When the planet’s organised around a global government and I’m the President (don’t tell me it was on your bucket list too), everyone will be made to read “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman.
Kahneman’s subject is the permanent conflict that exists between the need to make quick decisions and the mental effort required for rational thought. Unfortunately his conclusion is that speed generally wins whereas rationality is generally gets it right.
Knowing this doesn’t in itself change anything – that’s the whole point – but it does make life a little less confusing. And if applied, the knowledge can indeed help. For example in your approach to language learning.
When you learn a language, you may find yourself making the same mistakes repeatedly, even when you know them to be mistakes.
Take the example of the subjunctive. You may know that in French the subjunctive typically needs to be used when describing a subjectively imagined world, in contrast to describing concrete reality or logical thoughts, when the indicative is used. And yet even having that knowledge may not be enough to change habit.
This is because most of us can’t think rationally quickly enough in high pressure situations – such as live conversation – to change previously established habits. We blurt the first thing that comes into our head and if the first thing that comes to our head is wrong, it will always be wrong even when we know rationally it’s wrong.
Just knowing that this an issue is a good first step. If we keep making the same mistakes we’re not exceptionally dull or prematurely senile, it’s just the way we’re made.
What we also know is that more of the same – more rational thought – is not going to change anything. This is working on the “Slow” side of the brain in Kahneman’s schema, whereas what needs to be done is working on the “Fast” side of the brain.
The good news is that we are not condemned to continue like this. Each language learner is different, so it’s not possible to prescribe one method which will suit everyone. But what is clear from the research that’s been done is that a mixed approach is good for many adult learners of a second language.
Take the example of the subjunctive. Some “Slow” work is needed for those people whose native language rarely uses the subjunctive – the English, for example. Taking time to understand what the subjunctive is helps establish a conceptual framework in which to place your knowledge. You can for example refer to Françoise’s lessons on the subject here, here and here.
But to make that knowledge stick, you also need to work directly on the “Fast” side of the brain. Drills are a good way of doing this. You can for example make flashcards combining the most common phrases that introduce the subjunctive and the most common verbs that follow. Here is an example set that using with the free application Quizlet.
For this method to work for you, you’ll need to build your own set based on your own habits. When native-speaking French acquaintances point out your mistakes add them to your flash cards and work on them. Little by little you will succeed in correcting your “Fast” instinctive reactions.