How to be more mindful to boost your language learning success

“Mindfulness” may have become something of a buzzword in recent years, but its benefits aren’t going anywhere.

In fact, they are increasingly applicable to a wide variety of industries, fields, and subject areas. New language learning is no exception.

In this post, we outline some of the ways you can become more mindful and harness those skills to master your target language.

What Is mindfulness?

Buddhism, mindfulness and language learning.

In the Indian Buddhist tradition, mindfulness comes from the Pali words sati and vipassana. The first word, sati, means awareness, attention, or alertness. The second word, vipassana, stands for insight cultivated by meditation.

Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine defines mindfulness as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment through a gentle, nurturing lens.” It also emphasizes acceptance and non-judgment, encouraging us to simply observe our thoughts and feelings without assigning a value to them.

A history of mindfulness

The practice of mindfulness has its origins in a variety of religious traditions, from Hinduism and Buddhism to Christianity and Islam, and is thousands of years old. In Hinduism, mindfulness practice first emerged between 2300BC and 1500BC, in the Indus Valley near present-day Pakistan. It was carried out as part of the Hindu yogic tradition. The first hints at mindfulness in Hindu scripture can be found in references to meditation, silence, and acceptance.

In Buddhism, mindfulness is a way toward enlightenment, allowing “personal attunement with a higher purpose in life.” It emphasizes sati as “remembering to be aware of something.” In Christianity, mindfulness is framed as “the Christ within,” or the innermost “I am.” In Islam, mindfulness refers to a pure core within each person, which can be rediscovered and cultivated through the practice.

A few prominent figures can be credited for bringing mindfulness to the West. In 1976, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzburg founded the Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts.

In the late 1970s, John Kabat-Zinn brought mindfulness from Buddhist practice to a secular audience, launching the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Since then, it’s become something of a household name in terms of self-help strategies and has been used in schools, prisons, hospitals, veteran centers, and more. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who was exiled from Vietnam in the 1960s, also began speaking and writing about mindfulness. His book Miracle of Mindfulness became very popular amongst a Western audience.

Mindful learning: How to be more mindful

Woman zooms out to see the big picture to increase mindful learning.

1. Zoom out

How urgent is your immediate experience, really? Take a moment to occasionally step back and see the bigger picture. What does the thought, feeling, or situation look like in the larger scheme of things? Have you had similar experiences before? How did you manage them?

2. Observe your experience

Without judgment or attachment, watch your thoughts and feelings as they pass through you. Doing so will help you detach from them and gain some perspective.

Practices like mindfulness meditation and body scans can help you develop this habit. And it is, in fact, a habit: the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

3. Change your scenery

Taking walks, exploring a different part of town, and traveling to a new place all serve to press the “reset” button in your mind. Putting your body in a different place and experiencing a different setting can help you step off the beaten track in your brain.

Once you feel refreshed, you can return to your everyday setting with the knowledge that what you think and how you feel is often circumstantial–and can change with a new backdrop.

4. Meditate

This isn’t as intimidating as it sounds. You can take five minutes each day to simply sit and do nothing but follow your breath. Doing so will help you feel conscious and connected throughout the day.

People who prefer guided meditations may use apps or follow guided sessions online, but you can also direct yourself.

Mindfulness and language learning

Mindful learning work space.

Mindfulness practice is known to help support the learning process in general, especially in terms of transferring skills and knowledge to new contexts, developing understanding, enhancing motivation and engagement, thinking creatively, and becoming a more self-directed learner.

These qualities make mindfulness practice a great match for some of the trickier aspects of foreign language learning, but the research literature is uncovering even more benefits.

Here are some of the ways mindfulness practice can help you master your target language, according to the latest research:

Context sensitivity

Dr. Ellen Langer defined mindfulness as “a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context.” Scholars at Chabahar Maritime University in Iran argue that applying Langerian mindfulness to language learning “may improve the role of learners, by making them more actively engaged, focusing on meaning, enhancing their attention and creativity, and reducing their stress.”

Taking ownership of learning

In a study of 24 undergraduate freshmen at a Northeastern University in China, researchers found that students learning English as a foreign language benefited from mindfulness practice by taking ownership of their learning in the following ways: “students built and became aware of a comfortable learning environment in their classroom through mindfulness; mindful writing helped students generate new thoughts and become aware of their thinking; mindfulness facilitated their learning process, and cultivated creativity and intelligence; mindful cooperative learning provided students with an opportunity to discover their awareness, learn from others, reflect and think critically.”

Lowered anxiety

Students at a Thai university experienced lower levels of anxiety while learning English when it was combined with mindfulness practice. The researchers write: “Students who reported higher levels of trait and state mindfulness while speaking English tended to experience less anxiety during their presentations.”

The research on mindfulness and language learning is still in its infancy, but what’s been gathered so far points toward a fruitful relationship. The takeaway point is that greater awareness of one’s strengths, challenges, and motivations can be extremely helpful when it comes to tackling what might otherwise be an intimidating subject.

Although we tend to think “doing the work” is the best way to make progress, sometimes it’s useful to step back before diving in. Mindful learning can be a great help in that regard.

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