‘It’s all in the mind!’ – How true when it comes to learning a foreign language. Every teacher knows that you can have the best resources in the world, but if the learner is not in the right frame of mind to engage with the new language and use the opportunities before them, then they are unlikely to do so. There are all kinds of reasons why a learner may put obstacles in their own way or simply avoid engaging, but many of these reasons often lie in how learners view themselves, their competencies, and their relationship to the language, classroom, peers, and the teacher.
Psychology is complex, and care must be taken not to oversimplify, but I have chosen to focus on 5 key areas of learner psychology which I think can make a difference to learning and which we as language educators can work on developing. Introducing the two Gs and the three Cs!
Have they got Grit?
Firstly, learners need to have a Growth mindset and become Gritty about their language learning. It is a well-known adage that learning a foreign language is like a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time, progress is slow and incremental, and there can be many setbacks along the way. Language learners need to develop persistence and even in the face of challenges, be able to roll up their sleeves undeterred and tackle problem areas all over again with renewed vigour – that is grittiness.
Learning a foreign language is like a marathon, not a sprint.
To have grit, language learners first need to have a growth mindset. This is when they believe that their abilities in learning a language are not fixed but can be developed. Not all learners will reach the same level of proficiency. However, with the right kind of effort, strategies, and investment of time and will, every learner can improve. However, if a learner holds a fixed mindset, believing that language learning competencies stem primarily from a fixed ability, then they are more likely to give up easily, and in some cases not even try to succeed. These learners feel helpless, believing there is little they can do to improve or overcome difficulties. In contrast, those with a growth mindset are typically willing to put in the effort to improve and explore a range of possible pathways to proficiency.
With a growth mindset, learners believe that their abilities can be developed.
What are the 3 Cs?
In terms of the three 3 Cs, learners need to feel a sense of Competence, Control, and Connectedness.
Learners need a sense of ‘I can’ in respect to learning a language. Much of this can stem from their mindset; however, they also need to feel that they are personally able to manage and cope with learning a language.
A key part of that feeling can be generated when learners are empowered with a sense of control. Learners benefit from being able to intentionally and proactively select and initiate approaches to learning where possible in their contexts. A sense of control also concerns how learners explain their perceived successes and failures to themselves and others. Do they attribute these outcomes to factors within their control or to external factors beyond their control? With internal attributions, learners are likely to be motivated and willing to expend effort on learning, knowing that they can make a difference.
The third C refers to learners feeling connected. Not only to their teachers, but also their peers, their institution, and the language per se. When learners feel they belong in a group or institution and when they feel cared for as people and in terms of their learning progress, they are much more likely to engage and be active in their own learning. However, learners also need to build a personal connection to the language itself. Even if they feel competent and able, without a compelling reason to engage with the language, they might not bother! Help your learners to find a purpose. Why are they learning a language and what value could it have for them and their future lives – be that in terms of relevance, importance, utility, and/or interest?
Explore key areas of educational and social psychology with our Oxford Handbook for Language Teachers:
Sarah Mercer is Professor of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Graz, Austria, where she is Head of ELT methodology and Deputy Head of the Centre for Teaching and Learning in Arts and Humanities. Her research interests include all aspects of the psychology surrounding the foreign language learning experience. She is the author, co-author and co-editor of several books in this area including, ‘Psychology for Language Learning’.