Learning a language involves much more than memorization. Motivation, habit formation and study techniques — among other things — are all part of the equation. The language-learning sphere encapsulates many other fields like psychology, education, technology and, of course, linguistics. With this interdisciplinary spirit in mind, we’re launching a series of conversations with experts in these fields to provide insights that can help us learn and grow.
We’re kicking off our “6 Questions With” series by chatting with Gretchen Rubin, best-selling author of The Happiness Project and host of the podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin. Rubin’s work largely focuses on forming positive habits and living a happier life. We asked her about her findings, and how they can be related to language learning.
1. If someone wants to form a healthy habit — whether it be going to the gym more or learning a new language — what would you suggest as a starting point?
RUBIN: I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that there is no magic, one-size-fits-all solution, and that just because something works well for somebody else doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to work for you. Say you’re learning a language. One thing you often hear is, “Get up early and do it first thing.” So, you have to get up at 7:00 a.m.? Get up at 6:30 a.m. and study your language for half an hour. That might be good advice if you’re a morning person. But there really are night people, and night people are at their most productive and creative and energetic later in the day. And the idea that they’re going to get up early and do something intellectually demanding is just not realistic. They’re not setting themselves up for success. Part of it is paying attention to yourself, and saying, “Am I in a good mental place? Do I feel like going for a run at 6:30 in the morning?” For some people, doing it at 6:30 is a possibility, and for some people, it’s just really unthinkable. And yet they will try to make themselves do it and blame themselves when they don’t succeed.
Think about when you have succeeded in the past. What appeals to you? We’re often told, “Start small.” Well, for many people that works well. They like to form a habit in a small way. They get a lot of accomplishments under their belts. They kind of ease into a habit. But some people just aren’t interested in that. They’re not interested in incremental change. They want to do something big, and that’s what’s attractive to them. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
2. In what ways can habit formation improve people’s lives in the long term? How can it change them for the better?
RUBIN: Research shows that about 40 percent of everyday life is shaped by habits. So, if you have habits that work for you, then you’re much more likely to be happier, healthier, more productive and more creative. If your habits are not working for you, it’s just going to be much harder. If you’re chronically exhausted, if you’re chronically procrastinating, if you spend all your time doing things like playing Candy Crush instead of doing things that really have a bigger happiness payoff, that’s just going to make your life tougher. Habits can really put behaviors on autopilot so we don’t have to go through the exhaustion of making decisions and using self-control.
3. In your newest book, The Four Tendencies, you discuss how people generally fit into one of four personality profiles: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. How do you think people from each tendency might approach learning a language differently?
RUBIN: We all face two kinds of expectations: outer expectations and inner expectations. An outer expectation is like a work deadline or a request from a friend, and an inner expectation is your own desire to keep your New Year’s resolution or your own desire to go running in the morning. Upholders readily meet outer and inner expectations. They want to know what other people expect from them, but their expectations for themselves are just as important. Questioners, they question everything. They’ll do something if they think it makes sense. They hate anything arbitrary, inefficient, irrational. Obligers readily meet outer expectations, but they struggle to meet inner expectations. They would have no trouble going exercising with a friend who is expecting them to show up but would have trouble going for a run on their own. Rebels want to do what they want to do in their own way, in their own time. If you ask or tell them to do something, they’re very likely to resist.
Knowing your tendency is going to have a lot of implications for how you are going to be able to set up a situation so that you can consistently form the habit of learning a language. For instance, if you were an Obliger, it wouldn’t be enough to say “Oh, I definitely want to learn French. I’ve always wanted to learn French since I was a little boy.” What you need is outer accountability. Maybe you need to meet with a friend once a week and try to speak French. Or maybe you’re going to check in with them every day and say, “Hey, did you do your work today? Yes, I did too.” Or maybe you’re going to have your kids hold you accountable, and you’re going to say, “Okay kids, you’ve got your homework and I’ve got my homework. And guess what? If I don’t do my homework, that means you don’t have to do your homework.” Some Obligers can be accountable to an auto-reminder from an app. But for some Obligers, no. They actually have to get in trouble from a real person.
For Questioners, it’s all about deciding that this is what they want and that this is the most efficient way to do it. So for them, it’s like, “Why would I use your program instead of another program? I want the most efficient way to achieve what I want.” Once they decide that this is what they want and this is the best way to get it, they will have no trouble doing it.
Now, Rebels. I’ve heard from several Rebels specifically about language-learning apps. And what they keep saying is that when they get reminders from an app, it makes them not want to do something. So the mere fact that somebody’s saying like, “Hey, it’s time to study Spanish,” makes them not want to do it. As a Rebel, I would choose to study language because that’s the kind of person I am. I have this idea of myself as someone who’s fluent, who’s bilingual. Well, then I’m going to do what it takes to get to be bilingual.
And then Upholders, they can do anything. If they make up their mind to do it, they can do it. So, they’re not going to be a problem for something like this.
4. Turning now to happiness, how you can become happier just by learning something new?
RUBIN: One of the elements of a happy life is an atmosphere of growth. It’s this feeling that you’re learning something, or you’re improving something, or you’re helping someone, or you’re fixing something to make it better. And that even if your life is good and happy, if you don’t have an atmosphere of growth, you can start to feel kind of stagnant. The thing about growth is that growth often has frustration, feeling insecure, feeling anxious, feeling dumb. So, the atmosphere of growth isn’t one that’s full of non-stop happiness, because there’s a lot of kind of negative emotions that are associated with growth. But there are also the positive things that come with the feeling of growth — somehow you’re making yourself bigger or better, or you’re improving the world in some way. And so learning is very much like that. You feel like your mind is getting bigger. Your sense of possibility is getting bigger. Your understanding of the world is getting bigger. And that’s exciting.
5. On one of your podcast episodes, you talk about the benefit of listening to music in foreign languages. Can you elaborate on that?
RUBIN: This was a suggestion from a listener. They were saying that, if they were feeling blue, and they listened to music and there was anything that intensified that negative feeling, it was distracting. So, she liked listening to music in a foreign language, because she could enjoy the musical experience without being distracted by the content of the lyrics.
6. Is there anything else you wanted to say in regards to language learning or your work?
RUBIN: Just one more thing about habit formation. There are all these individual differences, but no matter who we are, we’re dramatically influenced by how convenient something is. So anything that makes it easy to do something and convenient to do something is more likely to help us follow through.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Click here to read the full transcript.