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Conscious and unconscious language learning (1)

This is the first of a series of blogs about conscious and unconscious language learning. I have adapted sections of an MA thesis I wrote some years ago which looked in some detail at Stephen Krashen's hypotheses. I'll start with some historical context, just to remind us that modern arguments about formal and informal language teaching approaches (learning versus natural acquisition, if you like) are far from new.


Throughout the history of the study of language learning and teaching reference has been made to two distinct types of language learning. The first could be characterised as "picking up" a language and normally involves the apparently unconscious acquisition of a language in an informal or natural setting. One thinks of the child who learns their native tongue, or the immigrant who learns the new language without recourse to formal study.

The second type of language learning involves the practice of a language in a formal, systematic way, often in a classroom setting. This has frequently been termed conscious learning.

Such a clear distinction may be controversial and you may already be thinking, quite reasonably, that both types of learning have a role. However, when you read the literature on this it is clear that the dichotomy has often either been hypothesised or taken as axiomatic.

Eric Hawkins (1981) traces the distinction between formal and naturalistic language learning back to John Amos Comenius and John Locke. The latter wrote that learning "by conversation":

    ... is to be prefer'd as the most Expedite, Proper and natural (cited in Hawkins,1981,Ch 4)

By the time of mass education, however, concentration on the written word, rote learning of grammatical rules and forms had long held sway and it was only in the second half of the nineteenth century that the debate about naturalistic and formal language learning reawakened. The Reform movement began

H.E. Palmer (1922) was well aware of the theoretical problem. He believed that the learning of a foreign language best occurred through a process of "unconscious assimilation". Referring to the learner who has gone beyond the stage of first language acquisition he states:

   The utilisation of his focussed and conscious attention militates against the proper functioning of the natural capacities of assimilation (p.8)

He says, moreover, with regard to older learners:

   By developing their studial powers they simply inhibited the spontaneous powers and effectively stopped them from working well (p.11)

For Palmer, therefore, the distinction between "studial" and "spontaneous" approaches was clear, theoretically at least, since Palmer did not consider pattern practice and question-answer technique to be "studial". Examples of studial learning would have included the setting to memory of grammatical rules or isolated words.

Palmer's focus on unconscious acquisition and inductive learning was following in the footsteps of such teachers as Francke, Jesperson and Vietor. Jesperson (1904) referred to "unconscious mental activity" and postulated that humans acquire language "by virtue of inviolable psychical laws". He also makes the the following point, echoed by a number of contemporary writers:

   We simply cannot avoid thus unconsciously forming types or patterns to go by... as soon as the conditions for these typical formations are at hand (p.117)

In his famous pamphlet entitled Der Sprachunterricht muss umkehren, Viëtor (1886) had almost, at a stroke, brought back attention to the value of naturalistic language learning. This work is now seen as the kickstarter of modern methods of language teaching. His commitment to inductive teaching was unequivocal:

   Death to rules and isolated sentences! (quoted in Howatt, 1984)

When Viëtor refers to the role of grammar within his teaching approach, he states that it "grows naturally out of reading the texts themselves".

When you read the literature of this period, you are struck by the eclecticism of the Reformers. Hawkins (1981) associates Palmer with a reaction against the Reform. If this is true, then Henry Sweet (1899) can be considered a bit of a reactionary. Although he is associated with the Reform movement because of the stress he laid on phonetics and ear training, he had little sympathy for naturalistic methods:

   The fundamental objection to the natural method (is that) it puts the adult into the position of an infant, which he is no longer capable of using and, at the same time, does not allow him to make use of his own special advantages... the power of analysis and generalisation - in short, the power of using a grammar and dictionary (p.186)

The Scotsman J.S. Blackie (1845) can also been seen as a precursor to the Reform movement. Blackie's remarks are fascinating for their time, but echo Locke's of a century and a half earlier:

   The more near a method approaches to the method employed by nature, the more near does that method approach perfection (p.175)

Blackie's four elements of successful foreign language teaching have a modern ring and represent good advice to the new teacher:

1.  appeal to the ear, not the eye (some would have reservations on this point)
2.  establish a close relationship between the sound anf the thing signified
3.  make use of repetition and practice
4.  maintain the learner's interest

He adds that "grammar may be introduced, or rather deduced, out of the preceding practice".

Other representatives of inductive methodology include de Feltre, G.H. Cominius, Webbe, Lamy, Marcel, Gouin, Sauveur, Berlitz and de Sauzé.

To be continued....


J.S. Blackie (1845) "On the Teaching of Languages", The Foreign Quarterly Review, Vol. 25 170-87
E. Hawkins (1981) Modern languages in the Curriculum, Cambridge, C.U.P.
A.P.R. Howatt (1984)  A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford, O.U.P.
O. Jesperson (1904) How to Teach a Foreign Language. London, George Allen and Unwin
H.E. Palmer (1922) The Principles of Language Study. Republished 1964. Oxford, O.U.P.
H. Sweet (1899) The Practical Study of Languages. London, J.M Dent and Sons.
W. Viëtor (1886) Der Sprachunterricht muss umkehren. (Republished in 2010, Nabu Press)



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