Resilience, brain workout and foreign language learning

The way resilience and the foreign language acquisition are connected is pretty straightforward. If we are to believe two renowned scientists, one a psychiatrist, the other a neuroscientist, in a recent article in TIME magazine (June 1, 2015), different people have different degrees of resilience. You may ask: so what ? This might explain why some people think they are bad language learners. Not without a reason. Simply, the resilience in that particular psycho-sociological case is not the same for everyone.

What the heck is resilience?

Well, according to the American Psychology Association, it is the individual’s ability to “bounce back”, or “to pick oneself up” after hardships or difficult situations experienced in life. It generally refers to pretty traumatic things (catastrophes or war experiences for example), but according to the TIME article “The Art of Resilience” people’s lives, especially nowadays, comprise of multiple small but stressful situations, and those are quite obvious: work, an angry boss, quarrels with other people. The key thing here however is that the brain can be trained in order to cope with these kind of situations, and even the big ones, better. In other words, the resilience, and that is your brain, can be trained to do that well. Or at least do better than it used to.

Some conspicuous extreme examples of weak / strong resilience and how different people react to it are: people suffering from heart disease and brain disorder, Alzheimer’s disease frequently, on the one side, and Navy SEALs, highly trained US soldiers, or POWs on the other.

brain, resilience in foreign language learning
Brain. Allan Ajifo, Flickr.

How does resilience refer to Language Learning?

If we are to apply the way the resilience works and how different people deal with it, it becomes clear why some people (referring only to adult learners in this case) are better foreign language speakers than others. It comes down to the person’s psychological response to a psycho-social stages of development in foreign language acquisition while learning and especially interacting in that new language. Some of those experiences can be more traumatic than others and thus influence the individual’s resilience accordingly.

To make it simple: here are some psychological factors that may deter from effective language learning:

 fear of being ridiculous: at the early stages, learning involves saying some unexpected and funny things.

 fear of being ridiculed: perception by other learners or native speakers, traumatic experience)

lack of control: some people might be scared at the idea of not being able to express everything they want. It may be psychologically interrelated with the two previous concepts.  

language inferiority: when an adult learner starts to learn a language, she/he doesn’t even speak as well as a 4 year old child. It might be quite frustrating. 

How can you improve your resilience ?

The good news is that resilience can be trained almost the same way the muscles are trained: you give your brain some stimulus at the right time and at the right places and thus progressively build up the brain’s strength (or resistance) to fight off more efficiently the traumatic and unpleasant emotional experiences. On the side note, the physical exercise increases brain’s resilience too in its own way.

The article gives several interesting and simple things that help developing resilience. Here are some of them that I find also easily applicable to a better language learning:

Developing a core set of beliefs that nothing can shake

Try to find meaning in whatever stressful or traumatic thing has happened

Don’t run from things that scare you: face them

Learn new things as often as you can

Find an exercise regimen you’ll stick to

Recognize what makes you uniquely strong – and own it

That set of tools could be particularly useful in a successful language acquisition. It can also be seen as what people don’t do and thus fail in acquiring the language or at being a successful foreign language speaker. All of them equally important but the most frequent, in my opinion, are:

a consistent, well defined and interesting foreign language exercise regimen to stick to

recognizing what your unique strength is,

and running away from problems and challenges.

This also proves several interesting points about language learning :

  • foreign language acquisition can be trained in a similar way the body is trained (but how and in what way, it is a different story): it accounts for 50% of successful language learner
  • psychology and personality of the individual: they make up the other 50 %.

The sum of both gives a truly individual result, superiour to the sum of the both parts. You may take a look at the study case I did on Arnold Schwarzenegger (to be published ) as an adult foreign language learner to get an example of how it looks in practice. 

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