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January 18, 2016, Vol. 61, No. 3, Article 5
© 2016 American Psychological Association
An Interdisciplinary Approach to
Foreign Language Learning: Myths and
Strategies for Success
A Review of
Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a
Foreign Language
by Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015. 226 pp. ISBN 978-0-262-029230.
Reviewed by
Jeanette Altarriba , Stephanie A. Kazanas
Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language is many
things: a foreign language coach, a cognitive science primer, and a motivational resource.
At its core, it is designed to place second language instruction within the context of
interdisciplinary work spanning many areas of research, including psychology, linguistics,
and philosophy. The authors, Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz, did that and more.
The volume is organized in a way that encourages its audience toward current and future
success. Roberts and Kreuz begin by describing myths surrounding second language
acquisition, particularly with regard to adult learners. For example, many of us believe that
adults cannot acquire foreign languages as easily as young children. This belief is often
confirmed when we meet an adult who has tried to learn a new language, but failed. At the
same time, we’re also more likely to disregard an adult who has succeeded with foreign
language instruction. Roberts and Kreuz remind their readers that plenty of adults
successfully master a new language, and that adult learners have a vast number of
advantages relative to young children. One important advantage is that of transfer. Positive
transfer, as is the case with cognates, can assure even the most apprehensive student that
knowing one language will certainly help them learn another—though the authors astutely
remind their readers to beware of false friends. Another important advantage resides at the
conceptual level of language mastery, where having knowledge and a lifetime of
experiences will assist in mapping a new word onto a well-organized conceptual structure.
Importantly, the strategies and techniques that adults adopt can also have a significant
impact on their progress and overall mastery. Describing these strategies and techniques
within the context of empirical research, theory, and overarching cognitive principles
comprises the majority of this volume (for additional methodology and empirical research,
see Altarriba & Mathis, 1997). At times, the authors describe previous research in great
detail, only to make a subtle connection to foreign language learning, as was the case with
their discussion of the McGurk effect, script errors, and the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon.
At other times, their discussions were both informative and useful, as was the case with
learning theories and strategy formation. Two major strategies discussed throughout the
volume are overlearning and distributed practice. According to the authors, language
learning is facilitated by a great deal of hard work and real effort, contrary to what we might
perceive as a speaker’s natural ability. Spacing this hard work by learning a little bit at a
time, rather than cramming, is also beneficial, as it allows new information to incubate: a
process in which the new language begins to integrate with the more familiar, native
One additional strategy described within the volume, and perhaps the most important, is
that of elaborative processing. Thinking about new words—including those that lack a direct
translation with words in one’s native language—in a meaningful way is far more beneficial
than shallow processing. For example, the self-reference effect described by the authors
details a very robust finding in which life experiences can provide retrieval cues for new
words. Other elaborative strategies include paraphrasing and connecting the new word to
other words. Although these methods certainly reduce the amount of new material that can
be learned each day, deeper and more meaningful processing will ensure better overall
language mastery.
Of great value to their readers, Roberts and Kreuz emphasize the role of culture in foreign
language acquisition (for additional commentary, see Altarriba, 2008). Learning a new
language, along with the culture in which it is spoken, has many advantages. Roberts and
Kreuz note the importance of successful use of pragmatics, as foreign language learners
must master not only a language’s vocabulary, accent and literal meanings, but also its
idioms, colloquialisms, and cultural references. Thus, learners would benefit from
incorporating pragmatics very early on in language instruction, as this will lead to more
natural-sounding dialogue. Moreover, findings from the bilingual literature indicate that the
proper usage of pragmatic elements such as idioms can promote self-understanding and
awareness in clinical settings (Santiago-Rivera, Altarriba, Poll, Gonzalez-Miller, & Cragun,
One oversight in this volume is its terse discussion of the role of word type effects in the
bilingual and multilingual experience. Recent research findings have indicated that
translation difficulty differs across concrete, abstract, and emotion words (Basnight-Brown &
Altarriba, 2015). Moreover, with regards to accurately identifying emotional expressions,
processing speed and accuracy are affected by both the positive-negative valence dimension
and the degree to which the word directly labels an emotional state (Kazanas & Altarriba,
2015). As mentioned by Roberts and Kreuz, negative emotion words are particularly difficult
to master and incorporate into conversational language.
On the other hand, the greatest strength of Becoming Fluent is the inclusion of Roberts’ and
Kreuz’s own foreign language learning experiences. Readers will appreciate reading the
successes and failures of these authors—at times, comically described—because they offer
realistic expectations for adult language learners. Without these personal stories, readers
could certainly assume that the advice offered by experts may not assist such a novice
learner. Instead, readers should rest assured that everyone struggles (often!) when taking
on such an ambitious endeavor. One final piece of advice offered by the authors is that
readers should approach learning with not only a healthy mind and body, but also with a
positive attitude toward the learning process itself. Roberts and Kreuz shine here, as they
inspire their readers to truly embrace the language and culture they have adopted.
This volume is appropriate for a variety of audiences, but ideally it is suited for the novice
foreign language learners looking to adopt new techniques to further their training, as well
as the cognitive psychologist looking to learn new applications for their research. Both of
these audiences will greatly appreciate the expansive list of references and additional notes.
Becoming Fluent is also a very timely volume, with recent findings within the bilingual
literature purporting a variety of cognitive and neurological advantages that accompany
regular use of multiple languages (but see Paap, 2014; von Bastian, Souza, & Gade, 2015,
for challenges to these assertions). Importantly, the empirical research described within the
contents of this volume greatly enhances the work, and it is likely to leave the reader
wanting more.
Altarriba, J. (2008). Expressions of emotion as mediated by context. Bilingualism: Language
and Cognition,11, 165–167.
Altarriba, J., & Mathis, K. M. (1997). Conceptual and lexical development in second
language acquisition. Journal of Memory and Language,36, 550–568.
10.1006/jmla.1997.2493 PsycINFO
Basnight-Brown, D. M., & Altarriba, J. (2015). Multiple translations in bilingual memory:
Processing differences across concrete, abstract, and emotion words. Journal of
Psycholinguistic Research. Advance online publication.
s10936-015-9400-4 PsycINFO
Kazanas, S. A., & Altarriba, J. (2015). Emotion word processing: Effects of word type and
valence in Spanish-English bilinguals. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research. Advance
online publication. PsycINFO
Paap, K. R. (2014). The role of componential analysis, categorical hypothesizing,
replicability and confirmation bias in testing for bilingual advantages in executive
functioning. Journal of Cognitive Psychology,26, 242–255.
20445911.2014.891597 PsycINFO
Santiago-Rivera, A., Altarriba, J., Poll, N., Gonzalez-Miller, N., & Cragun, C. (2009).
Therapists’ views on working with bilingual Spanish-English speaking clients: A
qualitative investigation. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice,40, 436–443. PsycINFO
von Bastian, C. C., Souza, A. S., & Gade, M. (2015). No evidence for bilingual cognitive
advantages: A test of four hypotheses. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
Advance online publication. PsycINFO
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Full-text available
The question whether being bilingual yields cognitive benefits is highly controversial with prior studies providing inconsistent results. Failures to replicate the bilingual advantage have been attributed to methodological factors such as comparing dichotomous groups and measuring cognitive abilities separately with single tasks. Therefore, the authors evaluated the 4 most prominent hypotheses of bilingual advantages for inhibitory control, conflict monitoring, shifting, and general cognitive performance by assessing bilingualism on 3 continuous dimensions (age of acquisition, proficiency, and usage) in a sample of 118 young adults and relating it to 9 cognitive abilities each measured by multiple tasks. Linear mixed-effects models accounting for multiple sources of variance simultaneously and controlling for parents' education as an index of socioeconomic status revealed no evidence for any of the 4 hypotheses. Hence, the authors' results suggest that bilingual benefits are not as broad and as robust as has been previously claimed. Instead, earlier effects were possibly due to task-specific effects in selective and often small samples. Materials: Data:
Full-text available
Historically, the manner in which translation ambiguity and emotional content are represented in bilingual memory have often been ignored in many theoretical and empirical investigations, resulting in these linguistic factors related to bilingualism being absent from even the most promising models of bilingual memory representation. However, in recent years it was reported that the number of translations a word has across languages influences the speed with which bilinguals translate concrete and abstract words from one language into another (Tokowicz and Kroll in Lang Cogn Process 22:727-779, 2007). The current work examines how the number of translations that characterize a word influences bilingual lexical organization and the processing of concrete, abstract, and emotional stimuli. In Experiment 1, Spanish-English bilinguals translated concrete and abstract words with one and more than one translation. As reported by Tokowicz and Kroll, concreteness effects emerged only when words had more than one translation across languages. In Experiment 2, bilinguals translated emotion words with more than one translation. Concreteness effects emerged in both language directions for words with more than one translation, and in the L1-L2 language direction for words with a single translation across languages. These findings are discussed in terms of how multiple translations, specifically for emotion words, might be incorporated into current models of bilingual memory representation.
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Previous studies comparing emotion and emotion-laden word processing have used various cognitive tasks, including an Affective Simon Task (Altarriba and Basnight-Brown in Int J Billing 15(3):310-328, 2011), lexical decision task (LDT; Kazanas and Altarriba in Am J Psychol, in press), and rapid serial visual processing (Knickerbocker and Altarriba in Vis Cogn 21(5):599-627, 2013). Each of these studies has found significant differences in emotion and emotion-laden word processing. The current study investigated this word type distinction using a bilingual sample, to assess emotion and emotion-laden word processing in a bilingual's two languages. Sixty Spanish-English bilinguals performed a masked LDT with positive and negative emotion and emotion-laden word pairs, in either Spanish or English. Overall, the four-way interaction of relatedness, word type, valence, and language was significant. Response times (RTs) to emotion words were significantly faster than RTs to emotion-laden words, but only in English. These results indicate that the emotion/emotion-laden word type distinction may be the most robust in a person's dominant language.
Full-text available
Lexical and conceptual representation in bilingual memory for both novice and expert bilinguals was examined in a series of three experiments. In Experiment 1a, monolingual English speakers learned a set of Spanish–English translations and were then tested using a translation recognition task. Response times to orthographically related foils were longer than response times to unrelated words. Lexical interference was also found to a lesser extent for expert bilinguals. In Experiment 1b, semantically related foils also produced interference, but the interference was greatest for expert bilingual participants. A bilingual version of the Stroop color-word task was used in Experiment 2, and novice and expert bilinguals each demonstrated Stroop effects both within and between languages. The results of all three experiments indicate that both conceptual and lexical links are formed for second language words, even after a single learning session. These results call into question the asymmetrical model of bilingual memory proposed by Kroll and Stewart (1994) which suggests that novice bilinguals rely exclusively on lexical representations when first acquiring a second language.
Full-text available
Kroll andBialystok assert thatmanaging two languages leads to a reorganisation of the neural circuits involved in language and cognitive processing and to bilingual advantages in executive functioning. This commentary documents that bilingual advantages in inhibitory control, switching and monitoring are difficult to replicate. Kroll and Bialystok argue that the use of componential analyses and categorical hypothesising are often responsible for the null results and that these research practices have created a false controversy surrounding the existence of bilingual advantages. An alternative perspective is presented suggesting that the appearance of a steady stream of published reports has been exaggerated because of the frequent use of risky small n’s, a confirmation bias to report positive findings and a reluctance to conduct and report exact replications.
Full-text available
Through semistructured interviews, language switching in therapy was examined with 9 bilingual Spanish and English therapists. Therapists were asked about how and when they switched from one language to another during treatment, as well as the ways in which their clients’ switched languages. After the use of consensual qualitative research methods (C. E. Hill et al., 2005; C. E. Hill, B. J. Thompson, & E. N. Williams, 1997), the results revealed that therapists used language switching as a mechanism to establish trust, bond with clients, and promote disclosure through the use of specific phrases or specific words; particularly, the use of Spanish idiomatic expressions (dichos) served to engage, redirect, and increase client self-understanding and awareness. Therapists reported that their clients switched from English to Spanish when recounting experiences that involved certain emotions (e.g., anger) and represented themselves differently depending on the language they were speaking. Therapists also reported that their clients switched from English to Spanish to improve communication and to connect with them. Future directions for research and implications for training and practice are outlined. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
Full-text available
Comments on an article by Aneta Pavlenko (see record 2008-10370-001). In her thoughtful work regarding various aspects of emotion and emotion related words, the author explores a variety of perspectives on how we might characterize and conceptualize expressions of emotion. It is a work that is quite rich in breadth - one that leads to a variety of different thoughts on this topic, many of which are amenable to experimental exploration. Pavlenko continues to dig deeper into the conceptualization of emotion by discussing the notion of "concept comparability". Pavlenko, models that consider the distributed properties of features across languages, such as the one devised by de Groot and others likely holds more promise in being able to describe the featural, semantic, and conceptual overlap that words share across languages--words that do not seem to have a one-to-one correspondence. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
Becoming Fluent is also a very timely volume, with recent findings within the bilingual literature purporting a variety of cognitive and neurological advantages that accompany regular use of multiple languages (but see Paap
  • Von Bastian
  • Souza
  • Gade
Becoming Fluent is also a very timely volume, with recent findings within the bilingual literature purporting a variety of cognitive and neurological advantages that accompany regular use of multiple languages (but see Paap, 2014; von Bastian, Souza, & Gade, 2015, for challenges to these assertions). Importantly, the empirical research described within the contents of this volume greatly enhances the work, and it is likely to leave the reader wanting more.