Chris CraftI am pleased to introduce Christopher Craft our Guest Blogger this week. He teaches kids Spanish and Latin at CrossRoads Middle School. He is also nearing completion of a PhD in Educational Psychology and Research at the University of South Carolina.  Christopher has a B.A. in Spanish and a Master of Education degree.  He speaks fluent Spanish, his wife is from Peru, and he has two bilingual daughters (ages 8 and 4). Find out more about him here.

Learning a new language can be overwhelming.  As a foreign language teacher I have seen students get quickly overloaded resulting in a mentality that “I’m just not good at Spanish.”  This mindset can effectively hinder the learning of a foreign language.  If you are embarking on the journey of learning a foreign language as a self-directed learner, you must take into account some principles inspired by our knowledge of the human cognitive architecture to make sure you don’t fall victim to the same mindset.

People often tell me that they wish they spoke Spanish.  When I offer them the many resources online to help them do just that (i.e. Mango Languages) they are often excited.  When I follow up with these folks they often cite a lack of time or motivation for the lack of fluency in the desired language.  Underneath it all is likely a sense of overload.

To prevent cognitive overload there are certain principles that you can implement when attempting to learn a foreign language.  First, it is necessary to practice “chunking.”  Chunking occurs when you take information in chunks to avoid overload.  This is precisely why phone numbers and social security numbers are chunked; to make them easier to remember.  Applying this to the learning of a new language is easy; simply make sure that you don’t take in too much at once.  Start slow, and make sure you really learn the first few lessons.  It can be daunting to see that there is so much that remains before you are “finished” learning.  You must remember that the learning of a foreign language never ends.  In order to prevent cognitive overload, first consider chunking your information and taking it slow.

One way to aid your chunking is to rehearse the information you are learning.  Find ways to practice the language.  Find reasons to say the words you are learning.  Teach someone else the new words and phrases you are learning.  This mental rehearsal will aid the information to be transferred into long-term memory and retained for a long period of time.  You have likely experienced this rehearsal before; perhaps when learning a phone number.  When someone tells you their phone number, you have likely found yourself repeating it in your head until you can write it down.  This is rehearsal.  The more you rehearse the basics of a foreign language, the better foundation you are laying for future learning.

A third principle to take into account is the need to take breaks.  Consider your working memory to be a bit like a water glass.  If you are adding water at a steady rate, at some point you will reach the top and water will no longer be able to enter the glass.  Your working memory functions similarly, in that when you reach a level of “fullness,” no more information can enter.  Even more troublingly, if you do not take care to take a break now and again, you can reach cognitive overload.  When this happens, the working memory empties and all the learning that had recently happened will be lost.  It is as though when reaching a level of our glass being too full, instead of just spilling over someone were to dump the entire glass of water out.  This can leave you frustrated and without desire to continue.

Using the principles of chunking, deliberate rehearsal, and regular breaks you can maximize your chances of developing fluency in a target language.  Just as your body needs rest when doing work, your mind does as well.  Take care to be mindful of your learning and adjust as needed.  I wish you the best of luck on your continued journey towards foreign language learning.

How do you prevent Cognitive Load?

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