The 3 Key Ingredients Your Brain Needs To Learn Spanish

Updated: Jan 24, 2019

1. A Relaxed, Happy Environment- How Fear & Stress Affect Our Ability to Learn

Your brain’s primary focus is your survival. Throughout the early years of human existence the brain has evolved to lean towards caution and to trigger fear whenever it might be useful. This is a very important function of the brain that we should be thankful for because without it, we could be making dangerous and often life-threatening mistakes all the time, without even being aware of it.

The human brain evolved this way for our own benefit, to help keep us alive and safe. Just imagine what life would be like, if you were to walk up to the edge of a cliff and not feel afraid to keep walking, or if you were to encounter a Grizzly bear in your path and didn’t feel fear? Fear exists to protect us from potentially dangerous situations. However, over the past few decades modern society has evolved in ways which no longer require us to be alert and thinking about survival at all times.

Even though the human brain continues to evolve, its core essence which is to detect and alert us of danger, so that we can react accordingly, still remains.

When it comes to learning a foreign language, the key factor to take note of here, is that the human brain does not distinguish between physical danger and emotional or social danger. So if you are feeling fear due to social circumstances, such as speaking broken Spanish with native speakers, your brain also perceives this situation as a threat. When a social threat is detected, just like a physical one, our brains are programmed to react in a way that will either remove us from the threat or protect us from it - the fight or flight (or freeze) response.

So if you’ve ever found yourself in a situation where you are trying to speak Spanish but the fear of sounding like a 2 year old or being laughed at causes you to freeze or revert back to English, then you have experienced the fight or flight response caused by social threats.

Once our brain enters into the fight or flight response, it is quite difficult to step out of it, as this reaction is hardwired and often happens on a subconscious level, without us even realizing it. Unfortunately, while this “survival mode” can be quite beneficial in certain situations, it can be detrimental to language learning.

As our brain reacts to a potential threat that could cost us our lives, it sends all of its resources to the other areas of our body which may require them. For example, our heart beats faster, our arms & legs may need more blood circulating through them in order to run or hide, etc. The problem is that this leaves our brain without the resources needed to learn something new. This is particularly true for learning a language because it is a skill that requires a lot of brain power. The fear response causes the Amygdala area of our brain to activate, which interferes with the function of the prefrontal cortex (the working brain or conscious thinking brain).

Fear also shuts down exploration, makes our thinking more rigid, and drives “neophobia,” the fear of anything new. Fear is also directly related to stress and stressful situations trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which interferes with neural growth (which is essential for creating new neural connections, allowing you to store information in your long-term memory). Prolonged stress impairs our ability to learn and can even inhibit our ability to maintain physical health.

The good thing is that once you understand this, you can recognize when this happens and catch it in the moment. You can relabel the fear as your brain’s attempt to protect you, and not an actual threat.

As you are able to realize that it is not a real threat and that it’s okay to proceed, you can override this automatic response through conscious thinking. This is when you will need to step out of your comfort zone and confront the situation regardless of what your subconscious mind is telling you (through the emotion of fear).

This means using the language and making mistakes, even when you know that the listener may notice and criticize your horrible grammar or pronunciation. If you can train yourself to ignore such reactions or thoughts and accept this as part of the learning process, eventually your brain will realize that it is a false threat. It will see that nothing bad happens when you confront these situations and if you do this consistently enough, the fear will no longer be triggered. Your brain will take the “threat” label off of all similar situations so that you can experiment freely with the language and enjoy the trial and error process.

2. Novelty & Variation

Curiosity, the urge to explore and the impulse to seek novelty, plays an important role in survival, which explains why we are rewarded for curiosity by dopamine and opioids (feel-good chemicals in the brain), which are stimulated in the face of something new.

As our brains evolved largely during a time which required us to remain vigilant to a constantly changing environment, we learn better in short intervals. However, this is not commonly understood as many students still sit down the night before an exam to cram, and language schools offer “intensive” courses which attempt to teach you everything in a very limited amount of time. In order to achieve this, they are forced to keep students for long hours a day, which more often than not ends up being a complete waste of time.

Our brains simply aren’t made to learn this way. Instead, we get bored, distracted or overwhelmed by the long hours of repeating similar tasks. When you get to that stage of overwhelm, you ultimately lose interest and you are no longer absorbing the information that is being presented to you.

In today’s society, the human brain has an even shorter attention span. Most people start losing focus and stop paying attention to any specific topic after 30-60 minutes, and many people will lose focus much earlier than that. So when looking at these intensive courses that include 5-6 hours of lessons per day, the question I tend to ask myself is, “What is happening during the other 4+ hours of lessons?

While the intention may be good, it’s basically just a creative way to waste your time, and eventually cause burnout.

Instead, focus on consistency and making Spanish a part of your daily life. Commit to setting aside just 30 minutes a day, every single day. You can even start with 15 or 20 minutes just to get into the habit. Consistency is much more important than the amount of time you spend during any given learning session. A little bit each day over time can quickly have a snowball effect and add up to a very deep, thorough understanding of the language. You are also 10 x as likely to follow through with it, knowing that you only need to section off a few minutes a day to accomplish this.

As we are a society conditioned to receive instant gratification (thanks to social media), the smaller learning intervals also help to keep us motivated. Each 20 or 30 minute interval that we complete, makes us feel good and accomplished. This encourages us to continue in seek of the feel good reward.

3. Interest

During our school years we are told that we have to learn a number of different subjects and skills, many of them which we may not be very fond of. If you think back to your school days you will quickly realize that the subjects you were interested in are the ones which yo excelled at. Whereas the ones you didn’t like, you struggled with. This isn’t just some coincidence, and even though it may be common sense for some people that interest and learning are related, this reality is often overlooked.

When I was in school I was not at all interested in learning about trigonometry or physics so I would either try to avoid it or if it was necessary to learn it, I fought it and struggled with learning just the very basics, the bare minimum needed to get by. I didn’t realize that taking just a few minutes to think about an alternative approach could have saved me so much pain and time.

Now that the effects of interest on learning have been proven by neuroscientists, there are no excuses. We need to approach learning differently. The very first thing we should do before learning a new task is to take a moment to consider two things:

Why are we learning this and how will it benefit us in the future?

How can we modify our view on the topic so that our interest increases?

Had someone explained this to me and walked me through the process back when I was in secondary and high school, it would have saved me a lot of pain and suffering, and hours spent pulling my hair out. But that didn’t happen so I stayed after school for hours each day, getting extra help private tutoring from my math teachers, all the while feeling more confused and more inadequate.

1. The very first thing I should’ve done before learning math is to write down why I was learning it. Noone wants to do anything that is pointless. Life is too short. What we don’t often realize is that nothing is really pointless, because we learn something new from every action we take, from every experience.

So why do you want to learn Spanish?

You might reply something like, “I want to be able to understand native speakers.” or “I want to be able to express myself and hold a fluid conversation.”

Okay, great. Why?

Maybe you want to understand your Colombian wife and her family when they speak together at family gatherings, or communicate your thoughts and ideas in a business meeting with your co-workers who don’t speak fluent English.

Good. But why?

Well maybe you feel left out at family gatherings, or you can’t build a meaningful relationship with your wife’s family without being able to understand them.

Or maybe you don’t feel fulfilled at work because you aren’t able to demonstrate your knowledge so that you are given better projects and opportunities for growth.

Now we are getting somewhere.

Now we have a sense of direction, a purpose and a destination. A reason that is worth fighting for and making sacrifices for. If you can keep the reason present in your mind, it will drive you to complete the necessary steps that will get you there, because you know that each step is just bringing you that much closer to something that you truly desire.

2. Apart from clearly defining your reason for learning, you can design each step of the process in a more appealing way. Perhaps you’ve been trying to learn Spanish through a CD or podcast series and you just aren’t finding the content to be authentic and are having a hard time getting through it This doesn’t mean that you can’t learn Spanish. It doesn’t even mean that the CDs are bad, it just means that you are not using the right approach for you. You need to find something that interests YOU.

Modify your approach and try videos with subtitles or find a conversation partner or a coach to experience real, authentic contextual Spanish. Or maybe you’re watching “how-to” videos in Spanish but you’re having a hard time staying focused, and you have never been a DIY person in the past. Try finding some videos about sports or travel, or whatever it is that you are passionate about.

Whenever you are looking for learning materials and topics, the number one thing that should rule all when it comes to making your selection, is interest. This is more important than level, learning category (reading, writing, listening, speaking), authenticity or anything else. As long as you adhere to this guideline, you can’t go wrong.

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