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Incidental and Implicit Language – Use in the Classroom

Chinese Character Meaning 1

So I noticed a thing.

Learning a language is a long hard road, and for most of us the initial challenge is opening our mouths to speak. I was learning Chinese for a long while before I had the courage to open my mouth and utter a full sentence. Previously I had been using short answers or single words to get my point across, I had been self-learning and people had requested on many occasions to “Say something in Chinese.” But that time came in the taxi (doesn’t it for everyone?) where I was able to almost have a decent conversation and semi understand what the driver was talking about. This was a tremendous boost of courage for me, a new path of second language usage had begun. Now I had the courage to communicate after that taxi ride of destiny, and I noticed something interesting: I started saying things I had not learned.

It started slowly and happened more frequently as my ‘local’ social life grew, more friends that did not speak English, friends of friends, meeting new people and exchanging contact details. Internet conversations, bar conversations, taxi conversations – I was using almost exclusively Chinese outside of work – and it paid off. Sentence structures or words came out of my mouth without me even thinking about it. I was saying things I had not learned and was surprised every single time. Because I am an educator I thought “How did I know that?” I never set out to learn it, but I used it!

Implicit learning – things that we do not actively learn, but are exposed to and subconsciously or passively acquire. I was using language I had heard others say – even language I did not quite understand when I heard it. Human beings are the only animal that connects body language to verbal language: Pointing and saying a word is instinctive to human babies. It is how we learn about the world around us, and apparently it does not stop when we grow up. I was still pointing albeit abstractly pointing and learning about the linguistic world around me. To this day I still surprise myself with language I am able to use – even some complex ideas, terminology or sentence structures I had never thought of before.

Which brings us into the classroom, as teachers how can we maximise the implicit learning of our students? Let me show you two ideas that I have been using the classroom that have greatly benefitted my students’ ability to retain and use language naturally.

Incidental Language

We all do this when trying to have a conversation with someone – or acquire some simple phrases – and we come upon language we don’t know. So we ask. We ask in L1 (English for us) or we request a description/clarification in L2 (Chinese for us) or we use body language to get our point across and then we are given something powerful: synonyms, antonyms and an example of the usage.

This has happened to us when we were children and said “I want water” and mum corrected us “I would like some water, please.” or similar. This Incidental Language happens at a high rate between parent and child – and possibly most of our language comes from these learning opportunities. Most teachers use this in the classroom to varying degrees of success. If a child wants water or to go to the bathroom, give them the example phrase in usage. Learning opportunities like these present themselves every lesson we hold, and it is the best teachers who are able to identify and utilise these opportunities.

Implicit Learning

We all do this too, without consciously thinking about it. It is not easy to find examples of Implicit Learning because everyone has different experiences. So here are some general examples that might relate to you: How does a fly move around your living room. Right now you can picture how the fly moves (flies) in straight lines with sharp turns (That’s how NZ flies move which is slightly different to flies in China). You never explicitly learned how the fly moves, but through observation you have now acquired the flying patterns of a house fly.

Our human brains are constantly receiving information and storing short-term memory. You can consider Implicit Learning like using a transparent paint, let’s say about 10% opacity. With each stroke (or episode) the colour becomes more vibrant and vivid, so the concept becomes long-term memory. If you apply pressure to increase the opacity of a single stroke (higher value of importance) the concept requires less strokes to become long-term memory.

A lot of ‘immersion English’ schools attempt implicit teaching, however a study was conducted in Vanderbilt University that concluded “subjects previously identified as excellent readers showed little difference between how they processed explicit vs. implicit instruction. Average readers, on the other hand, showed through their fMRIs that they had to work harder to learn through implicit instruction; for them, explicit instruction was the more effective method.” Therefore we can say that implicit learning intertwined in explicit learning environments has immeasurable benefits for the learners.


This is not a pipe.
This image explicitly tells us that “This is not a pipe.”

Possible Types of Implicit Learning:

  • Concepts: In a paradigm somewhat similar to artificial grammar learning, subjects learn to identify instances of novel concepts, such as patterns of dots that vary around a prototype, without being able to describe the defining or characteristic features of the concepts themselves.
  • Covariation Detection: Subjects learn the association between two features, such as hair length and personality, but cannot identify the basis for their predictions.
  • Sequence Learning: Subjects learn the sequence in which certain stimuli will occur for example, the appearance of a target in a particular location on a computer screen  without being able to specify the sequence itself.
  • Dynamic Systems: Subjects learn to control the output of a complex system by manipulating an input variable, without being able to specify the relationship between the two.

Can you identify the common denominator here? If your brain is shouting “PATTERNS”, then our minds think alike. And what can we say about grammar and language, except that it is a repeating sequence of commonality. This is where implicit learning in the classroom can shine. If we can expose our learners to as many common patterns of language, and extend those patterns like tree branches from roots, we will have some fast learning and natural language users.

Implicit learning is the “knowing how” (implicit) without “knowing that” (explicit). Want your learners to have ‘street smarts’? Start using language in the classroom connected to their currently knowledge or ability without explicitly asking them to understand or remember. It’s how we can say sentences and words in Chinese we never learned, it’s how our learners can do it too. It does not replace the explicit instruction we are so accustomed to, but they make complementary bed-fellows.

In point of fact, the concept of implicit learning was introduced into the psychological literature well before that of implicit memory. In a pioneering series of experiments published in 1967, Reber asked subjects to memorize lists of letter strings, each of which had been generated by a Markov-process artificial grammar  a set of rules that specified what letters could appear in the string, and in what order. Over trials, the subjects found it easier to memorize grammatical strings, compared to random strings, indicating that their learning was exploiting the grammatical structure. Moreover, when presented with new strings, subjects were able to distinguish between grammatical and nongrammatical strings at levels significantly better than chance, indicating that they had acquired some knowledge of the grammar. Yet when queried, the subjects were unable to specify the grammatical rule itself. They had learned the grammar, and this knowledge had guided their behavior, but they were not aware that they had learned anything, and they were not aware of what they had learned (Reber, 1993).

Further Reading

Incidental Language:
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1311874/pdf/jaba00058-0066.pdf – Incidental Teaching of Language in the Preschool (BETTY HART AND TODD R. RISLEY THE UNIVERSITY OF KANSAS)

Implicit Learning:
http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~kihlstrm/IandMLandM.htm – Implicit and Explicit Memory and Learning (John F. Kihlstrom, Jennifer Dorfman, Lillian ParkM. Velmans & S. Schneider (Eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Consciousness.  Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 2007.)


Types of Long Term Memory

What do you think of Incidental Language in the classroom? Do you use Implicit Learning with your students? Comment below, let me know.

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