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The quest for fluency

Concordia professor wins prize for book on learning a second language
January 10, 2012
By By Tom Peacock

The Modern Language Association of America (MLA) recently awarded a prize to Concordia Professor Norman Segalowitz for his book, Cognitive Bases of Second Language Fluency, which examines our abilities to learn a language other than our mother tongue.

Norman Segalowitz’s book, Cognitive Bases of Second Language Fluency, studies the process of becoming fluid in a second language from an inter-disciplinary perspective. | Photo by David Ward / lab six and a half
Norman Segalowitz’s book, Cognitive Bases of Second Language Fluency, studies the process of becoming fluid in a second language from an inter-disciplinary perspective. | Photo by David Ward / lab six and a half

The MLA’s Kenneth W. Mildenberger Prize is awarded for an outstanding work in the fields of language, culture, literacy and literature, with strong application to the teaching of languages other than literature.

The association’s selection committee awarded the prize to Segalowitz, calling his book a volume “filled with thoughtful reinterpretations of previous research and new insights on every page that will surely be of interest to teachers and researchers alike.”

Segalowitz is a professor in the Department of Psychology and director of the Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance. Last fall, he was honoured with a Faculty of Arts and Science Dean’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Distinguished Scholarship. NOW asked him to answer a few questions about his award-winning publication.

What made you decide to write Cognitive Bases of Second Language Fluency?
Several years ago, Peter Robinson, an applied linguist, launched an ambitious project to publish a series of books on cognitive science and second-language acquisition. I was invited to be part of the editorial board for this series and to contribute a volume. I could see that the proposed series needed a volume on fluency and, given that my work is in this general area, I agreed to contribute something. My volume is the second in the series.

How did the research for the book fit into your work at Concordia?
The fit was very good. The question our lab has been looking at is why is it generally so difficult for people to achieve a satisfactory level of fluency in a second language. In particular, our work has focused on the cognitive aspects of this topic — on the mental processes that might underlie fluency and barriers to its attainment. This cognitive focus fits in well with the cognitive science orientation of the book series.

Doing the background research for the book was very useful for me. Prior to writing the book, I had not really tried to articulate a comprehensive approach to the problem of second-language fluency; writing this book helped me to do so.

What was it like writing and researching this book?

This is the first book-length work I have written, so the experience was quite new for me and at times very challenging. Initially I thought that it would be straightforward to identify a sequence of seven chapter topics for the book and then write a series of review papers, one for each topic.

Instead, the book seemed to grow as one integrated narrative, and as the book unfolded, I had to revise earlier chapters and re-envision plans for the as-yet-unwritten chapters. At first this was frustrating, but then it became rather fun — somewhat like reading a mystery novel, because I didn’t know how the story would end!

What major discoveries did you make during your research for the book?
For me, a major discovery was just how absolutely essential interdisciplinary collaboration is going to be if we are ever to fully understand barriers to fluency and to do something about them. Researchers in cognitive psychology, applied linguistics, linguistics, sociolinguistics, second-language pedagogy, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy, and other relevant fields tend to work in isolation from one another.

I hope that my book will show researchers in each of these fields that no one field can adequately tackle this topic alone. The book provides a dynamical systems approach (a fixed rule can describe the time dependence of a variable, in this case a subject’s ability to pick up a second language) to second-language fluency that is founded upon a usage-based theory of language acquisition. The book tries to tie together, through this perspective, insights from all the different fields I just mentioned.

What does winning this award mean to you?
I feel very honoured. I was totally taken by surprise. I had no idea that the book had even been nominated. The ideas expressed in the book are the result of work with students over many decades and discussions with many, many colleagues worldwide, including quite a few here at Concordia. I see the award as a form of recognition of the potential of the ideas that have emerged from all these contacts and collaborations. I hope that this award will encourage other second-language researchers to consider this approach to barriers to fluency and that this will result in new forms of interdisciplinary collaboration.

Related links:
•    More on Norman Segalowitz  
•    Concordia’s Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance
•    The Modern Language Association of America


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