Cognitive Biases that Prevent you from Becoming Fluent

I’ve been reading the book Becoming Fluent by Richard Roberts and Roger Kreutz, about how cognitive science can help adults learn a foreign language.   I am keenly interested in this topic because I have studied several foreign languages and am trying to retain my fluency in them at the same time I am trying to learn new ones, and I realize this will require “upping my game” in terms of the efficiency and effectiveness I learn.

In the second chapter, “Set Yourself Up for Success”, the authors go about the topic in an indirect fashion.   What are the cognitive biases that sometimes set adults up for failure rather than success?    Here are some of the cognitive biases they have uncovered.

1. The availability heuristic–an example of when heuristics fail

The availability heuristic is when examples of a phenomenon can be generated mentally and are thus more quickly and easily available to the conscious mind, the more common the phenomenon is likely to be.   Which is more common as a name for a baby girl in the United States:   Mary or Matilda?    Since most people can think of more people named Mary than they can named Matilda, they would be correct in assuming that Mary is indeed the more common name for baby girls in the United States.

However, when are people more likely to buy earthquake or flood insurance?   Immediately after such an event, when the likelihood of a such an extreme event happening again is very small.    As people’s memory of the earthquake or flood fades, they are less and less likely to buy such insurance, when in reality, the likelihood of such an event occurring is only going to rise.

So, lesson #1 from cognitive science is that heuristics based on an examination of one’s mind or memory are not foolproof.

2. The simulation heuristic–another heuristic that can fail

The simulation heuristic is when the more quickly and easily you can create a mental scenario in which an event occurs, the more likely you will be to predict that the event will occur.   If you create a mental simulation about all the things that it would take for you to become president, the more things that would have to happen for you to become president (being elected at the city, state, and national level, for example), the less likely the outcome will seem to you.

What is happening is that you access your memory for relevant information.   The information must be accessed and then judged as to how relevant it is to the particular scenario.   Then experiences you have had in the past that match the present scenario will add to your confidence.

Let me give an example form Toastmasters.  The very first time I went to a semi-annual conference, I had been in Toastmasters a total of 3 or 4 months.   I saw the keynote speaker, thought he was really inspirational, but it didn’t cross my mind that someday I myself could become a professional speaker.     I knew so little about being a professional speaker, that I couldn’t even tell you what steps I would need to become one.

Compare that to a keynote speaker I saw at an event last Sunday.    His message was inspirational, but this time I realized part of me was speculating, “what if I could do what he is doing and be a professional speaker myself?”    Now if you ask me “how do you become a professional speaker” I can say more about it because I am in a Toastmasters club that is designed specifically for aspiring professional speakers called the Windy City Professional Speakers club.   I can tell you what you need to become a professional speaker and many of those prerequisites I have already achieved.   So the possibility of becoming a professional speaker is not so remote; it still seems off in the distance, but I can picture how to get there.

3.  Planning Fallacy

The planning fallacy is when we underestimate how much time, effort, or money it will take to accomplish a goal.   It happens when we focus too much on the good things that will happen when we achieve a goal (like when foreign language programs advertise their wares by showing somebody flirting with an attractive speaker of the native language) and not enough on the resources it will take for us to achieve that goal.

In mental simulation of reaching a goal, focusing on the process of what it will take to achieve a goal results in better planning than focusing on the outcome.   You need to have in your language plan exactly how long you plan to study each day, what method you will use, and how you plan to chart your progress.

Another reason for the planning fallacy is the tendency to be overly optimistic about the outcome of events, assuming in other words that everything will go exactly as planned, and that nothing will go wrong.

When learning a foreign language, you need to count on when things don’t go as planned, such as when you make a mistake during a conversation.

4.  Counterfactual thinking

What happens when you make a mistake during a conversation, or you don’t make one of your milestones because you aren’t progressing as quickly as you have planned.   People start to beat themselves up by using counterfactual simulation, which is when you do a mental simulation after the fact and focus on what might have been.   In the sphere of foreign language learning, if you fail temporarily at achieving your goal, or the goal takes more effort that you originally thought it would,  you may tend to emphasize problems with your own abilities (“I’m just no good at languages”) rather than focusing on your methods (“I’m not as effective as I feel I should be when I’m using this method”).

5.  Anchoring and adjustment

Anchoring and adjustment is when it is difficult for us to move very far away from what we have initially decided–even when the reality of the situation necessitates a change in plans.   For adults language learners, an example of this is slavishly following a preset lesson plan long after it becomes clear that it is not very effective.   This is why a language study buddy is helpful, because it is easier hearing from another person the advice that you find difficult to give yourself, to try another method that may be more effective.

6.  Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias happens when people filter out information that goes against their preconceived notions and only accept information that reinforces them.   It makes it harder to accept feedback from others, for example, the advice to change the language learning method you are using.

And in learning a foreign language in general, if you are convinced of the first myth of language learning that was discussed in the last post, namely, that Adults cannot acquire a foreign language as easily as children, then you will pay attention to those people that say they tried learning a language, but can’t speak it any more.   But when they see someone like Benny Lewis, a multilingual guy from Ireland, who puts out a blog “Fluent In 3 Months”, they will ignore a claim like that because, well, it can’t possibly be true, can it?  (I’m here to say it is true, and I attribute much of my current multilingual success to his methods.)

7.  Hindsight bias

Hindsight bias is when you look back at failure and say you knew all along that it would occur.    How it effects foreign language learners in adulthood is that they blame themselves or their teachers for their failure, most likely themselves (“I’m just no good at foreign languages”).   What if, unbeknownst to you, you ARE good at foreign languages, but just need the right methods to unlock that potential?

If you take a look at these cognitive biases, they have one thing in common with regards to foreign language learning in adulthood–you need to focus on the decision-making process when you start learning a language and use the knowledge that cognitive science now affords us so that you are working WITH how your brain more naturally works rather than AGAINST it.

It’s like the story of the ant and the elephant told by Vince Poscente in his book with that title.   An ant is in the desert and senses that the oasis he seeks is to the east, and makes the wise decision to go in that direction.   However, an owl swoops down and gives him some advice:    the ant may THINK it is going towards the east, but unbeknownst to the ant, he is sitting on an elephant that is currently going towards the WEST.   Unless the ant can figure out how to get the elephant to change direction, the ant will never achieve his goal of getting to the oasis.

In a similar way, we may WANT to achieve the desired goal of becoming fluent in another foreign language, but if our methods are like a stubborn elephant that is taking us in the opposite direction, we will never achieve our goal.   So the goal of the book Becoming Fluent is to teach us how to work with the elephant, i.e., the human brain, to get it going towards our goal in the most effective and efficient manner!









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