Have you ever wondered why video games are so additive (to some!). Wouldn’t it be great if we could get addicted to the game of language learning? That way we couldn’t wait to get back to it, we would be reluctant to leave it and our levels would keep getting higher and higher! Even if you aren’t the type to get addicted to video or computer games, think back over your life and I feel confident that all (maybe most!) of you can find something you got “addicted to”..maybe stamp collecting, dancing, physics, gardening, car restoration, a business, card games, tennis, etc.
I will stay with video games as an example but there are parallels you could find in any other addiction (leaving aside drugs, alcohol etc!) from which we can learn a lot. In some cases though, the parallels might be harder to see, hence my decision to focus on video games. So what makes video games addictive and what can we learn from that?
One key thing is that they manage to maintain the challenge at exactly the right level to keep you engaged and able at the same time to have you move forward once you master a step. So there is always an element of satisfaction once you master a step. The game has done the hard work and figured out the steps for you. Learning a language is different in a number of ways of course. One element which is identical is the issue of being challenged.
Two of the biggest obstacles in learning languages, to do with the level of challenge, is that people give up either because they are too bored with what they are learning or that they get too frustrated because the exercises they are doing are too difficult. The third is mostly an outcome of the the first two, namely there is no perception of moving forward. (In video games of course this is well signposted).
So what can be done to rectify the situation. If you find yourself getting bored while you are learning, you can ratchet up the difficulty in a number of ways:
1) compete against yourself (or someone else) by doing one of the next 2 points;
2) improve your fluency or “feel” while at the same time maintaining or even improving your accuracy;
3) vary the kinds of language problems you are working on (this can be to do with any aspect of language).
4) use the language you are learning in different situations or contexts ( with friends, on the phone, shopping etc)
If you find yourself frustrated while learning, usually because the tasks are too difficult or confusing, there are a number of solutions you can explore:
1) consider whether you have taken on a task that is beyond the current skills or understandings (like trying to master some advanced grammar, when you have not yet fully understood the basics. Or trying to learn vocabulary that cannot yet fit into the the language structures which you currently know))
2) break the task down into the smallest steps possible. Keep on breaking the steps down into micro steps till you can identify exactly where your confusion occurs. Here you may be able to solve it yourself or you may have to resort to ask someone to help you understand.
3) go back and choose a level of language that you can successfully produce most of the time. Keep working on that until you are getting it right nearly all the time. Then add a level of difficulty (fluency, accuracy, complexity) to keep you engaged.
Taking on board these understandings, you can see that the the emotions of boredom and frustration are actually signals that can help you control and manage your engagement and motivation. Once you learn how to calibrate your language learning challenges that you face, you will find that the level of energy you bring to your learning will increase and you will experience more improvements in the language you are learning. What’s interesting about the motivational changes that you experience from following this path is that it is not dependent upon external factors but upon factors of over which you have full control. This way language learning becomes a game, something which you seek out and have fun with.