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What Every Language Learner Should Know About the “Fluency Illusion” (And 5 smart study strategies to avoid it!)

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Sæll! Bonjour! And welcome back, language learners, to Adventures in Language! In this article, we’re talking about the “Fluency Illusion.” While its name may sound magical, it’s unfortunately no fun trick. In short, it’s an automatic cognitive process by which our minds can lead us to believe we know more about the learning material than we actually do. The solution to overcoming this problem lies in active learning strategies. If any of that sounds like what you came for, then keep reading

Let’s start with a story.

Story-Mango

It’s exam day. Ji-seung came prepared. She studied, studied, and then studied some more. And then? She got to the test - and she FROZE. Everything she thought she knew - gone! Blank page. Now she’s beating herself up about it. What happened? She really did study to prepare. She read over all the relevant textbook chapters - and all of it seemed to make perfect sense in her brain then, so why couldn’t she “get it together” for the test? Ji-seung starts to wonder...is she just not smart enough? Does she have test anxiety? While all of those responses and emotions are valid, it’s quite likely that what she’s dealing with is a classic - and frustrating - case of the Fluency Illusion.

​​What is the Fluency Illusion?

Despite it including the word ‘fluency,’ this phenomenon is not specific to language learning. ‘Fluency’ in this context refers to general ‘mastery’ or ‘proficiency’ of any learning content or skill. The phenomenon was originally identified by a psychologist in a paper that got very little recognition at the time (Gates, 1917), and the term was coined many years later within the field of psychology. However, Second Language Acquisition researchers have since taken this general observation about learning and applied it to the language acquisition process by developing academic research programs to better understand it, which has yielded a whole host of practical study strategies to combat it. In short, the Fluency Illusion is our mind’s sneaky way of getting us to believe we know more about the learning material than we actually do. This happens with language learning, for example, when you can successfully recognize a particular vocabulary word during comprehension (that is, when listening or reading)...but you somehow can’t come up with it on your own during production (that is, when speaking or writing). This happens for other content areas too - perhaps you’ve watched as someone else solves a math equation - and you understand each and every step as they do it. But even just moments later, you get stuck when you try to solve the same equation on your own. That’s the Fluency Illusion at play. Long story short, it gets us to overestimate what we think we know leading up to test day. Or, in the case of language learning, leading up to real life conversations in the target language (which - let’s be real, can feel like a test all their own sometimes).

How can you avoid it?

How can we keep ourselves from falling prey to this tricky illusion? The good news is that the answer isn’t to study more (yay!) It’s to study smarter. The key is to prioritize active study strategies over passive ones. Other terms for “active studying strategies” that you’ll come across in the education literature include active learning opportunities, retrieval practice, self-examination, or simply...testing. (pssst - scroll down to see our curated list of 5 study strategies!)

What does Sir Francis Bacon have to do with it?

You know who knew about active studying strategies long before anyone else was talking about them? Sir Francis Bacon! You might remember him as one of the guys on your historical figures flashcards. He was a Renaissance philosopher, and way back in 1620, he reportedly wrote, “If you read a piece of text through 20 times, you will not learn it by heart so easily as if you read it 10 times while attempting to recite it from time to time and consulting the text when your memory fails.” Turns out - he was pretty close! While the exact proportions are going to depend on a number of factors, current research suggests that for a given study session, students should consider using passive studying for the first third (~33%) of that time and active learning strategies for the rest (the last ~66%). Seeing how important active learning strategies can be, let’s get to our list of 5 easy (and in our humble opinion - also fun) ways to incorporate more active learning strategies into your language learning study sessions! 

5 smart study strategies
#1: Quick! Do a 1 min “immediate recall” activity.

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You just learned a new grammatical concept in the target language. What now? It’s time for an immediate recall activity. Close your notebook, textbook, or language learning app - and set a timer for 1 minute. Then? Write down everything you remember, understand, or have questions about. It’s just 1 minute and this active learning strategy will help you realize what you understand and what you might still be hung up on.

#2: Play teacher. 

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This one is perfect when you’re at the point where you’d say “Yeah - I think I’ve got a pretty good grasp on this now.” This active learning strategy also requires that you turn away momentarily from your notebook, textbook or language learning app. Now - pretend you’re tutoring a beginner student in the target language. Explain the concept from start to finish to this imaginary student. Yes, out loud! Don’t be embarrassed! Heck - lean into the crazy and give them a name. Perhaps Gary. If you can’t explain it to your Gary yet - then you still don’t understand it fully! And that’s okay. That actually means that study strategy is working. Because now you know where your learning gaps are. Overcoming the Fluency Illusion is all about identifying your learning gaps and filling them in. So, fill in your learning gaps by reviewing what you didn’t understand the first time around, and then it’s Take 2 with Gary. 

#3: Reproduce old sentences with a new twist.

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Don’t just passively read example sentences. Reproduce them with a new twist! This active learning strategy works great for learning both grammar and vocab. Let’s say you want to master 20 new vocab words about air travel. Your list includes words like ‘plane, flight, land’...etc. Spend a few minutes reading over some example sentences that use those vocabulary words. You can get those from any trusted source - your textbook, the Mango app, or your native speaking friend. Then recreate and produce each sentence on your own. For example, if one of the sentences was “My flight just landed in Detroit”, you might say “Aneesa’s flight just landed in Shanghai.Add in your friend’s names, incorporate things you care about - really make them your own! And when you get to a vocab word that you can’t remember, fight the urge to immediately look it up. Let your mind marinate on it. If it doesn’t come after 5-10 seconds of focused thinking, just note down that you forgot that word and move on to your next sentence. Your brain will percolate on it in the background. You might be surprised to find that it comes to mind a few sentences later. Sometimes it won’t - and that’s okay too. That percolation time is actually important for cementing vocabulary items in storage. Once you’ve gone through your list, go back and review any of the vocab words you couldn’t recall during the activity.

#4: Try Sir Francis Bacon’s thought experiment at home.

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But do it in style. This one is good if you’re struggling to commit to the active studying strategies we’ve covered so far...because let’s face it, the passive study strategies (like reading, listening and skimming) are easier. They require less thinking and you have a million other things on your mind! But Francis Bacon is here to remind you that the extra cognitive energy really is worth it. Pick out 2 new songs that are in your target language. These should be songs you don’t already know the lyrics to, because your goal is going to be to memorize the lyrics to the chorus of each of them. To be as controlled as possible, try to find songs that have roughly the same amount of words in the chorus - but don’t stress too much about it. For the first song, read the chorus lyrics 20 times through. Then 24hrs. later - test yourself by trying to produce them (verbally or in writing - up to you). Record what percentage of words you remembered correctly. For the second song, read the chorus lyrics through only 10 times. However, this time, after each time you read it - you’re going to produce what you remember (again, verbally or in writing - that’s up to you) . Then 24 hours later - test yourself. Write down or speak it and record what percentage of words you got right. Research suggests that you’re going to remember more words from song 2 - about 30% more. If you do this at-home experiment - let us know your results! You can message us on Facebook or Instagram @MangoLangauges. Now...go sing song #2 from the rooftops!

#5: Use the Mango app! 

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The Mango app has tons of speaking activities that encourage active learning. At the end of the day, you just want to be cautious of language learning apps or tools that rely too heavily on passive learning strategies alone, since multiple choice quizzes and picture-matching comprehension checks aren’t going to get you to communicative competence in real-life situations. For example, the Mango app intentionally incorporates Critical Thinking activities, which prompt you to produce original sentences in the target language. If you don’t already have the app, check it out! We have it linked in the description. We’ve also included some info about how the app has been intentionally built upon Second Language Acquisition research.

Recap time:
  • The Fluency Illusion is an automatic cognitive process by which your mind tricks you into believing you know more about the learning material than you actually do. 

  • It can subconsciously lead you to believe you’re going to be able to actively produce something in the target language just because you could passively understand it when hearing or reading it. 

  • The solution to overcoming this problem lies in active study strategies

  • In this episode, we discussed 5 active study strategies: (1) Get in the habit of doing the 1-minute immediate recall activity, (2) Play teacher, (3) Reproduce old sentences with a new twist, and (4) Try the at-home song lyric memorization experiment (5) Use the Mango app! 

  • If you have other study strategies that you use to help yourself combat the Fluency Illusion - let us know! You can DM us on Instagram @MangoLanguages.

Thanks for reading! 
If you liked this article, let us know! We hope you feel inspired to incorporate these study strategies in your language learning journey. Want more engaging language content like this? Join the Mango fam and subscribe to our YouTube channel. Or follow us on Instagram @MangoLanguages! Well, language learners - that’s all for now. Vertu blessaður! Au revoir! And we look forward to seeing you back here for our next article. To embark on your next language adventure, visit us at mangolanguages.com!

Wondering what languages were used in this article? In addition to being written in English, Sæll (sightl) and vertu blessaður (vair tuh blessothur) are ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ in Icelandic (the national language of Iceland; roughly 328,080 speakers worldwide). Did you know...the way to say ‘hello’ in Icelandic is literally the Icelandic word meaning ‘blissful’? Bonjour and au revoir are ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ in French (the statutory national language of France; also spoken in a multitude of other countries, such as Morocco, Canada, and Côte d’Ivoire). ‘இதுக்கு அப்புரம் (ithuku aprom) means 'without further ado' (lit. 'after this') in Tamil (a language of India, predominantly spoken in the Tamil Nadu and Kannada states). Interested in learning Icelandic, French, Tamil or one of the other 70+ languages that the Mango app offers? Click here to learn more!

Want to know more about the scientific research underlying this article? For a fun, easy read that summarizes the takeaways of how we learn - check out Ben Carey’s 2015 book entitled How we learn: The surprising truth about when, where, and why it happens. Chapter 5 (titled The Hidden Value of Ignorance: the Many Dimensions of Testing) is of particular relevance to this episode. We highly recommend this read because Carey writes in a way that’s clearly well-researched but accessible and free of jargon. He does a great job of sprinkling in engaging reviews of the experiments that laid the foundation for how we know what we know about how learning happens in the brain. One academic article that illustrates how active learning strategies can combat the Fluency Illusion is Roediger III, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on psychological science, 1(3), 181-210. And for some more information about how the Mango app helps learners sidestep the Fluency illusion, click here.

 


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Emily Rae Sabo
Written by Emily Rae Sabo

Emily, a Pittsburgh native, is a linguist at Mango Languages whose areas of specialization are the social and cognitive factors that impact bilingual language processing and production. Having studied 7 languages and lived in various countries abroad, she sees multilingualism—and the cultural diversity that accompanies it—as the coolest of superpowers. Complementary to her work at Mango, Emily is a Lecturer of Spanish at the University of Tennessee, a Producer of the We Are What We Speak docu-series, and get this...a story-telling standup comedian!

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