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):


mysadalterego said...

I absolutely what's the point of analytic therapy?

GK said...

To carry the language metaphor a little further, perhaps analytic therapy could be considered a study of poetry: the themes and poetics of life. So, in a sense, it may be a poetry experience rather than a conversational language experience. Maybe both are important.

The language learning metaphor is an incomplete one, since it does not capture the intimate importance, for many people, of the therapeutic relationship. Analytic therapy may focus on this quite intensely.

Also, CBT exercises are not the only ways to "practice language" outside of therapy -- in analytic therapy, the "practice" may take place if the therapy experience becomes "internalized" and generalized to other areas of daily life. Analytic therapy may also have a very intensive frame, sometimes of meeting daily. This may be a much more "immersive" experience.

Anonymous said...

I really like this metaphor, and I understand that this makes sense in many ways. It seems like a good way of thinking about treatment.

But I guess what sometimes confuses me about this is this idea of WANTING some kind of psychological change, this idea of being motivated to change or to learn new skills, etc. That always seems to be the problem for me. It often seems impossible to imagine any kind of psychological change-- or change at all-- that would make any difference. Therefore, it is very difficult to generate much interest in all of the work that has to go into creating this kind of change.

It is like trying to learn a language that you are indifferent to learning in a way, that you do not see will benefit you in any meaningful way. You see that there is a problem, but the problem does not seem fixable, and you do not see a relationship between the psychological change that is available to you and the problem. Therefore, it is hard not to half-heartedly engage in this psychological work. But there doesn't seem to be an alternative to NOT engaging in this kind of work...aside from dropping out of school completely, which does not seem like a real option either. It is hard not to feel stuck.

I wonder sometimes about how hopeful you need to be about the possibility of change or the possibility of a better future as a prerequisite of therapy. (sorry for the long reply).

GK said...

It's a very difficult bind.

With respect to therapy, maybe the best introduction I could think of to approaching this would be to have a gentle, non-pressured environment, full of care, warmth, humour, understanding, and practical support.

This may be the only fertile ground to nurture a perspective of the "new language" as a realistic possibility, and of the work to gain fluency as potentially meaningful and joyful in itself, even if such meaning or joy is outside a current realm of experience, hope, or desire.

But I realize that such ideas cannot be pushed.

On the one hand I recognize that problems of the type you allude to are severe & critical -- yet I realize that pushing for change, even through encouragement, could feel coercive, and that the prospect of engaging in a change process could seem exhausting or pointless, particularly if past engagements in change processes have been disappointing, exhausting, or fruitless.

I continue to struggle with this problem, to find the best ways to help.

Anonymous said...

I was never very good at French, but the language I simply could not "get" was math. I could add, subtract, multiply and divide, but anything beyond that was confounding to the point of impossibility.

My teachers would explain things all kinds of ways, and I would try so hard to understand, but they might as well have been explaining things to me in some alien language that used symbols instead of letters and was completely beyond both my range of experience, and my brains ability to understand.

I used to sit in math and cry because no matter how hard I tried I could never understand.

Trying to get well feels similar. I feel lie I try really hard, over and over, but I always slip into intense depressions. It is strange because I feel like I "know" the language of joy and happiness.

I am able to fake it all the time (unconsciously), and sometimes I experience it for brief periods. It is like my brain has lost its ability to hang on to what it has learned. I feel lie in depression, like in math, there is a physical reason why I cannot learn...a learning disability of sorts.

GK said...

Many people have had a terrible time with math education. The thought of math makes them upset.

One of the difficulties in a school setting, with teachers, is that there is some kind of "curriculum," which requires students to adhere to some kind of learning schedule.

Individuals may not be able to adhere to the same schedule. Therefore they may "fall behind," leading to student and teacher desperately trying to find ways to "explain things better," etc. This urgency and consciousness of "falling behind" consolidate the negative experience.

An insight coming from some of the "neuroplasticity" researchers, such as Merzenich, is of approaching educational tasks from the bare basics, all over again, breaking down the perceptual and cognitive elements to the simplest and smallest forms, a level of process that many of us have not experienced overtly since infancy.

This way, you can truly start "where you're at," rather than where someone else (e.g. teachers, the educational system, society, etc.) expects you to be at. If you can start this way, the learning process may be much more satisfying, productive, and even fun.

In psychological therapies, such as behaviour therapy for treating phobia, I think it is important to choose behavioural exercises that are easy enough to repeatedly master. If you have an experience of repeated success, it will be much less frustrating, and much more likely to be something you would actually want to do again.

I am convinced that a series of math exercises, with a good teacher, could be devised which would help you to "get it."

I continue to want to find ways to generalize this idea to helping with chronic depression.

Another problem I recognize, and I feel my initial post here did not emphasize, is that "language learning" is very, very hard when you are feeling very ill. Imagine trying to learn Spanish while feverish or nauseated. Depression often has a lot of powerful symptoms (physical, emotional, motivational, existential) which cause a person to feel too ill to engage in some kind of "learning process." So I think it is extremely important to address and treat these symptoms in every possible way, in conjunction with any possible journey towards "language learning."

Anonymous said...

An addendum to your note on errors, I think that one should not only accept or bear mistakes with grace, but should seek them out in an autonomous way of discovering new methods of interpreting and incorporating the abstract nature of language into a personalised style of learning (this also ties in with your #3).

Anonymous said...

Following your learning language metaphor... after the late teens and early adolescence it is very rare to be able to acquire COMPLETE fluency in a language. I am not saying that it is impossible to acquire functionality but to be able to speak like a native of the language is very, very hard (if not impossible).

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that after a certain age, the brain "looses plasticity" for the acquisition of a new language.
For example... people become unable to distinguish differences between phonemes.

(At this point my perfectionism comes out and asks... what is the point of trying to learn a new language if you know you can't attain perfection) But perhaps this is the exact thinking that I have to challenge.

Sorry to put a damper on this metaphor but maybe there are limitations. Unfortunately.

Maybe after a certain amount of time, immersed in self-defeating and damaging thinking, the amount of work that is required to change is not worth the benefits. (If we were to look at a cost/benefit analysis)

I realize that this may be a very negative, pessimistic, depressed outlook but I doubt if I am the only one out there who shares this belief.

I also realize that both your views and my views are quite different.

Perhaps the reality is somewhere in between.

GK said...

I encourage taking great delight in pursuing things well, in learning, in working hard, without a goal to perfecting anything. I believe this is a good way to live.

An immersive experience in a life-changing process does not require a goal of perfection. In fact, paradoxically, such a quest will set oneself up for a constant experience of falling short, and may repeatedly deflate motivation, and lead to a vicious cycle of resignation, self-criticism, feelings of failure, and non-participation in life.

In my language metaphor I certainly do not presume that anyone can learn a new language perfectly. I do, however, assert, that anyone can become fluent -- to the point of being able to communicate articulately, with grace, humour, precision, and joy, despite possibly always having an "accent."

Also, part of my claim in this posting is that people tend not to master new languages as easily as adults in part because they are unwilling to engage with something in a "childish" way. Some of the neuroplasticity research is based upon rediscovering childlike learning mechanisms, which we as adults have lost touch with.

Also, I would assert that the learning process, while time consuming and possibly difficult, could also be an enjoyable and deeply meaningful process, all along the way.

When I have more time I would like to list some specific examples of individuals who started learning new languages (literally or metaphorically) in adult life, or even in late adult life, and who have subsequently become great authors.