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.