Trauma and Language Learning
As some may know, I am a neuroscience major as well as a person who is interested in languages. Recently, I have been having a much harder time learning Romanian and I was trying to figure out why. The thing is, I did not have these newly risen problems before the month of December in 2017. In fact, Romanian was going quite well for awhile until that month hit. I wanted to evaluate the things I experienced in 2017 (primarily in December) and see if they could bare any connections to my issues with learning Romanian.
During December, I lost two people that I loved and that created a lot of stress (I’m sure I had mentioned this before, so I won’t go into any details as I would basically sound annoying). It also created a lot of anxiety during my studies to the point where my thoughts would become too distracting and would overwhelm me, and as a result I would have to stop to calm myself down. It was a representation of how I felt when first hearing the dreadful news. Mind you, I have no psychological or neurological disorder. I never realized the impact that those short-lived moments would have on my studies until now. Not only were my academic grades lower than usual, my learning of Romanian simply got harder and it’s not like any of the subjects suddenly got really difficult. For instance, I have a harder time remembering content even with efficient studying, which is odd for me because I have photographic memory. I’m not one to make immediate correlations, but I had a feeling that my psychological state in the past had affected me in the now, assuming that my stress and anxiety were endearing. So, I did some detective work and looked up how psychological stress can impact learning, particularly language learning for this topic. I was surprised to find some blogs and articles on how trauma can affect people learning foreign languages, a bit unrelated to my situation. I’ll only present two for the sake of brevity.
Effects of Trauma on the Brain and Language Learning
In this article found here: http://www.cal.org/caela/esl_resources/digests/trauma2.html it talks about the effects of trauma and abuse in immigrants trying to learn English. While I will not talk about the entire subject, I found one major piece interesting that helped me in my discovery:
[Traumatic events] can overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a
sense of control, connection, and meaning" (Herman, 1992, p. 33). Since language
learning demands control, connection, and meaning, adults experiencing effects of
past or current trauma are particularly challenged in learning a new language. They
may be affected by symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, be clinically
depressed, have repressed memories of previous abuse, or display visible signs of
emotional distress. Victims of trauma may also experience concentration and
memory loss (Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture, 2000).
I find this piece of information very fascinating, despite my knowledge of the brain. My experiences weren’t really “traumatizing”, but they did display the psycho-physiology of how trauma can work (though, still not completely accurate to trauma, I will say). I’m sure for anyone on Duolingo who has experienced trauma or have PTSD, I assume concentration and memory very much affects the process of learning, which can just increase the amount of stress that already exists.
Another article I found (http://blog.teslontario.org/ptsd-second-language-learning-alternative-pedagogy/) talked about a similar thing with immigrants and provided similar information on how trauma impacts learning:
What does this have to do with language? The normal language learning centres in
the brain may not be processing information properly (like the example in the
doctor’s office). The person doesn’t process cognitive information like they
normally would have prior to the post traumatic experience. They may still be in that
“fight/flight/freeze” state of mind and they may not understand verbal directions or
other cognitive information. They may have difficulties with memory, retention and
processing of information.
These articles are primarily aimed at English language teachers, but it still provides interesting information.
Then, I got a bit carried away and looked up how depression could affect language learning, but I won’t get into that since this post is already too long. I will say though that many things already stated here were reiterated in those other articles on depression.
I didn’t directly relate my issues with these articles’ claims because I don’t have PTSD, depression, or any other disorder frankly. But, it just goes to show how even just minor stress and anxiety can affect your learning of languages. If you are currently in a psychologically stressed state and you are having a tough time learning languages, the second article provides key element in improving yourself. This quote applies in context to immigrant students learning another language, but I think this can apply to anyone who has been traumatized/stressed and are suffering from learning issues:
Help students focus on the present situation to stay grounded rather than
pre-occupied by distracting thoughts from the past or of the future.
I hope you enjoyed this post as much as I did looking into this subject!
Great post! I haven’t had a chance to read through all the links yet MasterZsword, but thank you for presenting your research and opening up this very interesting and relevant topic. I am sorry to hear you have been been going through a tough time yourself lately. I think we can all relate to some part of this. I hope things get better and thanks for such a thoughtful reminder that we can all be a bit more empathetic and patient, with ourselves and with others.
Thank you for your interest! Actually, there are many people here who seem to be really struggling lately (I won't call out those users), so part of my inspiration in making this post was to encourage people that despite their struggles, there is an answer for it and it can be combatted (the last quote being only a small part of what the original article offers for help). Though, I also did this for my personal interest since I am constantly intrigued by the brain. I certainly hope some people can benefit from it. ^ ^
I'm sorry for your losses.
Most people would, I think, feel considerably more than "minor stress and anxiety" if they lost two people they were close to within the same month.
That was only a couple of months ago. Mourning takes time. Go easy on yourself and take care of yourself right now.
If you're still in research mode, you might want to do a little extra research on grief and mourning following bereavement.
Very informative and interesting post. I like that!
That kind of stress would negatively impact anyone, I would think.
Actually...I've been dealing with this recently. Your post just made me realize something. It was about October of 2017 that my great grandmother, whom I am very close to, was diagnosed with Stage 3 kidney cancer, which has since metastasized to her spine. They say she only has 4 months, if she's lucky she'll make it to her birthday in April. When I found out about all of this, I had a really hard time focusing in my classes and Duo, and even still I have some trouble remembering simple things, like "Good Night", or the difference between past and present tense verbs. I'll study a good bit, and for about a few days I'll have it in my memory, but then it's like I didn't study it at all.
I can't imagine losing two people in a month's time. I hope you're doing better as of late. ❤
I'm so sorry about your grandmother. Spend as much time with her as you can. It's terrible knowing that someone you love will die soon.
Hopefully your studies will get better. Most times, it takes time and patience to heal from those harsh news. I hope things get better for you and your grandmother. ^ ^
Thank you for sharing your story!
You were actually one of the people I had in mind while writing this post. ^ ^
This is simply great, as with every one of your posts, MasterZsword. Never doubt that:). I found it informative, interesting, and I love your writing style! You are without doubt one of the best contributors here on Duo!
That's really too kind of you to say... But, I appreciate the compliment! I'm glad you liked this!
Your posts are brilliant, as always!
For the research purposes, even though I have trouble admitting it in person: I had and I'm still struggling through depression and anxiety. It had various effects on my learning: from crippling it completely, to actually enhancing it, combined with other stress factors. Best example is: recently I was very stressed about an upcoming exam at uni. Sure, I studied for it; but to relieve the stress I started learning Esperanto - and I finished the tree in 10 days.
There're different kinds of stress. Some are motivating, but some are not. I wish I would only get the motivating kind. Fortunately, Duo provides a sufficient disctraction now ;)
Strangely, losing my sister, which was pretty traumatizing, encouraged me to work harder to the point where I got one of the highest test scores on three subjects in my state, and I even got an academic award from Obama! So, I definitely agree that mental issues can have opposing effects on learning.
I've learned that through each suffering moment, nothing stays terrible forever. There is always the potential to find strength through pain. If it breaks us, we should allow it to re-make us better. ^ ^
I've seen you mention losing your sister before, but I never really had an opportunity to say this... I'm very sorry for your loss! I can't even imagine losing someone so close to you, it must have been really hard :(
You're a very inspiring person and you've been a wonderful influence on others. Your posts are always interesting and uplifting. I'm sure that if your sister saw you now, she would be proud! You are brilliant! Getting a presidential award is surely an outstanding achievement!
I don't know if you're a doctor already, but you sure will be/are an amazing one :)
Yes, I'm fine. ^ ^
I think those moments were just phases that I have learned to adapt to. I'm still having issues with learning things that were normally easy for me, but I know things will get better if I don't give up.
Is it not the case though that trauma and loss have an effect on all things cognitive and not specifically on language learning? I have used language learning to counter balance my PTSD and to lift me out of depression. It was the first thing to reach through the fog of misery and give me a glimpse of success. I have had periods when language learning seems harder but I find those usually come just before I make a significant step forward, as if access is a bit restricted during the rewiring that is going on. Maybe that is happening to you and you will soon be rewarded for pushing through at a difficult time.
Yes, trauma does affect many cognitive processes. If you have not already, you should read the full articles because they're not stating that language learning is only affected. In fact, I'm losing memories of my moments with those people I have lost, including my sister who passed years ago, and trying to remember causes me a lot of stress.
I wish you luck on your studies and I'm glad language learning has provided a pathway out of depression for you!
I am a medicine student with PTSD and it still never even occurred to me there might be research on this issue in particular. I am struggling, even though I am well treated now, but everything needs time. It is funny, that I should be looking for such research automatically, given my education. But I haven't been. It feels like looking for excuses, but perhaps there might be some elements helping me. Thanks for giving me some starting points for my search.
It is also nice to know I am not the only one. Please, don't take it the wrong way. Of course I don't wish anyone such a trouble. But I feel lonely due to the nature of my problem too often.
Yes, it can feel lonely, but the irony of loneliness is that many people feel it at the same time. Just know you're not the only one suffering. ^ ^
Thank you for sharing your thoughts!
Interesting read MasterZsword.
Thanks for sharing.