Get Emotional—Why Language Learning Is Not Just Business, It’s Personal

What we learn with pleasure, we never forget. – Alfred Mercier

As you probably know, English is currently the international language of business. Therefore it’s not surprising that most of my English students are business professionals. Many of them are very highly educated and very successful in their fields. But I’ve noticed that it’s not how many letters are attached to the end of their name that determines whether or not they will progress in English. It’s how they look at the language. Let me explain.

  • It’s Not Personal, It’s Strictly Business
  • This Time… It’s Personal
  • Positive Emotions Help You Put in the Time
  • Positive Emotions Make Memories Stick
  • Positive Emotions Give You Endurance
  • The Takeaway

It’s Not Personal, It’s Strictly Business

A very driven business person may feel that in order to further their career, they need to keep improving their English, which is a completely legitimate motive. But many approach language like a math exam. “Teacher asked me a question. I must respond to the question. Response given. Success. English achieved.” Often they read a response directly from the material instead of trying to express the thought in their own words. Their answers tend to be short and unimaginative. Outside of the class they’re not likely to consume books, videos or music in English. They don’t have friends they socialize with in English. Their entire exposure to the language is the English session they have with me once a week for an hour.

Often the result is that their progress is very slow, which can be extremely confusing and frustrating for a person who excels at so many other aspects of their career. They may wonder, “What is WRONG with me? Why can’t I learn this language?” There is nothing wrong with you my friend. What’s wrong is how you look at the language.

Now let’s look at the opposite kind of student.

This Time… It’s Personal

For many business professionals, furthering their career may be the initial reason why they begin learning English. But soon they find things about the language or the culture that they enjoy. Maybe they like English music. Maybe they like American or British films. Maybe they enjoy traveling and associate speaking English with traveling. Maybe they just think the language sounds cool. In any case, these students are generally more engaged during class. Their answers tend to be more creative and in their own words. They are eager to express their own thoughts, and not just the thoughts of whoever wrote the course syllabus. They usually ask more questions. They nearly always have better retention. They’re more likely to linger after class is over and keep talking. During their day-to-day life, they’re less likely to shy away from situations where they will be forced to use English. Not surprisingly, this tends to be the kind of student who makes progress in the language.

So what is the fundamental difference between these two types of students? It’s not work ethic. They may be both equally as hard-working. But it is almost always the one who is emotionally invested in the language who makes better progress.

Why do language learners need to get emotional about their target language? There are at least three reasons.

1. Positive Emotions Help You Put in the Time

Language learning takes time and a whole lot of it. The more time you can put into it, the better. As I mentioned in a previous blog, language is a skill. Who will become more proficient at learning to play the guitar? A person who finds it boring and only plays once a week for an hour? Or a person who loves it and picks it up and starts practicing every spare second he has of the day?

Imagine two people. One of them you work with. You don’t have anything against the guy. But frankly you find him a little dull and boring. The other person is someone you’ve just started dating, and they are the most amazing, interesting, fun person you’ve ever met in your whole entire life ever! (Congratulations! 🎉) Which one will you be more likely to find any flimsy excuse to spend time with? Which person will you be more focused, in the moment, mentally engaged with while spending time with them? Obviously, the one you have an emotional connection with. You may need to spend time with your dull coworker every now and then to colaborate on projects. If he sits down next to you at lunch, you won’t be rude. You’ll have a conversation with him. But you don’t want to get on a plane with him and go to Hawaii for a week.

When I first started learning Russian when I was 18, my language learning method was garbage (or rubbish, for my British mates). In fact, it wasn’t so much a “method” as it was reading a textbook and pleading, begging, imploring my brain “Remember this word! I want to know this word, so remember it please!” I now know that wasn’t a very effective use of my time. The brain doesn’t assimilate new memories just because you consciously try to convince it to. Looking back it’s amazing I learned anything at all. But now with the benefit of hindsight and more experience learning languages, I do know the real reason I made progress in the Russian.

I had Russian friends. Many of them spoke no English. Others spoke great English, but because they knew I wanted to learn the language, they let me believe that they didn’t speak English for years! I loved my Russian-speaking friends (and still do) and their culture. I found any excuse I could to spend time with them. I was with them for hours a day, most days of the week. So even though I didn’t really know an effective way to learn, I was accidentally making use of one of the best ways to learn a language—immersion. And it wasn’t a chore. It was a joy. I associated the language with good times, road trips, karaoke, apartment complex talent nights, and most important of all friendship, which is one of the most positive things a person experiences in life.

We spend time doing the things that make us happy or that we find fun and interesting. We find excuses to do it. And when we’re doing those things, we are almost always more mentally engaged and focused than when we are forced to do something we find mundane or boring.

2. Positive Emotions Make Memories Stick

People generally don’t suppress positive memories. Think back to the best, most wonderful day of your life. Can you see where you were? What were you wearing? What were your friends or family doing? What was the weather like? Did anyone say anything that stuck with you? How many years ago was it? Now think back to a month ago from today. How much of that day can you remember? (No cheating if a month ago from today was the best day of your life.)

Positive emotions (happiness, fun, love, joy, amazement, awe) make memories stick. It’s really a wonderful thing if you think about it. Our brains are designed to push happy memories to the top and let the mundane and boring fade from memory in order to clear up space on the hard drive for more positive or more important memories. (Obviously, traumatic memories can be vivid as well, but that’s another topic entirely.)

So the crafty language learner can use this to their advantage by finding something they enjoy, or appreciate, or love about the language they are learning, or more importantly about the people who speak that language.

3. Positive Emotions Give You Endurance

Language learning is not a sprint; it’s an endurance race. If you love running, you view running as a reward, not a chore. If you get enjoyment from running, you don’t mind a little rain or cold or heat or if the terrain is a little hilly. But for someone who hates running and just does it because they feel that they should be more into it, any challenge they encounter (I don’t have the right shoes, the weather isn’t nice, I’m tired) has the potential to derail the whole project.

People often tell me, “I should work harder on my [insert language here].” Unfortunately, guilt is a terrible motivator. A person who lets guilt drive them will only ever do the bare minimum to not feel guilty.

The Takeaway

So what’s the main point? Get emotional about your target language. Motivations such as career needs or guilt won’t cut it long-term. Find something you love about the language. Date it. Get to know its history. Get to know the people who use the language, their culture, their food, their cinema, their music. If you can’t get enthusiastic about it, maybe you need to break up with that language and date another one. Date a few of them! They won’t find out about each other. Find one that you feel like you connect with.

Admittedly, for some people the positive emotion is just the sense of accomplishment for having learned a language! Some people love learning. I think I’m not being presumptuous when I say that for those who learn several languages, at some point the positive emotion is just the love of language itself. They may find languages fascinating; each one like a puzzle to be solved, or a cipher to be decoded. But I think for the vast majority of people, those kinds of things are just not going to be motivating enough. So they’ll have to find another emotional payoff for their time spent with the language.

Try this: Get emotional. Write down at least five things you find cool or amazing or fun about the language you’re learning or the people who speak it and their culture.

A language is a people, and a people is a language. When you have an emotional connection to the people who speak your target language you won’t view the language as a chore. That means you’ll (1) find excuses to be around that language, (2) your brain will cooperate with you to make memories stick, and (3) you will have the endurance needed to keep running.

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