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Minds Matter: Psychology of language learning | Q&A

Psychology of language learning

Recently, I held three webinars for OUP focusing on the topic of learner psychology. I chose to concentrate on what I termed the 2Gs and 3Cs: Growth mindset and Grit; A sense of Competence, Control, and Connectedness. There were many fascinating questions that came up and I’m afraid time ran out to answer them all. Here I respond to a selection of the key questions related specifically to the talk and connected with each other.

  1. Do we need to address mindsets with adults?

I found this an interesting and important question for two reasons. Yes, we can and should still work on promoting a growth mindset in adults. There is increasing evidence for the plasticity of the brain throughout the lifetime and adults can also adapt, change and learn new skills as they age. However, that is not to say changing mindsets is easily done. As the other name for them, implicit theories, suggests, mindsets are deeply rooted beliefs and we may not always be conscious of them. To change the way we think, especially for those beliefs we may have held for a long time, takes reflection and patience. However, we know that beliefs can change, no matter what our age with awareness, will, practice, and concerted effort.

The second reason I think this question is important concerns its implications for our own mindsets as teachers. It is well known that people may claim to espouse certain beliefs but then their actions may reveal a different set of underlying beliefs. In other words, we may talk the right talk but perhaps don’t walk the corresponding walk! Our behaviours and language as teachers serve as critical models for the implicit messages we send to our learners. Therefore, our own mindsets are incredibly important, not only for our own learning and growth but also for supporting our learners in developing their own mindsets. We need to monitor how we talk about our own learning and abilities as well as those of our learners. Ideally, teachers need to hold a growth mindset about their language learning abilities but also about their pedagogical and didactic competences. We can improve our skills as language educators throughout our career. Growth mindsets about our teaching competences are the foundation of our own continuing professional development. We need to keep an eye on whether we are really walking the talk for our learners and ourselves?

  1. At what point should we create the ‘mistakes most welcome’ culture in our classes?

The culture of a class can be defining for the interpersonal relationships within it, not only between teacher and learners but also among the learners. Research asking learners if they are nervous about speaking in class found that it is not the teacher and their response that makes them nervous, but rather how their peers might respond. For that reason, I think it is vitally important from day 1 of the class to set the right tone helping students to connect as a group with a shared sense of identity, common guiding purpose, and sense of trust. It also means we have to ensure all our learners feel comfortable and confident to explore the language with each other within the group. Learning and growth can only take place when learners push their competences out of their comfort zones and risk making mistakes. As such, mistakes should be welcome in any class when they indicate that the learner is trying to make progress and when they are used as an opportunity to learn. The kind of ‘mistake culture’ we develop concerns how we respond to mistakes, how learners react to each other’s mistakes as well as how they feel about their own mistakes and what action we take in respect to learning from them. Essentially, we can help learners reframe how they think about and respond to mistakes in language use and learning. They can present a learning opportunity and be an outward sign of courageous, progress-oriented learning growth. To support this ‘mistakes most welcome’ culture, we can start on the very first day of class to foster positive group dynamics and develop a cohesive classroom community built on mutual trust and respect.

  1. How is a knowledge of learning strategies useful?

Assuming that learners hold a growth mindset and fundamentally believe that their abilities can improve, they also need other skills in order for that to translate into actual improvement. The beliefs form the foundation on which other dimensions of their psychology and behaviours are built. Having a growth mindset predisposes the learners to being more motivated – it means there is a purpose and potential benefit to investing time and effort in their learning. However, motivation and effort alone are still not enough. Learners also need to have strategic pathways of how they should reach their goals. They need to know how to learn so that their efforts are purposeful, goal-directed and ultimately effective for them as individuals. This suggests that we can support learners by working with them explicitly on their metacognitive knowledge about themselves as learners, as well as about the tasks involved in learning a language and the strategies one could use to approach those tasks. Having knowledge of strategies to manage and regulate learning is empowering for students and, ironically, can also strengthen growth mindsets by showing learners concrete pathways to progress. It actually helps learners to believe they can overcome obstacles and challenges by providing direction and ideas of how to do that. Having a growth mindset and metacognitive knowledge of learning strategies go hand in hand.

Sarah Mercer is Professor of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Graz, Austria, where she is Head of ELT methodology and Deputy Head of the Centre for Teaching and Learning in Arts and Humanities. Her research interests include all aspects of the psychology surrounding the foreign language learning experience. She is the author, co-author and co-editor of several books in this area including, ‘Psychology for Language Learning’.


Minds matter: Psychology of language learning

Psychology of language learning

‘It’s all in the mind!’ – How true when it comes to learning a foreign language. Every teacher knows that you can have the best resources in the world, but if the learner is not in the right frame of mind to engage with the new language and use the opportunities before them, then they are unlikely to do so. There are all kinds of reasons why a learner may put obstacles in their own way or simply avoid engaging, but many of these reasons often lie in how learners view themselves, their competences, and their relationship to the language, classroom, peers, and the teacher.

Our psychologies are complex, and care must be taken not to oversimplify, but I have chosen to focus on 5 key areas of learner psychology which I think can make a difference to learning and which we as language educators can work on developing. Introducing the two Gs and the three Cs!

Have they got Grit?

Firstly, learners need to have a Growth mindset and become Gritty about their language learning. It is a well-known adage that learning a foreign language is like a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time, progress is slow and incremental, and there can be many setbacks along the way. Language learners need to develop persistence and even in the face of challenges, be able to roll up their sleeves undeterred and tackle problem areas all over again with renewed vigour – that is grittiness.

Learning a foreign language is like a marathon, not a sprint.

Growth Mindset

To have grit, language learners first need to have a growth mindset. This is when they believe that their abilities in learning a language are not fixed but can be developed. Not all learners will reach the same level of proficiency, but with the right kind of effort, strategies, and investment of time and will, every learner can improve. However, if a learner holds a fixed mindset, believing that language learning competences stem primarily from a fixed ability, then they are more likely to give up easily, and in some cases not even try to succeed. These learners feel helpless, believing there is little they can do to improve or overcome difficulties. In contrast, those with a growth mindset are typically willing to put in the effort to improve and explore a range of possible pathways to proficiency.

With a growth mindset, learners believe that their abilities can be developed.

What are the 3 Cs?

In terms of the three 3 Cs, learners need to feel a sense of Competence, Control, and Connectedness.


Learners need a sense of ‘I can’ in respect to learning a language. Much of this can stem from their mindset; however, they also need to feel that they are personally able to manage and cope with learning a language.


A key part of that feeling can be generated when learners are empowered with a sense of control. Learners benefit from being able to intentionally and proactively select and initiate approaches to learning where possible in their contexts. A sense of control also concerns how learners explain their perceived successes and failures to themselves and others. Do they attribute these outcomes to factors within their control or to external factors beyond their control? With internal attributions, learners are likely to be motivated and willing to expend effort on learning, knowing that they can make a difference.


The third C refers to learners feeling connected not only to their teachers, but also their peers, their institution, and the language per se. When learners feel they belong in a group or institution and when they feel cared for as people and in terms of their learning progress, they are much more likely to engage and be active in their own learning. However, learners also need to build a personal connection to the language itself. Even if they feel competent and able, without a compelling reason to engage with the language, they might not bother! Help your learner’s to find a purpose, why are they learning a language and what value could it have for them and their future lives – be that in terms of relevance, importance, utility, and/or interest.

Want to learn more? Join me in my upcoming webinar on the 17th and 18th April.

In this webinar, I will outline the character and importance of the two G’s and three C’s and consider practical ideas for fostering these to ensure our learners are in the best frame of mind for learning a language and engaging with the opportunities we offer them as educators.


Sarah Mercer is Professor of Foreign Language Teaching at the University of Graz, Austria, where she is Head of ELT methodology and Deputy Head of the Centre for Teaching and Learning in Arts and Humanities. Her research interests include all aspects of the psychology surrounding the foreign language learning experience. She is the author, co-author and co-editor of several books in this area including, ‘Psychology for Language Learning’.