Monday, August 31, 2009
Language Learning Metaphor
I have often compared psychological change to language learning.
This could be appreciated on a metaphorical level, but I think that neurologically the processes are similar.
Many people approach psychological change as they would approach something like learning Spanish. Reasons for learning Spanish could be very practical (e.g. benefits at work, moving to a Spanish-speaking country, etc.), or could be more whimsical or esthetic (e.g. always enjoying Spanish music or movies). There is a curiosity and desire to learn and change, and steps are taken to begin changing. A Spanish language book would be acquired. An initial vigorous burst of energy would be spent learning some Spanish vocabulary.
This process often might last a few weeks or months. There might be a familiarity with certain phrases, an intellectual appreciation of the grammatical structure, and perhaps the ability to ask for something in a coffee shop.
Then the Spanish book would sit on the shelf, and never be opened again.
Another pathway could be like the French classes I remember during elementary school. We must have had some French lessons every week for eight years. I did well academically, and had high grades in French.
But I never learned to speak French.
And most people don't learn to speak Spanish either, despite their acquisition of instructional books.
So, there is a problem here: motivation exists to change or learn something new. There is a reasonable plan for change. Effort is invested into changing. But change doesn't really happen. Or the change only happens in a very superficial way.
Here is what I think is required to really learn a language:
1) Immersion is the optimal process. That is, you have to use only the new language, constantly, for weeks, months, or years at a time. This constrains one's mind to function in the new language. Without such a constraint, the mind shifts back automatically to the old language most of the time, and the process of change is much slower, or doesn't happen at all.
2) Even without immersion, there must be daily participation in the learning task, for long periods of time.
3) The process must include active participation. It is helpful to listen quietly, to read, to understand grammar intellectually -- but the most powerful acts of language learning require you to participate actively in conversation using the new language.
4) Perhaps 1000 hours of active practice are required for fluency. 100 hours of practice will help you to get by on a very basic level. 6-10 hours of work per week is a reasonable minimum.
5) Along the way, you have to be willing to function at what you believe is an infantile level of communication, and stumble through, making lots of mistakes, possibly being willing to embarrass yourself. It will feel awkward and slow at first.
6) It is probably necessary to have fellow speakers of the new language around you, to converse with during your "immersion" experience.
7) Part of the good news is that once you get started, even with a few hours' practice, there will be others around you to help you along enthusiastically.
I think that psychological change requires a similar approach. The brain is likely to change in a similar way. I am reminded of Taub's descriptions of constraint-induced rehabilitation from strokes: recovery of function, and neuroplastic brain change, can take place much more effectively if the person is in a state of physiologic "immersion."
Many people acquire books about psychological change (e.g. self-help books, CBT manuals, etc.) in the same way one might acquire a book about learning Spanish. People might read them through, learn a few things, then the books would sit unopened for the next five years.
Or many people might participate in psychotherapy similar to a weekly language lesson: it might be familiar, educational--if there was an exam to write, people might get high grades--but often the "new language" fluency never really develops.
So I encourage the idea of finding ways to create an "immersion" experience, with respect to psychological change. This requires daily work, preferably in an environment where you can set the "old language" aside completely. This work may feel artificial, slow, contrived, or superficial. But this is just like practicing phrases in a new language for the first time. Eventually, the work will feel more natural, spontaneous, and easy.
I think the greatest strength of cognitive-behavioural therapy is its emphasis on "homework," which calls upon people to focus every day on constructive psychological change. And the different columns of a CBT-style homework page remind me of the "columns" one might use to translate phrases from one language into another. In both cases, in order for this homework to work, it has to be practiced, not just on paper, but spoken out loud, or spoken inside your mind, with sincerity and repetition, and preferably also with other people in dialogs.
There's some interesting academic work out there on language acquisition--but for a start, here's a reference from a language-learning website (particularly the summary on the bottom half of this webpage):