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Using Frequency Bias and Tiny Habits To Learn a Language

Updated: Jul 31, 2023




Groningen, Netherlands 1942


The brutal Dutch Gestapo have been trying to capture and eradicate a small but fearless group of men and women who refuse to pledge allegiance to the Nazi state. Despite repeated efforts to crush their spirit, the group goes on the offensive. During a predetermined ten-minute period - on just one night - this band distributes thousands of tracts exposing the actions of the government throughout the city. So sudden was the “raid” and so ubiquitous were the tracts that the newspapers all reported that the British Royal Air Force had distributed millions of pamphlets for this group!


From this dramatic event, let's isolate a key principle that can be applied to learning a language or anything else. The principle is called Frequency Bias.


The Dutch Gestapo had what seemed to be an easy task: find, intimidate and eradicate a small group of people who were defying them. That ten-minute tract campaign did not change the actual number of this group, but it did change the perception of their size and influence in the city.


Frequency Bias, also known as the Baader–Meinhof phenomenon, is a cognitive bias referring to the tendency to notice something more often after noticing it for the first time, leading to the belief that it has an increased frequency of occurrence.


Since our brain can only really focus on one thing at a time, it sorts all sensory input, dismissing what it deems irrelevant and prioritizes what it decides as important. Once we make a conscious decision to add a subject, object or theme to our current interests, the brain will divert cognitive resources to “noticing” these things and alerting us to their presence. For example, have you ever taken an interest in something, for example,

Ford 1966 Mustangs, lovely people from a specific country, or a specific foreign language etcetera.


Then, after taking an interest, “suddenly” you started noticing these things all around you. Did they just then appear? Or rather, were they always there but you just did not “see” them?


How can we use this cognitive phenomenon to help us learn a language? Learning a language thoroughly requires concentrated

periods of study and copious amounts of practise. These intensive study periods can be scheduled into your routine, but how do you fit in practise sessions? One way is to couple the principle of Frequency Bias with forming tiny habits.


A fantastic reference for learning how to do this is the book, Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg. In this article, we will unpack chapter 4 of the book, Prompts - The Power of After and apply his guidelines to forming the habit of learning a language.


Forming tiny habits that only require a few seconds or a minute to carry out will cumulatively generate huge gains in your language learning journey!


We receive thousands of prompts every day and we react consciously or subconsciously to all of them. We either dismiss them, or take action. For example, the stop light turns green - you hit the gas. You are offered a cheese sample at the grocery store - you eat it. Your email notification pings - you read the email, or decide not to. Whatever the prompt, the message is clear: “Do this behaviour now!” As Mr. Fogg says, “No behaviour happens without a prompt.”


What is also interesting is that, even if we are highly motivated to do something, like learn new vocabulary in the language we are studying, we still might not actually follow through if it has not become a habit. And for something to become a habit, it really helps to receive a motivating prompt. How do we design these prompts? One way is to attach them to things that you are already doing regularly. Another way is to set up new reminders. You just need a little nudge to help you do what you already want to do. Let's discuss 3 kinds of prompts that you can use.


Person Prompts, Context Prompts and Action Prompts


I will give anexample of a tiny habit you can make for each type. Let's say you've already spent time in your study session reviewing some material, but you also want to practice it regularly. Cue the prompt and tiny habit combo!


The Goal: Learn 1000 words in the target vocabulary or try to master a particular verb tense.


The first type of prompt is a Person Prompt. This is a prompt that happens inside of you on a regular basis. That pressure on your bladder is a prompt, a grumbling stomach is a prompt.


Example

Prompt: I have to use the toilet.

Tiny Habit: Every time I finish using the toilet, I will wash my hands (for 20 seconds of course😄) and then I will learn 2 new words or drill a tense (past, present future) of a verb.


The amount of time it takes to carry out this habit is minuscule, yet after just a few weeks of regularly doing it, imagine all the words you will have learned or verb tenses mastered!



The second type of prompt is the Context Prompt. A Context Prompt is anything in your environment that cues you to take action: sticky notes, app notifications, your phone ringing, a colleague telling you to come to a meeting…




Example

Prompt:

  • Send yourself a message at a specific time.

  • Set an alarm on your voice assistant or calendar

  • Put a reminder note inside the fridge.

Tiny Habit: When I see or receive the prompt, I will learn 2 new words, look at my flash cards, or drill a tense (past, present future) of a verb, etc.


The third type of problem is called the Action Prompt. This is behaviour that you already regularly do that can remind you to carry out an associated tiny habit that you want to also do regularly. In my experience, this type of prompt has been the most productive and useful. Mr. Fogg calls this type of prompt, an anchor prompt. This is because these actions are already solidly embedded in your life. Here are a list of anchors that are common to all us. After the word “will…” add this tiny habit, “…learn 2 new words or drill a tense (past, present future) of a verb.



Prompt:

Morning routines

  • After I sit up in bed, I will...

  • After my feet hit the ground in the morning, I will...

  • After I turn off my alarm, I will...

  • After I flush the toilet, I will.

  • After I turn on the shower, I will...

  • After I brush my teeth, I will.

  • After I brush my hair, I will ...

  • After I make my bed, I will ...

  • After I tie my shoes, I will ...

  • After I start the coffee maker, I will ...

  • After I pour myself a cup of coffee, I will ...

  • After I put my dish in the dishwasher, I will ...

  • After I feed the dog, I will...

  • After I put the key in the ignition of my car, I will...

Evening routines

  • After I walk in the door after work, I will ...

  • After I hang up my keys, I will ...

  • After I put down my purse, I will ...

  • After I hang up the dog leash, I will ...

  • After I sit down to eat, I will ...

  • After I put my dinner dish in the dishwasher, I will ...

  • After I start the dishwasher, I will...

  • After I turn off the TV, I will.

  • After I put my head on my pillow, I will...

In conclusion, cooperating with the principle of Frequency Bias means that you consciously remind your brain that learning this language (or whatever else you are trying to learn) is a priority. You do this by forming tiny habits that keep this activity foremost in your mind as you go about your daily activities. Keeping the habits small and attainable will make it easy to make incremental, steady advancement in your language goals.


Frequency Bias is just one of more than thirty brain-friendly methods that our clients learn when they take our modular TESOL Certification Course. This training course is easier than ever to take, no matter what time zone you live in. It is now available in a new format of seven/2.5 hour sessions that you can plan according to your schedule. Whether you would like to become a language tutor, or teach yourself a language, this course will be a life-changing experience for you! Join us soon, we can't wait to share our 25 years of experience with you!




Happy Learning!





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