When I tell people I am fluent in Chinese, they usually respond by saying that they have always wanted to learn a language, but that they are just naturally bad at languages or don’t have the “language gene.” Many of these people had a negative experience studying a language in high school or college—myself included. I got a D in high school Spanish and a C my first year studying Chinese in college. If I had let these classroom experiences define my language ability for myself, I would never have reached fluency in Chinese, nor would I have gone on to study Latin, Korean, and Japanese later in life. It was my perspective and mindset about learning a language that allowed me to keep up my motivation and reach fluency.
I don’t believe that there is such thing as a “language gene.” Everyone has the potential to learn a language fluently (they’ve done it once before), but the limiting beliefs that people carry with them hold them back from reaching their goals. Shifting your perspective to empowering beliefs about language learning is essential for maintaining your progress and sanity.
Research by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has shown how beliefs about learning directly affects a student’s future success. In this realm, there are two types of mindsets: a “fixed mindset” and a “growth mindset.” Those with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence is unchangeable, while those with a growth mindset believe that they can improve their intelligence with effort. In Dweck’s own words:
Believing that your qualities are carved in stone—the fixed mindset—creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character—well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.
In the context of learning languages, people who hold this fixed mindset believe that their ability to learn a new language is determined at birth—they think that no amount of effort can change this preordained amount. As a result, failure must be avoided at all costs since it only highlights a lack of ability. If you operate with a fixed mindset, you will likely stay in your comfort zone, where you can regularly validate your perceived level of intelligence.
The fixed mindset is detrimental to long-term success in learning a language. Every quiz, test, and sentence spoken reinforces the belief in natural language learning ability or lack thereof. A growth mindset, on the other hand, views challenges and difficulties as an opportunity to thrive:
In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. The growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience.
This empowering mindset views learning as a process improved through effort. People who hold a growth mindset believe that their intelligence is malleable and that they can improve their innate abilities. They do not ignore the role that innate abilities might have on their success, but they recognize that everyone can improve their abilities through sustained effort. Tests are not a reflection of innate intelligence, but rather one indicator of their current level that can always be improved upon.
In one study, Dweck found that the mindsets held by seventh graders had a large effect on their future math achievement scores during seventh and eighth grade. While the grade point average of the fixed mindset students remained the same, the students with a growth mindset improved their GPA over time. In other words, the students who believed they could improve ended up improving over time. Dweck’s research provides a number of reasons for this improvement, but the underlying reason seems to be motivation. When students believe that their effort have the potential for positive effects in their learning, they work harder instead of giving up and feeling helpless.
Another study performed by Dweck directly related to language learning reveals how growth mindset students seek out opportunities to maximize their potential, while fixed mindset students avoid these opportunities. Dweck and her team conducted research on incoming freshman at the University of Hong Kong. A certain level of fluency in English is required to be successful at this university because all the classes, readings, and exams are in English.
After determining which students did not already have high English abilities, the researchers asked these students: “If the faculty offered a course for students who need to improve their English would you take it?” They also measured the students’ mindset by asking questions like, “You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you can’t really do much to change it.” Students who agreed with statements like these were classified as having a “fixed” mindset. On the other hand, students who held the belief “You can always substantially change how intelligent you are” were classified as having a “growth” mindset.
The researchers examined their data to see which students opted to take the remedial English course. The students with a growth mindset emphatically chose to take the remedial course, whereas the fixed mindset students were not that interested in taking the course. All of these students could have used this course to improve their English—however, it was the ones who viewed learning as a process that sought out the opportunity. The fixed mindset students avoided the chance for remedial help because it would have meant a kind of failure, pushing them out of their comfort zone.
Dweck’s research has profound implications for language learners. It suggests that it is not raw language talent, but rather the mindset that a student brings to the learning endeavor, that will determine success. With a growth mindset, each conversation is a chance to learn and become a better speaker. However, with a fixed mindset, each mistake only reinforces their perceived lack of natural ability in the foreign language.
When you have a growth mindset, you will constantly seek out opportunities and resources to maximize your language learning potential. That could mean making friends with a native speaker, doing language exchange or signing up for an online tutor on a site like italki.com. People with a growth mindset thrive on challenges and difficulties. They are not afraid of making mistakes outside their comfort zone, which will absolutely happen when learning a new language. These learners know that a test is not the sum of who they are, but rather a marker of their current ability that could be improved upon with more effort and coaching.
Dweck powerfully summarizes these two mindsets:
When you enter a mindset, you enter a new world. In one world—the world of fixed traits—success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other—the world of changing qualities—it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself.
In one world, failure is about having a setback. Getting a bad grade. Losing a tournament. Getting fired. Getting rejected. It means you’re not smart or talented. In the other world, failure is about not growing. Not reaching for things you value. It means you’re not fulfilling your potential.
In one world, effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort. In the other world, effort is what makes you smart or talented.
You have a choice. Mindsets are just beliefs. They’re powerful beliefs, but they’re just something in your mind, and you can change your mind.
The next time you make a mistake or fail a quiz, think about how your mindset might be sabotaging your language success. Awareness of how your beliefs might be limiting you is key to changing your mindset, shifting from a stagnating one to one that empowers you and gives you the motivation you need when learning a language.
Photo by Joshua Earle