The 2-Minute Thought: Becoming Fluent. . . in Flemish, Vietnamese, or Another Language

It’s a long journey to learn a foreign language.  You go from hearing speech as a stream of unintelligible sound to eventually being able to identify distinct units of meaning.  You start to use those units in your own speech, but find yourself bumping up against new limitations even as your expressive power grows.

Children seem to acquire new language without any effort at all, but for adults, it’s a different story.  And yet, more than a few experts think that adults may be better than children at learning foreign languages. 

The book, Becoming Fluent, by Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz, two cognitive psychologists who focus on language acquisition, is all about how adults can use the cognitive advantages they have over children when it comes to learning a new language.

Adults cannot memorize things as easily as children.  They also will never be able to be mimic sounds as well as young children can.  (In fact, the authors say it probably is not a realistic goal for most adults to achieve native pronunciation – though having an accent does not impede fluency). 

But the good news is that adults know a lot more than children about the way people learn and think.  Adults are much better than children at filling in missing information in different kinds of situations – a critical language ability.  Adults understand context.  They understand sarcasm.  They know the rules of engagement in a conversation.  All of this is very encouraging. 

But reading this book also makes you realize how hard it is to acquire a new language – and how easy it is to underestimate the required effort. 

As cognitive psychologists, Roberts and Kreuz understand that people are not that good at setting realistic goals.  People are good at picturing how great things will be once they accomplish a goal, but they are bad at estimating how much effort, time or money it will take to get there.  People are overconfident, fall prey to “planning fallacy,” and sometimes use rules of thumb that don’t work.

The thing is, to reach fluency, you need to know how hard it is to reach fluency.  The U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI), which is famous for its School of Language Studies, rates a person’s language proficiency on a scale from 0 to 5, where 0 is no proficiency and 5 is equivalent to the abilities of a well-educated, articulate native speaker.  

It’s easy for a new language learner to have a vague notion of eventually reaching Level 5 -- but that’s a very tough hurdle.  Some native speakers cannot speak their own language at Level 5.  And the authors remind us that a person with a master’s degree in a foreign language is probably a Level 3 speaker – one who still has some language limitations, but nonetheless can be considered “fluent.”  Level 3 is not easy.  At the Foreign Service Institute, only 60% of students succeed in reaching Level 3 in the time allotted to them (which depends on the difficulty of their target language).  And these are students who are in class for 4 to 5 hours a day and whose full-time job is to learn their language.

This is not to say you will not reach Level 5 yourself eventually.  It is to say that it might be helpful to set a more realistic near-term goal and come to terms with what fluency means to you.  In fact, the authors say, “Speaking a language at Level 1 is an appropriate goal for many adult language learners.”