Have you ever heard of a phenomenon called "Priming"? Priming is what psychologists call it when your brain adapts to the environment around it without you realising. For example, you might automatically walk slower in a nursing home than you do in a gym. The brain helps your body to adjust, and this also affects your memory and even your confidence and the whole way you interpret situations.
Priming in language learning
Recently, the concept of this environment idea has been in the news from one angle, called "Thinking of home makes it harder to learn a language". It's a cool piece of science, and definitely another argument to get your cork boards out or browse the internet for flights to Switzerland, Mexico or Moscow.
Here's how priming can work against you
I teach many people in their lunch hour and often experience that those students are more hesitant to go ahead and talk. Having thought about the learning environment and what it means for your performance, I came to the conclusion that these students need to make a switch from work mode to learning mode.
It's not easy, because many people who work in management or office-based roles are in an environment that looks a bit like school, but demands a completely different behaviour. Professionals don't just go out and try things. They are expected to control their creativity and maintain a professional image at all times. When you think about the good mindset for language learners, it's a contrast: You'll do well if you can combine curiosity, discipline and a complete disregard for embarrassment!
Make your language learning happy place
Now, how can we make our brains help us with what we're learning? Try out some ideas that learners and teachers can use to make priming work in the right way:
1. Listen to target language songs and watch some movies
I will not promise you that watching an awful lot of films in a foreign language will magically beam fluency into your mind. To be honest, that would be immersion misunderstood. The real benefit of surrounding yourself with the target language is that you stay engaged with it and develop knowledge of the country. In terms of the priming benefit, it will work magic. Plus, you get to do it while putting your feet up or driving.
2. Relax before speaking
Schedule your learning sessions for the right times. For example, I like doing my chatting in Spanish on the drive back from Zumba - partly because the Spanish lady is captive in my car, partly because we've just spent an hour having fun and dancing around. Others also swear by having a nice glass of wine to relax or using breathing exercises.
Another great tip is to create a learning corner in your home - somewhere quiet, free from distractions and full of positive associations.
3. Visualise success
School classroom teachers have known for a long time that putting up posters and displays around the classroom can get pupils in the right state of mind for learning. They don't have to be written in the foreign language, but just reminders of what's great about the country you're learning about. Take a tip from this and create your own language learning displays full of things that interest you about your language. They could be recipes, tickets from old trips, tourist brochures or printouts from the internet. I particularly love vintage posters.
4. Warm up
In my teaching role, I try to start my lessons off easily with some smaller warm-up activities like asking students how they are or offering them a drink. Recently, I received the great tip that using the same warm-up activity every time for regular students is actually helpful - here I was worrying people would get bored, but the learner's perspective was that knowing "what's coming" allowed them to prepare and feel confident at the start of the lesson. That puts every learner in the right state of mind for success.
Does your tutor or group class do the same? I'd love to hear about your favourite warm up.
As always, I would love to know your thoughts and favourite tricks - and sign up for more if you enjoyed this post!