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What Every Language Teacher Should Know About the “Fluency Illusion”

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And how to help language learners overcome it

হ্যালো! Ahoj! And welcome back, language teachers, to Adventures in Language! In this article, we’re talking about something called the “Fluency Illusion.” Whether or not you’ve heard of the term - we guarantee you’re familiar with the phenomen. In short, the Fluency Illusion is an

হ্যালো! Ahoj! And welcome back, language teachers, to Adventures in Language! In this article, we’re talking about something called the “Fluency Illusion.” Whether or not you’ve heard of the term - we guarantee you’re familiar with the phenomen. In short, the Fluency Illusion is an automatic cognitive process by which our minds subconsciously trick us into believing we know more about the learning material than we actually do. It’s a problem for language learning because it leads students to believe they can actively produce something in the target language just because they can passively understand it when hearing or reading it. The answer to overcoming this problem lies in active learning strategies. If that’s what you came for, then keep reading! 

 

How many versions of this story have you experienced over the years? 

Teacher-Story-Mango

It’s exam day. You have a student who came prepared. They studied, studied, and then studied some more. And then what happened? They got to the test - and they FROZE. Everything they thought they knew - gone!. After they turn in their test, they’re at your desk, beating themselves up. They tell you they don’t know what happened - because they really did study to prepare. They show you the pages of class notes and the textbook chapters they reread over and over - and they thought they knew the material. They wonder if it’s because they’re not smart enough or maybe if they have test anxiety. It’s quite likely that what they're dealing with is the Fluency Illusion.

​​
Quick context: 

Now, some history background on the term ‘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 entire academic research programs to understand it and outlining practical teaching methods to combat it. 


Simple definition:
 

What is the Fluency Illusion? In short, it’s our mind’s sneaky way of getting us to believe we know more about the learning material than we actually do. If you’ve ever had the experience of watching a math teacher walk through the steps of solving an equation on the board and understand every step - and then stare blankly once it’s your turn to try one on your own - chances are that’s the Fluency Illusion at play. This, of course, matters for language learning too, because it enables students to overestimate what they think they know leading up to test day. 


The solution:

So, how can we keep our students from falling prey to this tricky illusion? The answer isn’t to tell them to study more - it’s to study smarter. The key to doing that is to prioritize active (as opposed to passive) learning opportunities. We can do this for them in class, and they can do this for themselves outside of class. Other related code words for “active learning opportunities” include “retrieval practice,” “self-examination,” or simply...“tests.” You know who knew this long before anyone else was talking about it? Sir Francis Bacon.... 


Fun fact:

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 depend on a number of factors, research suggests spending the first ⅓ of your study session on passive studying and the last ⅔ of it testing yourself through activities like free recall is generally a sweet spot. Here are 5 ways you can set your students up for success with opportunities for active learning:



#1: Sprinkle “immediate recall” activities into every lesson.

Notes-Mango

After covering a new concept, tell your students to close their notebooks and write down everything they remember and understand about it for a 1 minute time period. 


#2: Don’t underestimate the power of “pop quizzes.”

Pop-Quiz-Mango

A day or even week after covering a concept, start class with a pop quiz about it. Even though “pop quizzes” have historically been cast as a teacher’s way to “get” their students - it’s anything but that. Testing in this form is active studying, effective retrieval practice. Simply put, it’s good pedagogy. If you don’t like the phrase “pop quizzes” based on this connotational baggage, call them “Tickets In” that students get into the habit of completing every day they walk into class. Make it a routine, and consider grading them only for completion to reduce grade anxiety.


#3: Do pre-tests (not study guides) leading up to exams. 

Test-Mango

Rather than creating a study guide for students, give them a pre-test as a homework assignment. They’ll remember more by trying to answer related questions on their own (active learning) than by reviewing fully formed grammar points and example sentences you’ve curated (passive learning). Pro-tip: Don’t reinvent the wheel - use last year’s exam for the pre-test assignment!


#4: Tell your students about the Fluency Illusion!

Teach-Fluency-Illusion-Mango

Tell your students about the Fluency Illusion - and equip them with appropriate study strategies! There are many ways to implement this, and you’ll find the best one that works for you. Try this..Show them some data on the Fluency Illusion to illustrate how powerful it is (see the references in the show notes) and then have them Think-Pair-Share a list of study strategies that would be effective, given what they learned. They should come up with things like “Don’t just read over the textbook. Test yourself!” “Don’t just listen to the audio textbook. Pause it and predict the answers before they share them.” “Don’t just read example sentences. Make up your own new sentences and then check that they match the grammatical patterns afterwards.” You could also simply invite them to listen to this podcast episode!


#5: Get your students access to Mango! 

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 your students to communicative competence in real-life situations. For example, the Mango app intentionally incorporates Critical Thinking activities, which prompt the learner to produce original sentences in the target language. If you don’t already have an institutional license at your school, ask your admin about it - and show them why resources like this are so important for learners! The pdf we’ve linked in the description has lots of information about how Second Language Acquisition research is organically woven all throughout the Mango app.


Recap time:
  • The Fluency Illusion is an automatic cognitive process by which our minds subconsciously trick us into believing we know more about the learning material than we actually do. 

  • It can lead language learners to believe they can actively produce something in the target language just because they can passively understand it when hearing or reading it. 

  • The answer to overcoming this problem lies in active learning strategies

  • Here are 5 easy ways to engage your students in active learning strategies: (1) use immediate recall activities, (2) include pop-quizzes, (3) assign pre-tests, and (4) tell students about the Fluency Illusion, (5) set them up with the Mango app. 

Thanks for reading!
If you liked this article, let us know! We hope you feel inspired to take these ideas into your classroom. 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 teachers - that’s all for now. Bবিদায় Dovidenia! 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?হ্যালো’ (ha-LOO) and ‘বিদায়’ (BEE-die) are the words for ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ in Bengali (a language spoken primarily in Bangladesh and surrounding areas). ‘Ahoj’ and ‘dovidenia’ are ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ in Slovak (also sometimes called Slovakian; the national language of Slovakia). ‘Sem mais demora’ is Brazilian Portuguese for  'without further ado' (lit. 'without more delay'). Interested in learning Bengali, Slovak, Brazilian Portuguese 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 episode?
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. A good paper to share with your students that illustrates the “testing effect” 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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