Why you should love language learning - and what to do if you don’t… Part One
Everyone knows that it is easier to do something if you feel good about it. For me, I love gardening. I can’t wait to go outside and take care of my plants. I have a big garden, and it never feels like a burden. Butv I hate washing dishes! If there is any excuse for me to postpone that task until later I do…. And then I wake up in the morning with a sink of dirty dishes that I have to wash before breakfast - yuck!
If you love learning a language, your English classes won’t feel like a chore. You will be excited for your lessons. But more than that, you will actually learn better. You will understand things more easily, you will remember more words, and your pronunciation will be better.
How is this possible? Does emotion affect us that much? Researchers say yes. And they can see the effect of emotion on learning in our brain chemistry.
Firstly, the emotional center of our brain has far more connections than the thinking center. So emotions are stronger in our decision making than logic. (Anyone who has bought a lottery ticket knows this…!) And emotions control physical functions in our body, like our heartbeat. So our motivation and physical responsiveness are best when we feel good about what we are doing.
Secondly, positive emotions tell your body that you are safe. Your brain fills with chemicals that make you more open and attentive to your environment. This attention helps everything in learning. Your memory, your comprehension and your ability to understand and imitate your teacher all increase. (For a detailed explanation I refer you to “How Emotions Affect Learning” by Robert Sylvester http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/oct94/vol52/num02/How-Emotions-Affect-Learning.aspx)
So when you feel good while you speak English, you can remember what you learn better. You can pronounce the words more fluently. And you understand more.
Good, right? Yes, great!
However….. The opposite is also true. Feeling negative emotions makes learning much more difficult. When we don’t feel safe, for example, our brain releases cortisol. Cortisol makes out attention smaller so that we only see and hear what is necessary for survival. A small amount can be OK, but when it happens repeatedly we won’t remember and won’t understand what we are trying to learn. Frustration and sadness also make us less aware, and less able to learn.
But why would anybody have a negative feelings about English?
Well, first of all a lot of people can have negative feelings about themselves as students. Sometimes our teachers, even though they were doing their best, might have used shame to try to motivate us. I taught children for many years. I tried always to be positive. But sometimes I would get frustrated. And I might have said something like:
“Johnny, if you don’t do your homework and try harder you will go nowhere in life!” or
“Do you want to end up poor and on the street? Study more!!”
Many people have heard things like this. Then they can think that if they don’t understand, or get a good score on a test, that they are bad people. When they are adults, and they are studying again and they experience frustration (normal when you are learning a language), they might unconsciously remember these experiences.
As one of my students said, “when I speak English I feel so stupid….” These words - from a university professor and mother of four children.
But there’s more.. Teaching online I have heard about many real life situations that can also add negative emotions to English learning. This is not my student’s fault. My students always bring a positive attitude to their classes! But I have seen my students deal with:
Stress - They have a deadline for an English examination. Their work suddenly requires English. They won’t advance in their life (career, emigration or studies) unless they have attained a high level of English proficiency. They are living in a new country.
Shame - People have made fun of the way they spoke English. They received bad grades in English class. It feels like everyone around them speaks English better than they do.
Lack of Support - Their past English schooling wasn’t good quality. They have to spend extra time on work or in school because they have to read/write/present in English. They don’t have the time to study because they are busy professionals - sometimes with families. They don’t know other English speakers.
Wow! Let’s stop there. In any of these situations the enemy of learning, stress, can easily be experienced.
So what to do? The answer is to use the POWER OF POSITIVE emotions to rewire your brain and increase your learning potential. Many of you are already accomplishing this because you have a great teacher and enjoy your lessons! But there are more things you can do - and I’ll talk about that in Part Two……