Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language
reviewed by Amado Padilla - May 31, 2017
Title: Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language
Author(s): Richard Roberts & Roger Kreuz
Publisher: MIT Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0262029235, Pages: 226, Year: 2015
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It has been a long held belief that children are better at learning a new language than their parents and other adults. This belief is frequently given as one reason for the explosion of early dual language immersion programs that we have witnessed in the United States over recent years. Children are often said to be like sponges when they are exposed to a new language at school. We know that when they are enrolled in an immersion program when they begin kindergarten, by the time children exit elementary school they are able to read and write in two languages. Many children also attain near native proficiency in comprehension and speech in both their home language and in their second language. As a result, why would the authors of Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language write a book advocating for adult foreign language learning?
Authors Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz are cognitive psychologists who are also experienced adult learners of foreign languages. As a result, they are fully aware of the difficulties of learning a new language. In their opening chapter, the authors offer three myths about foreign language learning that set the stage for the remainder of the book. The authors start with Myth #1. Adults cannot acquire a foreign language as easily as children (p. 3, emphasis in original). They deconstruct this myth by showing that adults have cognitive and linguistic knowledge that predispose them to be better language learners than children. This leads to Myth #2: Adults should learn foreign languages the way children learn language (p. 3, emphasis in original). The fallacy here is that adults are not children and that curriculum designed for younger learners may not serve adults in ways that best accommodate their expanded cognitive abilities. Finally, there is Myth #3: When learning a foreign language, try not to use your first language (p. 4, emphasis in original). There may be some truth to this myth in the case of children in immersion programs. However, the authors argue that adults learning a foreign language would be foolish not to use their first language to draw connections between them because this plays to the superior cognitive and linguistic knowledge of adults in terms of how to use language. This is a decided advantage that adults possess over children.
With the stage set for Becoming Fluent, the key to understanding an adults advantage in learning a foreign language is to remember that adults by virtue of age and experience have metacognition on their side. Metacognition is the capacity to think about thinking. While this may sound simple, it is a powerful tool in learning since adults do not have to start from zero every time they encounter a problem to solve or new information to learn. Children are not fully capable of metacognition until early adolescence.
Another powerful tool is metalinguistic awareness. Since adults have long since acquired a first language, they can use the knowledge they have of how a language works to make requests, use humor to calm a friend, or be polite to gain a favor. Metalinguistic awareness is knowing how to use language to do things (p. 10, emphasis in original). Children who are still in the process of learning their first language are not yet in a position to use metalinguistic skills. Once acquired, metalinguistic skills can be used to enable older learners to transfer this metalinguistic knowledge across languages.
From this point on, the book serves as an introduction to cognitive science and what psychologists have learned about the process of learning or memory over the last 100 years as it is applied to adults acquiring a foreign language. The text is easy reading. It is just technical enough with certain details for the reader to understand how a research study was conducted. It also includes what these findings mean for learning, memory retention, and forgetting over time. The authors are well versed as adult foreign language learners themselves. As a result, they pepper their discussion with interesting highlights of their own experiences in learning Japanese, Korean, and Portuguese. Accordingly, the volume is filled with useful advice for adults wishing to learn a foreign language.
One of my favorite pieces of advice is when Roberts and Kreuz tell the reader to concentrate on the process of learning a new language and the work (e.g., effort) that will be involved, but not on the outcome of how well they will be able to communicate. Take for example when they vacation in Tuscany. Another hint is to not get carried away with the belief that even with hard work the adult learner will achieve a high level of proficiency. Adults can attain a level of basic interpersonal communication, but certainly will not be proficient at a professional level. This should not be the goal because it will only discourage learners who will succumb to the misbelief that they cannot learn a foreign language because of their age. The idea is to hold our expectations in check because it takes many thousands of hours to learn complex tasks like a new language. The authors also offer reflections on their own trials and tribulations of learning different languages throughout the text.
Becoming Fluent has many strengths because of its numerous suggestions based on well known facts from cognitive science. For example, in learning vocabulary, learners should use rehearsal strategies that focus on meaning rather than just memorization. This promotes deep processing versus shallow processing. Also, in studying a language, learners should use distributed practice. If you have two hours to study, it is better to study for one hour, take a short break by doing something completely different, and then return to studying. This will result in greater learning than cramming for two hours in a row.
In a similar fashion, there are many suggestions for teachers of adult learners. For example, Roberts and Kreuz warn that older learners are more susceptible to distraction when learning difficult material. With age, there is some decline in the ability to process competing incoming information. As a result, the authors suggest that teachers need to present material in a way that minimizes distractions. However, they also tell us that,
most foreign language materials are designed for high school and college students, and so they may be less appropriate for someone in their forties or fifties: the multimedia bells and whistles that are used to appeal to a younger audience may simply be distracting and unhelpful. (p. 121)
Taken together, there are many helpful suggestions for older learners of a foreign language in this book. At the same time, teachers of adult learners would also do well to read it so they can differentiate between teaching a language to adolescents or to the parents or grandparents of their younger learners.
One shortcoming of the volume is that Roberts and Kreuz do not provide a concluding chapter that organizes all the suggestions for adult learners and teachers into a central location. If such a chapter had been offered, it could have served the purpose of unifying all the strategies around topical areas (e.g., focusing on deep meaning, learning smart ways to practice the new language, and chunking, etc.) that would help maximize the acquisition of a foreign language by adult learners. At the same time, a unifying chapter would also have been useful for teachers who might believe that age does not matter in the way instruction is delivered to a learner, but who can be shown otherwise by this text. Despite this shortcoming, I recommend Becoming Fluent to any adult seriously intent on studying a foreign language.