Obsessive compulsive disorder and language learning

In Jeffrey Schwartz’s book The Mind and the Brain, he points out just how constantly adaptable the human brain is. Research has shown that this adaptability or plasticity continues throughout our lives. The brain is constantly retraining and rearranging itself in response to different stimuli. He describes clinical examples of how people can use mindfulness to will their brain to change its neural circuits. This is?? mind over matter, or since the brain is matter, maybe it is mind over mind or matter over matter!! I am not a scientist, obviously, just curious.

Schwartz shows from actual clinical experiments how people who have some kind of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) can in certain circumstance train themselves away from that behaviour. In so doing they actually alter the metabolism of the OCD circuit in the brain. I remember as a child that my father could wiggle his ears and I could not. However, by spending a lot of time willing my ears to move, they eventually did. Mindfulness therapy at work!

Schwartz talks about “mindfulness-based cognitive therapy” and a four step treatment process. The four steps are Relabel, Reattribute,Refocus and Revalue. It begins with the patient not blaming him or herself for the disorder but recognizing that it is a function of the brain circuitry sending some faulty messages. By accepting that the circuitry was playing tricks, the patient was better able to resist the irrational obsessive impulses when they arose.

I am still digesting this book but I sense it has applications for language learning. If language learners are constantly discouraged because of their inability to express things correctly in a new language, or their inability to remember words when they need them, or to pronounce properly , or the fact that they freeze when they have to speak to a native speaker, this discosuragement is only building up tension and making learning more and more difficult.

I believe that the learner’s potential ability at a new language is usually far greater than what he or she actually achieves. Schwartz’s Four Steps may help the language learner. The Four Steps of the mindful language learner would be as folows:

Relabel by recognizing that the learning process is one of training the language fitness of the brain, rather than some hopeless struggle against a perceived inability to learn languages.

Reattribute by recognizing the need to develop new brain circuitry, taking advantage of the fact that the brain is known to be plastic throughout one’s adult life. Until the circuitry develops it is pointless to be disappointed at mistakes or less than perfect pronunciation or communication in the new language.

Refocus, away from a vain attempt to master the rules of grammar, or lists of words which one will inevitably forget. Instead focus on systematic and repetitive training based on meaningful content. Recognize that consistent effort will bring gradual improvement in the new language even if it seems that so much is contantly forgotten.

Revalue by enjoying whatever level of communication in the new language one is able to achieve. Look for enjoyable content and experiences in the new language. Make learning and using the language part of one continuum, where constant improvement and not perfection is the goal.

Send me your comments and questions directly. steve@thelinguist.com

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