What is Cognitive Load and how does it affect my English?

Do you ever feel like your brain just doesn’t have enough “processing power” to speak English fluently? Or feel like you have to focus really hard to understand what people are saying to you? Does you mind go blank when you start to get nervous or frustrated?

All of this is very natural, because speaking another language has a high cognitive load.

What is cognitive load?

Cognitive load is a way of describing how much information your brain has to process at any given moment. It’s basically the amount of mental resources you’re using to process and store information, as well as respond to it. Cognitive load can be measured in terms of the number of memory items you have actively in mind or the number of processing operations being performed simultaneously. We often compare it to bandwidth or processing speed on a computer.

Let’s take the act of having a conversation for example. When you’re speaking in a foreign language, your brain has to do all of these things nearly simultaneously:

  • Decode the messages of the other speaker (understand the sounds and syllables)
  • Process the message (understand the meaning)
  • Interpret the speaker’s non-verbal clues
  • Interpret the speaker’s pragmatic meaning (what they are “really” communicating-which can be dependent on culture!)
  • Formulate your message
  • Encode your message
  • Pronounce your message
  • Scan for signs of miscomprehension
  • Manage many different feelings and emotions- often including shame, frustration, impatience, nervousness

That’s a lot to process at once.

The good news is that we can reduce this cognitive load.

How can I reduce the cognitive load of speaking a foreign language?

Firstly, as you practice your foreign language more, you’ll build stronger neural pathways to the information your brain is looking for. That’s called automatization. The more these processes become automatic, the less taxing, or strenuous, they’ll be for your brain. You’ll free up cognitive capacity and be able to speak more fluently, more correctly and more complexly in different situations. Therefore, the key is to practice as much as possible, to reinforce those connections.

However, if you’re still in the fluency building stages, there are several ways you can make speaking less demanding on your working memory.

  • Try practicing your English in a quiet environment. A noisy bar will make it even harder to speak because your brain has extra information (music, other conversations, movement) to process.
  • Simplify what you’re trying to say when you get stuck or frustrated. If you don’t remember a particular word, learn how to talk around that word. Having to process the feeling of frustration will add to the cognitive load.
  • Practicing your speaking with someone you trust can keep your affective filter, or emotional defenses, low. This means that you won’t have as much emotional “noise” clogging up the system.
  • Talking about subjects that are familiar to you will lower the cognitive load. If you know what you’ll be having a conversation about beforehand, look over some useful vocabulary or think about what you’d say about that particular topic. Or stick to topics you know something about when you’re practicing your English.
  • Talking to yourself or writing can help you make those connections in your brain and automatize a lot of these processes. These activities have a much lower cognitive load because you have time to process the information. They are an ideal way to boost your fluency until you’re ready to practice with someone else.

How do you feel when you speak English? Let me know in the comments.

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