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What “Growth Mindset” has to do with language learning (feat. 4 teacher tips!)

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Welcome back, language teachers, to Adventures in Language!

Cześć! In this article, we’re talking about one great evidence-based way to build your students’ confidence and motivation in the language: Growth Mindsets! What are Growth Mindsets, why do they matter, and how can you encourage your language learners to embrace them? Well, bando alle ciance (‘without further ado’ in Italian), let’s get to it! 

First - what is a Language Mindset?

It’s one’s beliefs about their ability to learn languages. There are two main kinds of mindsets that you need to know about: 

Fixed-Mindset-vs-Growth-Mindset-featured-mango

Main takeaway: 

Growth Mindsets make for more effective language learning. Why? When it comes to language learning, challenge is inevitable and persistence is necessary. So a learner’s mindset influences their emotional responses and behavioral actions towards facing challenges in the language. So - here’s what you need to know about mindsets in Second Language Acquisition...

  • Most students lie somewhere in between a pure Fixed or pure Growth mindset. 
    And their language mindset can fluctuate day by day. For instance, a student might usually lean towards a growth mindset, but they just failed a chemistry test and are now feeling less confident about their intellectual capabilities. Their mindset could also depend on the input they have received from their community. For example, students raised in diglossic (A.K.A. bilingual) communities are more likely to believe people can learn additional languages because they have ample real-life evidence from people all around them who do it every day. However, students raised in a monolingual community are more likely to believe that the ability to learn additional languages is a special and rare skill.

  • Students’ mindsets may differ based on the performance task in the language
    For example, it’s not uncommon for students to believe they’re capable of mastering grammar but not pronunciation -- in which case we’d say that they have a growth mindset towards grammar but a fixed mindset towards pronunciation.

  • There are three main underlying beliefs that influence a student towards a fixed language mindset. There are native language aptitude beliefs (i.e. “I’m not even good with words in my native language so why would I expect I could learn a foreign language?”), second language aptitude beliefs (i.e. “I just don’t have the knack for learning foreign languages - so there’s no sense in trying.”), and age sensitivity beliefs (i.e. “After a certain age, you can’t really learn additional languages well.”). So, the question becomes: what can you, as their teacher, do about these underlying beliefs?

Here are 4 tips for fostering Growth Mindset in your students!

#1 Use “Free-Form Conversation” activities in class

This all comes down to making sure there’s a balance between performance-based activities and mastery-based learning activities. Performance-based activities (e.g. exams, oral presentations) are necessary and important. But if there are too many performance-based tasks in class, students will be incentivized to overvalue things like external validation and performance metrics and undervalue the actual learning and growing process. The best way to balance performance-based activities is with mastery-based activities -- such as, Free Form Conversations! Here’s how they work. You tell your students to take a step back from all the technical language stuff they’ve been studying and just focus on using the language to communicate with each other. It’s that simple. Why does this work? Open-ended activities like these resemble real-life interactions and reinforce the value of communicative competence -- all in a low-stakes (ungraded) task. Talkative classes may not need much structure for these chatting sessions; others may benefit from the structured context of a collaborative task, like a board game. Pro-tip: during these activities, remind your students that error-making is 100% encouraged! Doing so will encourage them to adopt a Growth Mindset! 

#2 Tell your students about the importance of Growth Mindset

A 2016 study by Yettick et al found that most teachers say they believe in the importance of Growth Mindset but only 20% actually believe they can foster it in their students!  Indeed, the research to date has yielded some mixed results, but in one study of 12,000 students, a 50 min lecture about Growth Mindset yielded a 3% increase in student grades. There are a lot of ways behind the senses that you can bake Growth Mindset into the structure of your class -- the Free Form Conversations activity is one of them. But there’s a lot of potential impact to be had from sharing the information about the importance of Growth Mindset with your students directly. In doing so, you’d be helping them form a more productive and resilient approach to learning  -- in your language class and beyond. One great way to get students talking openly about their Language Mindsets -- be they more growth-oriented or fixed -- is to start by reflecting on their learning goals. If you’d like a helpful worksheet to use with your students, check out this FREE one we’ve made for you!

#3 Give your students positive -- but honest -- feedback 

Don’t misinterpret the research on growth mindset to suggest that your main goal as a teacher should be to tell your students “You’re doing great!” no matter what. On the contrary. Telling students they’re doing great when they’re not isn’t productive, and it can negatively affect their learning outcomes. Within the Growth Mindset framework, teachers don’t give students a false sense of confidence in their current abilities. Rather, teachers give students a realistic sense of confidence that they can improve upon their current abilities in the language with the right kind of effort and practice. And our last tip can help your students actively develop their Growth Mindset with one easy-to-use resource…

#4 Have your students use the Mango Languages app!

The Mango app was built with Growth Mindset in mind. This is evident in how language challenges are approached. For example, when a learner makes a common mistake on a notoriously tough grammar point, the app follows up with a reassuring note to explain the grammar point and provide the learner with helpful guidance on how to address it next time.  

To recap…

  • Use “Free-form Conversation” activities in class

  • Tell your students about the importance of Growth Mindset

  • Give your students positive -- but honest -- feedback

  • Have your students use the Mango Languages app!

Last thing! Keep in mind…

Keep in mind that Growth Mindset can help students think about and approach their learning differently. However, it doesn't change their immediate life and learning circumstances. So it’s not a perfect and singular solution to overcome every learning challenge. But it is part of the puzzle - especially for students who may be particularly struggling. 

Thanks for reading! 

Do widzenia - miłego dnia! We look forward to seeing you back here for our next article!


For more language teacher content, join the Mango fam! 

Want to explore more of the research underlying this article? 

  • Lou, N. M., & Noels, K. A. (2019). Promoting growth in foreign and second language education: A research agenda for mindsets in language learning and teaching. System, 86, 102126.

  • Lou, N. M., & Noels, K. A. (2017). Measuring language mindsets and modeling their relations with goal orientations and emotional and behavioral responses in failure situations. The Modern Language Journal, 101(1), 214-243.

  • Leith, S. A., Ward, C. L., Giacomin, M., Landau, E. S., Ehrlinger, J., & Wilson, A. E. (2014). Changing theories of change: Strategic shifting in implicit theory endorsement. Journal of personality and social psychology, 107(4), 597.

  • Dr. Carol Dweck’s TED Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hiiEeMN7vbQ 

Wondering what languages were used in this article? 

  • English (recording language)

  • Polish | Cześć is ‘Hi!’ and Do widzenia - miłego dnia! is ‘Goodbye - have a nice day!’

  • Italian | Bando alle ciance is ‘without further ado’ (lit. ‘ban the chatter’)

  • Interested in learning English, Polish, Italian, or one of the other 70+ languages that the Mango app offers? Click here to learn more!

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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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