Exercise your Brain like you exercise your Legs… by EC Malta Teacher Marco Brown
Many students look at me with questioning eyes when I ask them if they actually THINK in English at all . At first, they believe it might be a trick question but seriously it is just a simple and honest question. In my opinion, as I am a teacher, I find it very important to share knowledge and experience and this has prompted me to share some thoughts with all of you because it is all about things which have worked for me in my own language studies and I am convinced that the following tips will help you in your language studies too.
After a long and wonderful summer in Malta , autumn has just reached our shores. A new season then and time for a new challenge , which could quite literally change the way you think about studying English and have you much closer towards your goal of fluency before winter comes.
Many of us never really take enough time to understand how our brain works, yet when we study anything, especially a new language , we seriously need to understand how we learn and think about the kind of learner we are. This is called knowing our cognitive style, understanding the ways and strategies that work better for us as individuals. We ALL have different learning abilities, different centres of interest AND different approaches ,so anybody can learn something quickly if they are in the correct frame of mind and if they take the time to find a personal way to develop their own study technique . In other words, there is NOT one study method to suit all students .
Most of us have studied a language at High School before. Remember all of those grammar exercises day in day out and all of those endless vocabulary lists to learn by heart for the next lesson? The main problem is that most of us studied the foreign language in our mother tongue and we never really had the opportunity to communicate in a natural way in real situations. We were lucky if we could still remember how to ask for the directions to the nearest post office or local grocery. Let’s face it, that is certainly a bit of an issue when travelling abroad and such a disastrous result after a few years of study.
Say Hi to your Hippocampus
Little do most of us realise that there is a tiny but super hero part of our brain that can really help us with our language study. Let me introduce the Hippocampus. This is part of the mid- brain that takes care of memorisation and as such, is just crazy about fun memory games. It can be very lonely up there in the limbic area of the brain and your hippocampus would love to have more attention and stimulation . So, are you ready for the challenge of giving your hippocampus a work out and improving your English in a way that you had never even dreamt of?
In fact, our brains respond to what is known as sensory input, the kind of things that stimulate our brain through sensory receptors like our ears ,hands and eyes. This might sound complex but basically just think about why we understand that it is dangerous for us to put our hands in the fire. Our whole life experience , as we live and learn is an experience of the senses after all. By this I mean that we all know what we like to listen to or touch..or not. We all still remember what we smelt,tasted or saw during our holidays, even if it was a long time ago thanks to our tiny hippocampus . In my mind’s eye I smile whenever I go back to Marrakech for the very first time or enjoy a particular sunset waltzing by the sea in Tel Aviv. It all happened so long ago but it is all very fresh in my mind. We can do exactly the same thing in our language studies if we are relaxed and in the right frame of mind. However, a word of warning…..it can be scary when the answers to a reading comprehension just seem to jump out of the text before your eyes and I am talking from personal experience. Remember not to cry out as I did during my first major Hebrew exams 🙂
So let’s look at a simple scenario that will convince you….
How about when you lose your EC student ID card, or keys……or homework (!)….? What is the first instinctive and natural reflex? We go back into our mind’s eye and we try to visualise the images of where we were before, asking the hippocampus to remember who we were with or what we were doing. We do this in real life and we all realise that this is useful,helpful and effective. Yet, have you ever imagined that we can use this as a powerful secret tool in our approach to language study too? It works well with a life long guarantee, it is effective and does not need much of a warm up and you even have the instructions manual ! Mental stimulation and focus concentrated action work naturally and far better because when the brain is stimulated into action, it produces nerve growth factors and the brain even changes physically.
Learn to Think in English.
We can all teach ourselves how to think and react much more than we could imagine. Thinking in English is an important aim that takes you closer and closer to fluency much faster. Yet, it is not always an easy thing to start, especially if you have never tried before or if you are still blocked by the fear of doing something that you do not know. Think outside of the box. You have my word as a teacher and as a linguist that it does work and if you take up the challenge today, you will be thinking in English by winter and looking back , you will wonder why you had never started before!
Just like with any new activity, such as taking up a new sport or instrument or going to the gym, forming a new habit and sticking to it takes some time but it can take as long as you want it to and in the end we all succeed. First time learners, who are usually heavily influenced by their experiences during their formal education at home, often make the massive mistake of supposing that when they go to study in an English-speaking country, it will be enough to do extra grammar exercises for hours after class to end up thinking in the language one day. Sorry to disappoint you but that is just not going to happen. Just as much as there is no application on your Smartphone that you can press to put yourself into English Thinking mode. The result will be that you have done even more grammar exercises than in your own country of origin and by now you will be confused why you cannot communicate with people any better. The purpose of coming to study in an English-speaking country was to SPEAK surely, right?
The Right Conditions
Conditioning is central to thinking in English. It is essential to be comfortable and relaxed in your surroundings with a ‘CAN DO’ attitude. Next month I will be sharing a few more tips on the blog that are connected to this but for now just feel good and feel surrounded by English. You are making an active decision to push yourself to do something new so make sure that you are in the right environment and correct state of mind. If you do this, your brain will remember all of the contexts and regular patterns step by step. Our brains are just like machines. Remember what you read about losing your Ec student ID card? Put yourself in the right context to suit YOU, tell yourself that you CAN do this and the rest is a piece of cake if you keep up your new habit .
Do make yourself a box of flash cards to remember all the new words you learn. It works even better if you use a picture next to the word as the brain responds particularly well to images. Do use a lot of colour in your text book, highlighting as much as possible. Once again, the brain responds well to colour codes. This can be really useful when trying to remember prepositions….everybody ‘s nightmare I know but if you start highlighting INterested IN or INcrease IN , you are already going to keep those stored in memory for a long time to come,possibly forever.
Don’t hang out all of the time only with friends who speak the same mother tongue as you. This is so often a huge mistake that so many students make. It is perfectly understandable that far from home, you feel secure and comfortable being with people who speak your language , yet you might want to ask yourself if you are not missing out on invaluable speaking practice and this will certainly not help you to think in English.
Do surround yourself with English language sounds: television ,DVD ,music…even if it is simply in the background. Your brain is taking it all in and is processing the new sounds which soon enough you will master too. If you are doing something that you like , with real interest and passion, then you will be receptive. Take the new sounds for what they are, do NOT translate into your language. Your hippocampus is already working hard to process the new sounds so try not to give it too much extra work to do.
YOU CAN DO THIS ! YOU ARE A FEW MOMENTS AWAY…..
It is all up to you now. You can make the active decision to start thinking in English when it suits you, when you feel ready. Just do not wait too long. Take up the challenge this week and you can be thinking in English by wintertime . In fact, thinking in English is actually easier than speaking it in some ways, since there is no risk of being shy because it is a totally personal experience that we can have anywhere at anytime . I used to find thinking in my language of study most useful when walking outside or sitting on a bus or train, yet for some reason also whilst doing the washing up ! I will never forget how wonderful it felt during my gap year before University, when I almost smashed a glass I was washing as it was about to slip from my hands when I realised that I was thinking in German and following the radio without my knowing it. I had not been trying to make myself think in the language at all. I was simply relaxed , lost in my thoughts looking out into the garden and wow ! I would really like you to have your own personal experience of this in English too.
Thinking in the language does not happen overnight of course. It does need practice and focus. It requires less confidence than speaking but much more determination,motivation and discipline. At first, you might well be using some of your native language more than English, but that is still a start and that is fine too. At least TRY to make a conscious effort to think in English at every given opportunity , even if it is just for a few minutes to start with. Remember that at the start you will NOT be able to think in English about ALL of the things that you have in your mind but you CAN use the words that you do know.
Even a beginner in the language can start after a few lessons by simply looking around on the way to class. Just think about what you can see and what is happening around you. Describe everything you know how to say to your mind’s eye. What a fantastic way to be in control of your learning process and all of this before you even get to class! Your brain is already thinking in English and that makes you feel great about everything which means that you will be really receptive for the rest of the morning’s study 😉
So, let’s go for the challenge. There’s a new month ahead so put this on your list of things to do and start this new habit which will bring you so much closer to fluency before wintertime. Let me know how it is working for you in the comments box below and watch this space next month for more really fun and easy tips to help you keep up your great new habit and take you to another level in the English thinking process. All the best 🙂