Understanding human psychological biases can help a language learner to design an effective learning environment. This post is inspired by a book that I read recently “Nudges: improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness”.  The book is basically discussing how to use humans’ psychological biases to improve decisions and policies. I want to take some of the ideas mentioned in this book and relate them to learning a language.

Here are some well-documented psychological biases:

  • Inertia or status quo: people tend to prefer the status quo (or default state) rather than change. Therefore the default state (or status quo) is usually left unchallenged.
  • Unrealistic optimism: people tend to be over-optimistic when they are assessing the probability of something happening to them. For example, many smokers know that there is a real risk to get cancer if you smoke regularly but still when asked, they tend to underestimate the probability that this will happen to them.
  • Loss aversion: people “suffer” more from losing something they had than from not having something they never had.

How can you use these psychological biases to your advantage to learn a language?

  • Inertia: create default states that are helping you to learn your target language. In other words, create habits that promote your learning. For example, you could start to read every day after dinner a book in your target language. Or you could decide that every Sunday you see a movie in your target language.
  • Unrealistic optimism:  unrealistic optimism in language learning is found every time you think that you will magically learn the language with a small effort. Instead of being unrealistic challenge yourself to achieve clear goals within specific deadlines and find ways to get feedback on your progress toward your goals. On the other hand use unrealistic optimism to support your belief that even if a language is supposed to be extremely difficult to learn you can do it.
  • Loss aversion: create a situation where you have already invested precious resources to learn a language so that you will find it extremely unpleasant to quit learning. For example, pay in advance a year-long subscription to download audiobooks, once you have already paid for them you will certainly feel the obligation to use them.

It is my belief that being conscious of these biases can empower language learners and avoid some common pitfalls in their journey toward fluency.

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