Habit Change as a Language Learning Tool

Forgotten Habit by Trường Đặng

Being about three quarters of the way through the first month of our semi-unofficial Swedish challenge, I’ve noticed one of the biggest obstacles starting out was that I had almost entirely lost my study habit. With so many other things going on I’d frequently forget to do my vocab study until way late in the day. Then I’d either have to grudgingly accept that I was going to be behind and have to do extra to catch up, or force myself to grind it out before bed when neither my heart nor head were really into it.

As a result I fell a bit behind and have had to play a lot of catch up. (I’ll post a full analysis of how well I did at the end of the month challenge period.) It got me thinking a bit about how hard it could be for people who had no past experience building that habit. After all, I’ve done this all before and have a solid handle on how to bring that daily Memrise habit back. If you struggle to build habits or have never done it before I’m sure it’d be even more difficult.

So here’s how to build a habit that will stick, and how to use it to aid your language learning.

What’s a Habit Anyway?

There is some discussion to what really constitutes a habit, so I figure it’s best to clear up specifically what we’re talking about before we dig into the meat of things. The way we’ll be defining it here is that a habit is an action that you perform without conscious impetus to do so. An action which you would do completely on autopilot and which often would feel very strange to not do.

A couple easy examples are brushing your teeth in the morning or buckling your seat belt when you get into a car. You probably don’t have to tell yourself to do either of these things. For most people it’s entirely automatic to stumble into the bathroom half asleep after waking up and immediately start brushing their teeth. Similarly when you sit down in the car seat you probably reach for the seat belt unconsciously. Both these actions would also feel wrong to skip. You would have to force yourself to not brush your teeth and the fact that you hadn’t would probably grate at you in the back of your mind. Starting to drive off without buckling up would also take a conscious decision and feel very viscerally wrong (I hope).

Both of these things are the kinds of habits we’re talking about. You could maybe also call them ‘compulsions’ although that tends to hold a more negative connotation.

Bad habits follow the same rules. Biting one’s nails is an easy example. A person does it unconsciously, compelled without realizing that they’re doing it, and it would feel viscerally wrong somehow to consciously force themselves to not do it when compelled.

Positive or negative all of the habits we’re talking about here will have these basic qualities. Primarily because all of them follow the same pattern of activation.

How Habits are Triggered

All habits follow the same cyclical pattern of activation and reinforcement. This habit cycle starts with some kind of cue or trigger, the cue or trigger then causes you to unconsciously perform the habitual action, which then provides some kind of reward. It is, in essence, the same kind of positively reinforced classical conditioning used to train animals today. You probably don’t even recognize this Pavlovian response happening (quick aside to note, as an animal lover, that despite the potential value of his research Pavlov was a monster to those dogs), but it’s being built and reinforced every time you engage in the habit.

First comes the cue, something that occurs that triggers your habit response. In the case of brushing your teeth in the morning it’s probably waking up and heading into the bathroom or whatever part of your morning routine that precedes it. That action triggers the behavior in question, brushing your teeth in this case, and then you get the reward. The reward in this case being the personal satisfaction of having avoided future discomfort, or knowing that you’ve improved your appearance, or whatever subtle psychological trigger is present in you for completing that task.

The cue may be something obvious, or it may be something very discreet. In the case of buckling up in the car or brushing your teeth it’s fairly obvious what triggers it, but some habits are caused by more obfuscated forces. For example, an emotional eater might find a snack half finished without even recognizing that they had even felt lonely, bored, or whatever emotion happened to trigger that response.

The reward may be something very obvious as well, if the habit you’re trying to break is having a cookie for dessert every time you finish lunch the reward is pretty obvious – the cookie and all the pleasant hormones that come with a sugary treat. In other instances, brushing your teeth or buckling up for example, the reward may be something you don’t notice like the feeling of contentment, security, and having avoided future danger and all the feel good hormones that releases.

Regardless of whether it’s a positive habit or a negative habit they all follow this same cycle of trigger and reinforcement. The good thing is, once we understand this cycle and how it works, we can manipulate the variables to create more good habits and erase all of our bad ones.

Building a Language Learning Habit

Since I mostly want to focus on using habit creation to aid language learning, I’m going to save how we manipulate the habit cycle to erase bad habits for another article and focus on how to build new habits – specifically ones for language learning.

For our example habit, since it’s the one I had to rebuild, I’m going to choose vocab study. In my case it was using Memrise, but this could be putting some time into Anki or your other SRS of choice, or even a quick study session on Duolingo or a chat with somebody on iTalki. You can substitute any behavior you want in for the habit and play with things to see what works for you.

The first thing we need is something to set off the habit.

Creating a Habit Cue

The easiest way to create a habit cue is to build upon an action that is already habitual, or inevitable enough for one reason or another that you are already certain that it’s going to occur essentially everyday. It’s also important, or at least extremely helpful, to pick a habit that occurs at roughly the same time everyday and to make sure it’s the time of day you want to perform this new habit we’re building.

For me, I wanted to make sure I got to my Memrise practice as early as possible in the day because it’s important to me and I like to tackle the things that are most important as early as possible. I also feel like I study better early than later in the evenings.

To that end, I decided to make my cue sitting down with my morning coffee. I love my coffee and, unless we run out and I don’t realize soon enough to order new beans, Caroline and I both have two cups every morning (burr ground, drip, Chemex – for any fellow coffee nerds). That made it a perfect habit cue for me to utilize. It’s an essentially inevitable part of my routine and it’s first thing in the morning which is what I want.

You can create your own cues at certain times if you don’t have an activity you already habitually do then by setting alarms on your computer, phone, watch or whatever. I personally find this method a little harder to stick to, and in my experience it seems harder to bind the action to the timer in the first place than to bind it to another action, but you can experiment.

Once you’ve got your habit cue, you can move on to creating the actual habit action.

Developing a Habitual Action

One of the biggest mistakes people make when developing an action into a habit is to try to do too much too quickly.

If you were to commit yourself to studying 200 new words per day on Memrise everyday after sitting down with your coffee, you might get a few days in through sheer force of will – but soon you just won’t feel like it. You’ll miss a day, then maybe two or three, and your efforts to build that habit will have been wasted.

Good dog trainers will tell you that when building a response in a dog you want to avoid a ‘miss’ at all costs. A ‘miss’ meaning a failure to perform the behavior. If you’re trying to teach a dog to sit ideally you give the command, the dog sits, you mark the correct behavior with a clicker or similar marker and then give a reward like a treat. If the dog ‘misses’ – does something other than sit like jump up – you don’t keep giving the command, you regress to an easier behavior then work back up.

This is because you want to condition in the cleanest response possible and avoid conditioning in additional, unwanted behaviors or making the desired action you’re pairing with the command less clear. Conditioning your own habits follows similar rules, you want to avoid a miss – in your case failing to perform the new habitual action – at all costs.

The easiest way to ensure that you aren’t going to miss is to start your habitual action out so small that it would make you feel foolish not to do it. So in our case you could make it to learn 5 new words on Memrise. If you need something even easier than that, you could make it just to sit down with your coffee and open the Memrise app.

That’s it. Just open it. You don’t have to do any actual studying if you don’t want to.

That kind of action ensures that you’ll always actually do it. After all, if you’re so lazy or opposed to study that you can’t even be bothered to take two seconds to open the Memrise app on your phone, then you have much bigger problems to address first.

Eventually you can build upon that foundational habit to get to a genuinely productive habit. So after a week or so of just opening up the app, you can bump up to 5 words studied every day. After a week of that, when it feels easy and automatic, make it 10 words per day instead and so on. If you miss, then just regress back to an easier stage until you’ve got a good consistent stretch of hits or successes and then try increasing the load again.

The biggest key here is to start small. Choose something that takes a minimal amount of time, maybe less than 30 seconds, requires almost no effort, and is relevant to the larger habit you’re building. The relevancy is important, conditioning yourself just to pick up your phone might not cut it – you could wind up on Facebook or playing games. Conditioning yourself to open Memrise (or Duolingo, iTalki, whatever) is relevant because it’s a necessary first step to the larger habit we’re gunning for.

Now that we’ve got a habitual action developed and tied to the habit cue we created, now we need to finish things off with a habit reward.

Finding a Habit Reward

Technically speaking you can develop new habits while neglecting this step. This is primarily due to the fact that in general we like accomplishing things and even if you don’t consciously build in a reward for the new behavior your brain will release some of those feel good hormones when you actually do the thing you’ve been wanting to do.

That being said, you can encode the new habits much, much faster by actively building in a habit reward.

A habit reward can be anything at all that makes you feel good. I personally like to make them a little more psychological for most things rather than physical, both for convenience of use and because there’s no worry about negative side effects, but you can choose something physical if that works better for you.

By a psychological reward I mean an active confirmation that you have done something to be celebrated. So using our previous example after you finish your Memrise session for that day (whether that was just opening the app or doing 50 words), you put a big grin on your face, tell yourself that you just did something awesome, give yourself a big thumbs up, then flex and roar out a Randy Savage-esque ‘OH YEAH!’.

Ok, so you don’t have to do all that. The point is to really feel like you’ve done something great though, whatever you need to do to generate that feeling. Your brain really likes that feeling, and will release a lot of chemicals like dopamine that make you feel happy and actively reinforce the behavior we’re trying to habituate.

If you need a physical reward, try to choose something that has other positive effects on your life rather than negative ones. If you use a pint of ice cream as a reward, for example, and wind up eating a pint of ice cream everyday on top of everything else, you might wind up with other problems as a result of your work to create that habit. A small piece of candy or something else sweet but healthier like a piece of fruit are decent options, or using an activity you like as a reward for successfully completing the behavior you’re habituating. Directly physical/chemical rewards like food, drink, or maybe sexual favors from a partner are all potent, but difficult to implement well.

Immediacy can make a big difference as well, which is another reason I prefer psychological/psychosomatic rewards, the longer your reward takes to trigger after the habit you’re developing is completed the less effective it is at reinforcing that habit.

This is one reason habits like going to the gym or eating healthier are notoriously hard to develop – the rewards (being fit, losing weight, etc.) are all far delayed from the habit. If someone gave you $5 immediately after you finished every workout, you’d build that habit in no time.

Putting All of It Together

Doing those things in order will eventually lead you to having a strong study habit conditioned in that you’ll do automatically every morning without thinking about it – like I do now.

In practice, what the above looks like is this – the first week every morning as soon as you sit down with your coffee you open the Memrise app. Immediately after opening it, you may a big deal out of it and jump up and down and celebrate because you’re the best for opening that app. Maybe after the fanfare you study a bit, maybe you just close it. Doesn’t matter.

The next week, having done that every morning for the previous week, you bump it up. Now, after you sit down with your coffee, you immediately open the Memrise app and learn 5 new words. Once those 5 words are done you congratulate yourself like you just beat the Technodrome level on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles NES game. Again, maybe you do more words after that, but it’s no big deal if you do or don’t.

The next week, after never failing to do 5 words each day the previous one, you repeat the process but bumped up to 10 words, and so on. Before long when you sit down with your coffee you’ll be pulling Memrise up before you even think about it.

You can use this habit building process for any language learning element to learn faster, and more effectively. That can mean developing a vocab learning habit like what was outlined here, or maybe you build a habit to chat with a native speaker on iTalki or HelloTalk each evening. The point is to build well-ingrained habits that sequentially bring you closer to your goal of speaking a new language.

Have you tried these methods to habituate your language learning process? Have any suggestions to make it easier or areas where you had particular trouble? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Trường Đặng Rok

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com