Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

Willpower and Language Learning: 5 Simple Tips

willpower - GamesforlanguageIt's Monday morning, top of the week, and I'm more than ready for the following headline in the Lifestyle section of my local paper: "How Willpower Works."

Research indicates that willpower can be strengthened like a muscle - and is a key predictor for success in life." That looks promising.

I'm just embarking on learning Mandarin Chinese, my first non-European language. A little extra willpower will be helpful for sure.

In her article, Deborah Kotz, health reporter/blogger for the Boston Globe, has tracked down pertinent research about willpower in general, and mentions various studies that show the benefits of self-control.

She concludes: "Willpower, it turns out, is one of the most important predictors of success in later life."

Research and Experience

But how can the research she describes apply specifically to learning a new language, which Kotz calls a "high-willpower activity"?

One key premise is a quote by the "endurance artist" David Blaine, who states: "Getting your brain wired into little goals and achieving them helps you achieve the bigger things you shouldn't be able to do."

Learning a new language, sticking with it, and getting some real results is definitely a "big thing."

Like staying with a diet, language learning has a high failure rate.

In part, this may be because people expect too much too fast and don't find a way to stay with it.

So how can you best strengthen your willpower for learning a new language?

Five Simple Tips

1) Set your mind on a specific long-term goal and be clear why you want to achieve that goal. 

For example: You're planning a trip to France in the spring and you want to get a good command of survival French.

You want to learn how to buy fruit at an open market or a newspaper at a kiosk; navigate the public transportation system; ask for directions to someone's house or apartment; make formal and informal introductions, etc.

2) Get into the habit of doing little self-control tasks on a daily basis.

And as I understand, they can be really "little." Some of these tasks don't need to be language related. Remember, you're just exercising your willpower muscle.

In his book "Willpower" Roy F. Baumeister suggests that cultivating specific new habits that require a mental effort - such as doing a habitual action in a different way - can strengthen self-control. For example, you can fix your posture several times a day, or brush your teeth with the other hand. 

3) Become creative with language learning mini-tasks.

Besides the regular language learning schedule you're committed to, do a number of language learning mini-tasks throughout the day.

For example, keep a journal in your new language and make several short entries throughout the day; practice a few vocabs intermittently on your smart phone; or line up a couple of YouTube videos for the day to click on.

Or scan the online edition of a foreign newspaper, initially just for some phrases and sentences, later for full articles or stories.

Postscript: Since this post was published I have found Lingua.ly very useful: You can discover the meaning of foreign words you don't know and move them to a vocabulary list. Later you can practice those.

4) Get to know that part of your brain where you make your decisions.

Kotz explains the function of the prefrontal cortex (here, radically simplified by me):

the right side helps you say "no" to temptation, the left side helps you say "yes" to the good choice, and the middle part helps you weigh the either/or.

Each time you achieve a small goal, it's a springboard for the next one. Also, be aware that there are things that will drain your willpower. Fatigue is one, being hungry or stressed out are others. I would also add boredom and being overwhelmed with choices.

5) Learn to pace yourself.

Unless you're studying for a language exam or you're one of those rare language geeks, a step-by-step approach may be best.

Break the language down into chunks and then put it together again.

Make sure that there always is a meaningful context.

Doing 15 minutes a day, every day will get you farther than doing 1 hour twice a week.

But if you miss a day, don't be self-critical. When you're ready, just continue where you left off.

The Bottom Line

Doing little self-control tasks throughout the day can help your willpower for language learning.

Conversely, setting regular language learning goals for yourself can help you be successful with other, larger achievements. It's a win-win situation.

Now, will my tennis practice help my acquisition of Manderin Chinese, or is my language learning helping my tennis? The answer is yes!

The issue is not just the tennis or the Chinese itself, but the discipline of its practice. It's all good.

OK and now, before I start on my 15-minute Mandarin Chinese practice, should I have a little left-over Halloween candy for a glucose boost, or should I have that apple?