It seems like every week you see a new article touting the benefits of knowing more than one language. Apparently speaking multiple languages boosts your memory, makes you smarter, and even decreases your risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease.
Despite these potential benefits (the evidence varies), bilingualism has become somewhat of a pipe dream in the United States, a country that is nowadays stubbornly monolingual. This was not always the case; immigrant groups in the past and present have often spoken more than one language. Yet, pressures to assimilate have wiped away the linguistic heritage of many of these communities.
Those of us who wish to learn another language may feel dazzled by the idea of conversing in French, Chinese or Portuguese, but there is unfortunately nothing romantic about the path to fluency: the endless memorization, struggles with grammar, the surprised reactions from native speakers when we utter the wrong word. Thankfully, with the internet’s abundant tools and resources, we don’t necessarily lack the material—just the practice.
I was born first-generation Chinese in Canada, and struggled to learn French at school in Quebec. While I eventually became fluent, my experiences affirmed to me the power of language in forging connections. After moving to the U.S. at the age of ten, I dedicated myself to studying Spanish in middle and high school, Russian in college, and now, post-college, Italian, Swahili and Amharic. I’ve been fortunate to have been able to use these languages during years of travel and work in legal advocacy, education and most recently, behavioral science. Despite many rich immersion experiences, consistently practicing is still something I have to work on. Luckily, I’ve narrowed in on a few behaviorally informed strategies over the years for developing habits that have helped maintain and grow language skills, and may be useful for attaining other types of goals as well.
Identify the hassles and find the sweet spot for habit formation
What exactly is preventing you from reaching your goals? Could it be poor prospective memory, (i.e. the failure to remember to do something)? Or is it due to inadequate planning and follow-through?
In learning and maintaining language fluency, the biggest challenge for me has been remembering to make it a priority while in the right mental space to do so. To build this intention—and follow through on it—I make use of cues that help direct any and all free time towards reaching my goal. For instance, while putting on my shoes to leave the house in the morning, I turn on a Swahili news podcast, since an entire episode can be finished during the walk to the metro. Whenever I need a break from work, I break out French flash cards and refresh my memory of certain vocabulary words. Research shows that establishing these “if/then” links, particularly in writing beforehand, is a form of implementation intention that can ultimately lead to goal completion.
As you think about your study habits, take a few minutes to jot down a cue that you could use to get you get started toward making progress on a goal. Start with something small and easily achievable—for instance, listening to a song in a new language while washing the dishes—to build some momentum before committing to larger, more time-consuming tasks—such as listening to an entire podcast episode in the language.
Daily reminders such as sticky notes, phone alerts and push notifications are another frequently used tool, as they’re great prompts to close the intention-action gap. The key here is to find the right timing and frequency of reminders in order to avert potential reminder fatigue. Indeed, not everything works all the time, for everyone in every context, which is why behavioral science operates on multiple dimensions. It’s important to experiment with different interventions and remember that building new habits is hard. At the end of the day, being patient and generous with yourself as you seek to adopt new habits can go a long way.
Acknowledge incremental rewards, and set clear, measurable goals
Research shows that cues like ‘if/then’ are key to habit formation. The neurological loop at the core of each habit consists of three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward.
Language learning is hard work, and it takes some time to reap the benefits—and most of the time, it can often seem like more of a challenge than a reward. Because of this, coupling language learning with a tangible reward in the present, also known as temptation bundling, is essential to building the habit. This could be anything from going outside for some fresh air—if, for example, you associate listening to podcasts with walking—to pairing conversational practice with an enjoyable social experience, such as dinner or a wine tasting.
On that note, goal-setting is also extremely important to long-term success. Designate goals that are specific, measurable and just out of reach enough that you will stretch to get there, and then make a plan to achieve your goal. Be careful about setting too many goals, however—this might actually have the opposite effect, with the goals crowding each other out. Don’t forget to find champions—a relative, friend, a teacher—who can cheer you on and help you celebrate every step, as well as serve as a form of commitment device (more about that below). That said, don’t shy away from constructive feedback, as it’s often native speaker friends and teachers who can help you the most through low-stakes correction (and we need constructive feedback to get better at anything).
Believe you can (speak the language)
In my own life, whenever I speak a language other than English, I feel self-conscious, clunky and sometimes defeated. I view my progress in language learning as a reflection of my personality and my strengths, even though I know that the two are separate.
For others who feel the same way about this or other new skills they’re learning, self-affirmation exercises might be key to distinguishing skill from self. Self-affirmations can protect from stress and underperformance. Indeed, as a supplement to real-world affirmation, writing your own self-affirmation using the present tense and positive language can imbue you with a greater sense of confidence and skill. Try to tie these to your personal values wherever possible, to more closely align them with your identity. Display this affirmation in a place you are likely to see, whether on your phone or at your desk.
Find a commitment device
Sometimes a commitment device—a thing, action, person, or experience we can use to keep ourselves accountable to our goal—is what works. These devices could range from planning a trip to a country where you’ll need to speak your new language, to putting money on the line with a digital tool like stickK with consequences for not meeting the goal. Social accountability is also a great way to stay motivated, particularly if you don’t want to go at it alone; exploring classes in your area to meet new people and find a cohort of like-minded friends will make the process of learning a new skill more fun and interesting.
Using these simple behavioral insights can help you tackle some of the barriers standing in the way of achieving a goal, whether it’s learning a new language, making a breakthrough in your work, or developing a new skill.