Visualization and Language Learning

Visualization is a potentially powerful tool for becoming an effective self-regulating learner and may greatly increase the efficacy of one’s other language learning strategies. In “The L2 Motivational Self System,” Zoltán Dörnyei, arguably the foremost expert on motivation and second language learning, reviews a large body of research that confirms the positive role visualization can play in personal performance (2009a). His compelling model explains how imagining our ideal self (the person we want to become), our ought self (the person we think others want us to become), and the feared self (the person we do not want to become) all contribute to motivating us. He argues that visualization coupled with concrete workable plans for achieving goals can greatly increase language learners’ performance and help them overcome discouragement.

A recent study of 1,273 high school students “found a significant relationship between a student's ability to set goals and language achievement in the Spanish language classroom. A growth relationship was also revealed, with growth in goal-setting ability significantly relating to growth in proficiency” (Moeller, Theiler, and Wu 2012:164). Studies of all types of professionals (physicians, pilots, musicians…) have shown that not all practice is created equal. In fact, it is more common for physicians to become worse over time as they practice medicine over the course of their career.
The critical variable for performance improvement [among physicians] is identifying areas of desired goals of achievement and engaging in effective training and practice to attain the associated improvement…[;] the best violinists were found to spend more time per week on activities that had been specifically designed to improve performance, which we named “deliberate practice.” Expert musicians working in a solitary setting in order to master specific goals determined by their music teacher at weekly lessons, is a good example of goal-directed efforts to reach a higher level of performance.” (Ericsson 2009:413).
A powerful illustration of visualization and deliberate practice applied to language learning comes from the story of Anna, a Brigham Young University Chinese Flagship student (Prof. Dana Bourgerie, personal communication). With no background in Chinese, she began studying it as a freshman in college. She approached learning it like a professional athlete, visualizing in great detail each step along the way. For example, she decided that she wanted to talk on the telephone just like a Chinese person does.  She carefully observed numerous instances of native telephone performance and practiced, practiced, practiced. Using this same technique of visualization and setting realistic and very specific goals, she scripted her way to the point where she was writing legal briefs in Chinese as part of her internship in China. Teachers and students would do well to learn from her example.
“[F]uture self-guides provide incentive, direction and impetus for action, and sufficient discrepancy between these and the actual self initiates distinctive self-regulatory strategies with the aim to reduce the discrepancy – future self-guides represent points of comparison to be reconciled through behaviour (Hoyle & Sherrill, 2006).” (Dörnyei 2009a:18)
“It has been found that the more elaborate the possible self in terms of imaginative, visual and other content elements, the more motivational power it is expected to have.” (Dörnyei 2009a:19)
“[T]he ideal self needs to come as part of a ‘package’ consisting of an imagery component and a repertoire of appropriate plans, scripts and self-regulatory strategies.” (Dörnyei 2009a:37)
“[T]he desired self should be offset by the feared self. That is, future self-guides are most potent if they utilize the cumulative impact of both approach and avoid tendencies—we do something because we want to do it but also because not doing it would lead to undesired results” (Dörneyi 2009a:37-38)
“Throughout [the] history of mankind, humans are driven by their imagination and their ability to see images of the desired future. Leaders, poets, writers, composers, artists, dreamers, athletes have been able to be inspired, stay inspired and inspire others through such images. These images, once shared, have the power to become a force, and in that sense an inspiration for social development and growth, for intentional change at many levels of social organization, not just for the individual.’ (Boyatzis & Akrivou, 2006: 633, quoted in Dörnyei 2009a:17)
The following quote is from an Olympic champion springboard diver:
“It took me a long time to control my images and perfect my imagery, maybe a year, doing it every day. At first I couldn’t see myself, I always saw everyone else, or I would see my dives wrong all the time. I would get an image of hurting myself, or tipping on the board, or I would ‘see’ something done really bad. As I continued to work at it, I got to the point where I could feel myself doing a perfect dive and hear the crowd yelling at the Olympics. But it took me a long time.” (Goudl et al., 2002:70, quoted in Dörnyei 2009a:34-35)
“[P]ossible selves involve tangible images and senses…they are represented in the same imaginary and semantic way as the here-and-now self, that is, they are a reality for the individual: people can ‘see’ and ‘hear’ a possible self…it is a major advantage to frame future goals in this way because this representation seems to capture some elements of what people actually experience when they are engaged in goal-directed behaviour.” (Dörnyei 2009b:213)
“When emotion is a prominent feature of a possible self, including a strong sense of fear, hope, or even obligation, a clear path exists by which to influence motivation and action.” (Dörnyei 2009b:226)
“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.” - T.E. Lawrence 
“self-concepts…develop to a great extent through the perception and evaluations of others: we come to see ourselves as we think others see us.” (Pellegrino Aveni pg. 107)
“Humans have a natural propensity to act in accordance with their own expectations of the future.” (Pellegrino Aveni pg. 129)
In Mindset, Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist summarizes her life's work and a lot of other fascinating research on learning and succeeding in all kinds of areas (sports, business, marriage, parenting...). She strongly urges people to take advantage of the power of visualization, noting that "What works is making a vivid, concrete plan.... Think of something you need to do, something you want to learn, or a problem you have to confront. What is it? Now make a concrete plan. When will you follow through on your plan? Where will you do it? How will you do it? Think about it in vivid detail. These concrete plans—plans you can visualize—about when, where, and how you are going to do something lead to really high levels of follow-through, which, of course, ups the chances of succcess" (2006:228).
Pellegrino Aveni,  Valerie. 2005. Study Abroad and Second Language Use: Constructing the self. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Dörnyei, Zoltan. 2009a. The L2 motivational self system. In Z. Dörnyei & E. Ushioda (Eds.), Motivation, Language Identity and the L2 Self (pp. 9-42). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.
Dörnyei, Zoltan. 2009b. The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Dweck, Carol. 2006. Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
Ericsson, K. Anders (ed.). 2009. Development of Professional Expertise: Toward Measurement of Expert Performance and Design of Optimal Learning Environments. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.