Language addiction is a tricky subject to write about, but I think we have to bring it up if we’re going to talk about motivation. Because the truth is, successful language learners take advantage of this very real phenomenon to stay on the grind, day in and day out, as they improve in their new languages.
Let me just say up front that addiction, at least as defined by doctors, is generally a negative thing. Compulsions to take dangerous drugs or perform destructive behaviors ruin lives, and I’m not in any way condoning, celebrating, or even judging that here.
The word “addiction,” however, also has a non-medical, layperson usage: psychological or physical dependence upon something. Basically, you do something because you are compelled to, not necessarily because you “want” to. In this sense, there are plenty of relatively benign things that we become “addicted” to, like spicy foods and Pinterest. I think language addiction also falls into this category.
Fortunately, I haven’t heard of anyone destroying her life with verb conjugations and vocab drills.
Language learning activates your brain’s pleasure center
A few months ago, a study came out showing that learning a language activates the brain’s ventral striatum. This is the “pleasure center” of the brain that becomes engaged when people have sex, do drugs, or eat chocolate.
Brain scans showed that the ventral striatum lit up like a Christmas tree both when the subjects won 25 cents in a gambling simulation and when they learned a new vocabulary word. So if you would’ve actually paid attention in your high school Spanish class, it would’ve been like going to Vegas and winning. (Okay, it’s probably not quite like that.)
But why? Why does learning a language literally give us pleasure?
I guess I don’t know for sure, but I can make a guess.
I wonder if, as humans evolved, language development took advantage of our pleasure-seeking brains. As this article on video game addiction in The Week explains it:
“When we do anything that triggers our brain’s reward system, that information gets locked into our brains. A reward system is, basically, a system that governs how the brain feels when we do something — a chore, a job, anything — that results in reward at least some of the time. If we keep getting a reward for the same task, we start to understand the relationship between the two and our brain builds the appropriate connections.”
So our brains have this system going on where they get a reward and remember what triggers that reward. With languages, learning something new triggers endorphins, so your brain is constantly seeking out new language to learn–it’s chasing that mini-high. This might be why our native-language vocabulary size grows from 0 to 30,000 words throughout our lives without any special effort.
If all this sounds too out there, remember that you are after all spending your free time reading a language blog right now.
How to foster the addiction
No one is losing their jobs and missing their kid’s baseball games because of language addiction (I don’t think). So why not encourage it? It’s how I and many other hardcore language learners keep at this thing for years on end.
Try these tips out…
Give yourself a celebration ritual.
After I successfully drill a stack of flashcards or finish listening to a podcast, sometimes I snap my fingers. Other times I also kind of do a little side to side dance in my seat. I’ve been doing stuff like this for so long that I barely notice it anymore. (And now you know just how nerdy I am.)
Basically, I’m giving myself a signal that I’ve successfully completed a task. It’s similar to when Candy Crush says “Delicious” or when a slot machine flashes lights and sounds after you won $1.50. You’re giving yourself what’s called “disproportionate feedback,” an exaggerated response to success that helps your reward center know it’s time to party.
Complete specific tasks.
“Winning” is incredibly addictive. So win in your language learning, and win often.
Unfortunately, many people don’t give themselves any chance to win because they don’t have specific tasks. They might have long-term goals, but they don’t have any urgent, pressing things to complete.
For example, instead of saying, “I’m going to read a little today,” say, “I’m going to read three news articles in ten minutes.” Now you have a task to complete and a way to win, and in turn a way to trigger the feelings of reward.
I hesitate to put this, since competition can be discouraging if you overdo it. But a little bit of competition can make activities incredibly addictive. When I play Angry Birds, I’ll repeat the same level over and over again until I max out on 3 stars, and then I move on. But when I play Angry Birds Friends on Facebook, in which I’m competing against other people, I’ll play the same level again and again and again until I have the highest score. At that point, it’s definitely more “compulsion” than “fun.”
All I can say is, find healthy avenues for language competition. The iTalki challenge is somewhat competitive but mostly encouraging, for example. I also like Duolingo’s weekly points competition, because it’s fun and low key and tied to how much work you did over the week, not how “good” you are. Your self-esteem is never really on the line. And speaking of Duolingo…
Duolingo is a language learning app, which I go over in detail in this article. Its developers worked really hard to incorporate the addictive aspects of gaming into it. It does everything I mentioned above. It gives you a celebration ritual with bells and sound effects, it encourages you to complete specific tasks, and it has avenues for competition.
Out of all the apps I’ve used personally, Duolingo is the most addictive. It’s not exactly Candy Crush, but it’s definitely got something going on to make you want to keep going and to come back.
You don’t want to make language addiction the only reason you study. Researchers say the danger of focusing too much on reward is that when the carrot is taken away, you don’t want to do the activity anymore.
If for some reason you lose those good feelings, you’ll need something deeper–something more transcendent–to keep you going forward. Chasing the high is fine, but there has to be more to your language learning motivation than that.
I’ll talk about that “more” later in this series.