Cognitive Science and Becoming Fluent


The heart of the book Becoming Fluent by Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz, a book designed to encourage adult language learners of foreign languages, is chapter 6 entitled “Cognition from Top to Bottom.”

Here are some of the findings of cognitive science and their practical import when it comes to choosing a method to learning a foreign language.

1.The McGurk effect

The McGurk effect was, unsurprisingly, discovered by a guy named McGurk, in particular Harry McGurk, and it basically says that the eyes and ears normally work together to create a more complete perceptual experience.   If there is some sort of mismatch between what the eyes and the ears are telling your brain, the brain will do its best to reconcile the two.

This means for practical purposes that the best way to learn a foreign language is by coupling vision with listening as much as possible.   Now when you drive a car, yes it’s okay to listen to an audiobook or other form of language learning material, like the Pimsleur series.   However, if you get a chance, like when you watch a movie on TV in a foreign language, try to put the subtitles of that language on.   If you are watching Amelie in French, if you are a beginner, go ahead and turn on the English subtitles.  However, if you’re at the intermediate level,  it’s better to start switching to the subtitles IN FRENCH. Only when you are at the advanced level can you get rid of the subtitles altogether.

2.The untranslatable

I remember my joy at being introduced to my aunt from Honduras when I was about in the first grade, and I made the cognitive leap that in Spanish, there’s a different word for EVERYTHING.   But there are some words that do not translate well or at all.    A Yiddish word called “treppenwerter” means that the words (“werter”) that would clinch at argument that come to mind when only after the argument is over, when you are coming down the stairs (“treppen”).   It’s a phenomenon we’ve probably all experienced, but there’s no simple, equivalent word in English to express what this Yiddish word absolutely nails down completely.

The practical effect is that how individuals solve problems may be influenced by the language in which they are thinking.   If you have an international team, and for people who have at least an intermediate level of understanding of another team’s foreign language, try conversing about a problem in that language and you will find that you can make decisions less emotionally, and be open to newer perspectives.

3. False friends and kissing cousins (cognate words)

One of the myths that people have is that children are better than adults at learning foreign languages.   That’s one of the myths that the authors dispel at the very beginning of the book, noting that only in the area of acquiring a native accent to children do consistently better than adults.   One of the reasons why adults are more adept at learning foreign languages than children is their more intimate knowledge of their own language.   This allows them to recognize cognate words or “kissing cousins” that can be related through etymological roots.    The word “main” in French means “hand”, which appears on the surface to have no relation to the English word.   That is because ordinary vocabulary in English derives from German; the word for “hand” in German  is … “Hand”. That’s not a kissing cousin, that’s an identical twin!    However, French, Spanish, and Italian are Romance languages that are devived from Latin, where the word for “hand” is “manus.”   If you know this, then the word “main” in French, “mano” in Spanish and Italian, can be seen as related to words that contain  the meaning of hand in English such as “manipulate.”

Knowing these linguistic relations as an adult can be an enormous help.   However, there are the false friends you have to be careful of, such as the word “Gift” which is not the word for a present you give friends, but rather the word that means “poison” in English.   A humorous example of this is in the show Fawlty Towers, where Basil Fawlty is trying to tell his Spanish-speaking waiter Manuel to put the butter on the table, and he uses the word “burro” thinking it means “butter”, perhaps thinking of the word “beurre” in French.  However, as Manuel points out, “burro” means “donkey” in Spanish, not “butter.”   So cognate words are your friend MOST OF THE TIME, but beware of the exceptions.   But that is why they are exceptions, because the existence of cognate words is more of the rule.

4. Vocabulary

How many words do you need to speak a foreign language?   Well, it depends on your desired fluency, your purpose, and a lot of other factors.   It reminds me of the answer President Lincoln gave when asked by an impertinent reporter “just exactly how long should a man’s legs be” given the fact that President Lincoln was a very tall man.   “Long enough to reach the ground,” the president replied pragmatically.

In the same pragmatic vein, a college-educated native speaker of English has a vocabulary of 17,000 words, but these are words that are recognized passively, not used actively in conversations, at which point he or she may use only about one-tenth of that amount.

What linguistics are recognized is that it is not just having a large vocabulary that allows you to communicate, but the ability to connect these words in a fluent way.   That is why Benny Lewis who writes the blog Fluent In 3 Months includes in his premium subscription package a list of connectors for any language you care to study on his site.   These are words like “on the other hand,” “see, here’s the thing”, or “that reminds me of something” that link not just words but larger chunks of language or phrases.   If you learn these, you WILL sound more like a native speaker even if your vocabulary is limited.

5. Low-road and high-road transfer

We transfer knowledge of foreign languages to our brains in several ways.   One of the most common types of language learning is memorizing, which is the “low-road transfer.”  It simply uses repetition as a way of transferring knowledge to long-term memory.   To be sure, there are sophisticated programs called “spaced-repetition programs” which gradually taper off the repetition the more that the information is embedded securely in the long-term memory.   So it reduces the tedium–but does not eliminate it.

The “high-road transfer” is using your ability to mindfully consider how new material relates to previous material and how it might be used in future situations.   What you are doing is not just placing animals in a zoo, you are creating an “ecology” where these animals all relate to each other in natural ways.    Even the creation of the analogy of the zoo is an example of “high-road transfer”, because it relies on the recognition that a language and an ecology are both systems, and can be compared as being similar on that basis rather than focusing on the difference between the component elements (words vs. animals).

6. Idioms and metaphors

One of the most useful byways that you will travel on when learning a foreign language is learning the idioms of that language.   “It’s yesterday’s news” is “Es ist Schnee von Gestern” or “it’s yesterday’s snow.”   “It’s raining cats and dogs” in rendered in French by “il pleut des cordes” or “it’s raining ropes,” which for me was a much more handy visual metaphor for thick rain than the English version.    Apparently, the English version comes from a time when people lived in thatched houses, where dogs and cats would often sleep in the loft.    When it rained hard, the rain would seep into the loft and cause the animals to scatter down the stairs, hence … “it’s raining cats and dogs.”   A quaint story, but I still prefer the French version now.

But these idioms give you a turnkey into understanding the culture and history of a foreign language and so they are “vitamin-powered phrases” in my estimation because they contain in concentrated form the cultural essence from which that language springs.

And using these high-powered linguistic tools of idioms and metaphors allows you to, by taking the side road of learning them, enter to the fast track to fluency.

These cognitive science concepts are helpful to me because they confirm to me what methods I am going to use in the future, and which ones I will try to leave by the wayside. But they also confirm for me that it is a journey well worth embarking upon!

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