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Conscious and unconscious language learning (6)

This is the final blog in this series about conscious and unconscious language learning. So far I have looked at the early European Reform movement, Soviet perspectives, the post Reform up to communicative theory in Europe, North American perspectives after audio-lingualism and the work of Stephen Krashen. Writing as a teacher rather than an academic, what can a teacher take from this discussion of theory?

Although Krashen claims that humans acquire languages in one way, by hearing and reading meaningful messages (he may be right, but we cannot be sure), most have argued over the years that we learn second languages in different ways. In some contexts it is primarily through unconscious acquisition processes, where there are large amounts of exposure to the second language and where formal tuition is unavailable. In the context of school second language learning it seems that formal practice and consciousness-raising play a significant role. In all likelihood, learning occurs through a combination of conscious, semi-conscious and unconscious learning.

Perhaps we should think of conscious and unconscious learning not as a dichotomy, but as a continuum running from, on the one hand, the most clear-cut cases of acquisition through mere exposure to, on the other hand, the most clear cut cases of formal learning.

This table shows how various writers have described the two ends of such a continuum:

LEARNING                                    ACQUISITION                             SOURCE
(CONSCIOUS)                              (UNCONSCIOUS)

conscious                                         unconscious                            Palmer, Vygotsky
learning                                            acquisition                             Krashen
explicit                                             implicit                                  McLaughlin, Reber
rehearsal                                          performance                           Hawkins
classroom                                        naturalistic                              Ellis
formal                                              functional                               Stern
accuracy                                          fluency                                   Brumfit
knowledge                                       task-based                              Bialystok
controlled                                        automatic                                McLaughlin
medium                                           message                                  Dodson
declarative                                       procedural                              Faerch
usage                                              use                                        Widdowson
competence                                    capacity                                   Widdowson
studial                                             spontaneous                             Palmer
synthetic                                         analytic                                   Wilkins
rules                                               procedures                              Ellis
knowing how                                  knowing that                             ?
mechanical                                      active                                     Belyayev
speech activity                                speech acts                               Leontiev
theoretical                                      intuitive                                   Belyayev
output approach                             input approach                           Krashen
form                                               meaning                                     ?
skill getting                                     skill using                                Rivers
cognitive code                                creative construction                  Carroll, Dulay and Burt
problem solving                              language specific                        Felix
cognitive structures strategies          cognitive structures tactics          Selinker

Although a continuum lacks the elegance of a qualitative distinction, it may explain the observable facts of language learning more accurately. Littlewood (1984) and Stevick (1984) proposed this kind of continuum. In the classroom it seems to me that various conscious, semi-conscious and subconscious are in operation during a language activity. In a controlled learning activity (such as a graded question-answer sequence) the student will be subconsciously allowing their natural language acquisition capacity to function whilst also focusing on form and comparing with their first language. Who can be sure what precise processes are leading to long term internalised competence?

It is the experience of many secondary teachers that in the early stages of learning a greater emphasis on formal practice is required than for very young learners or advanced students.The latter see their fluency improve rapidly as a result of lots of target language exposure as well as formal practice. As progress is made "learning" becomes less significant and "acquisition" more so. In other words automatic processes come to predominate over controlled ones in most communicative situations. Primary teachers may feel that formal explanations of grammar are less useful in building motivation. The infrequent nature of primary school lessons makes solid progress hard to achieve, whilst even in secondary schools, lack of time and contact slots in the timetable place severe constraints on what can be achieved.

Do different students need different diets? If the aim is long term acquisition, then large amounts of target language may be suitable. If the teacher knows the student will drop the subject after three years, is a different diet appropriate? How would one distniguish between different students in this way whilst allowing for equal opportunity and aspiration for all?

Is a fundamental problem with accounts which stress unconscious learning that older learners must be allowed to bring to bear the cognitive and experiential advantages they have? It is generally (not universally) agreed that language learning ability declines somewhat with age, so should we actually avoid trying to replicate what the young child appears to do so easily? 

In England and Wales the GCSE exam implicitly recognises the role of both the "learning" and "acquisition" ends of the continuum. Perhaps the coming generation of syllabuses, with their inclusion of translation, will push some teachers more towards formal learning and focus on form. On the other hand, many will feel that the current controlled assessment regime has pushed us towards a considerable amount of memory learning and that GCSE has, paradoxically, moved us towards a greater use of "phrase book learning", to the detriment of long term acquisition.

Brian Page wrote:

   There seems to be no evidence, and I certainly have no belief, that we shall ever have a coherent and accurate picture of second language learning (Page, 1985, p.34)

When one looks at all the factors which come in to play with second language acquisition (e.g. Bialystok and Hakuta, 1994) including the mind, age, personality, social function, individual language differences and so on, we are reminded what a complex, hard to pin down area this is.

You can see from this look at the conscious/unconscious debate provides no definitive answers. Indeed, this is only one way of looking at language acquisition. We might be wise to agree with Littlewood (1984) who argues that methodology should be based not so much on the intrinsic adequacy of a theoretical account as on the type of learning environment the teacher is working in. As a general rule, it may be that exploiting the "learning" end of the continuum is sensible for the teacher when there is little additional linguistic input outside the classroom. Of course, this can be achieved whilst providing plenty of "comprehensible input".

Theory is interesting, but teachers may prefer to base their practice on what seems to work, what produces the best outcomes. What works may depend on the age of the learner, school context, timetable, class groupings, intrinsic motivation of pupils, group dynamics, the skill set and personality of the teacher and whether the teacher actually believes in their approach.

I have previously blogged about what Ofsted (the English and Welsh school inspection body) have to say about what works. One senior inspector remarked that what succeeds is "traditional things done well". Indeed, perhaps the goal should not be so much about finding the methods work best, but focusing on what the "done well" means - and this may involve generic teacher qualities as much as specific methodologies. Anyway, here is what Ofsted observed as factors involved in successful practice in classrooms:

  • Well-managed relationships: teachers took care to build up students’ confidence and encourage them to take risks.
  • Teachers’good subject knowledge, including knowledge of the examination syllabus.
  • Clear objectives in lesson plans, ensuring that prior learning was recapped, and that the lesson had a logical structure so that planned outcomes were reached.
  • Effective use of the interactive whiteboard to present and explain new work.
  • Good demonstration of the target language by the teacher to improve students’ listening skills and pronunciation. 
  • Lively and varied lessons which students enjoyed effective, collaborative work in groups and on paired tasks.
  • Careful monitoring of students’ progress.
  • Teachers’ expert use of the target language.
  • Planning that took students through a logical series activities and catered for the needs of all students.
  • Pace and challenge: students were expected to do a lot of work in the lesson thorough practice of new work before students were expected to use it.
  • Very effective use of activities bringing the whole class together to test learning, monitor progress and redirect the lesson if necessary.
  • Intercultural knowledge and understanding built into the lesson.
  • Language learning strategies taught very well to develop students’ understanding of learning the language.
  • Very good deployment of teaching assistants and foreign language assistants in lessons.

So that was the last in this series of blogs. If you read them all, thanks for doing so! I think it's useful for teachers to have some kind of theoretical underpinning to what they do.


E. Bialystok and K. Hakuta (1994) In Other Words: The Science and Psychology of Second language Acquisition. Basic Books.
W.T. Littlewood (1984) Foreign and Second Language Learning. Cambridge: C.U.P.
B. Page (1985) "Research and the Teacher of Foreign Languages in Secondary Schools", in Second Language Learning Research Problems and Perspectives (ed. Brumfit, Lunt and Trim, C.I.L.T.)
E.W. Stevick (1984) "Memory, Learning and Acquisition", in Universals of Second Language Acquisition (eds. Eckman, Bell and Nelson. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House, 1984.)



  1. Wow, this is very insightful last blog in the series. I will admit that I haven't read the previous blogs having just come across your resources on Twitter. I will definitely go back - where does the role of personalized and inquiry based learning come into effect? I think different diets are key to student engagement and working as a coach and mentor is what teachers need to be shifting toward.

    I am but a FSL teacher, I have studied language acquisition but not formally and I am continually searching out the best way to learn languages. I really like what I have seen initially and you certainly have the credentials to back your ideas. Have you read Hattie's work on factors that impact learning - Visible Learning for Teachers How do his factors come into the play in learning a second language.

    I help to facilitate a PD group called Cohort21 in Ontario for the CIS Conference of Independent Schools. We are looking at the future of education and I firmly believe we can make a program that is student driven that will allow students to achieve B1 DELF in a four year program. I am trying to build it, at least. Check us out at I'd love to hear your thoughts!

    Thanks for sharing your ideas and your resources - I will read the rest of the blogs in the series and I wondered if you would be willing to Skype / Google Hangout with my Mod Lang dept sometime? We're all very keen and I think we could learn a lot from someone of your experience and educational background.

  2. Thank you for leaving a comment.

    To pick up a couple of points: I do not not know much about "personalised and inquiry-based learning", but if it means what i think it does, I doubt whether this approach would be productive in a school setting. Most younger students (say, 11-16) need a good deal of teacher input and there is not much time to develop other approaches, except, o a small degree, through homework assignments. In my view of things language input needs to be fairly tightly and skilfully controlled by a teacher and constant dialogue between teacher and student is most productive.

    I have not read the Hattie book, but am aware of some of his views and research. He is very influential. He seems to value teacher-led instruction, teacher quality and well set homework (at least with older learners). I do not know whether he offers any insights to language teachers.

    I am a bit suspicious of the phrase "student-driven", but wish you the best in your efforts. For your Mod Lang department you may like to point them to the language teacher handbook on my site at It is freely available on the samples page of the site.

    I also did a webinar recently on target language use. Its contents are summarised on my blog.


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