How To Overcome Confirmation Bias In Language Learning

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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Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • I agree with you that you have to be the boss of your own language learning - and not copy someone else's way of doing it. In my experience: once you have a basic knowledge of how a language works, the best way to build on it is to read, read, read, and speak as often as you can. At the moment, I'm learning a new language (on top of my six others) and am using a lot of writing. It's the first time I've done that and find it really helpful.

  • HI! One of my reader-friends linked me to your post on your flashcards and so I've been reading some of your posts. (I blog on self studying Korean and Japanese). I dislike flashcards too and have never used them for language learning. In fact, I don't even memorize anything (: But I don't necessary agree that the one who has finite time will necessary be more efficient and effective than one that who has dedicated his/her entire life to one single activity (or language). Personally I have been learning Korean for 5 years (and I see it as a lifelong activity). It does't mean that I'm any less effective and in fact, I'll argue that spending years on a language has trained me as a better language learner - I know what works and what don't (for my learning style at least), what textbooks are good, how to be more effective when I next pick up a new language etc. My goal for each of my languages is a high working proficiency and I always believe that there is no short cuts in language learning. Every language that you pick up follows you for life and for me, I believe more in long term efficiency instead. Just my two cents. ^^

  • Ironically, you gave us a glaring example of a bias in the first section of this article. "And by the way, it's nearly impossible to overcome such a situation. Better just to find a new job!" I've dealt with this situation myself, and it turns out that there are any number of possible ways to deal with it. One of the best, I think, is to sit down and ask your manager "I want to be one of your top performers. What actions would it take for you to see me as a top performer."Sometimes, you find out that you actually haven't been as good of an employee as you thought. Maybe you've been doing X, Y, and Z very well... but from your manager's perspective A, B, and C are high priority and you've been focusing on the wrong things.Sometimes, as you say, it is better to find a new job. But, I think communication can help the situation more than people think. As a bonus, if you can do all the things on the list which your manager gave you then you can show him concrete proof that you are a top performer. ^_^

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