Written by Richard Roberts, a Foreign Service officer, and Roger Kreuz, a professor of psychology, Becoming Fluent is a book that connects cognitive research to language learning to help adults learn a foreign language.
While its audience is language learners, teachers of English who work with adults can benefit a good deal from reading this book too. It’s extremely well-researched but also very interesting; the authors are great at mixing funny anecdotes and interesting analogies in with the more academic portions.
For ESL teachers who have done their MATESL degrees, you’ll get a refresher on a lot of contents from your courses: the Zone of Proximal Development, scaffolding, fossilization, interlanguage, and (an interesting view of) the critical period hypothesis are all here. If you’re an ESL teacher without any formal training, this book provides great explanations of all of those ideas.
The following is a list of things that I thought were interesting or useful for teachers of English or any foreign language:
1. Rote memorization is bad (for adults)
Working memory and the ability to rote memorize decline with age, so certain memorization drills will leave older students frustrated. High school and college aged students might be able to plow through lists of vocabulary words (although this alone isn’t recommended either), but their older classmates are better served employing other methods.
2. Idiomatic expressions are good
Learning idiomatic expressions is sometimes seen as a more advanced skill, but the authors argue that they are very effective tools for learning language. For example, the phrase “kick the bucket” is sometimes considered an “advanced” phrase, even if students know each of the individual (relatively simple) words. But joining simple words together to make an idiomatic expression is easy and can be done much earlier in language learning than some teachers think, which gives students even more linguistic material to work with at little cognitive cost.
3.Top-down world knowledge is helpful
One theme stressed throughout the book is that an adult’s experience of the world is his or her greatest asset in learning a language. “Schema” is a word used a lot in language learning, and it’s referenced here as well. Adults can’t rote memorize as well as children, but they are very good at making connections because they’ve got so much experience to make connections to. As a teacher, encourage older students to make those connections.
4. First languages are tools
Similar to the previous point, the knowledge that students already have is their most powerful asset in learning a new language, and that includes knowledge of their first language. Cognates are very helpful for students if they are learning a language that has similar roots as theirs. But even knowledge of grammar in their own language is very helpful for learning English. Learn about the grammar of the L1 of the students you teach and see if you can help them make connections.
5. Don’t underestimate the effort required
The authors of the book make the point that adults undertaking language learning need to know how much of a daunting task it is. There is a great chapter called “Set Yourself Up for Success,” which addresses how adults should approach language learning. As teachers, we can help our students with this by reminding them how much time and effort it takes to learn a language, but also encouraging them by showing them how far they’ve come.
6. Distribute learning, don’t cram
Several studies are cited in this book that show that distributed learning is much better than cramming. Cramming doesn’t allow the information to soak in, whereas constant “fertilization” of material makes it permanent. We usually think of this concept on the student’s side: cramming for a test. But teachers can learn from this too: it might be better to keep coming back to certain material rather than teaching it intensely for a week and then setting it aside until the final exams.
7. Establish a unique identity
This was an interesting idea. The authors state that sounding like a native speaker should not be a goal for adult language learners, since it’s almost impossible to do. Instead, they should accept their accent (since accents are cool anyway) and even show it off. This can encourage them to speak and interact in the target language even more. Of course, comprehensibility shouldn’t be sacrificed, because people need to understand you. If you’re teaching pronunciation, focus on comprehensibility, and not accent reduction.
8. Learn listening through video
I believe in this completely, and the research in the book backs it up. Listening to language without seeing the person speaking it is hard, even for native speakers. Our brains need to see the person speaking along with the sound. It does crazy things when those signals get crossed (see the McGurk effect later in this post). Key point: use video rather than just audio for your class’s listenings as much as you can. TED Talks > NPR.
9. Learn stock phrases to keep up in conversations
Adult language learners are a little slower than younger learners. Reaction time decreases with age. This can be frustrating if a learner is having a conversation. The book recommends that learners acquire some stock phrases such as “Let me think…” or “Hold on…” This buys the learner some time in conversations and also helps their interlocutor adjust, especially if their interlocutor is American, since we hate silence and waiting for a response. I usually teach a few of these phrases at the beginning of the semester. It really gives students some confidence and assurance in conversations.
10. Learn from a non-native speaker
The authors use a great analogy for this: would you rather be guided up Mt. Everest by someone who has gone up before, or by someone who was born on the top of the mountain and just shouts instructions down to you? The former is a non-native speaker who has learned English, the latter is a native speaker. Learning from a native speaker is obviously not a negative thing, but it can be very beneficial for adult learners to be helped by someone who has already learned English, either a teacher, classmate, spouse, or friend.
11. Manage cognitive overload
Human brains can only do so much at a time. As we get older, we gradually lose the ability to multitask as efficiently. For teachers: don’t throw too much at your students at one time, especially if they need more time to process. Or, alternatively, if what you’re teaching seems too easy for them, add more cognitive load by giving them a time constraint, for example.
Other cool stuff
This book is packed with other cool stuff that I couldn’t mold into teaching tips for this post, but want to share. Check them out:
Legal Doublets – I never realized why sometimes two almost identical words were used in legal writing. It’s because of English’s beautiful mix of Latin and Germanic origins.
Foreign Service Institute – I didn’t know much about the Institute before reading this book. The training, testing, and overall purpose as described in this book is super interesting.
Hermann Ebbinghaus – His studies are referenced a few times in the book. The prototype for bearded, small-glasses-wearing, German turn of the century psychologist.
Encoding Specificity – Why where you study sometimes matters just as much as what you study.