Why I’ve changed the language on my phone

Written by Stella Collins on 24 November 2017

What’s the last thing you learned without even trying? How can you learn unconsciously without it feeling like a big slog? Here are some ideas based on my continued experience of learning Spanish.

Measurement and rewards are always helpful and at the moment I’m easily able to measure my learning. When I book a hair cut without having to resort to gesturing, or Spanglish, it’s obvious I’ve succeeded and I get a clear reward in the short term. I can also achieve small measurable steps each day; all of which lead to my longer term goal of delivering a learning session in Spanish in six months' time. 

What are some other things that you can adapt to your practice?

Eavesdropping is one that’s remarkably successful. When I listen in without being expected to contribute I seem to single out short phrases such as ‘Donde vas?’ – ‘Where are you going?’. Somehow these words stick out and remain embedded once I’ve heard them in the street – perhaps it’s the real world context? 

It’s even better when I practise them immediately by telling my husband about todays ‘haul’. So listening into, or observing, experts when it doesn’t matter too much may be a good way to learn for some of us. 

I wonder if that’s partly why Ted Talks are memorable; they’re short, you usually listen through choice, you connect to ideas that resonate rather than feel obliged to learn everything and you have something interesting to share with someone else.

Culture and context strongly influence our learning so in L&D we need to ensure they are integrated and not shouting out a different message.

My favourite overhead comment this week was ‘preposterous’ which I quickly realised I’d misheard. The people were talking about ‘Pre-postres’; those cute, mini puddings you get before the main pudding in posh restaurants. 

When you think about it they are a bit preposterous! The error made me laugh and raised my curiosity (is there really a linguistic link between the two or was it just my mistake?) and both states are beneficial for learning. 

Rather than berating  myself and increasing my stress levels, which is not good for learning,  my inadvertent error has given me another quick mechanism for learning. I can link words to what I already know – however preposterous the connection. 

I’ve just read ‘Neurolanguage coaching’ by Rachel Paling who shares some good evidence about linking new language to words from your own language. At work, we need to encourage people to explore, have fun, make mistakes and make their own curious connections. 

Conversely, linking words with other words isn’t actually how our best learners pick up language. Children learn language naturally by connecting words to concepts rather than other words; the word ‘table’ is linked to the real place where they eat breakfast. 

As adults, when we learn language we tend to link linguistically rather than conceptually –  we translate one word into another which is less transferable and one reason it’s harder to learn a language later in life. Think how many words appear on Powerpoints every day that could be replaced with richer experiences, images or metaphors making it more intuitive to grasp concepts - and with less work.


Context has a big impact on memory. Context is all those things you link to the learning even when you’re not paying conscious attention; such as your surroundings or the lunch you ate. Learning Spanish is much easier in Spain. 

You’re surrounded by Spanish words, images, smells and sounds, in shops, on tv, posters etc. Everywhere you look you pick up aspects of the language. I intuitively know the difference between ‘tirar’ and ‘empujar’ because I’ve pulled and pushed so many doors; nobody had to teach me and I’m not aware of learning those words. 

When I went to Edinburgh recently it was harder to understand a Spanish language story than listening to the same story in Spain because I was surrounded by Scottish words, images and sounds which kept ‘contradicting’ what I was listening to. Culture and context strongly influence our learning so in L&D we need to ensure they are integrated and not shouting out a different message.

Making learning convenient makes it easier too and this is where technology can be a great support. I’ve switched the language on my phone to Spanish rather than English. I’ve had my phone for ages so I know where the ‘send’ button is but there’s a regular brief reminder everytime I push ‘enviar’ instead of ‘send’. 

It’s only a small change but I’m quickly acquiring regularly used phrases that are part of daily life but don’t tend to appear in language classes. Tiny, regular amounts of change, practice and repetition in a familiar environment can change behaviours very effectively. What could you change on your phone that would let you learn something new?

Enjoy learning.


About the author

Stella Collins is an author, learning specialist and director at Stellar Learning. You can follow @StellaCollins, email stella@stellarlearning.co.uk or visit www.stellarlearning.co.uk 

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