Learning Languages is a Subconscious Process
Learning languages 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 are they 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
In 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, or even using memory systems like Anki or the like. I especially like to use our LingQ activities to review new words and phrases before and after studying a lesson. But, 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
I 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
At 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.