Becoming fluent: How cognitive science can help adults learn a foreign language
by Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz,
MIT Press (2015)
The good news for adults struggling to learn a foreign language is that there is no such thing as someone who is “good” or “bad” at languages. We all speak at least one language – which proves that we can do it.
Psychologists Roberts and Kreuz say the evidence suggests an adult can learn new languages even more easily than children. Children are superior in only two ways – acquiring a native accent and a lack of anxiety about the project.
So why the disconnect between appearance and reality? The answer may lie in how we try to learn. As the authors note, children’s brains are different from adult brains, therefore “why would anyone expect that the same teaching techniques that work for children would be appropriate for adults?”
The answer, they say, is for adults to build on their strengths and not to try and mimic how children learn a language. Not least of these adult skills are an understanding of their own mental processes. Roberts and Kreuz explore the research and theories in cognitive science that explain how adults learn. They explore how to leverage our adult skills when we learn a new language.
The book is helpful for the adult language student but also full of useful information that we can use in other learning situations.
One of the keys to success, the authors say, is to set reasonable goals. You’re not going to achieve native-fluency in Chinese in a year, so don’t set yourself up to fail. Aim high, sure, but make it a long-term goal so that frustration and failure don’t force you to drop the enterprise entirely.
The book is highly readable, drawing on the authors’ personal experiences as well as experimental discoveries.
They make no bones about it – learning a language takes effort. A major part of it is to practice reading, writing and speaking over and over again. But, the authors say, if adult learners apply the tools acquired over a lifetime, this can
be enjoyable and rewarding.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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