Clothed in darkness and seated in an amateurish attempt at a lotus pose, I tried to envision myself confidently engaging in Spanish conversation in an artisanal Peruvian bar (instead of being on the damp Bushwick rooftop I was actually occupying). “Bebo. Bebí….Bebiste?” the voice inside my head asked itself, attempting to complete a sentence.
Half an hour later, that darkness ended as I opened my eyes, coming back to reality. This was my first attempt at enhancing my language learning endeavors with meditation.
Meditation and Language Learning
Meditation has roots in Hindu traditions of Taoist China and Buddhist India. While meditation is relatively new to the United States, its growth and popularity among Americans — from stay-at-home moms to Fortune 500 CEOs — has proven its staying power in Western society. Today, people are meditating to help with mental health, joint pain, job stress and — you guessed it — language learning.
“Through meditation, you can train yourself to be able to pay attention to things more and more, regardless of whether you find them intrinsically interesting.”
“My language learning philosophy is input over output. When you can effortlessly pay attention to something, that makes that experience extremely pleasant,” says Matt Bonder, a language YouTuber. In 2017, Bonder published a YouTube video explaining his approach to language learning meditation and how it has helped him to learn foreign languages such as Japanese. “Through meditation, you can train yourself to be able to pay attention to things more and more, regardless of whether you find them intrinsically interesting.”
According to YouTuber and meditation instructor Jeremy Brinkerhoff, through regular meditation, one gains “a more accurate inner mind.”
Lodro Rinzler, co-founder and Chief Spiritual Officer of MNDFL, one of New York’s premier meditation studios, seems to agree. “The more present we are, the more we are able to notice and take in what is happening in a given moment. Whether we are tasting our morning coffee and enjoying its flavor or studying a new language, we’re showing up fully and authentically for all of it.” (Rinzler recommends MNDFL’s “Breath” classes for those interested in exercising the act of being more present when learning a language.)
Trying It Out For Myself
I sought out some of this inner mind accuracy for myself by indulging in a week straight of concentration-based meditation for half an hour after my Babbel lessons. On my second day, I finished a 15-minute lesson on tongue twisters and got back into the lotus position. Meditation experts often suggest focusing on breathing, posture and an active sense of mindfulness on the topic at hand. For me, that topic was trying not to laugh at “Como poco coco como, poco coco compro,” a Spanish tongue twister about coconuts.
Days three and four consisted of more imaginary conversations in a foreign language while also tuning out the world around me. I actually felt like my vocabulary retention was stronger, and I was able to implement my newly learned phrases into my casual banter.
“You are training the mind to not get so lost in discursive thinking but tune into what is going on right now.”
On days five and six, I ran into a block. About 10 minutes into meditating, I would zone out, completely forgetting the reason I was sitting there in silence (or in as much silence as I could find in New York City). I felt like I had lost my meditation mojo and started making plans to not finish the full week, but it turns out this is actually pretty normal.
“Every time you realize you have gotten distracted and come back to the breath, you are training the mind to not get so lost in discursive thinking but tune into what is going on right now,” says Rinzler. As it turns out, mastering meditation takes time and practice just as mastering the perfect workout form.
Thinking of this, I went into day seven thinking of it as a beginning instead of an ending. After a challenging lesson on Academic Fields, I plopped into my now-familiar lotus pose and tried to focus on steering my inner voice on being mindful of engineering, law and humanities vocab. I focused on what I could remember from the lesson instead of being disappointed in what I didn’t. I felt pretty proud of myself.
So, should you use meditation to help with learning languages? Well, if you feel you’re hitting a block in your learning, meditating is at the least helpful for clearing your mind. I think all language learners could benefit in some way from meditation, whether we choose to practice it or not: routines help to make our daily tasks more efficient and easier to complete.