Learning Languages is a Subconscious Process - The Linguist

Learning Languages is a Subconscious Process

Language learning is essentially a subconscious process. I saw these words in a LinkedIn post from a group I belong to that includes language teachers. The topic of discussion was how grammar instruction and error correction don’t have as much impact on language learning success as is traditionally imagined.


This is a concept  that leading language acquisition expert Stephen Krashen has demonstrated through a lot of research, but is still challenged by many teachers. If teachers can’t be engaged in error correction and in teaching grammar, then what they are supposed to do? It is not surprising that there is resistance to this concept on the part of teachers, even though the research supports it.


Enjoyable Engagement with the Language

Learning Languages is a Subconscious ProcessIn my own case, I have found that much of my learning takes place subconsciously. I can tell, when reading new lessons, articles or books at LingQ, that I have fewer and fewer unknown words, and my “known words” count just keeps growing. As a result, of course, I understand more and more of what I am reading and listening to.  But I acquire many of these new words and phrases largely without knowing how I learn them. Saving words and phrases obviously helps. Occasionally reviewing these saved words and phrases or “LingQs” also helps. Yet the increase in my “known words” count is much greater than the number of words I save. Obviously I learn most of these words incidentally or subconsciously.


I have never found it satisfying or useful to spend large amounts of time on the deliberate study of word lists, even using memory systems like Anki or the like. I do some of it, but not much. Just as with the occasional review of grammar, these are minor parts of my learning. The bulk of my language acquisition is more of a subconscious process, a bi-product of my enjoyable engagement with compelling content, reading and listening and eventually speaking.


That’s not to say that those activities can’t help. They do help, to the extent that they represent exposure to the language. They are activities that can help us notice things, but they are not the main means by which we learn a language because, as was said in this post, language learning is largely a subconscious activity. I have always found that if I expose myself to enough of the language, in a deliberate way, all of a sudden I can start to say things. I think this makes language learning quite different from learning math or learning science, which is probably a more deliberate process of learning.


My Experience with Romanian

Learning Languages is a Subconscious ProcessI was reminded of the importance of subconscious learning, and things that influence our subconscious learning, by my experience with Romanian. During the period when I was learning Romanian, in preparation for a pending business trip to Romania, I was able to connect with tutors in the country via Skype. On the Internet I was able to find information about Romania, about its history and place names I had seen in history books like Bessarabia, Bukovina, as well as about Romania’s relations with Russia, Austro-Hungary, Turkey and other neighbours. This was all in Romanian, mostly with accompanying audio, and I was able to study this fascinating content at LingQ. In fact,  I was able to transfer myself in time and place and  immerse myself in a Romanian environment without leaving home. This is the modern connected world we live in.


After one month of input based study at LingQ, I started speaking with two tutors in Romanian. I was able to start speaking in Romanian much earlier than I ever did in Czech, Russian or Korean. It was much easier because about 70% of the vocabulary is similar to  Italian vocabulary, and another 20% is similar to Slavic vocabulary. Words would stick in my brain sooner, and I could even guess at the meaning of many new words. As I always say, vocabulary, the acquisition of words and phrases, is the key task in language learning.


My first two tutors were both women, neither of whom were trained teachers. We had enjoyable discussions about what they were doing, what I did during the day, my plans to visit Romania or whatever came to mind. At the end of each 30-minute discussion, I would get a list of some of the phrases that I used incorrectly or where I struggled to find the word. These I would import into LingQ and study, saving these words and phrases.


This was valuable learning input for me, since it was content with a high degree of resonance. These were things that I had tried to say, and had not expressed correctly. I didn’t learn all the words right away nor all the phrases. I just became more aware of them and I think I noticed them better when I next came across them in other contexts.


Power to the Student

Learning Languages is a Subconscious ProcessAt a certain point, I wanted to step up my Romanian speaking exposure and decided to add yet another tutor, this time a man. I thought I should also be speaking to a man because the intonation might be different. This is very much the case in some languages, like Japanese.This new tutor was a trained teacher and being a trained teacher, he insisted, at least initially, on doing things his way. So, first of all, he wanted to correct all of my mistakes on the fly. He also insisted on using English to explain. Often when he used words or expressions in Romanian,  he would translate into English, just to make sure I understood.


I pleaded with him “look, if I don’t understand I’ll tell you. In the meantime, just use Romanian and don’t correct all of my mistakes, put them in my report so that I can study them later on”. His reply was, “you know, really you should speak in very short sentences. For the first few limit yourself to simple sentences, like ‘my name is Steve’, and then, after a while, we can move to more complicated sentences.”


I insisted that I just wanted to talk naturally and have an interesting conversation. He reluctantly agreed but then felt that we needed to choose a theme. “Why don’t we pretend that you are in a store and we can talk about the different items that you would find in the store?” I replied that I didn’t want to have an artificial discussion or engage in role playing about buying things in a store. I just wanted to have a natural conversation. I  wanted to use simple sentences, complicated sentences, present tense, past tense, future tense, whatever came to my mind during the discussion. He could then save up my mistakes and send them to me in a report. So, again with great reluctance, he agreed; although, he still occasionally interjected with English.


To be honest, he eventually came around. He was a very nice guy with an interesting job as editor of educational magazines and books in Romania. We had many interesting conversations. This experience made me realize again the power of the Internet. I could engage a tutor on Skype. It was my nickel and I could decide how the time was going to be used. If the tutor didn’t accommodate me, I could find another tutor. But in a classroom I am powerless. The teacher can impose role playing, tell me whether to speak in short sentences or long sentences, and basically run things however he/she wants.




Most language teaching pedagogical theory doesn’t accept the fact that language is a subconscious process. Rather, the assumption is that deliberate teaching and study is the only path to language acquisition. Thanks to the work of Stephen Krashen and others, we now have another option, one that recognizes the subconscious or incidental nature of much of the process of language acquisition. One that is based on using compelling content, selected by the learner, for listening, reading and speaking.

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7 comments on “Learning Languages is a Subconscious Process

Name *Vlad Kirillov

Hi, Steve. I just want to thank you. Now I know that one of the most great and important things of my life is that I found your channel. I’ve been learning english approximately for 4 years and 8 months untill I found it. The last 6 months (the time I’m subscribed on your channel) gave me 10 times more results than the first 4 years. At first I could understend only about 55-60% of what you were saying. Now I understend everything and I can say now that english is my second language. I have german at scool and after 6 years I knew nothing. Three months ago I started to learn german at LingQ and I already can understend relatively a lot. I also became interested in chinese and also learn it at LingQ about a months. I’ve never thought in my life that I would do this. I also gave up playing computer games 10 hours a day, now I have goals and it definitely changed my life. It’s all because of You, Steve


I think that about 80% of language learning is passive/unstructured. But the other 20% is active (grammar study and active vocabulary acquisition). You certainly can’t learn a language without a lot of passive study (reading, listening, engaging in unstructured conversation), but on the other hand, if you’re only getting a couple of hours of language lessons a week, doesn’t it make sense to focus on the active part during those lessons, and then learn passively on your own time?

I certainly agree with you that passive knowledge is the foundation on which active knowledge is built, but then again, you do need to activate that passive knowledge somehow, don’t you? For instance, my grandmother moved to Belgrade (Serbia) in her late 30s, and she lived there for the next 40 years or so, until her death. Her passive knowledge of Serbian (reading and listening) was excellent. However, her speaking never progressed beyond the pidgin stage. Had she received proper grammar instruction, I imagine that all that passive knowledge would have become activated. But she never did receive such instruction, and so she understood everything she heard/read, but she never learned how to speak…

Name *connie

I’m really enjoying your blog and videos. I appreciate your attitude that listening and reading is foundational core of language learning. I decided to learn Portuguese last June and started with some beginner material after about of month I started watching Portuguese tv shows with Portuguese subtitles. Some so called language experts made fun of me, but when I realized how many similar sounding words to english exist in Portuguese, it opened the language to me. I have three Brazilian’s that I trade english for Portuguese. They keep me motivated to keep working hard at the language because I want to be able to communicate with them. Most of my time is spent listening actively and reading. I was stressed about not speaking more, but for me, once I hear the same word enough, its eventually bubbles out. So the speaking has been a gradual process. I too hate skype lessons where most of it is in english with some Portuguese dissected and studied. I also hate role playing, I feel so silly! Its fascinating how language is learned almost subconsciously. My brain apparently is busy processing what its heard. Many times a new word will pop in my mind. I’ve tried many forced learning techniques like spaced repetition flash cards, or artificially learning 10 words a day. But if its not presented in some meaningful context, I forget it. Please continue making videos. I really enjoy them.

David Carter

Hi Steve and Irene; I’m a language teacher. The teacher has a group of perhaps twenty 12-year-olds and 2 or 3 one-hour lessons each week in which to teach them the language from scratch. THIS IS AN ABSOLUTELY IMPOSSIBLE SITUATION. The only solution is that of your Romanian teacher – to break the language down into small chunks which you can cover in a 45-minute lesson. You can get through the text-book in this way, but teaching a language in small chunks simply doesn’t work in the long run.
Irene is spot-on in her comments about the right time to use teachers. Students should spend only 20% of their time with the teacher. The other 80% should be on their own or together with their parents exposing their brains to the language via LINGQ.

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