Can we make language learning easier and faster by triggering habits?

I read a very interesting book last week, called ‘The Power of Habit’, by Charles Duhigg.  It looks in readable detail at what is really known about how to build and how to break habits, and suggests very strongly indeed that all habits break down to a basic pattern of cue -> action -> reward.

Ideally, a cue should be an external trigger – if your cue is just ‘Remembering to go for a run’, for example, it’s only going to be triggered when you happen to think about it – which might explain why so many people have trouble getting into the habit of going for a run.

In terms of breaking habits, too, it’s particularly important to identify what your cue really is – a lot of the time, we only have a vague idea of why we do something we’d rather not.  Once you think carefully about what is triggering the behaviour, it’s easier to see ways to control it.

It struck me immediately that this might be something interesting for my work with building course frameworks.  The ideas certainly work – I have a tendency to eat things I shouldn’t from time to time, and I’m not as good as I’d like to be at using my exercise bike in the mornings.  After a bit of careful thought last week, I realised that I only eat rubbish when I’m downstairs – physically too close to the fridge – and feeling in need of a little comfort.  This last week, I’ve just made a point of assessing the cue when I’m about to eat rubbish, and choosing a hug with one of the kids as my comfort, and without any stress or feeling of sacrifice I’ve completely stopped eating stuff I shouldn’t.

I also realised that the biggest reason I don’t do the exercise bike is that I put it off until later, and eventually ‘later’ becomes too late.  New rule – I’m not allowed to turn the computer on in the morning until I’ve been on the bike.  Net result – I haven’t missed a day since the new rule started, and it feels great.

So how could this help language learners?

It seems to me that the cue is the magic ingredient.  At the moment, our courses focus on giving people the language they need to deal with their first conversation – and our forum encourages people to go for it, to jump in and have that conversation – but, of course, it’s a huge step, and it takes a lot of courage.  Nothing external triggers that first conversation – it has to be a conscious decision from the learner.

I’ve tended to think of that first conversation as the first example of the learner using the language.  But now I think I’ve been wrong about that.

Before any learner has a conversation with someone who speaks their target language, they have an internal conversation, testing out the things they can and can’t say.

What if we could create some triggers for those internal conversations?

What if we could teach people how to say the things they say often, at certain points in the day?  The beginning of a framework for their own internal monologue?  Could we, for example, get them automatically to think ‘Byddai panad yn braf iawn’ every time someone asked them if they wanted a cuppa?

If we could, if we could create a collection of cues that would trigger the habit of thinking in the target language (even just for a sentence or two) several times a day, would that be likely to encourage people to start using their new language with speakers sooner than would otherwise be the case?

I think it would be, so I think we might need to run some tests with this…:-)


4 responses to “Can we make language learning easier and faster by triggering habits?

    • Identifying existing cues and thinking of new ones is a fascinatingly worthwhile thought exercise – I hope you enjoy it! And diolch yn fawr iawn iawn for your email – will be answering it as soon as I get back from a brief trip to see my mother…:-)

  1. I totally agree with that!

    I remember when I first started learning Welsh, I went to Caernarfon and saw people making queries in Welsh to the staff behind the counter in the information centre. After an hour or so, of simulating conversations in my head (or as you brilliantly put it – testing out the things you can and can’t say) and a fair few reminders of “it’s diolch, not thank you”, I went back, picked the least talkative staff member, and mumbled “oes gen ti map o’r dref, os gwelwch yn dda?”, the man immediately replied “oes” got up and handed over a map of the town, from the leaflet display behind the counter.

    I was on cloud nine. I had spoken Welsh, been understood, understood the reply, and gotten what I was after.

    Since then, my natural (without thinking about it) reaction has been to say diolch to the bus driver, instead of thanks, which can encourage some funny looks when you live a long way away from Wales 😀

    Hopefully this backs up your theory, and proves that if you make a habbit of reacting a certain way when cued it becomes concreted as something you just do 🙂

    • That’s really interesting, Danny, thanks for sharing. I think a lot of learners give themselves a hard time and convince themselves that stuff like ‘just’ saying ‘diolch’ and so on really doesn’t count – but it’s remarkable how much of a waterfall effect using just a little Welsh has…:)

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