Habit Formation and Becoming Fluent

In their book Becoming Fluent, the authors Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz spend some time about what prevents people from reaching their goal of learning a foreign language before they get to the good stuff about what can actually HELP you reach that goal.

In the second chapter, after discussing the cognitive biases which hinder people from setting and achieving their language learning goals, the authors discuss three misconceptions people have about habit formation, something that is a necessity for learning a foreign language

1. Misconception:  it takes 21 days to develop a new habit

This concept was popularized by Maxwell Maltz, who published the book Psycho-Cybernetics in 1960.   Subsequent research showed that there is NO preordained timetable required to form a new habit.    A similar statistic is that it takes 10,000 hours of work to master a subject.

The problem with these certain-sounding pronouncements is that they focus on the quantity of time spent, rather than the quality.

If you’re going to develop a foreign language study habit, try to incorporate your target language into your life in a meaningful way as much as possible.   One particular way to do this is to take post-it notes with vocabulary words in your target language and attach them to objects in your home.   You won’t need to put the native language translation on the post-it note because the object itself is all the reference you need.

Then you take away the post-it notes and, once in a while take inventory of your surroundings and ask yourself what the word is in the target language of the first five objects you come across.   Can you recall what they are?    If so, you have started to remap your familiar world in the new language, and you are in the process remapping your brain.

So think more deeply about the language and incorporate it into the flow of your everyday life, and THAT will create a new habit, because it will keep you energized, rather than a meaningless habit that drains you of energy because it is mechanical and boring.

2.   Misconception #2:  Not keeping up a habit means failure

One thing is for sure, the best laid foreign-language plans often go awry because of this called life which gets in the way.  If you drop your habit, don’t engage in negative self-talk but spend that energy itself getting back into the habit.

In studying the way people quit smoking, one of the best predictors of whether people are ultimately successful in giving up smoking is the number of times they’ve managed to quit before.    The more that they have broken their non-smoking habit, the likelier they are to succeed in not smoking!     This is because for those that break the habit, they go right back to it and the mind gets gradually more used to the habit of not-smoking than it is to the past habit of smoking.

So if you miss instead of hit, don’t quit–just get on with it!

3.   More study is better than less study

The authors refer to the charmingly named fertilizer fallacy:   if a little bit of stuff is good, then a lot of it is better.    No, just like medicines, you need the right dose taken at the right intervals (that’s why those instructions come on medicine bottles, to prevent an overdose).

It’s better to do 10-15 minutes of study a day rather than trying to cram a couple of hours study on the weekend.   This is why you need to carve time out of your schedule to do language practice on a daily basis.

These three habit-formation misconceptions are the last piece of negative advice the authors give in terms of what NOT to do.

The next part gets to the meat of the chapter, which is 4 positive suggestions that will HELP you on your quest to learn another language–these are the subject of the next post!




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