February 6

Noticing and Learning Languages


Noticing what we are doing while we are learning a language, its impacts on others as well as ourselves is a key to language learning. As to be expected many language learners, to a large degree, rely upon how they have been taught to learn a language. However most language teaching practices seem to concentrate on teaching the language and not on the process of learning the language, so it is not surprising that many key factors are overlooked.

It is I would suggest a common sense observation to say that to improve what you do (learn)  you first need to notice that there is something lacking or can be improved. For example when you are cooking a meal, you go and taste the results of your efforts and you may note that it is a bit tasteless. You may add some spice or increase the amount of spice already added and bingo, it now tastes real nice. Now it might take a few times before you learn to add the right amount of spices, but you are on the way to learning something about making that dish to your taste. 

Noticing and language learningThe same process happens daily to us as we learn to adjust our behaviour. Any adjustment is of course learning. If you think back how you dealt with your boss, your colleagues, your family, your spouse, your kids, your boss/employees, an interview panel, etc a few years ago and how you deal with them now you no doubt will notice changes. They might not be big but they will be there. It might take some reflection but it is the very unusual person who stays exactly the same over time. We adjust our behaviour because we notice that how we are behaving or speaking does not achieve the results we want.

I could go on and on about giving examples of how noticing is at the heart of learning. Of course there are numerous occasions where we “should be” learning but we aren’t. That happens because we don’t notice or we don’t want to notice because we believe we are “right”. Sometimes it is because we are too caught up in our thoughts to notice, too fearful to change even if we have noticed, hell bent on getting somewhere so we are focused more on the time or the destination not on the here and the now. So it is interesting that in language teaching and in language learning, we tend to ignore that and instead believe that if we learn the rules, if we parrot phrases, if we memorise words and study grammar, and then we try to apply what we have “learned” we will learn the language. Then we wonder why all our efforts are producing such poor results. For the very few this approach might work but for the majority, all this approach seems to do is to produce frustration about one’s poor memory and about the slow progress being made.

What is even worse than all that is that we then believe that we are such poor language learners. That is not the problem. The problem is how we were learning, not us as learners. One of the factors that can help noticing more is give more of a space for it to happen. In other words, don’t rush but take time to pause en route and become more mindful in your experience.

Let’s now look at a language example. Consider these two sentences where A is the learner of English and B is the native speaker:

A: I want to go to shops.

B: (wants to confirm because pronunciation was a bit hard to understand) So you want to go to the shops?

This kind of problem is very common for people learning a language. Of course there are some who will pick it up ( the missing article – “the”) but many can continue in this vein for the rest of their lives and never really notice that it is being used by native speakers. They may well have learned the articles (or not) but still they can’t hear it or get that it is needed. So what prevents them noticing? There can be any number of reasons but the issue relates in large part to where you place your attention and if you are experienced in being able to split your attention. This of course assumes the learner wants to pick up such small things.  There may be learners who will say that there is no need, but let’s assume that this is not the case here. Here are a few possibilities as to the causes for not noticing:

  • worried about being understood, so your attention is on the core meaning not the form
  • self conscious, so you are keen to sound good – hence not paying attention to the other
  • rushing to get to the next topic/appointment/etc
  • your focus is on the meaning and not on the pronunciation
  • you are not looking for differences between how you would say that and the other person is saying it
  • not practiced in splitting your attention
  • not looking for a word between “to” and “shops”
  • expecting the two words “to” and “shops” to follow each other

A key to making improvements in anything is to notice something that needs more attention. So have a look at what you are noticing (and may not be) and what may be preventing you from noticing more than you already are.



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  • I don’t think it’s about learning a new technique of “noticing”.

    Rather, I think it is about forgetting the imposed shackles of rote learning and allowing ourselves to get back to the freedom of thinking for ourselves when learning, of once again permitting our natural curiosity and pattern-seeking abilities to flourish.

    • The need to do what you talk about is a key, there is absolutely no doubt in that. However I still believe that you can get to a destination from different routes. One is coming to an understanding that the ways you talk about don’t work, that allowing “our natural curiosity and pattern-seeking abilities to flourish.” Another way is to start to explore other ways of learning and from that coming to an understanding that the methods we were taught by actually work against our “our natural curiosity and pattern-seeking abilities.”

      In my own case there was another way still. I came to realisation that existing methods don’t work by being exposed to methods that encouraged my “natural curiosity and pattern-seeking abilities.”

      • Right.

        One phrase I heard recently was “Stop learning, and start thinking.”

        In other words, step back from the treadmill of, say, a flashcard program, and set your mind free to explore what really motivates and inspires you.

        I recently ended my daily flashcard work (nearly 4 years and 6000 cards) and started to use some of the memory techniques of the super mnemonists. An example of this technique would be to imagine a town you are very familiar with, and to place the foreign words in their appropriate locations.

        So, you imagine yourself walking down the main street, going into the baker’s and ordering something, by which time you could have learnt (or be practicing the foreign words for ‘street’, ‘walk’, ‘shop’, ‘baker’, ‘door’, ‘doormat’, ‘bread’, ‘cake’, ‘money’ ‘hello’, ‘expensive’ and so on. The possibilities are endless.

        It also has the advantage of not requiring computers or paper, and can be practiced almost any time. Also, I don’t think that you really ‘own’ a foreign word until you can recall it in your mind at will, not just when it’s flashed on a screen in front of you.

        The mnemonists believe (and demonstrate) that memory *is* imagination, and that the human brain has an effectively limitless capacity for storing images.

        • Mnemonic tools can be used however it is important to be selective and adjust it to the needs of language learning. We don’t want to remember single words in isolation. Words have meanings and occur in contexts, linguistic and other. Keeping that in mind I have talked about a range of specific approaches one can use which I have seen improve not only the memory but also one’s language, at the same time. I talk about some of this in the post “how-to-remember-vocabulary”

          • Yes, I agree. So in my example, you could imagine yourself conversing with the baker in the target language, complaining that his cake is too expensive, or asking if it contains allergens such as peanuts or whatever. It’s a structured way of thinking in the target language, if you like.

            One of the beauties of the mnemonic method is its flexibility, which is one of the reasons that I am biased towards it — another is that I am lazy about ‘working hard’, and mnemonism seems to me to be ‘working smart.’

          • Sounds great. One suggestion, and maybe you meant it, I believe it is better to speak, if possible, when you are learning. Drives the learning into your muscles, not just the brain and get you engaged at another level as well.

          • “better to speak”

            I wonder about that. Once I read a story about a lady in Hungary who knew 17 languages. She learned by reading children’s books in the target language. And I remember how unpleasant it was having to respond to the teachers’ demands to say stuff (when I was still in the old country). But then again, maybe the unpleasantness stemmed from the schooling paradigm that instilled in us fear of making errors? Hm.

            Still, I wonder if freeing the students by not asking for speech for a time, but acting it out (Jane, go to the window and pick up the pencil.), would initially be better for beginners who hail from fear-and-shame-based education systems?

          • Your observation about that Hungarian lady highlights the fact that many different ways can be used to learn a language as long as the person is completely engaged in the process, using all their faculties. What she did to accomplish that was far more than reading stories. I am pretty sure she used various mental faculties, actively sorting out the grammar as she went, reading aloud, imagery, etc without which the learning could not have happened.
            Freeing people from the fear of making mistakes is a big one but not a big one as you think in a classroom, as long as the teacher has the skills to do that. There are many elements to achieving this, including building trust, humour, and clear boundaries (actions do help here to make the language “concrete”). There is a LOT more that could be said about all this of course.
            Without a teacher, individuals need to actively work at reducing this fear, as it will hold them back.

          • Yes! Andrew, I am particularly fascinated by your mention of clear boundaries. I have been working on boundaries in quite another context (as in, dealing with difficult people) and wonder what you mean by it in the classroom context.

          • Here is some input on the boundaries. I never (reluctant to us that word but very close to it, let’s say) correct what a student says with my utterance. Instead, an atmosphere of working on language is developed – so we work on getting it right, rather than leaving a sense of “I got it wrong”. By being consistent in how this is accomplished the students come to feel increasingly comfortable.

            One way I do this is that each student, who volunteers (and they come to do this without fuss or bother), is given the opportunity to not only have a go but the time to get it out. Sometimes I may prompt the quieter ones but always respect their decision, not pressuring them knowing they may feel they don’t have enough yet to contribute.

          • I completely agree with the sentiments Vera. I don’t believe you have to have movement to stimulate intelligence but it certainly helps. Movement, I prefer the word action, in the self ( mental imagery could suffice here if it is done knowingly) or others helps at all stages of learning, whether it be noticing, testing, confirming or cementing stages! That’s one reason why so many of the traditional grammar exercises, etc are so lacking.

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