Appendix D: How the Brain Learns
The following appendix is a set of discussions on how learning happens in our minds, applied to language learning specifically. While I reference language learning throughout, the sources for this info come from elsewhere and can be applied more generally.
A growth mindset
A growth mindset is the belief that you are capable of improving. Don’t let your beliefs about your own ability place limits on what you can achieve. Believing that you lack certain talents or will never reach a certain level will make it so. While talent provides a nice boost, anybody who got good at anything got there through thousands of hours of practice that you don’t see. Achieving the same will take time and practice.
The best way to learn something is when there is clear relevance and usefulness to you. The mere act of “wanting” to know something seems to help. If you want to cultivate this effect, approach unfamiliar words and forms with a sense of curiosity. Prime your mind by genuinely trying to figure out how a word or form affects the meaning of the sentence before you look it up. It also helps if you encounter words multiple times, giving the word a sense of familiarity and importance.
Learning is a subconscious process
It is primarily subconscious processes that mark something as important and enable us to remember something. Learning something that has no obvious relevance to your life, you haven’t needed to use, and has no relation to anything else you know can be hard. First learning something completely new constitutes a mental “hurdle”. That is, learning basically requires pure memorisation. This type of memorisation is very, very difficult to do relative to other methods. There is a high degree of mental “resistance”—meaning it seems hard to get it to stick in your memory.
There are several ways you can reduce this mental hurdle:
Context—Use phrases and content to link words to others, showing you how they are used in context
Logical connections—Words often share roots or affixes in common with other words you know which you can use as prompt to help you remember
Mnemonics—Connect words to concepts that are already cemented in your mind
Personal connection—Try to create a connection to the word so that it becomes personally meaningful to you
Curiosity—Stay curious and interested in the words and forms you encounter
Top-down and bottom-up processing
When trying to understand something, the human brain uses two broad processes: top-down and bottom-up.
Top-down processing involves using context to make deductions about what some content is about. Bottom-up processing involves understanding the pieces to build up to a coherent whole. Using both helps you learn new words and constructions from context.
For example: while watching a video you encounter a new word. You might note that the speaker appears to be indicating an apple in their hand. In this case, top-down processing involves picking up that the word means “apple” naturally.
Bottom-up processing is any word or form you already know that helps you understand the sentence. Pausing a video to try to recall the function of a form you just heard is a good example of bottom-up processing being practised and applied to learn effectively.
When engaging with content, both processes work in tandem to help you apprehend meaning in real time. Knowing this lets you take advantage of it. Before you start something, make sure you understand the context and have formed expectations surrounding what the resource is going to show you. One common method of doing this is beginning a text by skim reading or starting a TV episode with a plot summary.
Which ordering of letters do you think is easier to memorise: “orhezo esn rinyg bivt”, or “snoozing by the river”? You would probably find the latter much easier to remember, though both contain the exact same letters. This is because you are already familiar with the constituent parts. You’ve already memorised the correct spelling of each word and their order fits comfortably in the patterns of language you find intuitive (it is grammatical).
This idea of already-learned aspects of language is a concept we will refer to as chunks. The concept was brought into the public consciousness by Barbara Oakley, who posted a good overview of the idea here. Known aspects of language constitute chunks which don’t require effort for you to comprehend or use. These known chunks are an aide that will help teach you how the new word or piece of grammar is used.
It is far easier to learn something new when other aspects you are presented with at the same time are already easily understandable. For example, learning the meaning and usage of a new word in an example sentence will be much easier if you already know all the other words, just like how it is much easier to remember all those letters once they are organised into words. Grammar will be easier to memorise if one concept is presented to you using words you already know. The additional context provided by known chunks will assist you in understanding the new part and you will learn faster overall.
Once you learn something, it becomes a new chunk to help provide context for learning new concepts.
Building new chunks is difficult and takes focused effort. The core insight of this idea is that it is almost impossible to learn a lot of new chunks of language at once. Learning using a text or example sentences chock full of new grammatical constructions and words might seem like a really efficient way of learning, but there will be no familiar connections or context to aid understanding, and your learning will actually be slower. Recollection will be particularly hard, akin to recalling random letters in order. Focusing on learning a single aspect at a time allows you to build new chunks easily while minimising the chance of forgetting.
This principle does not mean “don’t try to learn quickly”. It means that when you learn a new word or grammatical construction, you will learn it much faster if it is presented to you in the context of other chunks of language that are already familiar to you. If you are learning something difficult, learn that difficult thing in context of already known things and rely on that context and knowledge to help you learn. The texts you use to learn should already be mostly comprehensible, and learning words or grammar is best done with understandable context, either in text or with example sentences for your flashcards.
Difficulty + successful recall
When you encounter something that you’ve learned about before but haven’t fully absorbed, the general stages are as follows:
Confusion/uncertainty—The learner finds something unclear when they first encounter it in their content.
Mental effort—Mental effort is expended trying to recall a word or concept to use it. This is where the most powerful learning happens.
Insight—The mental effort pays off, and the learner successfully grasps meaning using their new knowledge.
Repetition—Each time the new word or concept is encountered it becomes easier.
Your brain learns optimally when you encounter something, expend mental effort, and eventually succeed. To ensure your mental effort results in learning, aim for just the right amount of difficulty—not too difficult that something presents an insurmountable barrier, but not so easy that you don’t learn anything new. This is the principle Your level + 1.
When something is too difficult, a lack of context and meaningful connections create a barrier that results in a lot of tiring mental effort with relatively little payoff. When something is too easy, there is no mental challenge, and you don’t learn anything. When a resource is mostly comprehensible, all the known words and forms surrounding something new provides useful context that reduces the barrier to understanding and enables optimal learning.
Avoid doing activities that are too much of a struggle until you are able to do slightly easier ones. If you constantly find yourself struggling without understanding, you need to find an easier activity.
Often you will struggle to recall the meaning of a word or form and will be forced to look it up. This is perfectly natural and very common. While re-looking things up helps learning, it is not optimal. Try to find ways to prompt yourself to remember the answer.
Active recall is the active use of memory during the learning process. It requires focused attention on recalling and using information to improve your language skill. This can be contrasted with passive learning, where you allow knowledge to come to you in a passive way without actively straining to decode meaning or recall a concept. For example, relaxing and watching a TV show or reading over your study notes.
While passive activities such as simply watching a show are generally much more enjoyable and easier to do in large amounts, active recall is more efficient in terms of progress per hour spent. Active learning by using your content for focused study will let you gain new knowledge faster. At the same time, learning a language takes enormous amounts of input and there is no way to realistically expose yourself to all the forms and words you need without large amounts of passive learning.
Be sure you are doing both types of learning. You may find it better to use more difficult resources for active learning and easier ones for passive learning.
We are creatures of habit. One of the keys to maintaining your routine is habit. Build a habit of studying at a regular time each day. The best time is usually first thing in the morning, while you are still fresh and probably don’t have anything else scheduled. With a good habit, your automatic process should be to begin studying without you having to think about it. If you have to ask yourself “should I study or should I do something else?”, it takes mental effort to force yourself to study that will wear you down over time. Instead, your default should be that time is dedicated to study. If you want to use that time for something else, you need to find valid and specific reason.
It helps a lot if your interaction with the language is consistent. Try not to take long breaks from learning. Do at least a little bit every day. Too tired? Just do five minutes. Those five minutes now keep you in the habit of doing something every day and keep the language active in your mind.
Another key to maintaining your habit and routine is discipline. Discipline is not an inherent trait, but a set of habits and mental tools that help one start projects and stay on-task. Not every day will you find it easy to keep your habit. If this is you, you may need to find ways to force yourself to at least begin studying. Try promising yourself to simply start with the intention of only doing five minutes. Usually you will find it easier to continue once you have already started.