Notes on “Becoming Fluent”

Adults can learn foreign languages easier than children!

JJ Wong
Learning Languages
12 min readJan 30, 2020


“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it wouldn’t seem wonderful at all.”

— Michelangelo

I just read Becoming Fluent — How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language by Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz.

It claims that adults can learn foreign languages easier than children.


By acknowledging that while children possess some advantages, adults can compensate and surpass children’s innate language learning abilities through specific mindsets and techniques.

This book is not perfect. Nevertheless, there are a lot of great insights which I will apply to my own language learning.

Below are my notes.


The two terrible language learning myths

The biggest myth to learning a foreign language is this false belief — “I am too old to learn a foreign language.”

Many adults acquire fluency and proficiency in foreign languages, so it is definitely possible.

The second worst thing regarding language learning is to rely on rote memory alone.

Rote memory is trying to learn through mindless repetition — without trying to understand any underlying principles, meanings and connections behind what I’m doing.

Rote memorization is a skill that declines with age, and it isn’t really effective in the first place.

Practice is incredibly important, but only when it is deliberate practice. In other words, practice is only useful if I can understand what, how, and why I’m practicing something in a certain way.

Children have two advantages, but who cares?!

Children have two advantages when it comes to language learning:

  • Children are great at acquiring a native accent in the target language.
  • Children don’t have as much language anxiety. They don’t have self-defeating thoughts about learning languages. They aren’t afraid to make mistakes and try again.

While children have some advantages, the book argues that these advantages aren’t really that important. In fact, adults can compensate for these advantages fairly easily.

  • It is harder for adults to acquire native accents — so what?

A big reason why I learn languages is to express myself. A native accent may be nice, but it is not essential. Accents are indicators of background and personal history. In other words, if I didn’t grow up in the culture of my target language, it makes sense that my accent would not be the same as a native speaker or person from that culture.

Moreover, accents can be an asset. They can help me establish my own identity in a foreign language.

In fact, as long as others can understand me and communicate with me, my accent is simply “charming”.

Accents (and pronunciation) are important for communication and understanding, but I don’t need to worry about not having the exact same accent as a native speaker. Even native speakers from different parts of the country may have different accents. It’s normal.

Everybody has their own accent and way of speaking — this is called an idiolect.

Am I learning a language to sound like somebody else?

Or am I learning a language to express myself in a new way?

I don’t want to sound like a native speaker. I want to sound like me!

I am proud of my own accent. It means that I speak other languages.

“To capture how someone speaks is to capture them.”

— Meryl Streep

  • Children don’t have as much language anxiety and self-defeating thoughts.

Why can’t I also learn to be okay with mistakes?

Mistakes are normal — Nobody is perfect.

Nobody has perfect mastery of their native language either.

It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to feel bad.

It’s okay to try again.

If I fail, it doesn’t mean I’m stupid. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad person.

It just means that I have a new opportunity to try again.

Children don’t worry about whether they will be fluent, they don’t worry about getting a good job, making a lot of money, looking stupid…

Children want to have fun. That’s the key. That’s why children learn so quickly. Children are focused on the process, not the outcome.

Having fun is more important than being perfect.

Why can’t I just have fun?

Adult advantages (yeah!)

As an adult, I’ve already mastered one language — my native one.

I can use this to boost my confidence. I’ve learned a language, why can’t I do it again?

The biggest advantage I have as an adult is that I can think about my own learning. I understand myself better.

“Know Yourself”

— Greek Proverb

I like people. I like music. I like football. That’s me.

I can use my knowledge of my likes and dislikes, my strengths and weaknesses. I can use this knowledge to take responsibility for my own learning.

Nobody is forcing me to learn.

I’m the learner — I am responsible for my own learning.

I’m the learner — I have the power to learn.

Try hard not to try hard (?)

Learning a language can be hard and frustrating. I don’t want to admit that I suck at learning, or that I’m stupid. And yet, sometimes, I purposely try to fail.

I sabotage my own attempts at success.

Maybe I’m speaking well. Suddenly, I worry about my pronunciation and grammar.


I’ll become anxious, and I won’t be able to speak at all.

Why do I do this? I want to succeed, but why do I fail on purpose?

Becoming Fluent suggests that failing on purpose, “self-handicapping” is normal. Nobody likes to think of themselves in a negative way.

Even professionals sabotage themselves. When Tennis star Martina Navratilova was beaten by a young Steffi Graf, she admitted:

“I was afraid to play my best…[I wondered] whether they were better than me…I didn’t give those matches 100 percent.”

— Martina Navratilova

Martina Navratilova is a tennis champion. She is considered one of the best tennis players of all time. Yet even she failed on purpose.


She explains:

“I was scared to find out if they could beat me when I”m playing my best because, if they can, then I am finished.”

— Martina Navratilova

It’s fear. The fear of failure.

If I purposely try to fail, then I always have a good excuse.

I can say, “I wasn’t trying my best.”


Because it hurts less. But it’s just an excuse. I’m afraid.

“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself.”

— Paulo Coelho

The good news is that the past does not predict the future. Maybe I failed at learning languages in the past.

Does that mean I’ll fail for the rest of my life?

No way.

What did I learn from my failures?

How can I be better?

If I learn from my experiences, I’m not doomed to fail forever.

Getting in the zone

If I want to learn, I have to find the learning method that works for me. I am unique, and everyone is different in their own way. I have different strengths and weaknesses to other people.

Why is this important?

Because the “perfect” learning method does not exist.

A learning method might work for somebody else, but it might not work for me. That’s okay.

I must be responsible for understanding myself (knowing myself) and I must take responsibility for my own learning.

After all, nobody can learn for me.

It’s my life.

Another important idea from cognitive science is the “Zone of Proximal Development”. This is a fancy way to say — I learn best when something is interesting, enjoyable, and a little bit more challenging than my current level.

If something is too difficult, I will give up. I won’t learn anything.

If something is too easy, I won’t care or pay attention. I won’t learn anything.

If something is just a little bit challenging, it’s perfect.

I’ll be interested. I’ll try my best. I’ll know that I can improve.


A key idea in the book is “self-efficacy”.

Self-efficacy: “a person’s belief in her ability to accomplish something; to perform a task, reach a goal, or overcome an obstacle.”

— Albert Bandura

Confidence increases by developing mastery in the desired area.

Confidence is developed through action, not emotion.

I had it wrong for most of my life — I thought I had to first feel confident, and then start doing.

Nope — Act first, gain confidence through more action and practice. The better I get at something, the more fun it will be.

If I want to be good at basketball, I can’t just think about basketball.

I have to play more and practice playing basketball.

If I want to be good at music, I can’t just think about music.

I have to play more and practice playing music.

If I want to be good at language, I can’t just think about language.

I have to play more and practice playing with language.

Learn to swim by swimming

I can’t learn to swim by swimming on the floor — I have to jump in the water.

I can’t learn to drive a car by watching car videos — I have to drive a real car.

I can’t learn a language by only practicing in a safe environment with textbooks and class lessons — I have to use the language in the real world.

If I only practice with no risk, it won’t train me for the real thing.

How can I transform what I know into what I do?

According to cognitive science, there are two mechanisms for transferring knowledge from “knowing” into “doing”:

  • Low-road transfer (focuses on outcome) : memorizing phrases, expressions, words, etc.

Low-road transfer is often scripted. It’s easier, and it requires a lot of repetition. Unfortunately, it doesn’t require a lot of thinking on my own. I can use it to help me learn certain phrases and expressions, but I might not understand how to use these phrases in different contexts.

Low-road transfer emphasizes outcome over process. It focuses on the quick fix. Using low-road transfer, I can start talking right now.

But I might not understand anything I’m saying.

  • High-road transfer (focuses on process): seeing the patterns and connections, thinking about meaning

High-road transfer is the more powerful type of knowledge transfer. It involves seeing patterns and connections between new things and previous knowledge. High-road transfer takes more time and effort. It’s not easy.

High-road transfer emphasizes process over outcome. It focuses on the long run. Using high-road transfer, it might be more difficult for me in the beginning. I might need to use more time and effort. In the long-run, I will be able to use my new language in a variety of contexts.

In other words, low-road transfer leads to improvement in the short run. High-road transfer leads to improvement in the long run.

Both can be used together.

Why is this important? Because it takes time to learn a language. There are no secrets. There are no shortcuts.

It will take time.

I can lower the time by looking for connections. I can’t just repeat what my teachers say. I have to figure out how to understand the language from my own knowledge and perspective.

I have to connect what I learn with what I already know. It’s not easy. But nobody can do it for me.

Only I can.

My brain is a liar

When I listen to my native language, it feels slow and easy to understand.

When I listen to a foreign language, everybody talks too fast.

How is this possible?

It’s not — it’s an illusion.

For example Becoming Fluent states that the rate of speed (words per minute) in English and Japanese is about the same.

However, most English speakers would think that Japanese speakers talk faster than them.

At the same time, most Japanese speakers would think that English speakers talk faster than them too.

What’s happening here?

According to Becoming Fluent, human brains create a powerful perceptual illusion when listening to their native language — “it sounds like the speaker is pausing slightly after every word she utters. But. Nobody. Really. Talks. Like. This. Do. They?”

As a native speaker of English, when I listen to English, my brain transforms the sounds into individual words. I can hear everything clearly. It feels like I have superpowers — I can slow down time.

How can I do this?

Because I’ve had a lot of practice listening to English in my life!

I’ve listened to English for many, many years!

More importantly, I didn’t listen to just one type of English. I didn’t just learn English by listening to one English speaker. I listened to many different kinds of people speaking many different kinds of English.

Although I am a native speaker in English, I am most familiar with American and Canadian English. Two months ago, I went to Scotland and England, and I couldn’t understand everything.

Why is this important? Because even though I’m a “native speaker” of English, I did not grow up listening to the kinds of English spoken in Scotland and England.

In other words, I didn’t understand because I didn’t have as much practice the English of the UK. It’s not because I don’t speak English. It’s not because I’m stupid.

This is important because the same principle happens in any skill that I want to learn — The better I get at the skill, the easier it is for my brain to slow things down and understand things clearly.

For example, I remember when I first started learning how to ride a bicycle.

Everything happened so fast — There were so many things that I had to think about:

Sit on the bicycle. Pedal. Don’t pedal too fast. Don’t pedal too hard.


Don’t pedal too slowly. Don’t move around too much.


Don’t hold the handlebars too tightly. Don’t hold the handlebars too lightly.

Look forward.

Fall! etc.

Now, everything is different. Riding a bicycle feels calm and easy. I just know what to do.

Why? Because I have more practice.

Also, it’s much easier to ride my own bicycle than to ride my friend’s bicycle.


When I ride my own bicycle, I’ve had so much practice that I know everything about it. I know that it’s easier to turn right than to turn left. I know that the brakes on the left side are better than the ones on the right…

When I ride my friend’s bicycle. It’s not easy in the beginning. Everything is different. It’s like a whole new skill. But soon, I understand how to ride…

This is important because it’s not enough to have just one type of practice. I can’t learn a language just by listening to only one person. If I do, then I might become fluent in the language — but only the specific language of that one person!

Maybe other people who speak that language will use different expressions and speak at different speeds, with different accents, rhythms and intonations.

I don’t know.

It’s important to have a lot of interesting, varied input.

If I want to learn how to “slow down” the speed of a language when I’m listening, I must listen to the language in a variety of different contexts. I can’t just use “perfect” study videos and textbook materials.

I have to listen to the “real language”.

Real language isn’t perfect.

Native speakers stop. They stutter. They forget words. They speak too fast. They speak too slow. They use expressions. They use slang. They use bad grammar. They mispronounce their own language.

This is all normal.

This is all real.

Am I trying to learn a perfect “textbook” language, or do I want to learn the “real” language that normal people use in their daily life?

If I want to learn a language. I have to practice in a variety of different ways.

I have to be okay with the fact that language isn’t perfect. I am not going to understand everything. That’s okay.

I’m going to try again.

After all, that’s how I became fluent in my native language.

Science, good — Action, better

While Becoming Fluent isn’t perfect (perfection doesn’t exist), it has many powerful encouraging ideas that I can use in my own language learning.

I like the fact that the book is very scientific and it has a lot of research to support its ideas. In the future, I can use that research to study more about the science of learning languages.

Unfortunately, the book is a bit general and “high-level”. It doesn’t have a lot of practical advice that all language learners can use. Luckily, there are many great books and resources out there that talk about language learning tips and techniques.

The main thing I learned from the book is that while the science of learning languages is useful, taking action is even better.

I must start learning — now.


“Although you have reached the end of this book, we hope this is just the beginning of your foreign language journey.

We will have achieved our goal if you now think about language learning as being well within your reach.

By letting your life experiences enrich your language learning, your language learning will in turn enrich your life.

It’s been true for us, and we hope it will be true for you.”

—Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz

(Authors of “Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language”)



JJ Wong
Learning Languages

English instructor at the University of Toronto passionate about languages, tech, and sales.