Can you Unlearn Learning? The Problems with Learning Language


Should you Unlearn in order to Learn.

Recently a teacher here at LSI/IH Portsmouth came up with an interesting idea to discuss when talking about the process of learning.

Unlearning learning. The following blog gives some form to the thinking Michael (Baldwin) had, which we thought could make a good discussion topic as nearly everyone is likely to have an opinion on learning a language.

“Is it time to practice unlearning to learn better?

I recently came across an article in Harvard Business Review from 2016 exploring why it seems so difficult for new business management ideas to take root, so to speak, and supersede existing ideas that no longer work well.

This idea of unlearning first to then learn anew seems at first counterintuitive, but on second thoughts it struck me that within the field of Linguistics we have something similar, though we call it interference.

L1 Interference

It’s the notion that your native language (Language 1 or L1) can block learning. A very good example from my life was when I was living and working in Poland and could not learn Polish vocabulary; I was learning them by reading through how I read in English – now the Polish alphabet is not really that similar to the English one (eg the former President Lech Wałęsa or the greeting cześć) so this made it doubly difficult. It was only when I went back to how I learn new words in my native English – listen, listen, listen, then associate with the written form – that I could learn and use correctly any new Polish vocabulary.

It is also coupled with the well-known business practice of change management. Change is difficult, and learning a new language or improving a second language is a form of change.

So next time you are struggling and plateauing with your English, ask yourself: Is it due to my L1 interfering with learning? Do I now need to unlearn how my own native language works to learn anew English? “

Thank you, Michael.

Do you have any thoughts on this? If so we’d love to hear them.