Positive Psychology, emotions and why it is relevant to language learning

emotions to language learning

 Introduction

Take yourself back to when you first learned a language.  Did you feel under pressure, frustrated with the strict focus on grammar and the pressure to perform well, whether it was speaking, listening or writing?  Or perhaps you’ve worried about when travelling abroad for either work or a holiday—feeling too nervous or self-conscious to speak the language. Worried that someone might judge you? All the while, an inner critic torments you with comments such as.  “You should know this word already…!”, ‘Your pronunciation is terrible; they must think you’re stupid.  …” With all this pressure, the wonderful experience of language learning can become a source of negative emotions.

We can quickly lose motivation, particularly when we don’t know how to regulate our emotions.

This is where positive psychology researchers and practitioners step in. They suggest tackling negative thoughts and feelings by implementing positive psychology practices into language learning.  Learning to navigate and regulate emotions helps maintain motivation, increase enjoyment and achieve better results.  Positive psychology primarily focuses on people’s well-being.

As the ‘positive’ suggests, this approach explores improving and maintaining an individual’s well-being and life satisfaction by shifting attention to their strengths and enhancing them. The focus is on boosting positive emotions rather than reducing and eliminating negative ones.  A crucial part of this is understanding one’s emotions and how to regulate them.

Importance of emotions and positive psychology

Importance of emotions and positive psychology

We often classify emotions as either positive or negative, but they all serve an important function. Emotions are an essential and natural part of our lives, even the so-called “bad” ones.  All emotions are an internal representation of what is happening in either our external environment or our thoughts.   When we open up to them, they can provide valuable insights to guide us towards skilful action.

Generally, positive emotions are seen as broadening (allowing us to see the bigger picture and maintain perspective), while negative emotions are argued to be narrowing. They tend to narrow our focus on the negative aspects of our experience, making it harder to see things in perspective.    But we have great news – when overwhelmed by negative emotions, positive psychology provides tools to help us maintain self-confidence, motivation, and well-being as we bring our strengths into focus.

The key here is to remember that emotions and thoughts are not necessarily accurate depictions of reality and that we have a greater capacity to cope than we realise. To tackle them better, as positive psychology researchers suggest, we need to acknowledge that we are facing a challenge, learn from the experience and let it go. Mindfulness provides the framework to do this. Mindfulness, in its most basic form, means awareness. We become aware of how we respond to the challenges we face. But Mindfulness also means remembering.

When we are mindful, we can remember all the past challenges we’ve overcome. In that moment of becoming aware, we can remind ourselves that learning something new takes time and that it’s normal to feel challenged as we take in new information.

positive psychology

Emotions and positive psychology in language learning

Research shows that emotions such as joy (from studying something we’re interested in or achieving a certain level), love (the passion for the language and the culture etc.), and other similar emotions are significant drivers for foreign language learning.  Indeed, most studies show that positive emotions can stimulate learners’ pleasurable engagement and involvement with their environment and motivate social relationships.  In their article, Noori and Haddad Narafshan (2018) state: ‘The more language learners experience positive emotions, the more motivation they will exhibit during the language learning process.

So how do you cultivate positive emotions?

Start by asking yourself what you like about your chosen language. Considering your reasons for learning the language and what your goals are?  What do you love and feel passionate about when it comes to the language and culture, the topics you want to explore?  Indeed, having a good idea of your drive can be very helpful while learning a foreign language, especially when facing difficulties, as it enhances the motivation to carry on.

Also, keep in mind that whilst it’s helpful to focus on your goals and what you enjoy about learning a language, it’s normal to encounter feelings of anxiety or frustration or nervousness. Learning a language requires us to absorb new concepts and adapt to different grammatical approaches and sentence structures.  This is not without its challenges. Again, we can be mindful of these and use positive psychology to bring our attention back to believing in ourselves, our efforts, and how capable we are of overcoming these challenges.

Emotional intelligence relevant to language learning

Emotional intelligence relevant to language learning

Another interesting point is the research showing how emotional intelligence helps foreign language learners have a more enjoyable, positive experience. This is simply because people with emotional intelligence know that not all emotions and thoughts are something to be believed and acted on.

Some feelings need to be acknowledged and let go, for example, feeling embarrassed if you pronounce or get a word wrong.  Instead of giving in to feelings of hopelessness, annoyance or anxiety and deciding to quit, someone with emotional intelligence is more likely to see this as part of the learning experience. They don’t pressure themselves to be perfect, seeing mistakes as lessons learned and insights into where to focus their efforts.

Positive psychology is shown to be highly effective in helping develop a healthier attitude to language learning and in daily life.  The goal is to be empowered, confident, and continuously improving as a person – we are all works in progress.

As for emotions, they are there for a reason and shouldn’t be feared.  When we listen and respond to their message, they open us to a richer and more fulfilling experience.

The last factor to consider when learning a foreign language is emotional intelligence and how to listen, respond to and regulate emotions. All this helps make language learning a beautiful journey of discovery. One that allows you to explore new things and connect authentically to a country’s culture and people.