Three Myths about Foreign Language Learning

I am a multilingual project manager and have been interested in foreign languages and cultures all of my life.   Recently I bought the book Becoming Fluent by Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz.  They describe evidence gained from recent research in psychology and cognitive science that points to the conclusion that adults can learn new languages even more easily than children.

This goes against the accepted wisdom that children are better language learners than adults.   I find their conclusions very encouraging for those wanting to learn a new language or those like me who are trying to retain fluency in the languages we already know while simultaneously attempting to learn newer ones.

Now, there are two advantages that children have compared to adults when it comes to learning foreign languages.   First, they acquire a foreign accent more readily than adults do.   And secondly, they do suffer from the anxiety that adults sometimes do which can end up being self-defeating.    Besides being a foreign language aficionado, I am also a five-year member of the Toastmasters club that trains people in public speaking.   I have found that the fear adults have of public speaking is related to the anxiety they have of learning a foreign language.    So I am well acquainted with that comparative disadvantage that adults have when it comes to communication, either with regards to their own native language in public settings, or with regards to foreign languages.

But the authors maintain that the advantages adults have outweigh these two disadvantages.   However, these go against the “common wisdom” mentioned above, so before discussing these advantages, the authors discussed three common myths people have about foreign language learning in adults.

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

Except for the one subset of language skills relating to acquiring a native accent, which children have an advantage in, adults are capable of achieving native-like fluency at a faster rate than children do.    This is because of some cognitive skills that adults have that children do not.

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

The fact that exposes the fallacy behind this myth is that the brains of adults and children are different.   So learning languages the same way is not possible, let alone recommended.   A more fruitful approach to language learning is one that builds on the cognitive strengths that adults do have.

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

Some adult language learners are told that they should try from the start to not translate from their native language to the new, target language but to understand it directly.   Although direct understanding of the new language is the goal, using the knowledge of one’s native language as a ladder to reach the new floor of a new language is an advantage. A simple example is the use of cognate words, which can be a surprising doorway to hundreds and sometimes even thousands of vocabulary words in the new language.

Yes, there are words that will appear similar in form but end up being different in meaning (the “faux amix” I learned while studying French, for example), but the number of these will be relatively small compared to the number of words that ARE similar in meaning.

The evidence that contradict these myths comes from a field of cognitive science, which the authors have studied in connection with the cognitive abilities needed to learn a new language.   I am looking forward to reading the rest of Becoming Fluent, and using its recommendations to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of my language learning.   I recommend it for anybody who is planning on learning a new foreign language, or who has learned one in the past and wants to regain that fluency.









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