, very enjoyable to read about that period of France, having visited some of the chateaus along the ______. He was responsible, I think, for building ______ and adding to some of the others. I think he was responsible for making the Louvre or at least the Chateau in Paris (the Chateau de Louvre) what it is today. So that’s fun. That’s happiness, reading, in this case in a foreign language, about the history of the country that you’re visiting.

Getting further along on the subject of happiness, I also picked up this book. I went to my old school at _______. I went to their bookstore and there was this little book L’Économie du Bonheur, The Economics of Happiness, so I read through that. It was very interesting and it made reference to a number of people who wrote about happiness, measuring happiness and the attempt now to measure happiness rather than just measuring the GNP of countries and so forth and a name that came up quite often in his book was that of Daniel Kahneman, who is the winner of a Nobel Prize. So when I was in London I bought this book, which is called Thinking, Fast and Slow.

That is a very, very interesting book. I very much suggest that you read it. It’s not exciting. It’s not fun to read like Francois Premier and I’m not sure I fully understand it, but what it says, from what I can tell, is that we have sort of two ways of thinking, the fast way and the slow way. The fast way is our intuitive way of thinking. It’s very much influenced by our experience, I guess, patterns that we’ve built up in our minds, prejudices perhaps, we jump to conclusions and he demonstrates just how irrational so much of our thinking is.

You’d have to read the book to see all the different examples, but if we describe someone as being energetic, enthusiastic and stubborn, we have a better impression of that person than if we say energetic, enthusiastic, stubborn and envious. We may still think that person is a good person because we started out with positive terms. If we turn it around and we begin with envious and stubborn, then the enthusiastic and energetic doesn’t seem to overcome those first attributes that we gave the person.

That’s just one example that comes from memory. There were a number of others in that our tendency is to want to use the easy way of thinking, what he calls ‘cognitive ease’. If we’re asked a complicated question, we’ll substitute that for a simple question we can easily answer. That is our quick thinking. Our slow thinking is more complicated. It’s a furrowed brow. It’s trying to make complicated calculations. If we are driving a car, if we’re multitasking, it’s very easy to combine the sort of easy-thinking tasks with some other activity. However, if we had to calculate 37 by 43, we can’t make that calculation in our head, while driving a car for example. Anything that we are already prepared for or conditioned to respond to, those easy cognitive things, we can do those while we’re driving a car.

He talks also about how, typically, people are far too overconfident about their ability to achieve projects, deliver any major project on budget and on time, all of these things, because we’re always optimistic. We’re always overconfident. We don’t really analyze all of the facts at hand. We tend to be carried away with the sort of prejudices that we have going in, our desire to succeed, our overconfidence and so forth.

So it’s quite an interesting book. I don’t do it justice here, I have to read it again to fully understand it, but he also talks about happiness and how, for example, we have a tendency to place greater emphasis on the peaks of happiness or suffering rather than the duration. We tend to forget that we were in pain for 10 minutes, but the peaks were low. Whereas, if we had a very high level of pain for a very short period of time that’s worse. The same is true in reverse. We tend to remember the sort of peaks of enjoyment rather than the longer period of happiness. So he questions, to some extent, all these different evaluations of happiness, how valid they are and so forth, but what I take out of all of this is the following.

How to Enjoy Studying

First of all, insofar as language learning is concerned, the more I can do with my quick learning, pre-prepared patterns that are already created in my mind, easy cognitive, the more things that I do that way the better off I am and the more I enjoy my language learning. We had someone at our forum at LingQ come on because at LingQ every time one of our users goes to a dictionary, whichever dictionary and selects a meaning for a word from Spanish into English, that’s cashed in the system. Not all of those hints are necessarily appropriate and they don’t provide you information on the tense or the conjugations and so forth, so someone was saying this is not valid. We need to have all the conjugations there. We need to have this, that and the other.

I say well, not for me. Really, I just want to focus on the content that I’m reading and listening to. So I get a suggestion of roughly what the word means and then I try to piece it together from the context. That’s really all I want. I don’t want to bother myself with all the conjugations and stuff. I know from experience that I tend to forget that stuff pretty quickly, so I’d rather just focus on the easy cognitive things. Okay, ‘roughly’ means that; therefore, in this content it seems to mean this. So I’m kind of getting some sense out of the context without having to think about it too much.

If I listen to it, I can listen to it while I’m doing the dishes. I don’t have to focus on trying to remember anything, it’s just easy cognitive stuff. When I’m speaking the language, I just go to that easy cognitive, whatever reflex I have built up in there. Be it right, be it wrong, that’s what I go with. I don’t worry too much about trying to remember the rules, is this correct or not correct? I find if we can develop our knowledge of the language, as Krashen says through massive listening and reading, we develop these patterns. We develop sort of these intuitive reactions, some of which are right, some of which are wrong.

Kahneman in his book makes the point that a lot of our intuitive views on things are false, wrong or distorted. It doesn’t matter. We need these. We operate on the basis of these intuitive reactions, this quick thinking we have. I think the same is true of language. We need to develop that side of it. Personally, the more I rely on the slow think, work it through, analyze and stuff, the less enjoyment I have in my language learning and I think the less well I speak. So that’s one thing that comes out of it.

The other thing he mentions is that when we look at what makes us happy, one of the things is the ability to focus on the moment we are in. We can’t be happy if we’re studying French and we think we should be studying Korean. We have to totally savor the moment, savor the language that we are studying. If we would rather be out dancing, then we should be out dancing. The idea that you savor the moment you’re in is important to achieving happiness and I think the same is true in language learning. You have to, basically, commit yourself to the task at hand and enjoy the task at hand, derive pleasure from the task at hand rather than thinking that you’re doing something that’s going to bring you some benefits later on. It’s unpleasant, it’s hard work and you’re struggling and stuff, but you’re hoping that somehow this is going to get you to where you want to be.

I’ve found that if the approach to language learning is this is fun, I’m enjoying listening to whatever it is, I’m enjoying reading it, I’m enjoying being ‘in the language’, ‘in the moment’, that that’s really all you need to do without thinking of where it’s going to lead to. When you do occasionally have that sense that you’ve made a major step forward, which we every so often feel even though for long periods of time we’re not improving, when there are moments when you think you do, then you should really savor those moments without worrying about the mistakes that you made, without worrying about whether you can remember endings of verbs and stuff. None of that really matters.


I guess, really, it may not be very clear. I think I have to go back and read the book again and I would be very happy to discuss this with some of you who may choose to read the book. Again, I’ll show you the book here Thinking, Fast and Slow, Danielle Kahneman. I think there’s a lot in there that I have to go back and read again and again, which demonstrates just how faulty a lot of our thinking is, but that’s the way we are.

The other big thing in Kahneman is his emphasis on luck. In any success luck has a major role to play. Therefore, if we have a string of success, there’s every likelihood that this will be followed by a string of failures or vice-versa. Because luck is such a big factor, there is this effect of what he calls ‘the regression to the mean’. Inevitably, statistically if you’ve had a lot of success through luck, you’re going to have some periods of less success and so we need to accept that, as well. There are a lot of lessons to life in that book. At times it seems a bit cut and dry, statistical analysis, prospect theory, decision-making theory and stuff like that, but I think there’s a lot there that’s valid in general and, in particular, valid for language learning.

So it’s kind of a bit of a fuzzy rant today, but I think there is something there, at least in my own experience. Those people who like to get into the nitty-gritty of grammar and enjoy doing that, that’s their thing, they’re in the flow and they’re enjoying it, by all means, go for it, but I think a lot of people don’t. Even if you don’t, there are so many ways you can enjoy language learning where you’re not worried about where you stand vis-à-vis other people. You’re not worried about where you stand vis-à-vis some future goal you have. You’re just enjoying being in the moment. You’re enjoying this sort of cognitive ease of just listening and reading in the knowledge that in fact it’s building up a lot of experience in your brain, a lot of patterns that eventually will become intuition.

Some may be wrong, some may be right, but you can flow with that intuition and you’re building up an ability to react easily, quickly and even in a way that you can multitask in the language and that that’s happiness in language learning. It’s not more complicated than that and you don’t have to worry about whether you’re a B1, B2, C1, TOEFL and all the rest of it. That will all come of its own if you can just invest of yourself into the language in this sort of natural learning process.

I’m not sure any of this makes sense, but there you go. I look forward to your comments, bye for now.

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