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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’.


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#IATEFL – Language Learning Psychology: Getting into the ‘right mind’ for teaching and learning

EAP English for academic purposes

Leading up to IATEFL Birmingham from 13th – 16th of April, we asked our delegates to preview their scheduled talks for our blog readers. Today we’re joined by Sarah Mercer who will discuss ‘Exploring psychology in language learning and teaching’ at the conference on Wednesday April 13th.

How we approach language learning, whether as a learner or a teacher, is crucially defined by our psychology; the way we view ourselves and our abilities, our motivation for engaging with or persisting in tasks, our beliefs about how the language should be learned and taught, our emotional experiences of the undertaking, and our relationships with others. It is important that we understand how our thoughts, motives and feelings can affect how we learn and teach. As such, the field of psychology represents a rich and important source of information for teachers to enhance their practice and their sensitivity to their own and their learners’ needs.

In my own work to date, I have focused largely on the psychology of language learners. As teachers, it is important that we reflect on how we understand our learners as individuals. How an individual engages with learning a language is less dependent on the materials and subject knowledge of their teacher, but is rather more connected with their teacher’s interpersonal skills and ability to create motivating and enabling learning conditions in the classroom. As an example, a key facet of language learners’ psychology is their self-concept, which is what they believe and feel about themselves as language learners – do they feel confident in their skills? Do they feel comfortable using the language? Do they believe they are able to improve their skills? All of these beliefs and emotions impact on the learner’s motivation and behaviours. As teachers, we can work on creating the right kinds of conditions in our classrooms for our learners to develop healthy self-related beliefs which ensure they are in the best position to learn a language to the best of their ability.

However, one thing I have increasingly become aware of is that teacher and learner psychology are in fact two sides of the same coin. As social beings, we are all aware of the moods, emotions and beliefs of those around us, especially those we are close to or respect. For classroom life, this means the teacher has an enormous influence on the psychology of the students they work with. In turn, teachers are influenced by the moods of their learners and the atmosphere in the group. To start a positive cycle of interactions in the classroom, we need to ensure that as teachers we have high levels of professional well-being alongside positive personal and professional psychology. Only when we are in the right frame of mind for teaching can we ensure our learners are provided with the best conditions in which to develop their own positive attitudes, emotions, motivations, and engagement.

In the end, psychology for language learning is not just about the psychological well-being of our learners, although this will always remain a prime focus, but it is also about the psychology of teachers and how we can ensure that they thrive in their jobs, for their own sake as well as for that of their learners.


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Enjoying Learning: Motivating Adults through Content (Part 3)

Man sat at desk smiling while workingHaving looked at different types of motivation, and considered what makes different materials motivating, Mark Hancock, co-author of the English Result series, now introduces his taxonomy of intrinsic motivations: the IPEC taxonomy.

What kind of EFL material is intrinsically motivating and most likely to induce ‘flow’? Some indications may be found by looking outside the language classroom. What kinds of things do people do spontaneously in day-to-day life, without looking for extrinsic rewards?

One such potential activity is playing computer games. Malone (1981) presented a theoretical framework for intrinsic motivation in the context of designing computer games for instruction. He argued that intrinsic motivation is created by three qualities: challenge, fantasy, and curiosity.

Challenge involves outcomes which are uncertain and which depend on a combination of luck and skill. Fantasy is the imagined world the player moves in. And curiosity is the intellectual arousal the player feels when they believe their knowledge is incomplete.

Of these three, fantasy is the quality which seems most specific to computer gaming and less obviously applies to the adult EFL domain – which is not to say it is absent, in role-plays and simulations for example. It may be useful, following Malone’s example for computer gaming, to develop a taxonomy of intrinsic motivations specifically for the EFL context, and this is what I will attempt to do in what follows.

My taxonomy can be summarized by the initials IPEC: Interest, Personalization, Entertainment, Challenge. We will look at each of these in turn.

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Enjoying Learning: Motivating Adults through Content (Part 2)

Young man falling asleep holding booksFollowing his post defining and exploring two kinds of motivation in adult learners, Mark Hancock, co-author of the English Result series, continues the series with a consideration of why some material is inherently more motivating than others.

In Williams and Burden’s book Psychology for Language Teachers (1997) they trace back certain theories of motivation to a theoretical assumption of ‘homeostasis’ – namely that animals – and people – prefer not to be in a state of arousal. That is, we would prefer to be in a state of having all our physical and intellectual needs satisfied.

However, experiments have shown this not to be the case, and that even rats are motivated by curiosity and novelty. John McVicar Hunt (1961) identified the motivating force of curiosity: we actively seek material which is surprising, incongruous, or discrepant.

To see what this might look like in more concrete classroom terms, consider the following example from Widdowson (2003). He suggests that there is a big problem with the following pedagogic text, with its accompanying illustration:

This is a man. He is John Brown; he is Mr Brown. He is sitting in a chair. This is a woman. She is Mary Brown; she is Mrs Brown. She is standing by a table. Mr Brown has a book. The book is in his hand; he has a book in his hand. Mrs Brown has a bag …”

Widdowson’s problem is not, as you might expect, that the text is so unnatural and unlike anything in real life. These things are not necessarily problematic. The real problem is that the text is boring. It tells us nothing that we didn’t already know from the picture. The text is ‘simply a device for demonstration. As such, it offers nothing for learners to engage with’. You might say that the text is too stable – there are no loose ends to provoke any kind of curiosity.

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