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To learn a foreign language and to stop being heavy-hearted

To learn a foreign language and to stop being heavy-hearted

Published Oct 17, 2021 Updated Jan 16, 2022
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To learn a foreign language and to stop being heavy-hearted

If you watch the news - like me - you must regularly feel angry, frustrated or hopeless.

And that's okay, because the situation has been getting worse every day, for years. The people in charge follow each other like dopplegängers. None have solutions. None do what they say or say what they do.

You swing from the desire to take action to resignation. The desire to take things in hand and the desire to dump everything and withdraw with those close to you.

Yet, faced with the immensity of the task, we tell ourselves that our voice will not carry far.

And yet.


Changing scale


The Breton village where I come from is like all the others. With its church, the civic centre, the post office, a bakery and a café. All around, fields and slithering pebble and stone paths.

At school, I was an average pupil, including in PE and music.

I had gone to see the local handball team playing when my Year 10 English teacher popped into the sports hall.  

My first wish was to hide immediately. I had enough of the negative comments, it was enough at school, I did not need to hear that, again and again, the same message which I knew by heart.


The strategy of the worst


I wanted to brush him off, but my strategy failed. He came to shake hands. 

I was waiting for the negative comments to pour down as usual. But nothing…

He told me about his life, his move, his beginning at the secondary school and relations with his new colleagues. He asked me how I was doing, if I played Handball and some minor things.

He quickly introduced me to his wife: “A student I have in class”, then he left.

No negative comments. No sour remarks. 

We met several times in the village, we chatted, it was interesting. But after a few encounters, I started to feel bad.

He was teaching, he was working and I had bad grades. If my bad grades were a reflection of his work, then he sucked. But he wasn’t a bad teacher.

I wanted to do something, but my efforts and my results never correlated.


The art of dodging


One day, a classmate - even more upset than I was - received that ultimate bad grade which turned into the last straw for him.

His frustration became anger. I understood him: He was releasing it. It’s hard to take so much over so many years.

Everyone pretended not to notice him. Usually, teachers choose to a turn deaf ear but that’s not what the teacher did that day:

You don’t have to like English classes, you know. But that shouldn’t hinder you at school. Look, my tests are easy. 10 points for the vocabulary. 10 points for the grammar. Words, everybody can learn that. And this is the most important because even if your grammar is broken, they will understand what you mean. Try to answer a few grammar questions, even if you screw up, I’m not taking any points out. With that you can have 10 and at least you don’t get penalised for the rest.

I don’t know what impact it had on my classmate. But for me, it triggered a change about something I wasn’t aware of.


Learned helplessness


Learned helplessness is when you are convinced that you cannot learn or do something in particular.

This feeling emerges in response to cumulative negative experiences and the lack of return on investment in completing a task.

The concept of learned helplessness was discovered by accident in 1967 by two American psychologists: Martin Seligman and Steven F. Maier. The experiment they carried out breaks down into two stages.

First, it involves making a dog associate a beeping sound with an electric shock.

Then, you place it in a cage separated in two by a small wall. On one side of the wall, the ground is electrified but not on the other side. If you send an electrical shock, the dog has to jump to the other side of the wall to avoid the discharge. Only there he stays still. He gives up trying.

When things are rough, we all like to believe that we would do what is necessary to find a solution and change the situation.

In fact, studies in behavioural psychology show that facing repeated negative situations, the dominant feeling taking over is a loss of control.

Your brain automatically locks up:

Don't try, it's useless, save energy.

It is difficult to come out of it, because the brain is convinced that the result depends on an external cause.

You stop trying. You become indifferent. You withdraw into yourself, your inner circle.




It is the nearby, but also large, environment that can generate similar effects.

Think of all these extremely negative people, comments, on social networks, in the news or in our daily lives.

People who see evil everywhere. Who seems convinced that man is bad and that there is no future.

They are never happy with anything, but neither do they.

All those cynics who think that only human selfishness motivates one’s actions. If you tell them about an exciting project, they either play down the good intentions or ignore them, always focusing on the negative.

That's good, but if he's alone doing it, it won't change anything.

People just don't care. And then, he or she does not do it well enough, you have to ask professionals to do that!

By systematically opposing others, by hurting their pride or their emotions, they degrade the situation: rigidity, anger, tensions, the two camps are taking refuge behind taller and taller barriers.

Over time, two directions appear. At best, their speech becomes muffled, the audience has become deaf to their voice. In the worst case, they cause some to turn in on themselves, or even to do the exact opposite of what is denounced.

For example, it is this environmentalist, so bad at explaining, that he will end up persuading a city dweller, yet sensitive to the cause, to buy a heavy SUV just to be argumentative.

No, that’s rubbish to buy that, you don’t realise what you’re doing, think of the planet, think of the others.

Have you ever managed to get someone to change by telling them they’re daft?

And yet, this is what we naturally do.


Negativity bias


What's the point of seeing the negative everywhere?

In an environment where you pay the full price for every mistake, this mechanism is useful, because by remembering our mistakes we can avoid unnecessary risks.

Negativity bias is our brain's tendency to retain negative messages more easily. They are more emotionally charged than positive messages, which marks our neurons with a hot iron.

In comparison, a positive message is quickly forgotten.

But if the mechanic carries away, they work against us. By focusing on the problem and no longer on the solution, you end up dead in the ditch.

When the driving school instructor teaches us to navigate a bend or avoid getting distracted by an accident, he teaches us to:

  • Anticipate: To detect future risks,

  • Look towards the exit: to go towards the solution.


The way out


How do you get out of learned helplessness? The method is simple and well known.

You have to give away small rewards regularly and gradually increase the difficulty level.

When our English teacher explained to us the pattern of his tests, that's exactly what he offered us.

Every two weeks, we were assessed on:

  • 10 vocabulary points - easy

  • 10 grammar points - hard

Regularity and visible progress, which were no longer the result of chance, did the rest. Improving becomes doable, you get a taste for the endeavour.


Changing your approach


Why is the method effective? It allows you to modify the brain's response to a negative message.

Carol Dweck, human motivational psychologist and professor at Sanford, is known for her work on the role of mindset in learning and our problem-solving ability.

On the one hand, the fixed state of mind, which seeks to avoid difficulties, associates effort with unnecessary expenditure of energy. Who ignores the critics and who has a deterministic worldview.

On the other hand, the dynamic mindset, which will perceive a barrier as an obstacle to be overcome, which sees effort as necessary to improve. Who knows how to take into account what is said and who thinks that things can change.

Here is the brain activity of two students who received a bad grade.

On the left, the electrical activity of the brain of a student with a fixed state of mind. On the right, a student with a dynamic state of mind.


Carol_Dweck_Learned_helplessnessThe image is from Carol Dweck's TedX lecture - The power of believing that you can improve


On the left, the wrong grade does not trigger any particular activity. At best, a feeling of sadness or confirmation that nothing has changed for him.

On the right, the electrical activity of the brain intensifies. The student was unsuccessful, but things are not set in stone. He sees the possibility of improvement and seeks to understand his mistakes.

We would all like to think that when things are rough, we would do anything to get out of it or help others, but that is not always the case.

The question we can ask ourselves is, has my teacher made me go from a fixed state of mind to a dynamic state of mind, through his attitude?

What is certain is that I clung to his classes like a lifeline. By working on English, then other subjects, it allowed me to develop the same skill as runners need: self-discipline.

To help us understand, let's take a detour.


Kilian Jornet


Kilian Jornet is a Catalan who took 4 hours and 57 minutes to go up and down Mont-Blanc. 4,808m above sea level. By foot. By himself.

When he talks about his childhood, it is as if he was born on a mountain. His playground? The mountain hut where his parents worked.

While other children played in the streets of the city or the country lanes, he would explore the Pyrenees, the forest of Cap del Rec, the tip of Tossa Plana, the Muga river and many other places around. his home.

It was there that he discovered his fascination with nature.

It was there, too, that he understood that the limits of his world were the distance he could walk. Right from the start, he gets into the habit of picking up a stone, at each highest point he reaches.

His ability to run allowed him to expand his collection of stones, today we find volcanic rock from Kilimanjaro, granite from the Alps, ocher from Morocco, blue stones from Turkey, slate from Argentina...

Seeing that I could learn a language, I realised that to speak only one was to limit myself to the village of my mind. It was frustrating because it was limiting. And I saw that we could go further, that there were a loads of places to explore.




Learning a language is like joining a mountain race. No one gets to the top unprepared.

Kilian Jornet was almost born in the mountains, and it was because every day he trained that he was able to discover so many places. Running and learning a language both require regular training. Both allow us to develop our drive and perseverance.

Because you have to learn to manage your endeavours. We don't have the same energy and motivation every day. You have to know how to slow down, rest, then set off again, staying in the course.

When the path is blocked, you have to improvise and take diversions. When the grammar is too abstract, when you still don't understand or when speaking is difficult, you have to develop new tailor-made strategies.

I’ve learnt other languages - my own way - with different approaches and different outcomes.

The essential thing one learns along the way is self-discipline.


At the centre of a network


So what does this have to do with our daily lives? Well, that we have a certain range of action. 

We will soon be seven billion human beings on Earth and it’s easy to think that we are just a drop of water in this ocean. It doesn't really matter what you do or what you don't do. What you say or what you don't say doesn't matter.

No responsibilities. No commitments. No need to question or rack our brains.

Doing nothing seems easier to live with. But there is a heavy trade-off, because if your life is meaningless and unimportant, if your choices mean nothing, then you are wrong. You will get depressed over time. Your life counts for nothing and it’s hell.

Neutrality is not an option. Not to engage, not to choose, is to keep the current state of affairs, it is to support the balance of power in place. While there is so much that can be improved.


What we bring out in others


For me, it was my English teacher who made a noteworthy change in me.

How? Why? Hard to tell, but it was him who changed my state of mind.

How did he do it? Not through fancy speeches, nor motivational pep-talks telling me that I could do it. Neither thanks to an state-of-the-art teaching method, but first of all by his attitude.

Then, by offering me a practical method. My only responsibility was to provide the labour.

I returned to my village several years later. I bumped into him and we talked about life, how things were going so far for both of us and school. I must have mentioned me being a bad pupil back then. He just told me:

You've never been a bad pupil, you’ve always walked in a way where you take one step after the other.


Photo by Nicholas Green on Unsplash 

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