What Is “Unconscious” Acquisition in the Classroom?

Pondering unconscious acquisition, no doubt.

Pondering unconscious acquisition, no doubt.

If you’ve read or heard much about input-based theories of Second Language Acquisition (SLA), you’ve probably come across the idea that acquiring another language happens “subconsciously” or “unconsciously” under suitable circumstances. You may also have seen this process of acquisition–basically, the journey from being someone who doesn’t know a particular language to being someone who does–contrasted with other processes in which we consciously learn about a language or practice using some element of the language. (I lamented some of the issues arising from the terminology of this distinction in “The Bummer about ‘Acquisition,'” Part 1 and Part 2.)

My friend Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell, the teacher and blogger whose Musicuentos.com co-sponsors the Musicuentos Black Box Podcast with Indwelling Language, recently issued an open request for conversation about the idea of unconscious acquisition of a second language, and especially about how such a process can take place in a classroom. Because this is a really good question and Sara-Elizabeth can be counted on for insightful, challenging, generous conversation, I’m happy to jump in! Sara-Elizabeth was kind enough to read a draft of this post and ask some follow-up questions that are addressed in this version.

The big question

If you haven’t read Sara-Elizabeth’s recent post “Better acquisition by altering (not eliminating) translation,” do. The title and the bulk of the post are about ways of introducing the meanings of words to students, but the opening sections raise the question of whether [unconscious] acquisition of a language can happen in a classroom. Sara-Elizabeth points out that, if acquisition is the goal and acquisition only happens unconsciously, then we have a problem, because every student who walks into a Spanish class is conscious of the fact that the point is to learn Spanish. Furthermore, we can’t really tell what a student is or isn’t conscious of at any given time, so how can we be sure whether acquisition is happening?

Different researchers and theorists may mean different things by calling acquisition “unconscious,” so I’ll go with what I perceive to be the basic idea, sticking with the example of Spanish. Let’s start with what unconscious acquisition does not mean:

“Acquisition happens unconsciously” does not mean…

  • that the learner doesn’t know she is in a situation whose basic purpose is that she learn a new language.
  • that the learner doesn’t understand that the language he is hearing is a different one than the one he normally speaks.
  • that the learner doesn’t know how the process of acquiring a language works.
  • that the learner isn’t aware that participating in whatever is going on should make her better at Spanish.
  • that the learner doesn’t put any effort into participating in whatever is going on.

“Acquisition happens unconsciously,” as far as I can tell, simply means that the learner does not need to be devoting her attention to the features of the language itself in order to acquire the language. Instead, she devotes her attention to whatever is being talked about in the language. In other words, she participates in communication, which is what language is for.

If the meaning of the language changes when the form of the language changes, and there is a way for the learner to understand what the meaning is, then the learner continues to acquire the language, because the human brain is capable of processing the features of human languages and matching them to meaning. The learner may not be conscious of what she knows now that she didn’t know before–another sense in which acquisition may be unconscious. But we can tell that acquisition is happening as students increasingly show “real-time” understanding–i.e., understanding that doesn’t rely on deciphering or translation–of Spanish that they hear or read, and as students successfully communicate using unrehearsed Spanish in their speech and writing.

It’s okay to notice stuff

“Unconsciousness” isn’t a prerequisite for acquisition; it’s just a usual characteristic of acquisition. If a learner happens to become conscious of a particular feature of Spanish during communication–because someone points it out, because it seems odd, or because the learner is really interested in Spanish or in languages in general–this doesn’t break some sort of spell or doom the acquisition process. Input-based theories would simply emphasize that acquisition does not require the learner to memorize or “practice” the element of the language that she has noticed, only to encounter enough meaningful communication that features that element of the language.

So, it’s no problem that students enter a class with a bunch of Spanish words on the wall during a period when students know they have “Spanish 1” on their schedules. What matters is that students have frequent, extended, meaningful encounters with Spanish that they are given the means to understand, with Spanish that communicates about more than itself.

What about conscious learning?

Nothing wrong with conscious learning!

Nothing wrong with conscious learning!

None of this means that we or our students shouldn’t also learn about Spanish, which we might do because we enjoy it, because it’s something to do with our friends, because it helps us compare languages, because it may help us edit our writing or our planned speech, or because it is a legitimate pursuit for its own sake. Nor does it mean that we can’t use consciously learned language for travel, for formulaic situations such as dining or shopping, or simply to get by until we actually acquire enough of the language to rely on unrehearsed language when we communicate. We just need to realize that when we learn about Spanish, practice producing the features of Spanish, or strategically add connector-words to make our writing look more native-like, we are doing something other than acquiring Spanish. When we do those things, we may be working toward worthwhile goals, but we are not being transformed from people who don’t know Spanish into people who do.

As always, comments and follow-up questions are welcome. I’m eager to keep learning about all this!

See also The Number One Mistake in Language Learning.

Posted in Learning, Teaching and tagged , , , , .


  1. On point, Justin!

    I’ve always thought that the “students know they’re in Spanish class, so they must be consciously learning” argument was tenuous at best. Otherwise, I have a thought on the use of the term “translation…”

    When I hear that word, my Classical roots pull me back to the image of block text translated from Latin into English. For me, that’s definitely translation. When I point to individual words in a paragraph of text and the class says the English as we go, that’s also translation (“Choral Translation,” as it is known). Yet, a Spanish word/phrase written on the board along with English below or beside it, in my view, is not a translation. I prefer to think of that as an “English equivalent” given when establishing meaning. It’s not terribly important, but it might help distinguish establishing meaning from any other activity during which one translates an entire thought, connected sentences, or paragraphs.

    Comments on certain Yahoo groups (and from Sara’s blog) indicate that people confuse CI with “avoiding English at all cost.” You’ve certainly listed other strategies to establish meaning if the point, for some reason, is to remain in the target language exclusively (almost as a challenge, or experiment), but rightfully note that the most efficient use of time, and most reliable way to establish meaning is with an English equivalent.

    • Lance, on my end I rather have the impression that people confuse CI with “translating into English as a baseline for every utterance.” I know eminent practitioners who eschew the term TCI now because it seems to be almost synonymous with TPRS which is viewed to emphasize always using English (as the “most efficient use of time, and most reliable way to establish meaning”) to translate targets (I’m sorry but “English equivalent” is just semantics- it’s word/phrase-level translation). As with most of these dichotomies, I’m learning that the answer for me is somewhere in the middle, and that’s why I felt compelled to post the original impetus here. English may be time-efficient and reliable but by any review of brain research it’s not the best brain-wiring way; hence, it becomes a judgment call I can make better and better as the teaching years go by: if this is going to waste class time and cause confusion without benefit, translation is the way for me to go. If we’re encountering a desirable difficulty or I can be 99.9% sure no child will misunderstand my butterfly sketch as “monarch” (a counterargument presented to me when I criticized Slavic’s translation of that word as his only method of establishing meaning), then leaving English out of it is the best choice for me and my students.
      I particularly appreciate Justin’s clarification on how he views the term “unconsciously” here. My dilemma here has always stemmed from the fact that in studying SLA it has always seemed to me that the definition of “unconscious” was that the learner didn’t know the purpose of the interaction was to learn a new language and that “noticing stuff” was the opposite of “unconscious.” So I’m feeling peaceful in this dichotomy now having been exposed to a more nuanced approach to that word- and to whether consciously learned language can be useful at all. 🙂

      • …(I’m sorry but “English equivalent” is just semantics- it’s word/phrase-level translation)…

        No need to be sorry, I qualified that through a personal anecdote. I cannot unexperience what it means to hear the term “translation,” and whether or not you prefer the same term or two different terms, there certainly is a distinction between establishing meaning, and “translation” activities. You can continue to use “word/phrase-level translation” and I’ll continue to use “equivalent,” and no one gets hurt or cries. 🙂

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