The Role of Consciousness in Learning a Second Language

Language learning as a sociocultural practice that requires awareness

By Anu Kumar

The word “welcome” written in several different languages (source)

In the United States, there are many first-generation Americans whose parents come from a country that speaks a different language. These kids, having grown up in the US, can also speak English very fluently. However, I’ve also met other cases such as myself: people who can understand the language of their parents/family but can’t participate in the conversations or the cultural nuances of the language (and sometimes can’t even speak it at all).

Can you passively learn a second language?

You would think that being exposed to a different language since you were young would actually be the reason for the child to know a language, but this is a common misconception.

Did you take Spanish in high school or college because it was required, but never really kept up with it? Or were you taught French since your primary school days, but have found that you don’t have nearly the same level fluency as a native speaker? Or maybe you’re like me, a first-generation American who can understand their parents’ native language, but you can’t properly express themselves in that language?

We learn our first language by interacting with our caregivers and anyone who has the fortune (or misfortune) to come across our paths. We are able to speak freely and be corrected, and then over time allow these corrections to influence the way that we speak.

When my parents spoke Kannada to me, they wouldn’t really correct me when I was younger. Nevertheless, they would keep speaking Kannada with each other, so I unconsciously learned the cadence patterns and types of expressions that would be present in the language. However, if you ask me to formulate a sentence of my own, I would draw a blank.

If we just allow the language to happen to us passively, we won’t be able to actually learn it.

Our role of consciousness is important in the learning process

What does “consciousness” mean here? Using Vygotsky’s definition of consciousness, consciousness is the “objectively observable organization of behavior that is imposed on humans through participation in sociocultural practices,” and one could argue that speaking a language is a sociocultural practice.

In other words, “consciousness” is the act of noticing a set of behaviors that arose through humans interacting with each other in different social and cultural ways. To achieve a high level of comprehension in the second language, you must have a certain level of awareness regarding the cultural aspects of the language.

The way that we interact with our language learning process has a lot to do with our awareness, or consciousness, of our knowledge of the language (or lack thereof). This can be mapped by the Conscious Competence Ladder, proposed by Noel Burch in the 1970s.

There are four main categories according to Burch:

Unconsciously Unskilled: “I don’t know what I don’t know.” Many people who begin learning a second language, having only ever spoken one, can fall into the unconsciously unskilled criteria.

Consciously Unskilled: When you’re consciously unskilled, such as myself when I first moved to France, you really realize just how much you don’t know.

Consciously Skilled: You know where your limits lie within the language, and this makes it easier for you to actively improve your knowledge and skill of it.

Unconsciously Skilled: You’re unaware that you hold this skill because you’re not focused on it, so it doesn’t require extra energy for you compared to other skills you may have trouble with. For instance, you may be well versed in nonverbal cues in your native language, but you don’t notice that you’re skilled in this.

How do you keep improving the second language?

Much of our first language happens through acquisition, which is just allowing the language to passively happen to us. While a lot of (second) language learning can be done in a similar way, we must also employ the concept of “learning,” as noted by Second Language Acquisition expert Stephen Krashen. He notes that “learning” is what happens in foreign language classrooms — the conscious analysis of a language’s structure.

Can we actually learn a language if we just drop ourselves in the middle of the country? Stephen Krashen, an expert in the field of second language acquisition, mentions that in “comprehensible input,” we need to be exposed to the language that’s a level slightly above our comfort zone in order for us to learn the most effectively. It’s important for people learning a second language to have a steady supply of the language that they can understand, as well as a low stress environment that doesn’t force them into perfect language production. Krashen notes that we need to be exposed to the language that’s a level slightly above our comfort zone in order for us to learn the most effectively. These are two major points of his Input Hypothesis.

By contrast, can we learn a language if we drop ourselves in the middle of a country that speaks it? This scenario goes against both the “comprehensible input” and low stress environment Krashen says is very important to learning a second language. Even if you have a little knowledge of the language, the transition can be quite stressful.

Learning about the language, not just the language itself

Rather than unconsciously letting the language happen around us, we must actively participate. This means engaging in learning the structure of the language, almost like the “meta-learning” of the language. These include things like verb conjugations and grammar rules, but also learning about the cultural context of how the language functions.

In certain situations, you may be in between consciously skilled and unconsciously skilled. This ties back into the Conscious Competence Ladder, because you may not be aware of the context of certain language rules unless you are explicitly taught them.

A collaborative study between Dr. John Williams of the University of Cambridge and Dr. Janny Leung of the University of Hong Kong aimed to determine if students could consciously recognize a linguistic pattern rule without explicitly being taught the rule.

For example, one trial used four new words for the same usage of the article “the,” which were symbolized by the syllables giroul, and ne.

In this trial, two forms of these articles are for describing objects that are near, and the other two are used for describing objects that are further away. These rules were told to the participants. However, there were two additional rules that were not told to the participants — gi and ul have to be used with animate nouns (such as “tiger”) and ro and ne with inanimate nouns (such as “tree”). The results showed that the participants picked up on this difference, but not aware of this.

However, they didn’t always pick up on hidden patterns.

If the unspoken linguistic rule is more “unnatural,” such as if the object can emit a sound, then it doesn’t always become acquired unconsciously. Williams proposes that this could be due to certain patterns being “more accessible to language learning processes than others.” If this is the case, then there could be an evolutionary component regarding what language patterns we, as humans, have learned to expect as our species evolved.

Learning a language takes time, effort, and patience

If you’re in the middle of learning a new language, whether it’s one of your New Year’s Resolutions, to be more competitive in the job market, or you’ve moved to a place where your native language isn’t spoken, remember that it takes so much time, effort, and patience.

After having only ever spoken English my entire life, I moved across the Atlantic Ocean to Paris, France. Who’d have thought that three years of French classes wouldn’t have made me feel unbelievably prepared to start interacting in a different language? (Spoiler alert: Krashen did!)

It took moving to a non-anglophone country to realize how much of the language I didn’t know. And while learning new vocabulary and internalizing grammar rules is great, it’s important to practice in environments that allow you to mess up so you can improve. If you can’t physically move to a location that speaks your target language, language exchange apps like Tandem are a great resource for finding people to practice your target language, as well as helping others to learn your native language. Remember that you can’t just let the language happen to you; you must consciously pursue it.

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