Anxious about learning a new language? Science says it's all in your head.

Motivation plays an important role in successful language acquisition, explains PhD student (Psychology) Nigel Lou

Katie Willis - 24 October 2018

For newcomers, adopting the right mindset for learning English is key to adjusting to life in Canada, a new study by University of Alberta psychologists suggests.

The results indicate that a growth mindset, where one focuses on learning and improving language skills, reduces anxiety and increases feelings of belonging for immigrants.

"A growth language-mindset is the belief that the ability to learn languages can be developed with effort," explained Nigel Lou, PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology and co-author on the study. "In contrast, a fixed language-mindset is the belief that people either have the ability to learn languages or they don't, and therefore cannot change." When we hear people say "oh, I just don't have an ear for languages", it reflects a fixed mindset.

To study the effect of a shift in mindset, Lou and his colleagues had newcomers to Canada read either an article that suggests language learning ability is malleable or one that suggests it is fixed, and then measured anxiety levels about speaking English.

"We found that people who read the growth mindset article felt less anxious about using English, which increased their sense of belonging and adaptation to Canadian society," said Lou, who conducted this research under the supervision of Professor Kimberly Noels in the Faculty of Arts.

For newcomers to Canada and people who work with them, finding ways to encourage a growth mindset can make all the difference. This means creating environments where newly-immigrated Canadians feel safe making mistakes and receiving constructive feedback, as well as celebrating progress and setting new goals.

"More broadly, this research tells us that motivation plays an important role in successful language acquisition," said Lou. "Whether you believe you can change your ability to learn can affect the language acquisition process and ultimately integration into a new culture. We can become more active language-learners if we believe that our ability to acquire a language can grow."

The paper, "Sensitivity to Language-based Rejection in Intercultural Communication: The Role of Language Mindsets and Implications for Migrants' Cross-cultural Adaptation," was published in Applied Linguistics (doi: 10.1093/applin/amx047).