The Psychology of Learning English

In his book, Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language, psychologist Richard M. Roberts explores a number of strategies for learning a foreign language based on the cognitive processes of the adult brain. This week, we’re exploring 9 of those strategies a bit closer.


1. Concentrate on the process, not the outcome

When exploring the possibility of learning English, we often keep focus much of our energy on the result. You picture yourself freely communicating with foreign colleagues, asking for directions in a foreign country without difficulty, or being about to read a book in its original language. But we often forget that both the start and the end share a path that requires effort, discipline and dedication. 

Focusing on the intricacies of the learning process rather than on the way you’ve pictured the result will relieve you of stress and ultimately have a positive impact on the speed of your progress (we often overestimate our abilities and expect to get results earlier than possible). If you spend more time focusing on the journey rather than the outcome, any delays or unforeseen circumstances that affect your study schedule will be less demotivating. 


process of learning English
Try not to rush yourself – the process may be faster or slower for different people


2. Practice for 20–30 minutes every day

When building new learning habits, remember to focus on quality, not quantity. You don’t want to burn yourself out by spending hours and hours every day studying. It’s good to alternate the types of activities you do to sustain the development of new English skills (read, memorize vocabulary, watch movies), but remember to do these things regularly. At Kaplan, we use a tried and tested method of learning meant to enhance language development, K+.

"The K+ methodology gives excellent results: it was designed specifically to optimize the learning process of English through scientifically grounded feedback and group learning. The goal of the Kaplan approach is to give students the most effective opportunities to apply and train their new knowledge in a group. All students from foreign language backgrounds have different individual needs in terms of quantity and intensity, which is why we created K +tools, an online module that allows you to practice on your own, thereby making lesson in the classroom and the communication outside the school even more effective and interesting." 

Dr. Bror Saxberg, MD, PhD, previous Chief Learning Officer for Kaplan. Dr. Saxberg studied at Harvard and Oxford Universities, as well as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a recognized expert in the field of pedagogy.


3. Integrate English in your everyday life

But try to do it consciously. For example, instead of pasting post-its with the translations of objects around your house, ask yourself, “What is this thing is called in English?” every time you pick it up. This will train you to retain the information and not to rely on indicators.


friends learning English abroad
Use your new English skills as much as possible


4. Learn the expressions that will fill the pauses in a conversation

To help keep you from being embarrassed in a conversation with a native speaker or with someone who speaks the language better than you, take the time to learn the phrases that can "buy you time" to choose the right words to express your thoughts.

Hand-picked related content: THE KAPLAN METHOD OF TEACHING ENGLISH

5. Listen to a few different speakers

When it comes to communicating with a range of different English-speakers, you’ll need to be prepared to understand a variety of accents and different speeds of speech. This can be confusing at first, so take some time getting used to different speaking styles and voices. A great way to do this by watching movies and TV shows, or listening to lectures and podcasts.


learning English with different speakers
Test out a few different podcasts or TV shows to get a broader sense of accents and dialects


6. Maintain positivity

When considering the connection between thoughts and feelings, you should keep in mind that positive information is processed more efficiently and is remembered better and longer than negative information. The tendency to remember positive information can be of particular importance (and, perhaps, be a relief) to adult students because it has been proven that unpleasant memories wilt with time.

Since positive linguistic characteristics are easier to process and recall than negative ones, when you need to utilize your new foreign language skills (tell a story, prepare a presentation or start a conversation), you have an advantage if you approach it with positive point of view. For example, it will be easier for you to remember a statement like "The President is a woman" than "the President is not a man." And it will be easier for the listeners to understand what you are trying to say, since they’ll be processing the same positive information.


7. Create the right conditions

Perhaps this has happened to you: you perfectly memorized the words in class and pass all the tests with ease. But as soon as you tried to apply these words in real life, they seemed to evaporate from your mind. Do not blame it on your age, blame the principle of specific coding. The problem arises when you have learned words under one condition, but want to apply them in another.

Your mood also affects your ability to remember information. For example, if you are angry, it is easier for you to remember other situations when you felt the same way. This explains why during a dispute, participants recall each other's previous quarrels, even if they’re not relevant to the current situation.

Of course, it’s impossible to study information in all possible contexts and moods; but it helps to try to learn the language as close as possible to the conditions in which you will apply it.


perfect place for learning English
Where is your perfect study space?


8. Switch up your study schedule

To avoid relying on a specific learning context, it’s important to change the time, place and method of study – this is known as distributed practice. If you have two hours to practice, then it's better to work for an hour, break into another activity, and then go back to studying the material.

Just remember: every time you go back to the material, you’ll be a bit worse than when you finished the lesson the previous time. It's not only normal, it's exactly what you need. Distributed practice allows you to forget the material and learn it fresh after a little time has passed. And because re-learning occurs faster than from scratch, you each time will improve your assimilation of the material. If you change your surroundings, you’ll reduce the effect of the previous coding and allow yourself to use the language more freely in different situations.


9. Distract yourself

When you distract yourself from classes, you contribute to the incubation effect, which is part of a four-stage theory of creativity established by English psychologist Graham Wallas in 1926. Wallas’ research backs up the concept that incubating yourself (or taking a break) positively affects memorization when studying. As it turns out, stepping away from the task at hand makes it easier to find a more successful solution because you’re allowing your mind the chance to rest and come back fresher.


learning English break
Giving yourself a break allows you to approach the content fresh each time


Want to know more about how we teach English at Kaplan International? Find out how our courses are designed to help you learn quickly at any age.

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