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Conscious and unconscious language learning (2)

In the first blog of this series I wrote about the European Reform movement which challenged traditional approaches to language learning. This time I'll tell you something about Soviet perspectives on conscious and unconscious learning.

From Soviet psychology and philosophy of language and language learning I shall pick out references to conscious and unconscious learning in the works of Vygotsky, Belyayev and Leontiev.

Vygotsky (1934) draws a distinction between unconscious acts, like tying a knot, where the attention is on the point of the task as opposed to the means of performing it and, on the other hand, conscious acts where one is aware of the "how" of the act. Referring to the chess player, he says:

    Becoming conscious of our operations and viewing each as a process of a certain kind leads to their mastery (p.91-2)

His own empirical studies led him to the conclusion that the study of grammar, by which, we presume, he meant the explicit, deductive method of grammar learning, was:

   ... of paramount importance for the mental development of the child and would help the child to rise to a higher level of speech development (p.100-101).

To make his point clearer he also criticises the views of Soviet psychologists who chose to separate "development" ("the process of maturation subject to natural laws") from "instruction" (the "utilisation of the opportunities of development"). He states, and this argument is particularly relevant to modern debates about acquisition and learning (notably, the Krashen non-interface hypothesis which claims that consciously learned material cannot become "acquired"), that:

   Typical of this school of thought are its attempts to separate with great care the products of development from those of instruction, supposedly to find them in their pure form. No investigation has yet been able to achieve this (p.93).

Belyayev's (1963) argument also focuses on the conscious/unconscious dichotomy. "Only practice leads to the mastery of a foreign language," he says, but with this should be combined the conscious learning of grammar. The teacher should:

   ... induce students not just to reproduce every possible kind of rule, whilst analysing texts and translating into the native language, but principally to listen, speak, read and write in the foreign language (p.27).

He stresses the direct relationship between conscious learning and real language use. What he says is, once again, relevant to later debates:

   It is, however, possible for genuine knowledge of a foreign language (i.e. knowledge which is... intuitive) to be acquired in school conditions as the result of conscious learning. In this case pupils listen, speak, read and write the language without thinking about the rules or having recourse to the native language... This is genuine knowledge... but it differs greatly from the process of acquiring the language; the latter is conscious, while the knowledge of a language to which it leads is unconscious or intuitive (p.30-31).

To sum up, consciously learned material can be "internalised" and become unconscious knowledge which allows you to understand and speak naturally. In addition, conscious learning need not involve explicit rule formulation. He later adds that the leaner's attention should be focused on meaning rather than form:

   Consciousness... must be concentrated not on the linguistic mould, but on the semantic content (p.105).

Elsewhere he seems to lay the stress on traditional Soviet formal learning:

   When a person wishing to master a foreign language acquires theoretical information about its phonetic, lexical, grammatical and stylistic characteristics, the feeling for language appears much earlier... than when the learner tries to acquire the language by exclusively intuitive means (p.94).

Leontiev's (1981) position reiterates that of Belyayev. He distinguishes between "speech activity" which is not automatic and where the language is concentrating on the form of the utterance and "speech acts" where language is used for the attainment of a goal. Leontiev poses the problem for the language teacher in very similar terms to Belyayev:

   We somehow have to turn speech activity into speech acts and render it automatic (p.24).

He talks of "transition from conscious to fully automated activity" (p.41) and further:

   Such automisation presupposes the conscious grasp, so to speak, of the nuclear or basic material (ibid)


   There is no sharp demarcation line between habit forming and instilling in the learner such habits through appropriate exercises (p.45).

In sum, the Soviet methodologists argue for the exploitation of both conscious and unconscious learning, believe that consciousness raising is important and that what is learned consciously can become automatic, intuitive, tacit knowledge.

To be continued...

B.V. Belyayev (1963) The Psychology of Teaching Foreign Languages. Oxford, Pergamon Press
A.A. Leontiev (1981) Psychology in the Language Learning Process. Oxford, Pergamon Press
L.S. Vygotsky (1962) Thought and Language. Cambridge, Mass. M.I.T. Press


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