07 Nov 2013

Standard Teaching Practices Can Hinder Language Learning

For best results, bypass mind and head directly to brain

A comedy staple often used by sitcom writers is a scenario involving sleep-learning. The protagonist hopes to develop a specific skill or expertise while slumbering, such as improved vocabulary or learning a new language, but will inevitably experience a mix-up with the learning material and come away a master of the loom, or with advanced knitting skills.

However, a study from Cambridge University into ‘unconscious learning’ is far from an examination of the comedy-of-errors that ensues in such situations.

Dr John Williams at the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, in collaboration with Dr Janny Leung from the University of Hong Kong, has been looking at ‘implicit language learning’ that most often occurs in childhood.

It has long been recognised that children can pick up on the complexities of a language in their early years when required of them. However, the same cannot be said for adults attempting to learn a second language.

The experts wanted to examine whether difficulties arise because implicit language learning is not generally accessed by older learners who are getting to grips with a second language, or whether the way in which language is formally taught in a classroom fails to take full advantage of the process.

Participants of the study were taught an artificial language. Tests were then conducted to see how much of their newly acquired language was picked up through the formal teaching processes, and how much was unconsciously figured out by their brain recognising certain patterns and processing it as ‘sounding right’.

But how do you test for such an ephemeral process? In this situation, a certain degree of subterfuge is required. The participants were initially taught explicit language rules. But unknown to them, they were presented with situations where some hidden rules also applied. The researchers then measured how many of the hidden rules were implicitly picked up on.

Dr Williams said: “We found significantly above-chance selection of sentence constructions that were ‘grammatically correct’ according to the hidden pattern. Yet, the participants had no awareness of what they had learned or how. Moreover, we were able to show learning of the same material by native speakers of two typologically very different languages, English and Cantonese.”

One interesting finding of the study shows that the mind does not always identify hidden patterns. They can be missed, for instance, if the rules do not normally occur linguistically, such as with a rule that states whether an object makes a sound or not.

“One explanation could be that certain patterns are more accessible to language learning processes than others. Perhaps our brains are built equipped to expect certain patterns, or perhaps they process some patterns better than others,” added Dr Williams.

Importantly, what the study has shown is that the unconscious learning processes work well when a learner’s attention is directed to the part of the sentence that contains the hidden pattern. Rules regarding other elements of sentence construction are then subconsciously gleaned when attention is directed.

Dr Williams said: “In a teaching situation, merely teaching the rules of a language may not be the only answer. Instead, using tasks that focus attention on the relevant grammatical forms in language could help learners access unconscious learning pathways in the brain. This would greatly enhance the speed of acquisition of a second language.”

But for those yet to achieve a Zen-like state of enlightenment that allows the brain to bypass the conscious mind, it seems that the arduous conjugation of verbs and rote learning of noun phrases may still be on the cards.


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