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Can you learn a language without trying?

By: Kaitlyn Tagarelli Wed Dec 20 2023

 ᎣᏏᏲ! Welcome back to Adventures in Language!

Chances are, you’ve put a lot of thought into the languages you’re learning. Reading textbooks, memorizing vocabulary lists, listening to song lyrics over and over again… But can you learn a new language without paying attention, trying, or even knowing that you’re learning? 

In this article, we’re exploring implicit and explicit language learning, the continuum they exist on, and why striking a balance between the two might be key to language learning success.

Let's start with some definitions

Implicit learning is unconscious learning. When you learn implicitly, you don’t know that you’re learning, and you do so incidentally — that is, in the process of trying to learn or do something else. For example, if you binge watch the first few seasons of Friends, you might incidentally develop a keen sense of 90s fashion.

Explicit learning, on the other hand, is conscious learning, or learning with awareness. Explicit learning is associated with the intention to learn. If you watch the Great British Baking Show because you want to perfect your Swiss meringue, that’s more of an explicit learning situation. Even more explicit? Taking a baking class!

Of course in reality, it’s not that simple!

How do implicit and explicit learning work in the wild?

Babies and young children are generally thought to have a more implicit, incidental approach to language learning. They go about their business being babies, and they learn to communicate along the way, partly out of necessity and partly out of an innate human desire to connect with their caregivers.

A mom playing and laughing with her son

When it comes to second language (L2) learning, immersive situations are about as implicit as you can get in real life. Let’s take a look at “Alma,” who is studying abroad in France. She’s taking some French classes while she’s there, but most of her learning is happening incidentally, in the course of doing other things like getting to know the city, making new friends, and going about her daily life. When she goes to the post office, she’s more concerned with mailing a package than conjugating verbs. And while her bus driver may ask her to repeat things, giving Alma a clue that she needs to make some corrections, he’s probably not giving Alma explicit feedback on her mistakes. 

This all describes Alma’s learning context….But is it purely implicit? First of all, Alma is a young adult who is fully aware that she’s living in another country, at least in part for the purpose of learning French. So while much of her learning may happen incidentally, a good amount of it is also probably intentional. Before going into the post office, she might think about how to formulate a question to request first-class postage. “Should I say ‘première…' no, it’s ‘prioritaire.’” Maybe she’ll even practice it a few times. When she’s chatting with friends and learns a fun new expression from context, she might make a mental note to write it down later so she doesn’t forget it. And while her interactions are focused on meaning, there’s a good chance that, at least some of the time, Alma notices the gap between her utterances in French and those of native speakers. However, once back home, Alma speaks with more accuracy and fluency than her friends who have not studied abroad, but she can’t really explain how she does it.

When it comes to implicit and explicit learning, it’s easy to confuse the context, the process, and the resulting knowledge, but these are distinct things. In Alma’s case, her learning context is relatively implicit — she’s not exposed to a lot of instruction or feedback. But she is learning both implicitly and explicitly — sometimes she’s aware of what she’s learning, or simply of the fact that she is learning, and sometimes she’s not. And when it comes to knowledge, there are some aspects of French grammar that Alma can verbally explain, and others that just feel right, even though she can’t quite say why. In other words, an implicit learning context does not necessarily lead to implicit learning which, in turn, does not necessarily result in implicit knowledge. 

The takeaway? When it comes to learning a language, don’t expect to use an implicit-only approach — language learning is more nuanced than that. 

A young man in a library/study hall wearing headphones working on his laptop

Now let’s consider a classroom learner, Parker. Before class, Parker has to read a chapter in his textbook and complete a few fill-in-the-blank exercises. He also has to study for Friday’s vocab quiz. In class, Parker’s teacher gives a brief grammar lesson before asking students to practice in groups. She tries to guide students toward finding and correcting their own mistakes, but she’ll also provide explicit feedback, drawing learners’ attention to language forms. For example, she might say, “It’s ‘ le problème' not ‘la problème.' Remember, ‘problème’ is a masculine noun.” Parker takes notes and his practice is focused on grammatical forms.

This is a much more explicit learning context. Parker definitely pays attention and is very much aware that he is learning, and he even knows what he should be focusing on in a given lesson. But just as Alma’s implicit learning context doesn’t guarantee implicit learning and knowledge, Parker’s explicit context doesn’t guarantee explicit learning and knowledge. While Parker is paying attention to things like using the correct gender and word order, he may be learning some other things about French without even realizing it.

John Williams — the linguist, not the composer — tested out this theory using a semi-artificial language (Williams, 2005). He taught learners that the made-up articles, gi and ro, meant “near,” and that ul and ne meant “far,” and then he asked them to listen to a bunch of sentences and indicate which meaning they heard. But here’s the catch — while the learners were focused on practicing “near” and “far,” there was also a hidden rule — gi and ul referred only to living things, while ro and ne referred to non-living things. Most participants never became aware of this animacy rule, but they still learned it!

Image on the left top corner: a bird feeding off a human's hand. Image on the right top corner: a man sitting on sofa with a laptop. Image on the left bottom corner: a bird sitting in a tree branches. Image on the right bottom corner: a modernly decorated living room

The taught (near/far) and hidden (living/non-living) rules in Williams's (2005) implicit learning study.

A caveat here (there’s always a caveat): While Williams’s study, among others, suggests that it is possible to learn language implicitly, it’s very difficult to measure awareness to begin with, let alone the absence of it. And so the question of whether awareness is required for language learning remains contentious (Hama & Leow, 2012). Regardless, the vast amount of research on implicit and explicit language learning has revealed a few important things:

  • Learners can develop both implicit knowledge and explicit knowledge about language in pretty much any learning condition.

  • Even the most implicit learning conditions usually result in learning, even when learners have little or no awareness of what they are learning.

  • More explicit learning conditions generally lead to more explicit knowledge and faster learning.

In fact, even though the unaware learners in the Williams study did learn the animacy rule, those who became aware of the rule performed much better when tested on it. And this finding represents a pretty general trend. While implicit learning is important for more automatic, fluent language use (Hulstijn, 2005), conditions that promote explicit learning tend to be more effective (Norris & Ortega, 2000; Spada & Tomita, 2010). This means that getting instructions and guidance, like in a language classroom, can really boost learning.

This is especially true in the early phases of language learning, and studies that include newer techniques like eye-tracking or brain measurements have provided a more nuanced picture of the nature of learning. In a study conducted by Morgan-Short and colleagues, learners were trained on a new language in either an implicit or explicit condition, and both groups performed similarly, eventually reaching high proficiency (Morgan-Short, Steinhauer, Sanz, & Ullman, 2012). 

But check this out — at high proficiency, only the implicitly-taught learners showed native-like brain activity in their L2. But when the learners were tested again several months later, both groups maintained similar levels of performance and the brains of both groups processed the L2 more like native speakers (Morgan-Short, Finger, Grey, & Ullman, 2012). This means that while the learning paths might be different, outcomes for implicit vs. explicit learning conditions may be similar, given enough input and time.

Should you prioritize implicit or explicit learning opportunities?

As mentioned above, most language learning contexts involve some combination of implicit and explicit learning, and this is a good thing! Explicit learning conditions help learners focus their attention on important or more challenging aspects of language and give them opportunities to fix their mistakes and practice saying things correctly. Implicit learning conditions, on the other hand, drive learners to focus on meaning and develop intuitions to use the language more naturally. (P.S. If you’re a language teacher, check out this video where we drop 4 activities you can use to build your students’ intuitions!)

Some of the most effective language learning strategies involve both implicit and explicit learning tools. At Mango, for example, we explicitly teach vocabulary through translations, but we guide learners toward building an intuitive understanding of grammar. When tricky grammatical concepts need a bit more attention, we incorporate explicit explanations to help accelerate learning and avoid confusion.

Example of a Mango class and grammar note

Mango Languages provides explicit translations and grammar notes but also guides learners toward building implicit intuitions.

Well, there you have it! To recap:

  • Implicit and explicit learning are learning without and with awareness, respectively.

  • There’s a difference between learning context, process, and knowledge. Implicit learning conditions don’t necessarily lead to implicit learning, which in turn does not necessarily result in implicit knowledge. Same goes for explicit conditions!

  • Implicit learning is important for building automatic, fluent language skills and developing intuitions, but explicit learning often results in faster learning. Ultimately, it’s good to have a balance of both when it comes to language learning.

Thanks for reading!

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Wondering what languages were used in today’s article?

ᎣᏏᏲ! (O*3si.2yo.1) and ᎪᎯᏴ ᏙᎾᏓᎪᎲᎢ!  (Ko*2hi*3yv.1 do*3na.2da*3go*3hv2?i.1) mean “Hello!” and “See you later!” in Cherokee, an Iroquoian language indigenous to North America. Interested in learning Cherokee, or one of the other 70+ languages that the Mango app offers? Click to check out our courses!

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