Category Archives: Psychology

Why you likely won’t learn a new language (and what to do about)

There’s this curious phenomenon out there we call instant gratification. In short, it feels good to indulge and we like the quick hits of pleasure we get from such indulgence. However, instant gratification is likely the insidious cause behind most failure to stay the course and follow through on a project.

The project many of us undertake is learning a new language. We jump out of the gates eager to learn but “instant gratification bug” starts gnawing away while asking “are we there yet?” We end up discouraged and looking for the quick fix, the “secret method” that ends all our frustration.

However, we quickly learn that instant gratification has lied to us again, or at least hurled false expectations at us.

Enter… Apps. Frustration and quick fixes is the secret to all marketing but more than ever it is the secret to what makes us buy apps and subscribe to services. This is very much the case with language learning.

Have a think for a moment about what you are trying to achieve when you take on a new language. That’s right, you’re looking to acquire (quickly) what took thousands of years of linguistic evolution. Also, you’re probably looking to short circuit the traditional method of learning the language a native speaker took to become fluent.

Language apps feed off this way of thinking. Let me make this perfectly clear so that everyone reading this gets it:

You will never learn a language from an app.

Never? Those are some strong words but I feel I need to spell it out because there are far too many of us who have bought the rhetoric and thought we could become fluent speakers of a language because of (a) our intense desire for instant gratification and (b) we buy the marketing behind these apps.

Apps can absolutely get you started on a language and support your efforts as you progress but what really counts is what the brain determines is real, relevant and useful. Some apps are better than others but trying to substitute language experience with a static one dimensional approach sentences you to failure.

The “I know a lot but can’t speak” conundrum

Here’s what is wrong in a nutshell. Any learning that you do in your bedroom or on the bus is irrelevant until it is accessible to your tongue in the heat of a conversation. Most people who spend time with a language without speaking it or even trying to speak it are creating this gigantic reservoir of language knowledge in the back of their heads but it is only connected to a tap that drips words out.

I’ve been there and in fact am there right now to a certain extent. Purely intellectual learning of a language is ineffective and your brain won’t produce the language when you need it because it hasn’t acquired it in a way that makes it absolutely real and accessible.

This is why people ultimately quit, saying “yeah I tried to learn that” and usually following up with “X language is hard”.

Here’s another hard truth:

There are no hard languages, your method of learning just sucks.

That’s right. You tried to learn either:

  • Too fast
  • Too much at one time
  • Didn’t review or try to recall the language at regular intervals
  • Avoided actual expression at all costs
  • Believed the idea that you only need a few hundred words or so

Imagine how well you’d be able to speak English if you tried to learn it in that fashion.

Now, does that mean we have to be like children and learn that way? No and yes.

Firstly, No – you are smarter than a child and you’re able to make logical connections, infer grammar from language and remember much better than a child.

As polyglot Steve Kauffman of LingQ says (paraphrasing):

A child’s brain might be optimised to learn language better than an adults but I can learn the same amount of vocabulary in 6 months that a child learns in 5 years.

Steve Kauffman’s method, which he speaks about at length on YouTube, is through intensive reading. The platform he found – LingQ – is geared around reading texts and highlighting learned words so that you can essentially see those words light up in the text and review them as a matter of simply reading.

I have adapted this idea based on the work of another polyglot – Robin MacPherson, who says that the job of becoming highly skilled in a language is done by the time he feels confident reading adult-level fiction in said language.

So apps can prove to be good entry points into language learning and some are great at supporting ongoing learning (Clozemaster springs to mind) but they can’t be the sole resource utilised.

Never underestimate the value of immersion in an input sense, through YouTube videos in the target language, reading, podcasts and even radio. These things can prove to be invaluable in the quest to master a language.

Combine these with a  healthy dose of output through writing and especially speaking and mastery can be yours.

I talk more about how to use apps and other language learning methods in my book Fluently Speaking – A Modern Guide to Mastering Any Language.

 

 

 

 

 

fiction in a new language

 

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Harness the power of new year anti-resolutions

This post might seem a bit late because the new year has just passed and you already have your resolutions. However, there’s a very good reason for the timing of this injection of truth into your mental diet:

People have already given up on their resolutions or they’re about to.

I don’t want to presume that includes you but you will have no doubt made great promises to change in previous years, only to undo all the good intentions in very short order.

Why is failure to follow through with new year’s resolutions the standard rather than the exception? In short, we’ve been lied to by clever marketers with positive messages that completely ignore science and human experience.

Positive self-help crap is dangerous because it villifies the dark side of human psychology. I spent years avoiding subjects internally and in relationships because they were “negative”. That is, they were emotionally uncomfortable so surely focusing any attention on such things would be harmful right?

Wrong. The avoidance of painful emotions backfires for a number of reasons:

  1. Burying emotions increases shame, which is the greatest threat to your confidence.
  2. Acknowledging the negative is the path to resolving internal issues.
  3. There will be actions you will need to take in order to improve your psychology, relationships and your circumstances. Avoidance virtually guarantees inaction and worsening of problems.
  4. The “darkness” is more powerful motivator than the positive.

That last point is particularly relevant to the new year because countless people will have set resolutions and goals, usually according to the same old positive self-help mantras: “Focus on the positive”, “dream big”, “experience what it would be like to have your dreams now…”

Follow your anger

The brilliance of anti-resolutions is that you do virtually none of the traditional things when attempting behavioural change. Instead, here is a new blueprint for resolution making:

  1. Decide what you want to change
  2. Look backwards at your failed attempts to change in this area. Feel crappy about it.

Researchers have found that the most powerful motivator for change is disgust closely followed by anger. In fact, the anger is a precursor to passion. Passion is equal parts anger and love.

So “do what you love”, “follow your passion” and “follow your bliss” are great and sound good in your typical positive thinking articles, but they’re incomplete because they neglect the other, more powerful side of human psychology — dark emotions.

Set anti-resolutions instead

Anti-resolutions, as I call them, are the opposite of the usual resolutions people halfheartedly set and then give up on in short order. With anti-resolutions you instead set a negative goal – to not change, but instead to become aware that you suck in that area and really feel the suck.

Aim to increase that feeling until you’re so worked up about it that you MUST change.

Anthony Robbins says that if you create enough leverage, you can change anything. Unfortunately, because we’ve been taught the erroneous belief that uncomfortable emotional states are bad, we avoid the very things that will help us change in the most profound way. All emotional states have utility if we listen to them instead of trying to push them away.

Traditional self-help actually hinders your success

The research of Gabriel Oettingen et al, as detailed in Rethinking Positive Thinking supplies further evidence that imagining the successful completion of your goals by itself is a recipe for failure.

The more you envision successful goal achievement the less likely you are to achieve it. Imagining positive outcomes serves to demotivate us because at some level we feel it has been achieved.

Oettingen recommends a technique called mental contrasting that research has shown to be far more effective in helping people achieve their goals. Instead of looking ahead and only feeling great about the future success, mental contrasting also tasks us with acknowledging the internal obstacles we face and then coming up with a simple plan for moving in a different direction when the obstacle arises. The entire process has been coined WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan).

In summary, instead of setting resolutions that you probably already sense you’re going to quit on, anti-resolutions and feel sucky about the areas you’d like to change in. When you feel so much anger and disgust that you MUST change give, then you can give the mental contrasting technique a go.

For more on metal contrasting, check out the WOOP website.

 

 

 

 

 

Glossika language learning — totally worth the investment

glossikaIn November I stumbled across the Glossika language learning method and decided to invest in the Czech course to finally get me to fluency in the language. Needless to say that 6 weeks on I am pleasantly surprised and enthused by the results.

For years I had struggled with learning Czech. It was my first language so this was not totally a surprise. It also can be a devilishly difficult language — not because it is inherently difficult but more because the grammar complexity is something native English speakers aren’t used to.

So I learned Czech in fits and starts — a lot while I was in the country and only superficially elsewhere.

Without speaking Czech I felt as though I was losing the language and besides, I had other languages I wanted to move on to.

Glossika to the rescue…

Utilising a Mass Sentence method in a predetermined schedule, Glossika’s audio programme reinforces the conversational grammar and vocabulary native speakers use everyday.

This makes a lot of sense to me now that I have discovered the “grammar first” approach to learning languages is not only backwards it can lead to frustration and ultimately quitting the language.

Glossika works because it crams in simple and then more complex structures in a workable order and in a way that mirrors natural language learning.

While my main language learning project at the moment is conversational fluency in French using more textual analysis and audio listening techniques, Glossika is providing me with a structured and manageable way of building my Czech, seemingly effortlessly (I’m not forcing it).

I just plug in an listen to the spaced repetition audios (organised by day number) and then listen and read the new block of mass sentences when the schedule calls for it. This is great!

In short, if I was starting to learn a new language tomorrow, I would grab a Teach Yourself book or Assimil programme and become acquainted with the audio, vocabulary and simple grammar while using Glossika to consistently introduce and reinforce new structures.

Get speaking right away

In my last post I spoke about the need for input and lots of it. Listening to audio and understanding it thoroughly before moving on to my complicated language is how we naturally learn languages.

For me, it’s like the sun rising and gradually illuminating the land below — the darkness of ignorance in a language gradually subsides and you’re able to see and understand more and more of the language.

Glossika compared to other popular methods

Glossika contains far more audio and sentences than most language learning programmes you’ll find. I’m a fan of Assimil, however Glossika has far more language audio for you to absorb and a method for practicing it.

In my opinion, Glossika is far less tedious than Pimsleur and again, contains much more language for your brain to absorb.

I like Assimil and the Michel Thomas method, but I’ve found Glossika better in that it focuses on language you would use most of the time when speaking with native speakers. In the Czech programme, the focus is on the informal form of the language. I think a grounding in the formal structures is good, most of the usual language programmes focus specifically on that style.

It took me a lot of experimentation to arrive at what really works in language learning. Glossika really does give that missing piece I had been searching for and I heartily recommend it!

The plague that is social media

It might take a moment of clarity or an absolute meltdown, but the realization is the same — we are being bombarded with so much distraction and insignificant ranting that social media becomes a troublesome burden rather than some harmless pass time.

Social media is designed to be addictive. Like almost any domain you want to look at, there is no escaping the corporate imperative of having your brain diverted from it’s course and firmly entranced by some new piece of novelty. Cat videos are usually cited here, but the plethora of friends meals, kid photos and their precious opinion about the election infiltrate your retinas and ultimately take up space in your frontal lobes.

So social media is nothing but candy — junk food that ought only be consumed occasionally but often becomes an addiction.

It turns out addiction isn’t an extreme choice of words in this case either. Author and computer scientist Cal Newport says social media is like having a slot machine in your pocket. It’s inherently addictive to seek out novel stimuli and to doubly get the social proof that comes from getting positive feedback in the form of likes and comments on your own posts.

In this way, social media provides a steady stream of dopamine ‘hits’ throughout the day — little pleasurable snacks that keep boredom at bay.

Seen this way, social media hits can be likened to avoidance strategies. With all the responsibilities and problems on one’s plate, what harm could a little mental detour have?

Therein lies the problem. One needs to see one’s addictive behaviour as a problem in order for it to register as something they need to change. One or two short viewings or interactions isn’t the problem — it’s the compulsion to repeatedly disengage from reality and dive into the online world that is the real cost.

To that end, may I suggest going without all forms of social media for 7 days. Go ahead, try it. You will learn a great deal about your habit, your compulsion to use it and you might find, as I have, that there is a tremendously peaceful mental space that opens up.

That mental space is precious to me now and I have to fight hard for it. So many things are banging on the window of my consciousness wanting in. If I’m not proactively setting boundaries for those distractions, my day will be swayed this way and that with little of my conscious input.

Cal Newport, in his Tedx talk Quit Social Media makes the point that social media companies are in the entertainment business and not a savoury one at that. He says that they hire “attention engineers” who borrow principles from casino gambling to make them as addictive as possible.

Yes, your attention is valued that much by media and social media so why aren’t we waking up and valuing our attention enough to limit our consumption of these apps?

The bigger picture

In Deep Work, Cal Newport outlines what is truly valuable in today’s economy (indeed in any economy ever): “The ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. Cal calls this “Deep Work” as contrasted by the most common type mode of approaching life — scattered, distracted and fragmented attention. Cal argues, successfully in my opinion, that Deep Work is a rare commodity and that anything truly valuable that is being created today is coming from a deep work approach.

On the other hand, what the market does not value is tasks that are easy to replicate and produce a small amount of value. He says social media is the epitome of low value work (after all, a 16 year old with smartphone can do it!)

This gels nicely with the idea of craftsmanship, a seemingly antiquated idea that dedication by a craftsperson with exceptional skill and expertise leads to inherently valuable and meaningful products. However, that’s a rant for another day.

For the time being, I encourage you to examine the impact social media is having on your life and take the 7 day challenge. I’m betting you’ll learn a lot about the impact of social media and some things about yourself in the process.

I can’t tell you how much freer my life seems without constant detours off into some meaningless piece of fluff content or rage filled hate post.

Beyond the buzzword — Practical mindfulness with ACT

Mindfulness seems to be the self help buzzword of the moment, yet it is still misunderstood by many people to be “just another form of meditation”. However, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) offers a toolbox of mindfulness techniques that not only make sense to the modern mind but are also immensely practical.

The Happiness Trap

Most science-based approaches to psychotherapy typically involve changing thought patterns and beliefs in an attempt to uproot negative thoughts and build a positive outlook. All well and good.

This is certainly true of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) — arguably the most dominant system of psychotherapy in the world.

It seems obvious — thinking creates our problems so what we need is better thinking right? More positive, better quality, less negative.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ‘ACT’ (pronounced as the word ‘act’), being based on mindfulness, says enough of that. Thoughts don’t necessarily cause problems — thoughts are just internal streams of images and words. Fusing with thoughts causes problems. That is, latching onto thoughts as they go by and identifying with them.

Our capacity for mental self-flagellation can be astounding and the temptation is to entangle and get caught up in a wave of unhelpful critical thoughts. Trying to challenge them doesn’t work (it just gives the unhelpful thoughts more power) while trying to change the station to “Radio Positive and Feel Good” just invites a stream of the opposite thoughts.

As Australian psychotherapist Russ Harris explains, ACT focuses on the acceptance that thoughts and feelings will arise and that they’re not necessarily “negative”. The radio station of the mind will broadcast all kinds of messages and that’s okay. To challenge them and dispute them, as is our common tendency, is to fuse with them.

Where mindfulness comes into ACT, and where it offers enormous value, is in the practice of what is termed defusion. If fusion is buying into thoughts and wrestling with them, defusion is the separation from those thoughts and just watching them from an observer position.

Hence, Russ Harris explains that fusing with thoughts is the problem in the first place. Thoughts are just transmissions of the mind — a natural phenomena we all have — including successful people who look cool and confident all the time.

The counter-intuitive

Being a skeptic and familiar with the self-help industry, I’ve become quite adept at discovering the flaws and chicanery of the various half baked ideas passed off as “wisdom”.

The principles of ACT are fundamentally opposed to the central assumptions of the happiness and positive thinking industry. For instance, the idea we’re bombarded with from a thousand angles is that some emotions are bad and to be avoided, while others are pleasant and to be embraced.

Happiness is therefore a warm fuzzy feeling, so we get locked in this cycle of chasing some desirable emotions and avoiding others. But this is a futile search that has no end.

Emotions are just emotions, there is no inherent reality to them. By accepting them and allowing them space to just ‘be’ we cease to struggle and magnify them beyond their natural parameters.

The positive thinking mantra also creates fusion with thinking. The latching onto positive mantras, affirmations, and the practice of blocking of critical thoughts from your inner voices is fusion. It’s identifying and wrestling with thinking that is the problem, so positive thinking often won’t work because the fusion creates the inner struggle.

Anyone who has tried doing affirmations knows first hand the problem with them — they awaken the opposite thoughts and feelings.

You say: “I’m happy, fun and filled with confidence”.
Your mind retorts: “No you’re not, you’re fat, boring and your breath stinks”.

At some level, positive thinking is the denial of reality and creates discontent from the avoidance of your current state of being.

Where positivity fails

As Russ Harris notes, the human mind evolved to think negative. It’s perfectly natural and serves a valuable purpose — to keep us safe and help us navigate uncertain territory effectively.

For years I was under the impression I was somehow ‘broken’ because I had negative thoughts. I had read numerous self help books and was fully under the illusion that I had to eradicate negative thoughts. Needless to say, that approach leads to a superficial connection with reality and is ultimately doomed. The negative thoughts are still there.

I’ve unintentionally destroyed relationships because of positive thinking. There was action that I should have taken that I didn’t because I thought I needed to stay positive. It’s delusional thinking like this that is more about denial of reality than genuine optimism.

Conclusion and Resources

I have to thank fellow Kiwi and renowned confidence coach Dan Munro for the introduction to ACT and the work of Russ Harris. Dan’s video and blog post about “The I’m Not Good Enough Story” based on Russ Harris’ work inspired me to look more into ACT and therefore this enthusiastic post.

I have to admit, the exercise that Dan runs through in the video really lifted a weight off my shoulders and I’ve felt lighter ever since.

Russ Harris has a wealth of information on ACT, mindfulness and how to live a values driven life rather than a goal oriented one on his websites:

Cold showers can change your life (not just make you cold!)

Why would anyone in their right mind even contemplate going through the discomfort of taking a cold shower?

A valid question indeed. which contains the seed of a profound answer: Choosing to be uncomfortable hardens your mind and resolve.

Think about it, almost everyone goes through life making decisions that are easy and comfortable. I mean, why would you even want to be uncomfortable right? Shouldn’t everything be exactly as you want it and even better?

This is the society we live in and we’re paying a price for it. We have more than any society has ever had before. More options, variety, more food, more freedom to travel and do as we please, yet somehow this isn’t enough.

The easy choice is the wrong choice if we want to be happy and fulfilled. Does that mean we should make life intentionally difficult. Yes and no.

It is here we need to make a distinction between masochism and extending our comfort zones. Taking a cold shower isn’t masochism, it is merely an inconvenience we can choose to experience. If we do, we can gain more of an appreciation for having hot water available, which is something most people in the world do not have access to.

We can also develop thicker skin. If the power went off for three weeks we know we could handle bathing in cold water.

Prescription for contentment

But there’s something profound that happens when you start making choices to endure doses of voluntary discomfort: Your mental outlook changes. You shift from needing to have things as perfect as possible in order to enjoy life. You stop being so darn precious about feeling uncomfortable… These cease to be excuses for inaction, whining and not enjoying life as it is.

I know it’s a tough sell, and I’ve gotten a multitude of strange looks for mentioning this idea, but really, it is a small thing you can do to set in motion positive changes. Both in mood (you feel funky for hours afterwards) and in long term emotional states because you develop a level of resilience.

If you’re the sort of person who has to have everything exactly as they want it, taking cold showers will seem utterly foreign to you. No doubt this expectation that your experience must fit a narrow set of standards in order for you to feel fulfilled/happy produces a great deal of discontent. Doing something against the grain is probably the best thing you could do.

Don’t believe me?

Try it. Take a cold shower for 7 days. That is cold from start to finish. Revel in it, look forward to it, abandon hesitation and you’ll notice your days go much smoother.

If you’re really keen to improve your mental outlook, stop having your morning coffee. Maybe that one is for another time 🙂

Here’s a few cool resources for more info:

 

 

 

Stoic Week 2015 — Hitting the ‘reset’ button

Stoic Week 2015
Stoic Week 2015 commences on 2 November. What is Stoic Week? In a nutshell, it is a chance for anyone who wants to understand what the Stoic perspective and daily practice entails, and to experience some of the benefits that comes with developing a Stoic approach to life and all its complexities.

This will be my second Stoic week, so to make sure I get the most out of the experience I’m starting to get momentum the week prior by really taking seriously the central tenets of Stoicism, including:

  • Virtue is the only true good worth pursuing
  • Living a frugal lifestyle with a reduced focus on the acquisition of external ‘goods’ and the cultivation of a contentment for the internal life and qualities
  • Developing a mindful moment-to-moment approach to “impressions” and learning to use my power of judgement to nip unhealthy desires and fears in the bud
  • Recognising what is in my power and focusing my efforts in those areas
  • Accepting what is not within my power
  • Practising Stoic exercises such as the morning and evening meditations and reading Stoic texts.

If you are new to Stoicism, then I suggest you check out the Stoicism Today site for a complete run down on what Stoicism is and how to take part in Stoic Week.

One of the things I struggled with after Stoic Week 2014 was keeping the momentum going following that 7 days of intense focus on Stoic principles. It is too easy to fall back into patterns of indulgence in excessive irrational pleasure, including food and drink, wanton consumerism and wasting time on the internet.

I’ve found myself focusing too much on things I can’t control and feeling anxious because of this. Modern Western cultures prize insecurity and excessive hedonism, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for us or that we should continue to participate.

Pushing the reset bUTTON

Stoic Week 2015, for me, will therefore be a reset of sorts. By taking a flying start and beginning my Stoic intensive the week before Stoic Week, I believe I’ll be able to better adopt Stoicism as an “operating system” for making better decisions in life.

Stoic Week is a great opportunity to reflect on your life, examine it through a Stoic lens and gain valuable insights on how your life could be better by taking on a more Stoic attitude to life.

A practical philosophy

The success of Stoicism in recent years is in part due to its practicality — it is philosophy you can use to lead a better life.

With that in mind, here are some of the things I’ll personally be doing to put Stoic principles into practice. This is in addition to the Stoic techniques that will be outlined in the Stoic Week 2015 Handbook:

  • Eat only a simple meat-free and dairy-free diet
  • Manage cravings, hedonism with proper use of impressions
  • Cultivate simplicity in all things
  • Perform simple bodyweight only workouts with full presence
  • Be a producer: Make good use of my time in service of producing work rather than consuming (i.e. Being a creator of web content that helps others rather than consuming content on the web).
  • Act from my highest values and virtues, not emotions
  • Cultivate a disciplined mind: Minimise distractions by applying the Pomodoro Technique to ensure sustained attention on the task I am doing
  • Sleep well
  • (New addition) Cold showers

*For an idea of what Stoic Week entails, check out the 2014 Stoic Week Handbook (pdf).

Just do it!

Stoicism has already had a profound effect in my life and the lives of thousands of others. If you’re religious, it will make you a better believer. If you’re not religious, Stoicism will give you an operating system and code of virtue ethics that will make you a better person, family member, friend and citizen of Earth.

Stoic Week also serves as a research project, based at the University of Exeter in the UK so by participating, you can help add vital data in to the mix.