Watching our Gardens Grow: Expanding the Fixed Language Classroom

Retrieved from:
A Story Behind Language Learning 

Fixed mindsets and language learning share a long and tragic relationship with some learners. As a continuing language learner, I am often dubious about checking the second language box on applications. Quantifying language learning into “can” and “can not” seems problematic. The process of learning a language can be enjoyable and fluency isn’t always the goal for some learners. As educators, we should focus our attention and praise towards the process and not the lofty and problematic goal of perfected fluency. When it comes to a learner’s beliefs most people don't like to feel inadequate, especially when it comes to communicating. Humans crave to be understood by others. Ironically, learning a new language is about experimentation and embracing mistakes. Can implementing purposeful technology help alleviate some of the stress that comes with learning a new language?

When I was doing a seminar on languages and brain based learning at Brock University, I showed up early and decided to test out some of my ideas on an unwilling colleague. 

“Don’t you dare ask me to participate?!” Her quick remark stung but I was not at all surprised. Still, I was hoping for some involvement from a student who worked hard in every other area of school to get top grades. I envisioned my presentation flopping because I failed to engage the head of the class and the presentation hadn’t even started.

I looked at her puzzingly. “I hate learning languages,” she elaborated, “I’m stupid when it comes to learning them.” In this particular case, she had worked her keister off in higher education. To prove her academic prowess, she had repetitively won scholarships and tried her best to network and maintain positive relationships with faculty and classmates. In short, she had succeeded in many other areas of learning. Why were languages any different?

Since this was Canada, I could only assume that her trauma stemmed from her early experiences in “Core French”. While writing this blog post, I followed up with her and she explained that French was mostly memorising lists of conjugating verbs. According to her, the french teacher did little to use communicative techniques or engage the learners with multiple contexts for the same expectations. 

What is even more frustrating, is that she had read all of the literature on growth and fixed mindsets and simply did not care. I playfully rebutted by quoting Carol Dweck—literature we had read in previous courses together— to no avail. My friend’s position on language learning was firmly decided. She seemed terrified with the proposition of flubbing through another language class.

Fixed Mindsets and Language Learning

So, I did some googling about fixed mindsets and it’s connections to language learning. It was no big surprise that Sarah Mercer (2012) connected Carol Dweck’s (2006) incremental and entity theories of mindsets to the context of language learning. Mercer (2012) explains that an individual’s perspective on intelligence is for the most part influenced by their mindset towards learning. Beliefs about learning can shape a learner’s experiences either positively or negatively. If an individual sees intelligence as incremental than they are more likely to be motivated by the act of learning for learning’s sake. Incremental learners revel and some may actually enjoy learning from past mistakes and mastering new skills. Whereas an individual who sees intelligence as entity or “fixed” is more likely to believe that people are simply born with or without the “sacred” learning gene. (Remember that second language box on an application?)

To put this in terms of language, some learners believes that learning a new language is about a fixed entity like ability. Whereas other’s believe it is about a process. Mercer warns that these mindsets are more of a spectrum than two separate realms. It may be possible for a person to have a fixed mindset when it comes to sports but a growth mindset when it comes to video games. Just as it’s also possible for a person to have a fixed mindset in pronunciation but a growth mindset in memorising new vocabulary.

For language learning this all boils down to your progress being mitigated by effort. It’s not a gene. It’s not an innate ability. Incrementalists are people who view learning as more gradual and are able to attribute their mistakes to a lack of effort or practice. Mercer (2006) puts these two types of learners into two different camps—the “fixed mindset language learners” and the “growth mindset language learners”.

In her 2006 study she asked 23 English language learners to write about their thoughts on what it takes to learn a new language and 79% of the responses showed a belief that language learning is an innate ability or talent. Mercer goes on to explain that the participants attributed a range of traits to successful language learning. Interestingly enough, she found that culture was also an influence on the students beliefs about language learning. She discovered that the participants from Japan were more likely to attribute shyness—a fixed personality trait—as a hindrance in language learning.

These findings can have exciting implications for today’s language teacher because beliefs about fixed traits can changed through carefully worded praise when a student shows effort or takes a risk in learning a new language. This leads to some rich questions about the culture that surrounds our French Second Language classrooms here in Ontario. What messages are we implying about language learning to our students? How do our students beliefs about learning French affect the future of learning other languages. 
Using Technology to Promote Growth

Let’s imagine that through careful interventions we could trick ourselves into viewing language learning as actually incremental and not an ability that only a select few possess. I’ve said before that technology is not a cure all for learning. Any technological tool needs to be integrated properly into the learning process. There are some technologies, however, that do an excellent job of “chunking” language learning into manageable bitesize pieces that allow for spaced, repetitive and sequential practice.
DuoLinguo and Memrise are two flashcard games give the learners a sense of accomplishment by adaptively repeating parts of the language the learner needs more practice with. Memrise encourages the learner through the visuals of planting seeds (vocabulary) and growing a garden (phrases). This game-like element allows the learner to have an ongoing visual cue of their progress and can give an odd feeling of satisfaction.

In these types of online learning tools, A series of multimodal flashcards are presented to the learner where they are required to select a translation or a picture for the new word. These words are repeated in different contexts: unscrambling sentences, translation exercises and DuoLingo has recently added a speaking portion. All this repetition in different contexts works anchor new vocabulary to your memory while giving you the allusion that practice is what a language learner needs.

The load of learning a new language can be overwhelming. To combat this, these tools for deliver content in small daily chunks, set obtainable goals, and give you you a simple visual representation of your progress. The tools are promising for individual language learners who may want to fit the basics into their busy schedules in a fun game-like setting. What I am curious about is how can some of these tools be tweaked and applied to school-age children in a language classroom setting.

Similar tools— Quizlet and Studyblue—have been implemented into the language classroom by colleagues. These tools differ because they allow the students or teacher to modify the content by creating their own flashcards, games and quizzes. The ongoing assessment data and progress reports reinforce the idea that language learning is incremental and mistakes should be reviewed, practiced and corrected.

Some criticisms might be that the novelty of learning a language this way can quickly were off and that the context is not authentic enough to promote aquistion. The apps seem sort of like super dictionaries that focus mainly on lower-order thinking skills. This is where the careful implementation plan comes in to play. Educators need to consider when and how often to use these tools. It should be considered as just one of many differentiated tools in a teacher’s kit when planning engaging language lessons. An added bonus may be that it inspires individual study strategies that the learner might use at home. 
Of course, downloading the app to your device does not automatically imbue the learner with the ability to speak the language. Only with time and effort can meaningful learning take hold. Regardless of the use of technology, language teachers should help students realise the value in the daily incremental steps in learning a new language. Educators could also learn from the power of ongoing assessment that these tools utilize. To complement these tools well challenging students to apply their new learning from Memrise or DuoLingo to different contexts, such as a conversation activity with a partner, could be considered as a potential next step. Whatever the technology—the most innovative practice language teachers can harness is carefully worded praise and a desire to help students transpire fixed mindsets about language learning.
Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House, 2006.

Mercer, Sarah. Towards an understanding of language learner self-concept. Vol. 12. Springer Science & Business Media, 2011.