Get Adobe Flash player

1.1 The inbuilt and invisible obstacles in the mind




This blog exposes the twin challenge we face when seeking to acquire or progress in a foreign language. Firstly, the way we 'naturally' approach learning leads to a high rate of failure. Secondly and ironically, the road to fluency is hidden in plain sight. 


Furthermore, a misleading belief surrounding language learning makes it even more difficult to perceive and cross this double barrier. A simple paradigm illustrates the issue.


Pyramid Paradigm


As science uncovers more of the brain's recesses, functions and traits, we are becoming more aware  of the  behindthescenes imperatives and commands driving us. Depending  upon our aim,   some inbuilt operators assist us; others stand in the way. 


With this in mind, starting a new language resembles entering a pyramid. The main entrance leads nowhere. The genuine gate lies elsewhere. If you rely on your gut instinct, on your dominant drive, you are likely to move easily towards a… dead-end, hence the above 90% failure in the Anglo-saxon world. The real entry to an easier pathway requires counterintuitive thinking and skills as already partly implemented by other societies such as the nordic cultures.  


We have identified a number of natural drivers which need to be reigned in and as many which need to be brought to the forefront and switched on. In this blog, I’ll briefly touch upon four of the misleading operators:  attraction of novelty, automatic unwelcome choice, delusion of perfection, hearing radarBut to start with, let's look into the damaging belief.


Misleading beliefs


You are about to embark on a challenging but elating journey: learning a foreign languageHighly motivated, with the right attitude and an unflinching resolve, you are convinced or at least hope that the hurdles that may come your way will melt down and crumble under your efforts and determination.


At the same time, you may be aware that many around you have faced similar challenges and that a large proportion have been unable to truly succeed.  In the UK, under 10% of the working population can communicate effectively in a foreign language.


You may believe the crowds who fail do so out of lack of perseverance, too weak a commitment, conflicting time priorities or any number of reasons. In the past, you may also have tried to learn a foreign language and experienced less success than you expected or deserved.


Our society likes to believe that individual willpower and determination hold the key to foreign language acquisition. A deficit of these allegedly explains the magnitude of personal and collective disappointments.


Whilst I am sure these reasons account for some failures, the present blog aims at redressing such a sweeping misconception and seeks to identify where the blame truly falls. Solutions, techniques and novel learning habits to boost results are alluded to and further discussed in blogs to be released soon. 



Attraction of novelty


New words like new toys catch the ears or the eyes. New sounds attract notice so that attention naturally locks onto them.


This innate trait wreaks havoc when launching into a second language. The mind, primed to react strongly to novelty, focuses on too many of these newbies. Most are barely relevant to student's level and their sheer volume quickly overwhelms the ability to memorise. As a result, the mind bogs down into confusion. Soon enough, learning becomes a battle of attrition and demotivation sets in.   


If this powerful attraction to new words is misleading, how can we progress without these new pearls?


Ironically, the attention needs to shift relentlessly away from this seduction of the new and concentrate elsewhere. To progress fast, our  focus needs to be trained, recalibrated and aim in a fundamentally different direction.  


Once it is reorientated, words are easily selected, captured and hardwired in the long term memory. This technique is elaborated upon in chapter 1.3 and 1.5, and their respective blogs.


Automatic unwelcome choice


The ‘closure’ mechanism, as it is referred to in psychology, helps us make decisions in an instant and without effort. Such an automated mechanism also supplements an action with an emotional assurance that it is right. This hidden, fast and usually reliable assessment and response system contributes to most of our decisions. In a well-known setting, it allows for quick and efficient solutions to a wide range of issues. Finding the right word to suit an established circumstance is one such example.


When operating in a foreign language, this tool initially grinds down to a halt for lack of an adequate supply of words, thereby creating endless frustration, irritation and pain. Later, when we become more advanced, it returns to full power. As this occurs, it does help us gain ground in the target language. However, very quickly, it also inhibits higher speech quality by predominantly reinforcing existing structures. The 'closure' mechanism deepens the roots of words which at an intermediate level may have been suitable but which, at a higher level, no longer provide enough variety.  In short, old words, already settled in, come forth with speed against more suited but less reinforced ones and keep you locked in, unable to progress.  


In short, this invisible, in-built and excessively responsive auto-pilot acts as a barrier to development when it comes to nurturing and stimulating an entirely new competence such as a second language.  In summary, unless dealt with, the 'closure principle' behaves like a prison gate making it hard for beginners and advanced learners alike to access new words.


An ongoing, conscious realization of its existence combined with a powerful handling of its negative effects help expand vocabulary quickly and efficiently.  The book as well as ensuing blogs and the will address this issue more fully.


The delusion of perfection


Most of us seem to share the same obsession for perfection. On the surface, this compulsion may appear helpful. Fear of risk or failure may be the underpinning reason for it. In a life-threatening environment, reducing the odds for danger makes sense. In a foreign language learning situation, it merely hinders advances. The preoccupation for perfection supplies learners with endless reasons for not engaging NOW in real conversations. Thus, it constantly slows down actual progress.  


The behavior we use for reducing risk and achieving perfection is weaved into our 'natural' habits. Perceiving such mental roadblock is the first step.


We need to become aware of our own tricks so that we may be able to handle them and over time neutralise their crippling effect.  To this end, chapter 2.4 and its blog explore the attitudes and behavior which underpin the mechanics and competences of the Language Talent.


Hearing radar


Our hearing radar helps us detect unusual sounds. As a beginner to a foreign language, the barrier of new sounds when listening to native speakers can appear so daunting that it may altogether dishearten learners.  At intermediate or even advanced level, when we attempt to listen to a conversation in the target tongue, our mind naturally homes in on what we don’t understand. We focus on the unknown, get flustered and easily become fazed. In the meantime, the speech moves on and we miss even more of the content.


What action do we need to carry out in order to inhibit this natural tendency and build and efficient operational auditory radar?  A set of competences and routines addressing this issue is explored in chapter 2.5 and partly released in blog 2.5 published at a later date.


Communicate with the author


If you have a question or request related to the material please contact