Five Minutes with Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz

Is one of your New Year’s resolution to learn a new language? Here’s a Q & A with Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz about their book Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language to help you!

In Becoming Fluent, you challenge the common notion that adults cannot acquire a new language as easily as children. Drawing on insights from psychology and cognitive science, you argue that adult language learners possess several advantages over younger language learners. What exactly are the advantages?

Adults have a lifetime of experience at their disposal to draw upon when learning something new. And most of the time they readily apply these past experiences to new situations. Unfortunately, when it comes to learning a foreign language, all too often people labor under the false belief that these past experiences are no longer relevant. In Becoming Fluent we show adults how their experiences are helpful in learning a foreign language. One of the most important ways adults can do this is through the use of their metacognitive skills. In other words, because adults can reflect on what is working and what isn’t when learning a foreign language, they can tailor the learning environment to meet their linguistic needs. Children don’t do this. Metacognition, therefore, is an adult’s greatest advantage over children when it comes to learning a foreign language.

You argue that another advantage of the adult language learner is a sense of the social use of language that we gain only from experience. Would you expand on this “metalinguistic ability”? And how can adults leverage the ability?

When children learn language, they must learn every aspect of a language – from the sounds of the language to the vocabulary, the grammar and why and how the language is used in social situations. Adults who study a foreign language must also master the sounds, vocabulary and grammar of the language. And, like children, they must learn how the language is used socially. Significantly, however, adults do not have to relearn what it means to use a language socially. This distinction might seem obvious, but the advantage of already possessing knowledge about how language works should not be underestimated. For example, children must learn what it means to be polite and why it is important to be polite, as well as how to be polite. Adults must only learn only the ‘how’ in their target language, which gives them a huge advantage over children. It’s the same with conceptual domains. An adult might learn the word for cat and dog in a target language, but unlike a child, the adult does not have to learn how to distinguish a cat from a dog.

Many adults fail to learn a new language because they use methods designed for children’s language acquisition. How can cognitive science help adult language learners build feasible learning strategies?

Research in cognitive science offers all adult learners, not just adult foreign language learners, a wide range of useful techniques and information. For example, cognitive scientists have extensively studied mnemonic devices, or what we might call memory aids. The results of this research are directly applicable to the adult learner. The same can be said for the study of heuristic strategies, short term and long term memory, and pragmatics.  Because adults can regulate their own learning strategies, they can use this research to create an effective learning context for themselves. In Becoming Fluent we show them how.

What is your best advice for someone who wants to take up a foreign language?

Just do it! Foreign language learning can be enjoyable and rewarding at any age. Studying a foreign language is a voyage of discovery and no one is too old for that.