Is it really true that we learn languages while we are unconscious? Could this way of language learning be the secret to speeding up the language learning process?
It may sound completely crazy, but recently linguists have stated that implicit language learning (unconscious) is a huge part of learning a second language.
According to an article from the University of Cambridge, “For children, such ‘implicit’ language learning seems to happen spontaneously in the first few years of life; yet, in adulthood, learning a second language is generally far from effortless and has varied success.
So marked is the difference between first- and second-language learning – at least when it takes the form of classroom learning – it might suggest that implicit learning makes no significant contribution to learning a second language. Or it may indicate that typical foreign language teaching doesn’t take full advantage of the process.”
The true challenge now for linguists is to figure out when, where and how implicit learning may be taking place. How can you really decipher when a person is has consciously learned a certain new language pattern or rule or if their brain simply judged it to be right because of unconscious learning?
Dr. John Williams at the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics and his collaborator, Dr. Janny Leung from the University of Hong Kong, have been hard at work creating an artificial language to do just that. Participants were tested to see whether they correctly acquired, over periods as short as one hour, an understanding of patterns embedded within the artificial language.
According to the article:
An example of their technique is to teach participants four novel forms of the word ‘the’ (gi, ro, ul and ne), telling them that the forms encode a certain meaningful dimension (e.g. gi and ro should be used for describing near objects, ul and ne for far objects). The aim is to see if the participants can spontaneously pick up a correlation with another, hidden, meaning (e.g. that gi and ul should be used with animate nouns and ro and ne with inanimate nouns). The novel forms are embedded in English phrases such as ‘I was terrified when I turned around and saw gi lion right behind me’.
Do they pick up on the concealed pattern when tested? “The answer is yes,” said Dr. Williams, whose research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. “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.”
Interestingly, picking up the hidden pattern unconsciously doesn’t always happen – if, for instance, the hidden pattern is linguistically unnatural, such as a correlation with 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,” he added.
What do you think? Can we really learn a language unconsciously?