Success in acquiring a foreign language often hinges on enjoying the act of learning itself. So what should you do if you’re finding it difficult?
As an English speaker who live in France, I often meet people grappling with conflict. They possess strong motivations to master French: forming friendships, advancing in their careers, meeting the in-laws, understanding the kids… But the process of learning itself induces so much stress they tend to shy away from the very activities necessary to achieve their language goals.
This issue is not insurmountable but requires a direct confrontation.
Entering the “Flow State”
You may be familiar with the concept of being in a “flow state,” where you’re so engrossed in an activity that time seems to slip away unnoticed. This state may occur for you when you’re in an engaging conversation, absorbed in a compelling book, painting a picture, playing a video game… Each of us has our own triggers.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian psychologist, coined the term “flow state” to describe this sensation of being completely immersed in what we’re doing. It’s the state of mind we need to aim for when learning a new language.
Csikszentmihalyi outlines several conditions that must be met for us to enter a flow state. One crucial one is that the challenge at hand should slightly surpass our current skill levels. If a task is too challenging, it leads to anxiety and stress. Conversely, a task that is too easy results in fatigue and boredom. By engaging with an activity that is sufficiently challenging yet achievable, we find ourselves in the target zone. The goal can be represented diagrammatically like this:
In language learning, the aim is to operate within that middle zone, gradually increasing the challenge level to progress without succumbing to the Scylla of anxiety or the Charybdis of tedium.
Discovering Language Learning Flow Activities
With this map in mind, it’s easy to see why learning a language can be stressful. Conversation in a foreign language can be overwhelmingly difficult for someone armed with just a few basic words learned from school. If not managed carefully, this anxiety can sour one’s perception of the whole experience.
The key is to discover activities that keep us in the flow state. Csikszentmihályi suggests that the best activities are those that provide clear objectives and immediate feedback.
You’ll need to find activities that suit you best, perhaps with the guidance of a teacher. However, there are some general guidelines to follow.
For instance, a good objective might involve being understood in conversation, and for that pronunciation is key. A corresponding flow activity could be practising reading aloud and comparing the recording to native speech patterns. Breaking down this exercise and focusing on specific sounds may take around three months. But if you can find that flow state, it’ll be satisfying work.
Another objective could be the ability to express ideas freely, which requires an understanding of grammar. Working through grammar lessons and exercises may not be the first idea that comes to mind for a fun leisure pursuit, but it can become an engaging flow activity once you’re in the zone. The lessons on this website are as good a starting point as any.
Professional athletes or musicians repeat actions over and over again until they become second nature. There’s no shame in adopting the same approach to language learning. Returning to practised language segments repeatedly, growing a little more confident each time, can also become a flow activity.