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Mental Rehearsal for Language Learning

To visualise something simply means to imagine it. Visualising has a bit of a bad name - after all, how can imagining stuff have any impact on our real-world outcomes where we have to meet deadlines, pass tests and be productive? Well, consider these facts:

  • a scientific study that showed that pianists who mentally rehearsed an exercise for two hours a day had almost identical brain changes as pianists who physically rehearsed the same exercise

  • mental rehearsal has been used to enhance performance by sports stars including Soviet athletes and Roger Federer

  • Pearson Publishing recommend visualising to English exam candidates

In other words, there is a growing body of evidence that mentally practising an event has a powerful effect on your outcomes.

The chances are that you already mentally rehearse things anyway. For example, if you are going into a meeting and are worried your presentation, you are likely to have 'run through' the presentation in your mind at least once or twice. The same is true for exam candidates, or even people who just want to order a coffee in English! However, the problem is that much of this kind of rehearsal is run by our subconscious mind rather than by us. We are not in the driving seat but are a passenger watching the presentation, exam or coffee order taking place. And, sadly, much of this kind of visualisation is fixated on our problems and can actually amplify our feelings of anxiety.

I call this 'negative visualisation'. When I was at music college, I used to dread any kind of performance. I would lie awake at night worrying about what might happen and whether everything would go wrong. In my mind, I imagined the exam being a disaster.

Guess what? All too often I played well below my capabilities and did not score as highly as I could. I wish I had known about mental rehearsal back then!

Mental rehearsal works by strengthening connections in the brain. The more often we do something, the stronger the neural connections become. Think about a word that you have learnt in English. Think about all the times you had to encounter that word in order for it to stick in your memory. Each encounter strengthened the neural pathways and made it easier for you to remember the word.

To use mental rehearsal for language learning does not mean acquiring some new, magical skill. It simply means changing and consciously developing a powerful ability that you already have so that it serves you better.

So, how can you begin to incorporate mental rehearsal into your language learning? Here are 3 suggestions:

Mental Rehearsal for Language Learning Make sure you are not going to be disturbed! This means phone off, computer closed and a space where you won't be interrupted.

Take five minutes to relax. Relax your face, your shoulders and your stomach. Pay attention to your breathing but without judgement. You might like to try guided relaxations on YouTube if this is difficult. Once you have relaxed, you can begin your mental rehearsal.

Future Situations (exams / meetings)

The key thing is to make this as real and vivid as you can - what are you wearing? what are the other people wearing? what can you smell or hear around you? how do you sit, stand or walk? Even more importantly, concentrate on making your feelings as strong as possible. How do you want to feel as you go into the interview, exam or meeting? Confident? Excited? Focussed? Calm? Focus on this positive feeling until it feels completely real to you. Make sure to revisit this feeling often!

Sitting Down to Study

The more I research how important our mindset and state of mind is, the more I realise that we work best when we have primed our minds to do the task in hand. It's not much use sitting down to study feeling stressed and anxious about your learning, but I suspect that this is quite common, particularly for those working towards an exam. So, a bit of mental rehearsal before your study session can help! Do the short relaxation exercise, then imagine how you want the session to go - what do you want to achieve? what do you want to finish? what do you want to learn or remember? Again, create pictures in your mind of you achieving and remembering these things and focus on making strong feelings about this. Do you feel confident? competent? proud? excited? Make these as real as you can and do this every time you want to study.

Before a lesson

Although I hope that you do not have a teacher who makes you feel uncomfortable (if you do, is it time for a change?), there's no doubt that having a class is not the same as having a chat with a friend. Again, putting yourself into the optimal mindset for learning before a lesson can only be a help to you. If you can give yourself five to ten minutes following the steps suggested above before the start of the lesson to prime your mind, your learning will be more productive and enjoyable.

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