“I’m sto stupid“. “Why do I keep making these mistakes?” “Oh my God, this was totally wrong“. “No, wait, I should have said that instead!” – How many times have you said or thought that?
You might not realize it, but these thoughts take up a lot of your energy and, of course, your time. They also stand in your way any time you want to achieve or understand something new.
So, in this post, Jessica from French Sunny Side is going to share how you can spot these thoughts, take them away from your sight, and focus on what really matters . And she’s going to do so by talking about mindfulness and how to use it to learn without stress.
So, Jessica, over to you.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the practice of being present. When you’re mindful, you’re being aware of your feelings, your sensations, your thoughts and also your environment. By practising mindfulness, you create a space in your mind that allows you to choose where to focus your attention. Whether it is on your pain, on your joy, or simply on your breath.
As such, mindfulness can be a tool to help you access the full potential of your most precious resource: your attention. Depending on what you decide to focus on, your perspective, and therefore your experience of life can be much different.
Meditation is an aspect of mindfulness, but it’s not the only one. The practise is really to focus on what you are doing, in this present moment, with all your senses. When you are being mindful, there’s no objective in mind other than being here and now, knowing that it is enough. You are enough.
How can we use mindfulness to learn a language?
When we look at the challenges that learning a language presents us with, what often comes up is the lack of confidence, the frustration of making repeatedly the same mistakes, and the stress of actually speaking the language.
Experiencing stress and discomfort when speaking a language we don’t master, especially with native strangers, is completely normal.
We get nervous, we forget everything we’ve learned. Sometimes to the point that we are unable to say more than a few words, as if our brains had taken a vacation. How many times have you said something like “I can’t think of the word, in any language I know!”? It also happens that we freeze completely and we can’t remember what we were trying to say.
Mindfulness explains it like this: as human beings we are programmed to look out for danger. As soon as our brain picks up a threat whether it is real or not, it sends the signal to our amygdala, a bit like an alarm bell at a fire station. Our fight or fllight response is engaged, which means that we are literally ready for combat. Our heart is pumping fast, we are alert and stress completely takes us over. As a consequence: we either freeze or we escape.
This is a great way to survive in extreme conditions. But I’m sure you will agree that although our mind perceives them as similar situations, speaking Italian with the lady selling olives at the market is not exactly the same as being attacked by a bull.
With mindfulness, you learn to come back to the reality of things: “am I really in danger of sudden death?”
If not, you can start to relax and maybe get some olives!
Of course, it doesn’t mean that you won’t experience discomfort. Discomfort is part of the human experience, just like pleasure. However, instead of resisting it, you can start to embrace the discomfort as a sign that you’re actually growing and improving.
One thing at a time
A second aspect that I would like to discuss today is the idea of uni-tasking.
Somehow, in our demanding and productive-oriented society, we have developed the idea that doing several things at the same time was a wonderful way to optimize our time.
The concept is tempting. Imagine if you could watch Netflix while doing your Italian homework! How efficient would you be?
Well, you wouldn’t. In fact, recent studies show that multi-tasking is a myth. A complete and utter illusion. In reality, engaging in more than one activity at a time is like having several programs running on your computer at the same time. You can go from one to another, but you will constantly be shifting you attention back and forth instead of using them at the same time. Going back to our Netflix example, you won’t know what happened in 40% of the episode you’re watching, and your homework clearly won’t be your best. It will slow you down, you’ll feel frustrated, stressed, and overwhelmed.
And what about “mental multi-tasking”? You know, when you’re having a session with your language teacher and all of a sudden you’re thinking about what to get for dinner. And how your laundry is still in the basket, and soon enough your mind has wandered, and you don’t know what you’re supposed to do or say anymore.
It’s quite normal for thoughts to wander. That’s what they do. But you are the one in charge to decide whether you go with them or you stay here and now. The goal is not to prevent yourself from thinking, but to notice when you do. And to gently bring your attention back to your learning activity. As such, learning becomes almost like a meditation. A little bubble just for you, to foster your relationship to the language you love.
What can we do when we make a mistake?
Making mistakes, although frustrating, is quite normal. When they happen, bringing a little bit of compassion to ourselves, the same way we would to others, can go a long way.
When a student makes a mistake, I keep telling them: ‘thank you for making this mistake, because now I get to teach you’.
Making mistakes is part of the learning process. It’s inevitable. Everyone makes mistakes. Mind you, everyone keeps making the same mistakes until they get it.
What’s important to keep in mind is that it doesn’t mean anything about you or your capability. The only thing it means is that you’re bringing awareness to something that needs your attention.
I’m going to repeat it because it’s important: making mistakes only means you’re learning.
Isn’t that why you are here?
Somehow it’s far easier for us to be forgiving of other people’s mistakes than it is to forgive ourselves. Well, my friends, it’s high time we changed that!
Imagine if you could treat yourself the same way you would treat your most favourite person on earth?
Next time you make a mistake and you catch yourself judging yourself for it, bring a little bit of compassion to yourself. What would you say to a friend in the same situation? Say that to yourself.
Little by little, you’ll be able to change your inner dialogue, not only for language learning, but for life!
Don’t dwell on it
Have you ever tried to go back in time and change the past?
Don’t waste your energy focusing on what can’t be changed. Instead, connect to what is really going on right now: the beautiful adventure of trying to communicate who you are in another language. How wonderful!
How can we stop talking negatively about ourselves?
First, let me clarify something crucial: whatever thoughts, judgment, criticism, opinion, idea you have in your mind: you are not them.
This is important because we tend to believe everything we think, which is of course problematic when those thoughts aren’t helpful.
You are not your thoughts.
The second thing is that we all have an inner critic. You know, this inner voice that criticises whatever you do or say, or how you dress or behave. By the way, you may be surprised to know that our inner critic is just trying to help us. He’s not doing a good job, obviously, but his intentions are pure. What he’s trying to do is to protect us from what our mind has recognised as “danger” or “risk”. A bit like an overprotective parent who will resort to humiliation to make sure you won’t end up in a bad way.
The negative thoughts we hear, or rather create, are often a mixture of the voice of our parents, grandparents, carers, teachers, society and any other influencing figure. Of course, there’s no point in blaming ourselves for being self-judgmental.
However, and this is my third point: negative self-talk is just a habit. And like all habits, it can be changed.
How, you say?
Again, it starts with awareness. Pay attention to your inner dialogue for a couple of days. Just observe, without judgment. You can do so in your mind, or better yet, in writing as it will allow you to keep track.
When you’re ready, start answering back to that inner critical voice with a positive one. Little by little, you’ll notice a change. Here are some examples:
- I’ll never be fluent → Why wouldn’t I be fluent? I’m making progress every day!
- I’m not disciplined enough → I make time for things that matter to me.
- I’m sooo behind → I’m right where I need to be, let’s move from there.
- I’m so stupid!! → No I’m not! I’m actually pretty smart and l continue learning and growing.
- It’s too difficult → I’ve got this. I can do hard things.
We can’t really get rid of our inner critic, but it is possible with a little bit of consciousness, practice and compassion, to allow those voices to quiet down and to choose to put our attention on other, more helpful thoughts and beliefs.
Can we achieve concrete results in a new language through a mindful approach?
One day, a student asked his master:
“Master, how long do I have to meditate to reach inner peace?”
After a long silence, the master answered:
The student is shocked!
“Waw that’s a bit long. What if I work twice as hard, day and night, and I do only that?”
The master kept quiet for a very long moment.
Finally, he replied :
“Then it will take you fifty years.”
Ah, the results! We’re obsessed with them, aren’t we?
I’ll let you in on a secret: the result isn’t why you should be here. The same way that when you fall in love, you shouldn’t obsess about when it’s going to end. What a waste to focus only on the end of things, don’t you think? How would we ever enjoy them?
The result isn’t why you should be here. You should be here for the journey. For the fascinating experience of connecting to another culture and language, and therefore relating to your own existence and self in a brand new way.
I feel that as teachers and coaches, it’s our duty to underline to our students that all good things take time. It’s not about “when” you will be fluent, whether or not you use mindfulness as a tool, because there’s no way to control or predict the results.
And you know what? The results, they are inevitable. Especially if you don’t worry about them.
Learning a language is very similar to tennis. Do you play tennis? When you’re on the court and you need to hit the ball, you must be in the moment. Present with all your senses, your eyes on the ball to make sure that you will hit it with the center of the racket. And when you’re hitting it, you must not, ever, look to check where the ball has landed. Because if you do, you will slightly tense, move your shoulders, and that will change the directory of your ball and make it land outside of the court. Instead, you must trust that you’ve hit the ball in the best possible way you could, and trust the process. Trust the result.
You can’t predict the result, but something you can predict is your actions. Your commitment. Your emotional management. Your focus. And as we’ve seen above, mindfulness is a wonderful tool to help us with that.
I’ve been using mindfulness and meditation as a way to facilitate the language learning process with my students for two years now. I don’t think they learn “faster”, but their experience is much more enjoyable than it used to be. They approach learning with a peaceful and curious mind. They are relaxed and have adopted a positive, growth mindset. As a consequence, they communicate more effectively, they are more resilient and keep motivated even when it’s hard sometimes. You see, attitude is everything.
Can you give us a quick and practical exercise to begin with?
- Before your next language session, start by sitting up straight and take a couple of deep breaths.
- Connect to the physical the sensations of the breath, feel your chest expand, and lower.
- Slowly close your eyes, let your breath come to a natural rhythm, without control, without judgment, just with curiosity. Observe it, and stay with it, just for 10 seconds.
- Then gently open your eyes, and notice your environment.
- Notice and name in the language you’re learning 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste.
You’re in the moment. Enjoy.
I’m Jessica Tefenkgi Ruelle. I’m an online French teacher and a Mindful Life Coach. I’m the founder of French SunnySide, where I blend French acquisition with mindfulness and self-awareness. I help intermediate learners find their authentic voice in French. Learn more about my work on my website www.frenchsunnyside.com, and get my free 18 pages PDF: The Mindful French Learner’s Guide
1 thought on “How to learn without stress: a mindful guide”
This is a fantastic approach, one that I truly try to incorporate in my own language journey. I enjoyed reading the article! Thank you for sharing Jessica’s insightful and useful perspective.