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Psychology is fascinating for so many reasons. The psychology of memory is particularly exciting.

But as an aspiring trilingual speaker, I found the psychology of language learning to be most fascinating of all.

If you’ve ever asked yourself…

  • What is the psychology of language learning?
  • What is the relationship between language and psychology?
  • What are the components of language psychology?

…then you’re in luck.

I’m going to be give you all those answers and more in the most time-efficient manner possible. Excited? You should be.

There’s so much information out there on language learning that the whole process can be downright confusing.

I’ve had more than my fair share of frustrated study sessions and one day figured enough was enough.

Before learning a language, I should’ve learned how to learn. Which is where psychology comes in. Psychology is the study of the mind, and what do we use when we learn foreign languages? Our mind.

Understanding how our mind operates and remembers things is the key to hacking language learning. Narrow in on the memory branch of Psychology and you’ll have everything you need to someday reach fluency (preferably sooner than later!).

When you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. But it’s just not something most language learners ever think about.

This article sums up everything psychology related I’ve ever learned about language learning. It tackles how to study languages, when to study languages, and why to study languages.

So make sure you either bookmark or pin this article for later. You’ll be wishing you had!

Intrinsic motivation vs. Extrinsic motivation

Let’s take a trip back to high school shall we? Here are the first two psychology terms related to language learning that you should know:

  • Extrinsic motivation– a desire to perform a behavior due to promised rewards or threats of punishment. (External reasons)
  • Intrinsic motivation– A desire to perform a behavior for its own sake. (Internal/Personal reasons)

If you can’t tell where most of your motivation lies, consider filling out this Motivation questionnaire used in the 2013 Chinese survey (You & Dörnyei, 2016; You, Dörnyei, Z., & Csizér, K., 2016). You’ll rate how strongly you feel about statements like “Studying English is important to me in order to gain the approval of the society.” Replace “English” with your target language and you’ll have a filled-out self-analysis in no time.

If it’s not obvious, intrinsic motivation makes for a much more solid grounding in language learning.

If there are ever extenuating circumstances that hurt your progress or outside rewards are taken out of the picture, do you have what it takes to continue your language journey?

Who are you learning your target language for? If you say anyone but yourself, you’re laying a rocky foundation.

Find your personal why and don’t let the outside world get in the way of that.

When you find intrinsic motivation for language learning , studying will feel a whole lot less like a chore, or even burden. It can even become a hobby if you implement methods of study that you personally find enjoyable. (Check out 100 FUN ways to learn another language!)

Distributed Practice V. Mass Practice (Spacing Effect)

Psychology term #3?

Spacing effect – the tendency for distributed study or practice to yield
better long-term retention than is achieved through massed study or

Massed practice (cramming) can produce speedy short-term learning and a feeling of confidence. But to paraphrase pioneer memory researcher
Hermann Ebbinghaus (1885), those who learn quickly also forget quickly.

Distributed practice produces better long-term recall.

Spreading your learning over several months, rather than over a shorter term, can help you retain information for a lifetime. In a 9-year experiment, Harry Bahrick and three of his family members (1993) practiced foreign language word translations for a given number of times, at intervals ranging from 14 to 56 days. Their consistent finding: The longer the space between practice sessions, the better their retention up to 5 years later.

Remember this!

This concept is the exact reason why spaced repetition flashcard programs work insanely well at information retention. Be sure to check out my 27-minute mini-course on learning languages like a PRO with Anki! (Free for 14 days using that link + unlimited access to thousands of creative courses.)

By reviewing a word/phrase right when you’re on the verge of forgetting it, you memorize it for years… even life.

Cramming does not work for language learning. Unless your sole goal is passing a foreign language exam in the very near future.

In all honesty, passing an exam means little if you don’t actually know the language. To each their own though.

The Testing Effect

Next psychology term?

Testing effect – enhanced memory after retrieving, rather than simply
rereading, information. Also sometimes referred to as a retrieval practice effect or test-enhanced learning.

One effective way to distribute practice is repeated self-testing, a phenomenon that researchers Henry Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke (2006) have called the testing effect.

Better to practice retrieval (as any exam will demand) than merely to reread material (which may lull you into a false sense of mastery).

It all comes down to actually applying what you’ve learned. Unfortunately, we’re not sponges and simply staring at information won’t make us absorb it.

We can however, squeeze our minds a bit to see which bits of information we actually retained. A brief self-test will do just the trick.

Writing or reciting a list of what you just learned is a pretty quick way to figure out what actually resonated.

Keep in mind flashcards are also pretty effective at enforcing the testing effect. Writing down all the new words and terms you learned and then reviewing at the end of your study session is great for retention.

Long story short? Spaced study and self-assessment beat cramming and rereading. Practice may not make perfect, but smart practice—occasional rehearsal with self-testing— makes for lasting memories.

Make it meaningful

Are you often pressed for time? The most effective way to cut down on the amount of time you need to spend studying is to increase the meaningfulness of the material.

If you can relate the material to your own life—and that’s pretty easy when you’re studying languages—it takes less time to master it.

As memory researcher Wayne Wickelgren (1977) noted, “The time you spend thinking about material you are reading and relating it to previously stored material is about the most useful thing you can do in learning any new subject matter.”

Key point to remember: The amount remembered depends both on the time spent learning and on your making it meaningful for deep processing.

Applying this tip to your language learning practice involves finding your personal why and initially focusing on vocabulary of higher priority.

If you’re studying a language for business reasons, then you’d be better off starting with business terms since they’ll carry more meaning for you.

If you’re learning a language for family reasons, then start with family terms and home-related dialogue.

You’ll learn that it’s pretty easy to relate even random vocabulary back to your life. Like maybe instead of just learning “rabbit” you could learn “my favorite animal is a rabbit.”

And when learning questions, it could be beneficial to relate the answers back to yourself. Like instead of just learning “what do you do”, you could also learn “I’m a teacher.” (Or whatever your profession is)

Citation(s): Myers, D. G. (2014). Myers’ psychology for AP. New York, NY: Worth.


Psychology is powerful. Language learning is powerful. Combine those two things together and you’ve got something borderline magical.

I don’t want you to ever lose motivation for language learning. You shouldn’t ever be in a situation where you’re at a loss for language inspiration.

If you need a consistent, time-efficient way to study your target language daily (or even bi-daily), do yourself a favor and check out Pimsleur.

Head over to my review on 30 days of learning Spanish with Pimsleur to get a taste of what Pimsleur is all about. All you need is approx. 30 minutes daily to reach near fluency in 5 months.

Pimsleur is perfect for busy bodies who want to drive, clean, exercise, cook, or do something else while listening to a language learning podcast. At least give it a try.

You can also get a nice dose of language learning inspiration on my PinterestInstagram, and right here on this blog.

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Keep learning languages my friend! And I look forward to seeing you again real soon.

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