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!


Accent on Becoming Fluent

In the book Becoming Fluent by Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz, the authors try to encourage adult learners of foreign languages by first of all dispelling some myths and misconceptions regarding the comparative ability of children and adults when it comes to learning a foreign language.

One of the first myths people have is that children are better language learners than adults because their brains are better wired for language acquisition at a young age as compared to adults.   In only one area is that demonstrably true according to research, and that is the area of acquiring a native accent.   Chapter 5 of their book, “Language and Perception,” goes into the question of acquiring a native accent when you are an adult.

What does “acquiring a native accent” mean on an operational level.   The sounds that people make in a language are called phonemes by linguists, and these have to be distinguished between the letters that represent those sounds, which are referred to as graphemes.    The problem people have is that a) they must produce sounds that don’t exist in their native language, b) that the letters that produce the sounds they are used to in the foreign language don’t always correspond to the same sounds in a foreign language, and c) that the letters that produce the sounds they are used in the language are similar to, but the same as, the sounds that are produced in the foreign language.

When I was starting to study Arabic, the sound that is represented in transliteration by the letter “x” is called ‘ayn, and it is made by constricting the throat using the same muscles that you do when you yawn.    It is not a sound encountered in English, and it took some time to produce this sound correctly.    But it just means that I needed to take some time, look at diagrams of how the sound is made in the mouth and throat, and to listen to native speakers saying it over and over again, imitating them the best I could.    That was difficult.  But at least when I saw the letter which kind of looks like a backwards looking “3”, I knew that the sound was not one in English so I didn’t mix it up with any letters or sounds I already knew.

What is harder is when you see something that LOOKS familiar, but is actually different.  The French “r” is a perfect example of this.   Although the letter looks exactly the same as the “r” you use in English, the tongue is not against the ridge just above the gums in the mouth, but rather is floating against the BACK of the mouth, as if you were gargling.   That is what contributes to what we call the French accent.   The problem is that your mind sees an “r” and is USED to pronouncing it the English way, and the trick is training it to pronounce it a totally different way in a different environment.

Another example is the English long vowel sound “o” in the name “Joe.”   The “o” sound is really not one sound, but two sounds gliding together, an “oh” sound that glides at the very end into a “oo” sound.    The Spanish letter “o” has the initial “oh” sound but cuts it off there and does not glide into anything else.   Mastering the vowel sounds in Spanish is a matter of listening to the “purer” vowel sounds, purer in that they don’t change or glide into anything else during the course of pronouncing them.   But it is possible

When my Chinese teacher in college, Richard Chang, taught us Chinese, he was very strict on pronunciation.    He would show diagrams of how the Chinese sounds were made, made us learn the words for all the parts of the mouth so we knew what the hell he was talking about when he said “dental” vs. “alveolar” sounds, and he even had us bring a little mirror into class to practice looking at our mouth when we made the Chinese sounds to see visually how they were made.    At the time I was very impatient and was wondering why we were spending almost a month on pronunciation.   I wanted to get on with learning actual Chinese words and grammar!   And yet that time I spent paid off dividends that still continue to this day.   I’ve had Chinese people say that my Chinese is “hai keyi” (not bad), but that my pronunciation is very clear (“hen chingchu”) and easy for them to understand.

So it takes more effort as an adult to master a native accent that it does for a child, but the efforts are worth it.    Accent reduction is one of the most common tasks for those who are studying English as a Foreign Language (ESL), and I figure that as common courtesy, those for whom English is their native language need to pay as much attention when learning a foreign language!

With the helpful hints given by the authors of Becoming Fluent, which is based on numerous research studies in cognitive science, this is not just a laudable goal, but an achievable one as well.

Pragmatics and Becoming Fluent

The fourth chapter of the book Becoming Fluent by Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz is about a branch of linguistics called pragmatics, which analyzes how language is used in social situations, not just to convey information, but to convey emotions, to establish or development relationships, or on the dark side, to lie, cheat and steal.

The reason why they discuss pragmatics goes back to one of the three myths that people have about learning foreign languages, namely, that children learn foreign languages better than adults.    The only area where this would seem to be true is in the area of phonetics, because children have a superior ability to pick up foreign accents compared to adults.

But everything else, adults are not only not disadvantaged, but have unique advantages.   Pragmatics is one such area, because the social relationships and environment that a language exists in are literally beyond the child’s mind, because the child hasn’t even become acculturated to his or her own culture yet.

When you start learning a foreign language, you are using it in a straightforward manner to convey information.   But as you get more sophisticated in your understanding of a foreign language you can use it in more sophisticated ways.    One time when I was riding the subway in Tokyo, there was an elderly Japanese couple seated in front of me as I stood with the rest of the strap-hangers.   The man looked down towards my feet and said in a conversational tone to his wife, “have you ever seen feet that big in your entire life?”  Well, I wear a size 13 shoe according to U.S. measurements, so they are big even for an American.   I was amused by the brazenness of their comment with the underlying assumption that no foreigner could POSSIBLY understand a difficult language like Japanese, so I looked down at my feet and said, “soo ieba ookii desu nee” which means “now that you mention, they are kind of big!”   I derived a certain sadistic pleasure at seeing their reddened faces avoiding my eyes during the rest of the trip.   I was later pleased with myself not just because I hopefully taught the Japanese couple a lesson about making facile assumptions about the linguistic ability of foreigners, but also because I had demonstrated the ability to use the Japanese language in a way that was humorous (to me at least, not to the Japanese couple, I’m sure).

Now, I have to say that much of the humorous use of a foreign language was inadvertent, like the time I was at a Bierstube in Munich waiting with my German friends for a waitress who was taking a long time to bring the venison stew I had ordered.   I tried to be funny and I said what I thought was “well, she has to shoot the deer to death first” and my friends HOWLED with laughter.   At first, I thought I was successful at making a humorous remark, but the laughter seemed out of proportion to my meager attempt at humor.   I played back in my head what I said in German, and I realized that instead of using the verb erschiessen, which means “to shoot to death”,  I had switched the “i” and the “e” and said the verb erscheissen which means “to shit to death.”    No wonder they were laughing so hard!    But they knew what I was trying to say, and so were both laughing with me and at me at the same time.   One thing’s for sure:  I never made that mistake again!

It’s a winning stroke of course to be humorous on purposeand I was able to do this when I went out with my Japanese friend from work to celebrate the completion of a project.   We went to a shabushabu restaurant which kind of reminded of the fondue restaurants that were popular a while back in the states.   My friend said, “let’s try some Kobe beef” and I saw that the price was something like the equivalent of $100 or so (this was back in 1992) which was three times the price of the regular beef.    I was skeptical about laying out that much money for a simple steak, but he was trying to convince me of the merits of Kobe beef saying that the cows are massaged and given beer to drink to make their meat more tender.   I said in Japanese, “I don’t care if they graduated from Tokyo University, I still think it is a little expensive!”    He laughed and I was pleased with having said something funny in Japanese.   But it required not just the words to be able to say what I said, but the cultural knowledge that Tokyo University is the top university in Japan just like Harvard University is considered the top university in the United States.

This kind of sophisticated blending of cultural knowledge and linguistic ability is what can easily set an adult learner from a child learner.   And in retrospect it made sense of the requirements I had when I got my Masters degree in Asian Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  I originally wanted to become a technical translator, but the university insisted that I take courses in Japanese culture in addition to my language courses.   At the time, I didn’t understand the connection between learning about Japanese history, literature, and philosophy had to do with the ability to say “handootai” (semiconductor) in Japanese.   But when I actually LIVED in Japan I understood how using a language effectively with native speakers required my having knowledge of its cultural context.   In fact, I learned that I passed the employment interview precisely because I had a knowledge of Japanese culture that I had learned in my studies in graduate school.   They wanted to hire someone who was fluent and who was familiar with technical vocabulary (which I was able to do since my undergraduate degree was in physics), but they were concerned about how well a foreigner would do in a Japanese work environment.   My knowledge of Japanese culture convinced them that I could fit in.   And I did–I worked in Tokyo at Mitsubishi Motors Corporation for five years in the regulatory compliance department.   So learning culture as well as language may not seem practical at first to a language learning, but it will turn out to be a very pragmatic decision indeed.

Evaluating Your Ability for Becoming Fluent

I’m in the midst of a fascinating book on foreign language learning in adults called Becoming Fluent, by Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz.

In the second chapter, called “Set Yourself Up for Success”, they talk about the various myths and misconceptions that have grown up around the topic of language learning in adults.   These are covered in previous posts (all of these have the phrase “Becoming Fluent” in the title if you want to search for them).    After sweeping up the mental debris caused by these myths and misconceptions, the authors then plant the seeds for methods that DO work well, and these are:

  1. Determine what is realistic
  2. Go public with your goal
  3. Find a study buddy
  4. Study at the same time every day

These are discussed in more detail in the previous post.

In THIS post, I want to discuss the various factors you need to keep in mind when learning a foreign language, including:

  • What’s your motivation?   Is it related to your present work and career?  Is it related to what you would like your work and career to be in the future?   Is it related to your interest in a certain country and its people and culture?   Or is it process related, meaning that you like the process of discovering a new language and/or culture?
  • How much time will you have to study?    The reason why I mention motivation first is because, if you’re passionate about your project, you won’t find the study, you’ll make time to study.    For example when driving to work, instead of listening to the morning news or talk radio, you can listen to foreign language materials from your smartphone or CD player.    This will add to motivation, as now you’ll be able to have a choice of languages to swear at the other drivers!    Seriously though, you need to devise a way to make the language learning habit part of your daily routine (see rule #4 above).    I do it after I exercise and before breakfast, if I’m doing active practice which requires writing or speaking, or perhaps even during breakfast if it involves passive practices which requires reading or listening.
  • Do I have the time to take formal classes?    With more and more lessons being offered online, the flexibility people have to take formal classes is increasing.   However, with language classes, it is best to have a “live” class, not just because of the instructor but because you will learn from the mistakes that others make in class (like they will learn from yours).   If you don’t have the time to take a formal class, then get a study buddy so that you will become accountable (see rule #3 above).
  • Am I too old to study a foreign language?   NO.   That’s the simple answer to that question.
  • How much support will you get from your friends and family, or your boss and co-workers?    When I worked for a Japanese insurance company here in the United States, I was appalled at the fact that they had no Japanese culture and language program for the Americans they were hiring as insurance adjusters who would end up having to deal with Japanese companies.    So I set up a program myself–the adjusters who participated loved the program, but I noticed that the company did not have any incentive set up for those that participated.    Yes, adjusters were related on how well they doing learning about insurance, but weren’t getting any recognition for learning about the culture of the companies they were dealing with.   Now these adjusters were obviously self-motivated to learn–I often wonder looking back at how much more they would have learned if management had supported their efforts.
  • How will you deal with setbacks?    Believe it me, it’s not “onward and upward” when it comes to language learning.   At first, you will perceive yourself as learning a lot, but that’s because you’re going from a baseline of zero.   After you learn enough to merit the label of beginner, you may feel you are not moving as fast.   You may be learning 10 words a day, but the incremental amount of learning you feel you are doing will seem less because you are comparing yourself to an ever-widening base of knowledge.   It’s sometimes easy for a learner to think he or she is “plateauing”, like the scene of the Red Queen’s race in Through the Looking Glass:

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

You have to do this kind of introspection before you start learning a language, because it will give you the insight you will need to deal with setbacks, which WILL occur.   Here are some concepts from social psychology which are related to this kind of introspection.

1. Self-efficacy

Self-efficacy is the person’s belief in his or her ability to accomplish something.    Now the efficacy, the actual ability to accomplish something, varies depending on what that something is.    I am effective at learning foreign languages because, well, I’ve done it all of my life.   I am not effective at repairing automobiles, because I have never done it all of my life.

One’s self-efficacy is different.   There is something called the Dunning-Kruger effect which says that one’s ability to judge one’s effectiveness at a given task requires cognitive skills that are related to actual doing that task.    This creates the conundrum of someone who is no good at something, but when asked how well they think they are able to do it, say “I’m really good at it.”    Conversely, the person who IS good at a task is more modest about their ability, simply because they know from experience the depths and breadths of complexity that the task actually involves, as opposed to the dilettante who has just started wading into what he or she thinks is shallow water, not knowing that it is simply the foreground of an ocean.

So having low self-efficacy is not the same as having low effectiveness.   The problem for language learners comes in two varieties.   You can interact with language in a controlled environment such as a classroom, get an “A” on a quiz, and think “oh, what good boy (or girl) am I” and then try to speak with an actual native speaker and be totally flummoxed.   This is when your self-efficacy is too high, because you are comparing using language in a structured environment (such as a classroom) versus an unstructured environment (i.e. life).   So be aware that your effectiveness depends on the environment on which you are trying to do the task.

On the other end of the scale, those with low-efficacy run into the problem of sabotaging their own mastery, even to the point of calling it quits.    “I’m no good at languages!”  No, you just made a mistake.   Which is a natural part of the learning process.

Low self-efficacy is not the same as low self-esteem.   Self-esteem is your overall evaluation of your general worth as an individual; self-efficacy is your overall evaluation of your effectiveness at a given task.

2. Self-fulfilling prophecy

If you expect a negative outcome, you may sabotage your efforts at mastery without even realizing it.   In the June 2013 edition of Scientific American, there was an article that covered the attempts to overcome something termed “stereotype threat” that afflicted minority students who were taking college-entrance tests like the SAT, ACT, etc.

In the article linked above, it turned out that minorities were under-performing on academic tests compared to their non-minority peers in part because they had internalized negative stereotypes that were prevalent in the society at large.   One way they overcame this “stereotype threat” was to take the minority students and have them write essays on topics that they knew they were good at, even if they were not necessarily academic topics. Then the students would present these written essays to a group of their peers, and when they took the exam after this exercise, the gap between the minority and non-minority students largely disappeared.

Similarly, if you carry around a stereotype (“I’m no good at foreign languages” or “I’m too told to learn a foreign language”), you may under-perform just to conform to those reduced expectations.   This is called “self-handicapping”.

3. Self-handicapping

What those minority students were doing was conforming to stereotypes, and there are pressures that such students face when they break outside of those stereotypes and perform to their true ability.

How does this apply to learning a language?   If you are studying a language, and you think that making a mistake is going to force you to make a downward revision of your ability (your “self-efficacy”), you may self-handicap yourself and try materials that are easier to the point where you don’t make a mistake.    What this does is it helps you create improve your sense of self-efficacy by letting you tell yourself “look, I got 100% on this quiz!”   However, if that quiz was aimed at someone who is at an earlier stage than you actually are, then all that tells you is “you should be trying a quiz where you get maybe only 50% of the answers right” because that’s the quiz you’ll truly learn from.

The problem is that foreign language learning automatically takes you out of homeostatic equilibrium, known in everyday language as the comfort zone.   You may be handicapping yourself by doing things that are too easy so that you remain in this comfort zone.   If that’s the case, then you learn to be comfortable at being uncomfortable.   How do you do this?   Well, there’s the part of your brain that wants things as is, but then there’s the part of the brain that wants to explore and learn more.   Nurture this part of your brain!

When you try something in your new language and you fail or make a mistake, don’t forget to reward yourself for having tried.    Set up rewards for yourself, like renting a movie from that country or eating at a restaurant from that country, or simply watching a YouTube video in that country’s language!

In other words, keep moving!    You may see the process going on beneath the ocean’s surface, but you are creating a subterranean iceberg that is a lot larger than the tip that appears above the surface, an iceberg that capable of cutting through more obstacles that you think it could just by looking at the tip.

So when you are learning a foreign language, always aim at a level just higher than you are.   Once that becomes the new comfort zone, get uncomfortable and keep aiming upward!




Set Yourself Up for Success in Becoming Fluent

I’ve been doing  a series of posts based on the book Becoming Fluent by Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz.   I was drawn to this book by a suggestion from the polyglot Benny Lewis who has the website Fluent in 3 Months.    Benny recommended it because it is a book written by two psychologists who have done extensive research in how the latest discoveries in cognitive science can illuminate the ways that are most effective for adults to learn a foreign language.

I’m reading this book because I myself am multilingual, having studied Spanish, French, German, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese, with the goal of learning at least five new languages in the coming five years:    Italian, Portuguese, Korean, Arabic and Hindi.   My problem is trying to learn new languages while maintaining or even improving my proficiency level in the languages I’ve already studied.

In the first posts, I started from the negative end of stating what some myths and misconceptions are that people have which can prevent them from trying to learn a foreign language.

In this post, I take a positive tack and give the four suggestions the authors mention that are HELPFUL in learning a foreign language, and I use examples from my own language learning to illustrate.

  1. Determine what is realistic

Many adult learners of foreign languages end up feeling frustrated or dissatisfied with their progress in their target language.   They end up blaming themselves for various reasons which have been discussed in previous posts, but maybe they have made a goal which is unrealistic.

You should set realistic, short-term goals for yourself.   This is ironic, because the best way to become fluent is not to say to yourself “I will become fluent in …” (whatever your target language is), but to use something called the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages or CEFRL.

It divides the path to fluency into three major levels, with two sub-levels within each:   A for beginning, B for intermediate, and C for advanced, with A subdivided into A1 and A2, B subdivided into B1 and B2, and C subdivided into C1 and C2.

So you should say to yourself, “I will reach A1 level within three month in …” (whatever your target language is).    Then you know that the number of hours you will need to study is around 60-100 based on the following estimates (this one is put out by the Alliance Française).

A1 60–100, A2 160–200, B1 360–400, B2 560–650, C1 810–950, C2 1060–1200

NOTE:   These are cumulative hours, which means that after having studied to the A1 level of basic proficiency in the language, you only have to study 60-100 additional hours to get to the A2 level.

2.  Go public with your goal

If you have a blog, Facebook or a Twitter account, state your goal publicly so that the whole world will know you have begun on your journey towards learning a new foreign language.   You may get some notes of encouragement, or even better, some recommendations for websites or apps that can help you on your way.   If you are not on these types of social media, then at least tell your spouse, friends or siblings about your ambitions.    They will periodically ask you about how you are doing with your goal, and this can be a form of motivation.

3. Find a study buddy

If you’re taking a course, the study buddy would be someone who is taking the course with you.   If you’re studying on your own, then I recommend you go to and look for a language and culture club for your target language.   I’ve been wanting to improve my Japanese and Chinese so that I can take the next level of proficiency exam at the end of 2017.    But I wanted to get a motivator so that if I start on a study program now, that I don’t get distracted and give it up.

So I went to and found a Japanese Language & Culture Meetup that meets nearby, and a Chinese Language & Culture Meetup that meets downtown.   I went to the Japanese two weeks ago, and it so inspired me that I went to the Kinokuniya bookstore last weekend and bought all the books I will need to study for the JLPT N2 (equivalent to C1 or advanced level on the CERFL scale of fluency) test.

4.  Study at the same time each day

After I wake up and do my daily exercise, I cool down by using the Duolingo (for European languages) and iKnow! (for Chinese and Japanese) apps for language practice.   This takes about 15 minutes for each app for a total of 30 minutes–and in so doing I will have reviewed ALL the languages I’m studying.   Chinese and Japanese are in high rotation where I study them every day, Spanish, French, and German are ones I study every other day, and Italian and Portuguese are ones I study every two days.   It may only be 5-10 minutes for each language, but that’s enough to keep from backsliding.    On the weekends when I have more time, I can spend an additional half-hour here and there where I have time to really push forward in a specific language.

By doing the language practice the same each day, my brain knows when the workout of my body is done, it’s time to start my mental workout of my foreign language practice before I cool down BOTH my body and mind in the shower.

I hope that if you too decide to study a foreign language you take the suggestions above to heart, ESPECIALLY suggestion #3 of getting a study buddy.   That’s the motivation factor that keeps on giving, and you have the satisfaction of knowing you are helping someone else while you are being helped towards your own goal!

The next post will discuss the factors you should consider before seriously embarking on a plan to study a foreign language…


Habit Formation and Becoming Fluent

In their book Becoming Fluent, the authors Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz spend some time about what prevents people from reaching their goal of learning a foreign language before they get to the good stuff about what can actually HELP you reach that goal.

In the second chapter, after discussing the cognitive biases which hinder people from setting and achieving their language learning goals, the authors discuss three misconceptions people have about habit formation, something that is a necessity for learning a foreign language

1. Misconception:  it takes 21 days to develop a new habit

This concept was popularized by Maxwell Maltz, who published the book Psycho-Cybernetics in 1960.   Subsequent research showed that there is NO preordained timetable required to form a new habit.    A similar statistic is that it takes 10,000 hours of work to master a subject.

The problem with these certain-sounding pronouncements is that they focus on the quantity of time spent, rather than the quality.

If you’re going to develop a foreign language study habit, try to incorporate your target language into your life in a meaningful way as much as possible.   One particular way to do this is to take post-it notes with vocabulary words in your target language and attach them to objects in your home.   You won’t need to put the native language translation on the post-it note because the object itself is all the reference you need.

Then you take away the post-it notes and, once in a while take inventory of your surroundings and ask yourself what the word is in the target language of the first five objects you come across.   Can you recall what they are?    If so, you have started to remap your familiar world in the new language, and you are in the process remapping your brain.

So think more deeply about the language and incorporate it into the flow of your everyday life, and THAT will create a new habit, because it will keep you energized, rather than a meaningless habit that drains you of energy because it is mechanical and boring.

2.   Misconception #2:  Not keeping up a habit means failure

One thing is for sure, the best laid foreign-language plans often go awry because of this called life which gets in the way.  If you drop your habit, don’t engage in negative self-talk but spend that energy itself getting back into the habit.

In studying the way people quit smoking, one of the best predictors of whether people are ultimately successful in giving up smoking is the number of times they’ve managed to quit before.    The more that they have broken their non-smoking habit, the likelier they are to succeed in not smoking!     This is because for those that break the habit, they go right back to it and the mind gets gradually more used to the habit of not-smoking than it is to the past habit of smoking.

So if you miss instead of hit, don’t quit–just get on with it!

3.   More study is better than less study

The authors refer to the charmingly named fertilizer fallacy:   if a little bit of stuff is good, then a lot of it is better.    No, just like medicines, you need the right dose taken at the right intervals (that’s why those instructions come on medicine bottles, to prevent an overdose).

It’s better to do 10-15 minutes of study a day rather than trying to cram a couple of hours study on the weekend.   This is why you need to carve time out of your schedule to do language practice on a daily basis.

These three habit-formation misconceptions are the last piece of negative advice the authors give in terms of what NOT to do.

The next part gets to the meat of the chapter, which is 4 positive suggestions that will HELP you on your quest to learn another language–these are the subject of the next post!



Cognitive Biases that Prevent you from Becoming Fluent

I’ve been reading the book Becoming Fluent by Richard Roberts and Roger Kreutz, about how cognitive science can help adults learn a foreign language.   I am keenly interested in this topic because I have studied several foreign languages and am trying to retain my fluency in them at the same time I am trying to learn new ones, and I realize this will require “upping my game” in terms of the efficiency and effectiveness I learn.

In the second chapter, “Set Yourself Up for Success”, the authors go about the topic in an indirect fashion.   What are the cognitive biases that sometimes set adults up for failure rather than success?    Here are some of the cognitive biases they have uncovered.

1. The availability heuristic–an example of when heuristics fail

The availability heuristic is when examples of a phenomenon can be generated mentally and are thus more quickly and easily available to the conscious mind, the more common the phenomenon is likely to be.   Which is more common as a name for a baby girl in the United States:   Mary or Matilda?    Since most people can think of more people named Mary than they can named Matilda, they would be correct in assuming that Mary is indeed the more common name for baby girls in the United States.

However, when are people more likely to buy earthquake or flood insurance?   Immediately after such an event, when the likelihood of a such an extreme event happening again is very small.    As people’s memory of the earthquake or flood fades, they are less and less likely to buy such insurance, when in reality, the likelihood of such an event occurring is only going to rise.

So, lesson #1 from cognitive science is that heuristics based on an examination of one’s mind or memory are not foolproof.

2. The simulation heuristic–another heuristic that can fail

The simulation heuristic is when the more quickly and easily you can create a mental scenario in which an event occurs, the more likely you will be to predict that the event will occur.   If you create a mental simulation about all the things that it would take for you to become president, the more things that would have to happen for you to become president (being elected at the city, state, and national level, for example), the less likely the outcome will seem to you.

What is happening is that you access your memory for relevant information.   The information must be accessed and then judged as to how relevant it is to the particular scenario.   Then experiences you have had in the past that match the present scenario will add to your confidence.

Let me give an example form Toastmasters.  The very first time I went to a semi-annual conference, I had been in Toastmasters a total of 3 or 4 months.   I saw the keynote speaker, thought he was really inspirational, but it didn’t cross my mind that someday I myself could become a professional speaker.     I knew so little about being a professional speaker, that I couldn’t even tell you what steps I would need to become one.

Compare that to a keynote speaker I saw at an event last Sunday.    His message was inspirational, but this time I realized part of me was speculating, “what if I could do what he is doing and be a professional speaker myself?”    Now if you ask me “how do you become a professional speaker” I can say more about it because I am in a Toastmasters club that is designed specifically for aspiring professional speakers called the Windy City Professional Speakers club.   I can tell you what you need to become a professional speaker and many of those prerequisites I have already achieved.   So the possibility of becoming a professional speaker is not so remote; it still seems off in the distance, but I can picture how to get there.

3.  Planning Fallacy

The planning fallacy is when we underestimate how much time, effort, or money it will take to accomplish a goal.   It happens when we focus too much on the good things that will happen when we achieve a goal (like when foreign language programs advertise their wares by showing somebody flirting with an attractive speaker of the native language) and not enough on the resources it will take for us to achieve that goal.

In mental simulation of reaching a goal, focusing on the process of what it will take to achieve a goal results in better planning than focusing on the outcome.   You need to have in your language plan exactly how long you plan to study each day, what method you will use, and how you plan to chart your progress.

Another reason for the planning fallacy is the tendency to be overly optimistic about the outcome of events, assuming in other words that everything will go exactly as planned, and that nothing will go wrong.

When learning a foreign language, you need to count on when things don’t go as planned, such as when you make a mistake during a conversation.

4.  Counterfactual thinking

What happens when you make a mistake during a conversation, or you don’t make one of your milestones because you aren’t progressing as quickly as you have planned.   People start to beat themselves up by using counterfactual simulation, which is when you do a mental simulation after the fact and focus on what might have been.   In the sphere of foreign language learning, if you fail temporarily at achieving your goal, or the goal takes more effort that you originally thought it would,  you may tend to emphasize problems with your own abilities (“I’m just no good at languages”) rather than focusing on your methods (“I’m not as effective as I feel I should be when I’m using this method”).

5.  Anchoring and adjustment

Anchoring and adjustment is when it is difficult for us to move very far away from what we have initially decided–even when the reality of the situation necessitates a change in plans.   For adults language learners, an example of this is slavishly following a preset lesson plan long after it becomes clear that it is not very effective.   This is why a language study buddy is helpful, because it is easier hearing from another person the advice that you find difficult to give yourself, to try another method that may be more effective.

6.  Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias happens when people filter out information that goes against their preconceived notions and only accept information that reinforces them.   It makes it harder to accept feedback from others, for example, the advice to change the language learning method you are using.

And in learning a foreign language in general, if you are convinced of the first myth of language learning that was discussed in the last post, namely, that Adults cannot acquire a foreign language as easily as children, then you will pay attention to those people that say they tried learning a language, but can’t speak it any more.   But when they see someone like Benny Lewis, a multilingual guy from Ireland, who puts out a blog “Fluent In 3 Months”, they will ignore a claim like that because, well, it can’t possibly be true, can it?  (I’m here to say it is true, and I attribute much of my current multilingual success to his methods.)

7.  Hindsight bias

Hindsight bias is when you look back at failure and say you knew all along that it would occur.    How it effects foreign language learners in adulthood is that they blame themselves or their teachers for their failure, most likely themselves (“I’m just no good at foreign languages”).   What if, unbeknownst to you, you ARE good at foreign languages, but just need the right methods to unlock that potential?

If you take a look at these cognitive biases, they have one thing in common with regards to foreign language learning in adulthood–you need to focus on the decision-making process when you start learning a language and use the knowledge that cognitive science now affords us so that you are working WITH how your brain more naturally works rather than AGAINST it.

It’s like the story of the ant and the elephant told by Vince Poscente in his book with that title.   An ant is in the desert and senses that the oasis he seeks is to the east, and makes the wise decision to go in that direction.   However, an owl swoops down and gives him some advice:    the ant may THINK it is going towards the east, but unbeknownst to the ant, he is sitting on an elephant that is currently going towards the WEST.   Unless the ant can figure out how to get the elephant to change direction, the ant will never achieve his goal of getting to the oasis.

In a similar way, we may WANT to achieve the desired goal of becoming fluent in another foreign language, but if our methods are like a stubborn elephant that is taking us in the opposite direction, we will never achieve our goal.   So the goal of the book Becoming Fluent is to teach us how to work with the elephant, i.e., the human brain, to get it going towards our goal in the most effective and efficient manner!