Message on the bottle: Mind Game Moments for language learners


Someone gave me a free (swag) water bottle the other day–looking at the picture on the box, I could see that the design was one that seems to be pretty popular these days. With a somewhat subdued design that wasn’t dominated by a corporate logo splashed everywhere (hidden here), it seemed like a keeper. Before throwing out the box, however, I thought it would be a good idea to check if I was going to be able to wash my water bottle in the dishwasher.

That’s when it happened– I picked up the box and….found myself looking at the French version of the description and instructions.  The language learning mind games had begun.


As someone who likes to speak French sometimes (still a rusty B2), I was essentially faced with a question: read the French, or take the easy route and flip over to the English?

For those of you that aren’t familiar with living in an officially bilingual country, Canada has laws that ensure that every product sold in Canada has clear and complete information in both French and English.  This is true for water bottles, toothpaste, milk, cheese, computers, garbage bags or alcohol–even a bottle of wine imported from Argentina! It’s so natural, I rarely give it a second thought.

Depending on the product, you may not even need to flip the package to get to the English— it’s simply a question of where your gaze lands on the label.  As you can see in this gallery of pictures from my pantry, this opportunity to ‘choose’ between French and English is presented to me quite frequently.  All that to say, this ‘flipping to the English’ business is something that I usually do at an almost subconscious level.

I did manage to stop myself before I flipped the water bottle box over. However, to be brutally honest, if you can understand basic basic French you’ll quickly see that this “washable water bottle” question is hardly a taxing French challenge (A1, if that!).

To be clear, I’m not talking about things you don’t understand—what I found interesting was reflecting on just how instinctual it can be to begin to move away from the French.  I hadn’t even tried to read the French in front of me, and had to make a conscious decision to say “hold on–let’s see what this says!”, and parse the French text for the information I needed (i.e. “should I put this in my dishwasher?”).

Even then, at first, I wasn’t really reading the box, but simply scanning while wondering “what word am I actually looking for here?”. Without letting my eyes really engage with the text, I was already combing my mind for words that I thought I might run into–i.e. “how do you say dishwasher in French again?” .  Finally, I realized that I was being silly, and just needed to stop and read.  Once I started reading, the answer came right away—there it was, staring me in the face: “Lavage à la main seulement”—(Wash by hand only).

I don’t mean to single out English speakers—I’m sure many Canadian Francophones do the same thing  (see the English and instinctively flip to the French).  No matter what language you’re learning, these kinds of fragile moments present themselves quite frequently in many forms.

Think about all of the times when you’ve been presented with what I might call “optional” language learning moments– what do you do when you’re faced with nonessential reading or nonessential listening when you have the easy opportunity to tune out, change the channel, flip the page and move back to the comfort of a language that is more comfortable?   As you go through your deck of flash cards, do you really know that word, or are you giving yourself a pass because you want to get through the deck? Do you push ‘1’ to receive service in English, or risk it and challenge yourself?

Not always a bad thing!

This is actually a complex question because staying relaxed, letting some things go, and not obsessing about every word is an extremely positive way to stay motivated as a beginning language learner. Having said that, as you start to progress to mid and upper levels of fluency, your ability to stay calm and engage with the language is what will help you grow.

If we don’t develop our ability to engage with these ‘moments’, the fabled ‘language learning environment’, that many people seek by travelling, will remain elusive.

This is part of the reason that expats can live in cities like Tokyo and Beijing for years and never really learn the language– after all, in most major international cities you can essentially live a mostly English life, especially if your social and professional network is full of people who either come from English-speaking countries or have learned to speak competent English. (*please note, if you plan to live overseas and never speak English at all, like some possessed person hell bent on mastering the language, you may not end up with a robust circle of friends).

So, some complexity here for sure— if you are a native English speaker of course you will read things in English when given the chance.  Modern gadgets like electronic dictionaries and handy apps on mobile phones that will translate things for you are useful tools for sure, but if your goal is to learn another language you need to keep an eye on these kinds of moments and make sure that you’re maintaining a good balance of opportunities to challenge yourself.

I recently saw an old Casey Neistat video called “Mind Games, a movie about running”– I am not a runner, but the stream of consciousness narrative of the video made me think of the inner monologues we all have when we’re trying to push ourselves out of our comfort zone.  At the end of the day, my takeaway is that language learning essentially a choice that you end up making over and over (and over) again, in tiny moments like this one with my water bottle.

Even if you’re not a runner, check out the video (below)– it’s just over 2 minutes long, but the moment I really like is that he spends the first 45 seconds talking about all the excuses he makes before he even starts his daily run and then drops this bomb: “These are the games I play just to get out the door; then I run– this when the real games begin”.

What kinds of Language Learning Mind Games do you play?  Are you still in bed, or have you got your language learning shoes on?

English side of the box—-students of French, could you read everything in the image above without referring to this?


5 thoughts on “Message on the bottle: Mind Game Moments for language learners

  1. Great post, and a very good point. Sometimes you’re served with all the information that you need to 1: find and answer to your question and 2: improve your language skills.. But you almost always pick the path of least resistance. Life gets easier when you don’t have the options, eg, make friends who are monolingual in your target language. I’ve got facebook friends where I have to make an effort to get what they’re posting, but if I want to interact with them, I’m obligated to figure it out, because they won’t translate it themselves!

  2. I’m a year late, but I just want to say that I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who plays mind games with myself on various things. I too prefer flipping over to the English side of things instead of reading the Japanese whenever possible – but that’s only because I am in Japan right now – and whether I like it or not, I am immersed and forced to use Japanese 95% of the time around here. Unlike the expats who live in cities like Tokyo and Beijing for years who are able to live a mostly English life, my job forces me to step out of my comfort zone. Thus I crave for that little bit of English I can get. However, I do try to read everything Korean right now (as it is the language I am currently working on).

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