Becoming Fluent in a Foreign Language


Tomorrow at the Chicago Multicultural Connections club, I’m giving a talk on the importance of learning a foreign language in today’s global economy, and I’m planning to give tips based on my experience in learning several foreign languages.

There is a new book out by MIT Press called “Becoming Fluent:   How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language” by Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz.    In that book they dispel three myths about learning a foreign language.

Myth 1:   Adults cannot acquire a foreign language as easily as children.

Children do have 2 distinct advantages over adults in learning a foreign language; they can learn native accents more easily, and they are less self-conscious and have fewer self-limiting beliefs, like the belief that … adults cannot acquire a foreign language as easily as children.    Children know how to manipulate symbols, but adults know how to manipulate rules, and that gives them a cognitive advantage in learning another language that not only has new symbols, but new rules as well.

Myth 2:  Adults should learn foreign languages the way that children do.

Adult brains are different than children’s brains; they are wired differently, so trying to learn foreign languages the way that children do, by just imitating what they hear, and relying on trial and error, is going to make the process more difficult and more frustrating for an adult.

Myth 3:  When learning a foreign language, try not to use your first language.

Although the “total immersion” method is popular, it keeps you from using your own native language as a natural lever to get you to the “other side”.

Here are some tips on learning a foreign language.

  1. Determine what is realistic–use the Common European Framework of Reference for a goal
  2. Go public with your goal–write a blog, tweet your goal, or mention it in an e-mail or post to a group
  3. Find a study buddy–Italki, Meetup, etc.
  4. Study at the same time each day–Duolingo is a good resource here
These are the myths about learning a foreign language, the tips I intend to talk about, and a preliminary set of resources, which I will pass out at the presentation tomorrow.    I will have an “after” post to describe how the talk was received.
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