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Is Language Learning A Subconscious Process?

05/17/2017 12:30 EDT | Updated 05/17/2017 12:30 EDT
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Subconscious language learning is a concept that leading language acquisition expert Stephen Krashen has demonstrated through extensive research, but is still challenged by many teachers. Though there is research to back up this theory that language is learned subconsciously, we are still not aware of how the language starts to stick in our brains.

Enjoyable Engagement with the Language

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In my own case, I have found that much of my learning takes place subconsciously, as I explore and discover a new language, and learn new things using the language. I can tell when reading new lessons, articles or books on 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 at LingQ obviously helps, as does occasionally reviewing these saved words and phrases. 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. 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 deliberate learning 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 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.

My Experience with Romanian

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I was reminded of the importance of subconscious learning, and things that influence our subconscious learning, by my experience with Romanian.

When I was learning Romanian, in preparation for a pending business trip to Romania, I read a lot about Romania; 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 reading was all done in Romanian and mostly had accompanying audio. It was fascinating and allowed me to be immersed in a Romanian environment without leaving home. This is the modern connected world we live in.

After one month of input based study, I started speaking with two tutors. 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.

I had enjoyable discussions with my first two tutors 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.

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.

Let the Student Explore and Discover the Language

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At a certain point, I wanted to step up my Romanian speaking exposure and decided to add yet another tutor. This new tutor was a trained teacher and 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 to just use Romanian and add any mistakes I made in my report so that I could study them later on. His reply: "You should speak in very short sentences. For the first few lessons limit yourself to simple sentences, then after a while we can move to more complicated sentences."

He eventually came around and we had many interesting conversations. This experience made me realize again the power of the Internet. I could engage a tutor on Skype and, as it was my nickel, 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.

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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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