I'm seeing this theme a lot in recent events in life, and found it neatly tied together in language learning. For those not already familiar with confirmation bias, it's that all-too-human tendency to favor information that seems to confirm the beliefs you already have.

One example might be when your partner says you yell all the time, so you consciously make an effort never to yell, but the one time you raise your voice (perhaps to talk over some background noise) they immediately say "see there? you're yelling again! you always yell!"

Another example might be a supervisor who, for whatever reason, thinks you're not good at your job. You may actually be very good at it, and you may deliver everything required of you on time or even early. But instead of noticing that, they only point out when you leave a little early, or when you didn't respond to an email fast enough, as confirmation of their belief that you're not a good employee. (And by the way, it's nearly impossible to overcome such a situation. Better just to find a new job!)

Confirmation bias in language learning


I get a lot of emails and comments regarding my advice on why flashcards are bad and that you should find find other ways to learn a language.

Sometimes people say things like, "Can you speak $some_language as well as $other_person? Because he uses flashcards, and if you're not as good as him, I'm going to use his method."

But this false logic is not good decision making, it's a confirmation bias. When a person says this, it's clear that they've already made up their mind how they intend to learn, and they're now just looking for any evidence they can find to help them feel that they've made the right choice.

In one example, a person asked me to compare my Spanish skills to the English skills of another blogger. This other blogger has been functioning primarily in English for several years, and has studied the English language for a very long time. Meanwhile, I learned to speak fluent Spanish over a period of about three months. Is this a fair comparison? Absolutely not. And did flashcards have anything to do with the success either of us have had? Absolutely not.

People learn languages up to the extend to which they will reasonably use the language. For many people, that means learning only one other language in their lifetime. They will function as bilinguals with a high skill level in both languages. But for other people, this means learning enough to converse, to make friends around the world, and to travel, and for those people, the amount of attention and time paid to each language will be much less.

A confirmation of my own bias!


Directly to the point of these questions, and to answer them here, once, for everybody, I will simply ask: given the example of one person spending several years studying one language, and another who spends less than one year at a time learning several langauges, which one is more likely to have found the more efficient methods?

When you've got most of your life to dedicate to one single activity, you have the luxury of doing it inefficiently, because over such a long timeline you will still get the results you want. But when you have a finite amount of time available, isn't it reasonable to presume that you'll have a much greater interest and incentive to find the most efficient and most effective ways to acquire the skill?

In my next posts, I will recap some of those methods, and discuss why they work so well. And don't worry, I won't dedicate any more time to bad-talking flashcards... if your mind is already made up, I'm probably not going to change it. ;)

 

 

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