Skip to main content

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)

And:

   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...
  
References

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
  

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Delayed dictation

What is “delayed dictation”?

Instead of getting students to transcribe immediately what you say, or what a partner says, you can enforce a 10 second delay so that students have to keep running over in their heads what they have heard. Some teachers have even used the delay time to try to distract students with music.

It’s an added challenge for students but has significant value, I think. It reminds me of a phenomenon in music called audiation. I use it frequently as a singer and I bet you do too.

Audiation is thought to be the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. You can audiate when listening to music, performing from notation, playing “by ear,” improvising, composing, or notating music. When we have a song going round in our mind we are audiating. When we are deliberately learning a song we are audiating.

In our language teaching case, though, the earworm is a word, chunk of l…

Responsive teaching

Dylan Wiliam, the academic most associated with Assessment for Learning (AfL), aka formative assessment, has stated that these labels have not been the most helpful to teachers. He believes that they have been partly responsible for poor implementation of AfL and the fact that AfL has not led to the improved outcomes originally intended.

Wiliam wrote on Twitter in 2013:

“Example of really big mistake: calling formative assessment formative assessment rather than something like "responsive teaching".”

For the record he subsequently added:

“The point I was making—years ago now—is that it would have been much easier if we had called formative assessment "responsive teaching". However, I now realize that this wouldn't have helped since it would have given many people the idea that it was all about the teacher's role.”

I suspect he’s right about the appellation and its consequences. As a teacher I found it hard to get my head around the terms AfL and formative assess…

Sentence Stealers with a twist

Sentence Stealers is a reading aloud game invented by Gianfranco Conti. I'll describe the game to you, then suggest an extension of it which goes a bit further than reading aloud. By the way, I shouldn't need to justify the usefulness of reading aloud, but just in case, we are talking here about matching sounds to spellings, practising listening, pronunciation and intonation and repeating/recycling high frequency language patterns.

This is how it works:

Display around 15 sentences on the board, preferably ones which show language patterns you have been working on recently or some time ago.Hand out four cards or slips of paper to each student.On each card students must secretly write a sentence from the displayed list.Students then circulate around the class, approaching their classmates and reading a sentence from the displayed list. If the other person has that sentence on one of their cards, they must hand over the card. The other person then does the same, choosing a sentenc…

The age factor in language learning

This post draws on a section from Chapter 5 of Jack C. Richards' splendid handbook Key Issues in Language Teaching (2015). I'm going to summarise what Richards writes about how age factors affect language learning, then add my own comments about how this might influence classroom teaching.

It's often said that children seem to learn languages so much more quickly and effectively than adults. Yet adults do have some advantages of their own, as we'll see.

In the 1970s it was theorised that children's success was down to the notion that there is a critical period for language learning (pre-puberty). Once learners pass this period changes in the brain make it harder to learn new languages. Many took this critical period hypothesis to mean that we should get children to start learning other languages at an earlier stage. (The claim is still picked up today by decision-makers arguing for the teaching of languages in primary schools.)

Unfortunately, large amounts of rese…

Dissecting a lesson: teaching an intermediate written text

This post is a beginner’s guide about how you might go about working with a written text with low-intermediate or intermediate students (Y10-11 in England). I must emphasise that this is not what you SHOULD do, just one approach based on my own experience and keeping in mind what we know about learning and language learning in particular. Experienced teachers may find it interesting to compare this sequence with what you do yourself.

You can adapt the sequence below to the class, context and your own preferred style. I’m going to assume that the text is chosen for relevance, interest and comprehensibility. The research suggests that the best texts are at the very least 90% understandable, i.e. you would need to gloss no more than 10% of the words or phrases. The text could be authentic, or more likely adapted authentic from a text book, or teacher written. It would likely be fairly short so you have time to exploit it intensively, recycling as much useful language as possible.

So here w…