An Interview with Andrew Cohen
(Published in Learner Autonomy in Language Learning (https://ailarenla.org/lall), December 2012)
Lorna Carson, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland
Lorna: Andrew, your updated book on strategies in second language learning appeared last year (Cohen 2011). It’s quite a substantial volume, and gets very good reviews! Could you give us a brief overview of its contents to start off our discussion?
Andrew: The book looks at what it takes to achieve long-term success in languages beyond the first language. My goal is to disentangle a morass of terminology to help readers discover what language strategies are and how they can enhance learner performance. The book has both a research emphasis – to report on research in the field – and a more practical one at the same time, to offer suggestions for teachers in how to support learners and for learners as well in how to be better at their language learning. In that regard, I revisit the issue of strategy instruction and possible avenues for making it available to learners. I do my best to show how important it is to find strategies that are appropriate for the given learner on the given task. The book gives examples of specific strategies supplied by actual learners, mostly drawn from a website featuring these strategies in the learning of Spanish grammar. I include chapters on how multilinguals verbalize their thoughts during language learning and use, as well as on strategies that learners use in test-taking contexts. The main thing is that the volume is fully revised and substantially rewritten. I reworked every chapter in this second edition, with material either updated or replaced.
Lorna: Now, you describe this book as a ‘salad-bowl’, an interesting metaphor to describe your approach to the diversity of the topic, but with a focus on the adult learner as the ‘main ingredient’. Could you tell us a little more about this focus on long-term adult success in language learning?
Andrew: Since I myself give professional talks in five languages (Hebrew, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and English), I am fascinated by the topic of what it takes to be truly competent in a language over the span of a lifetime. My sense is that most language learners peak early and then attrition sets in. In fact, most don’t achieve adequate skill in a language in order to have that language be the vehicle for a professional talk. So the question is what determines that level of success. In part it is neural hard-wiring. In part it depends on the language being learned and the other languages the person knows. In part it is the context. But I would contend that success depends to a large degree on the ability of learners: (1) to tap their learning style preferences and stretch a bit if the task takes them out of their comfort zone (e.g., a largely auditory task for a visual person), (2) to draw effectively on their language strategy repertoire; (3) to be cognizant of their motivation from moment to moment and to make ongoing changes if necessary to keep the motivation high.
Lorna: You are also concerned with research methods in this volume, and single out the ‘verbal report’ as a particularly fruitful approach. Is this an approach that has been under-used?
Andrew: For many years, verbal report was underutilized. Fortunately, that is no longer the case. Today there are many more studies that include verbal report in one of its many manifestations as a way to collect think-aloud and introspective data during task performance, as well as retrospective data once the task has been completed. These data can provide an important window onto processes contributing to success of failure in task performance.
Lorna: The interest in strategies in language learning has grown enormously in recent years, but you have been working in the area since the 1970s. What are the major shifts in direction or focus that you have experienced?
Andrew: It is great to feel part of an ever growing number of researchers in the area of language learner strategies. A major achievement was the volume that Ernesto Macaro and I edited in 2007 on language learner strategies research. It was an outgrowth of a 3-day ingathering at Oxford University of language strategy experts from around the world. I think the academic climate had to be propitious for that meeting to have taken place and for the participants to collaborate with each other to produce a fine state-of-the-art volume. The existence of this volume paved the way for the rewriting of my strategies book that came out last year. What are the major shifts in the field? One is to be impatient with truly fuzzy definitions of ‘strategies’. Another is to fine-tune different domains of strategy work, such as in listening comprehension strategies or strategies for learning and performing pragmatics. Another is to realize that learners may embrace different strategies depending upon the phase of language learning and use that they are in at the given moment in their lives.
Lorna: Finally, you are in phased retirement now – which means you are probably busier than ever! What kind of things are you working on at the moment?
Andrew: Right now I am studying Mandarin, my 13th language, and also studying myself studying the language. I am tackling this difficult language at an advanced age (68) to see what is easy and difficult for me. I intend to write one or more papers on this. I would like to see a website with strategies for learners of Chinese, but I realize it will take some time to collect enough fine-tuned, empirical data from learners in order to make the construction of such a website feasible.
Lorna: Thank you Andrew, we wish you the very best in all your activities!
Cohen, A. D. (2011). Strategies in Learning and Using a Second Language. Harlow: Longman Applied Linguistics / Pearson Education.