BOOK REVIEW: The Power of Mindful Learning, by Dr. Ellen J. Langer, Chapter 2

Finally, I am getting around to the next post in my series! You can read the Introduction and Chapter 1 as well. Now, onto the post!

In the introduction to the book, Dr. Langer references seven myths that “undermine true learning…stifle our creativity, silence our questions, and diminish our self-esteem” (p. 2). In this post, I am going over chapter 2, which addresses myth #2, “Paying attention means focusing on one thing at a time.” In this post, I will summarize Dr. Langer’s case, discuss a couple of her studies, give applications concerning religion and language learning, describe my own experience, and evaluate Langer’s argument.

Langer contends that, instead of focusing on one thing at a time, “the most effective way to pay attention is to look for the novelty within the stimulus situation” (p. 43). She starts by exploring the conventional meaning of “distraction” (wandering focus, p. 35) and suggesting an alternative definition of “otherwise attracted” (p. 36). She observes that there are many situations in which we have no problems paying attention (such as computer games, p. 37) and asks about times in which we have difficulty, “What is so attractive about the alternative stimulus? What can we learn from that attraction? Can we add the attractive elements to the stimulus to which we want to attend?” (p. 36). She uses studies in perception and the experiences of meditators to show the near impossibility of “holding an image still” (which is  general meaning of “paying attention”, pp. 37-39). She concludes, “People naturally seek novelty in play  have no difficulty paying attention in those situations” (p. 39) and “The idea that to pay attention means to act like a motionless camera is so ingrained in us that when we do pay attention successfully we are usually unintentionally changing the context or finding novel features in the subject” (p. 40). She backs this up with two studies (discussed below) that show the influence of mindfulness in paying attention (pp. 40-42).

Langer concludes by applying these principles to ADHD. She starts by describing ADHD’s symptoms,  effects, theories of the cause, and the usual methods of treatment. She then turns to mindful approaches and describes situations in which increased attention was observed: the absence of toys, the presence of game format, listening to rock music, and color stimuli (pp. 45-46). She tells of an experiment she participated in involving a poster with fourteen landmarks, and the task was to remember where the landmarks were. There were three groups: a sit-still group, a feet-shuffle group, and a move-around group. The move-around group performed best, and the sit-still group worst (pp. 47-48). However, when the study was repeated in a Montessori school (where movement is expected), the findings were reversed (p. 48). Langer concludes, “The studies suggest that mindfully varying perspective helps us to pay attention” (p. 48) and ends by summarizing the chapter’s findings (p. 49).

Now, to discuss the two studies on novelty I previously referenced: one study involved a computer task and the other short stories. In the computer study, an image appeared on the computer screen and participants were supposed to click a button when it disappeared (the reaction time was measured). They were divided into three groups: one group was to “just pay attention” and hit the button, another was to “outline the target”, and a third was to think of the shapes in different ways and to notice differemt things about each one” (pp. 40-41). The mindful group outperformed the other two groups and found the task easier. There was no observable difference bewteen the outline group and the pay attention group (p. 41).

In the short story study, adults on a train were asked to read short stories and divided into three categories of groups. In one category, participants were told to vary 3-6 aspects of each story, read it from different perspectives, change the endings, etc.; in another category, participants were told to focus on three or six  aspects of the stories; lastly, one category was told to just read the stories. They were all told they would be questioned afterwards (pp. 41-42). The result was that the mindful groups remembered more of the stories. Langer comcludes, “Varying the target of our attention, whether a visual object or an idea, apparently improves our memory of it” (p. 42).

Now, onto the applications in religion and language learning. First of all, religion. Langer herself references the difficulty of focusing in meditation (p. 39), and I personally know the difficulty of focusing in prayer, as do many others. I will offer suggestions based on Langer’s findings. First of all, for the liturgically-minded, I suggest reflection on the meanings of the prescribed prayers, and to view them from different perspectives. There is talk that the lectionary tells the story of God’s narrative of redemption and His work in redemption. I would suggest looking into how the liturgy reflects that narrative, how that works in the world and your personal life. Ask,”What is my role in God’s story?” I would also urge reflection the scriptures used in the lectionary. My advice is similar for those who don’t use liturgy (as I was raised). In this case, prayers are more spontaneous. I would suggest reflecting on the Names of God, as they reveal His character, and how they apply in your life and the world. I  would also suggest looking at scripture in a different way,  reflecting on differing perspectives, and using that in prayers. I would urge everyone (whether or not they use liturgy) to look at the world and reflect on how God may be working in it. In addition, I also recommend, since prayer is talking to God, to make prayers out of your wandering thoughts. (Since I am a Christian, I wrote this from a Christian perspective. I know a little about Judaism and have read that there is a narrative of God’s working in the world and our partnering with him there as well. I guess the applicability is there as well. For other religions, I am not knowledgeable enough to comment. However, I hope that all the Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., who may be  this will find transferable aspects to make it applicable. For those in Eastern religions, does any of this apply to meditation?)

Now, to discuss language learning. First of all, I will discuss how varying the image helps with vocabulary. One way (for those more advanced) is to think of various sentences in which new words can be used, or googling them to see images of what they represent or memes involving them. An easier method is tying the foreign word to a word in one’s native language. For example, consider север (syevir), the Russian word for “north”, which resembles the word “severe”. We could say that it is severely cold in the North Pole. As for grammar, when it comes to learning a new point of grammar, think of various ways new things can now be expressed. Describe personally relevant things that require that grammar. 

I personally love this chapter, since I have, since childhood, often been told, sometimes angrily, to focus and/or to pay attention. (I was even, on occasion, spanked for unfocusedness, such as when my mind wandered while I spoke in tongues.) At the time, all I had was what Langer describes as “holding the image still” (p. 38). One comment of Langer’s I particularly like is as follows: “Since we are so successful most of the day at paying attention, perhaps we should look for the situations in which we find it difficult, rather than blame the problem on a lack of character or a mental deficient” (p. 37). This sticks out to me because it shows practically that there is a “how” to paying attention, that there is a better way. The prospect of passing on the message to others who have beat themselves up over an inability to pay attention sp that they, too, can find a better way makes it my pleasure to review this chapter.

Now, to evaluate Langer’s claims. I find, based on her research and experiences, as well as my own experiences, her claims to be valid amd helpful. I appreciate her out of the box perspective. However, Langer acknowledges that more research is needed (p. 49). Nevertheless, I think that what she says will help us all.

In conclusion, Langer claims to pay attention, we should “vary the image” instead of “holding the picture still”, and supports that with her research and experience. Her studies show that a mindful approach is more effective in maintaining attention, and this has application for subjects such as religion and language learning. In addition, my own experience supports her claims, which I find overall to be valid. I hppe that readers will find these ideas as helpful as I have found them.

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My Language Learning Journey

About a month ago I started college. One of the courses that I am taking is English Comp I. One of our assignments was to write a literary narrative about a learning experience. I wrote about my experiences learning other languages. I just got back my essay, for which I did well, and I would like to share my work. Well, here it is!

Cooperation between parties begins with understanding. Understanding is not possible without effective communication. This premise has long fueled my desire to learn other languages. I first became aware of other languages around the age of seven, when my dad mentioned that it is necessary to speak Spanish in South America. A few months later, my great-grandmother mentioned that people speak French in France. My great uncle has lived in Germany for many years. When he came to visit around this time, I found out that he speaks more German at home than English. While I found all this interesting, the main thing that ignited my interest in other languages was a fifth grade discussion of ethnicity that occurred when I was ten.

The subject of ethnicity had never come up at home, so my sense of self was only “American”. Thus, I was fascinated by the discovery that we had all originated from different areas all over the world. This was the spark that started the blaze of what will no doubt be a lifelong interest in other countries and languages.

For years, I was unable to pursue this interest, as my mom preferred that I focus on English. In twelfth grade, I studied German. I continued studying German and Spanish after high school through courses I bought from Borders. I learned a little, but did not feel like I had that strong a command of either language.

However, thongs began to change when I got high speed internet in 2008, and I started downloading podcasts from I-Tunes. After listening to Spanish learning podcasts for a time, I glanced at the Spanish instruction versions, and realized that I understood them. It was a great feeling to know that something that had been unintelligible was now understandable. Eventually, my Spanish learning fell by the wayside due to my being enticed by other languages.

One such language was French, which, at first, was lower on my priority list. This changed when I was browsing the I-Tunes store and grew curious about the podcasts Mission Paris and Coffee Break French. I was interested in the former because I had listened to Mission Berlin to learn German, and in the latter because I had listened to Coffee Break Spanish to learn Spanish. After I downloaded and listened to a few episodes of each, I not only continued to listen to these podcasts, but also started listening to other French learning podcasts. Over time, as in the case with Spanish, I was able to read instructions in French.

I even bought French-learning books from Barnes & Noble. Pretty soon, I was reading short stories in French, which expanded to include blog posts and articles. It was a wonderful feeling to be able to go to a website in French, to be able to read what was said, and to tell other people about what I had read. I actually liked a few posts so much that I sought out the authors on Twitter to request permission to translate their posts into English and to then post them on my blog, which they granted. (You can find them here.) In the translation process, I discovered that I needed an unabridged dictionary, because my beginner’s dictionary didn’t include a lot of the words and expressions used in the posts. I also found it inconvenient to keep changing tabs on my smart phone to look things up online. I realized that translation is hard work, but, ince finished, I enjoyed a sense of accomplishment. In fact, my brain released adrenaline into my bloodstream and the parts of my brain associated with happiness lit up. This feeling of euphoria was enhanced when I remembered the days in which anything in French was completely incomprehensible. However, while I can do all that, and can listen to some podcasts, I am not yet fluent enough to watch television without subtitles. 

Now let me talk about my methodology. For years I worked as an electrician, and during most of that time I worked for many hours. However, the jobsites on which we worked required anywhere from a half hour to over an hour of commute time, during which I listened to language learning podcasts. Later on, my old church started a major building project, and I was assigned to help pick up the food donations in the evening. Since we had to drive about an hour one way to get the donations, I utilized I utilized that time to listen to my podcasts. I decided to split up my language study, so that I would learn one language on the way to the jobsite, another on the way back, a third on the way to get the donations, and the fourth on the return. This method was a modified form of some advice given on a Spanish learning podcast; namely, that amyone attempting to learn two languages at the same time should study each language in a separate location.

Not far from our donor was a Barnes & Noble, where I often browsed, and sometimes shopped. On one occasion I bought Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner, which I’ve found to be helpful. While I don’t follow everything he says, he has influenced my language learning strategy. For example, as a result of what I read in his book, I now, whenever I develop an interest in another language, look up pronunciation resources first. Wyner suggests learning pronunciation first in order to attune one’s ear to the distinct sounds of the language, thus facilitating learning, and to help ensure the learner will be understood when speaking. Another practice I picked up from Wyner is to find frequency lists of the 1000 most common words in the language, and focus on learning those words. His reasoning is that these words constitute around 75% of the words used on a regular basis. Furthermore, Wyner recommends resources for a number of languages both in his book and on his site. When I am interested in a language, I go to his site to see what he has recommended.

During and since the time I read Wyner’s book, my interest in and desire to learn other languages has increased.

A few months ago I started learning Arabic. It is widely spoken and is the language of the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. I followed a number of Wyner’s tips for this. I started by watching Wyner’s pronunciation videos on YouTube, which even showed where one’s tongue needs to be placed to make the sounds. I did not follow his advice in getting a frequency dictionary, but I have obtained his recommended course, Mastering Arabic, which I highly recommend. In addition I made use of Memrise to help me review the words. For the time being, I have put Arabic study on hold. I do intend to continue it, as it is on my list of possible majors for my bachelor’s degree.

This essay would be incomplete without mentioning the reboot of my German learning. Main main resources were Deutsche Welle’s interactive course “Deutsch Interaktiv” and “Harry, Gefangen in der Zeit”, which is about a man trapped in a time warp, like in the movie “Groundhog Day”. German in particular interests me due to my familial connection to Germany and Switzerland, and my desire to studying in Germany. Other factors that make study in Germany attractive are relatively low tuition costs, and my enjoyment of the works of a number of German authors. Unfortunately, I am not as fluent in German as in French. However, I am able to follow along in a monolingual telenovela that Deutsche Welle, a German media outlet, made for German learners.

In the beginning of this essay I mentioned that I had seen myself as only “American”  was shocked to discover that we originate in different parts of the world and my interest in other languages was a result. This has not impacted my notion of what being American means. What it has done is to contribute to my notion of global citizenship. I have learned that most people perceive the world differently from Americans, and hope to understand those perspectives better. I have come to see that concern for others should not be limited by national borders. By learning other languages, I have more access to issues that concern people in the lands in which these languages are spoken. With this knowledge, I can make better decisions. In addition, I can reach out in solidarity on social media with native speakers. 

Why do I do this? Apart from the reasons given for specific languages, there are a number of reasons that I learn languages in general. As I mentioned in the beginning, I want to increase the number of people with whom I can effectively communicate and whom I can understand. Promotion of friendly relations among nations is essential in today’s world, and learning another’s language is an affirmation that is needed to accomplish that task. In addition, I have long wanted to live and work in another country, and I realize that I will be more employable if I speak the local language. I know that much of the world is already bilingual, so mastering a second language is not necessarily impressive. So I seek to learn multiple languages, a less common skill, which will make me more desirable as an employee. My plan is to follow the advice on a dialog from a German learning course: to learn languages and to find a field in which to specialize, as that seems to be a way to increase employability. But, in closing, the three main reasons for my language learning are as follows: it’s fun; it opens up more resources to listen to and to read; and it allows the possibility for relationships with more people, since relationships requore a common language. There is an old saying that we should make love, not war. A common language with understanding is the first step in that journey.