Eye tracking study shows awareness is the key to language learning
Second language learners need to be consciously aware of their learning in order to learn, suggests a study by Sible Andringa at the University of Amsterdam.
The role of awareness in second language learning has a long and controversial history. Does unconscious, implicit learning precede awareness, or is awareness necessary for learning? Andringa’s study sought to answer this question by analysing the process of learning using a method that did not itself trigger awareness.
Thirty-nine Dutch speakers aged 18-28 were told they were taking part in a study on the ‘automisation of linguistic knowledge’. It may be worth noting here that very few Dutch speaking adults are new to language learning. Studying English and at least one other foreign language, typically Germany or French, are compulsory at secondary school, and in 2012 an EU test of language proficiency found that, on average, Dutch 15-year-olds were B1 or above in two foreign languages.
The study participants listened to phrases such as ‘this is a cat’ in a novel language derived from Esperanto, and matched the phrase to one of a pair of pictures. Participants were instructed to “learn the language and try to become fast in responding.”
The phrases used contained 18 nouns with determiners indicating whether the noun was near or far from the viewer and whether they were animate or inanimate. In order to match the correct picture to the phrase, the listener needed to have learned the nouns by trial and error.
However, if they also learned how the determiners which
preceded the nouns were used then eye tracking data would show that they could anticipate the correct picture before hearing the noun. For example, ‘gitene’ means near and animate, so when given the choice of a cat or a bicycle (at the same distance) and hearing ‘tio estas gitene cato’ their eyes would go to the cat on hearing ‘gitene’ before hearing ‘cato’.
By using eye tracking in this way, Andringa was able to examine the process of learning in real time without interfering with the learners’ awareness.
After 288 trials, the participants were asked if they were aware of the target language structure, i.e. the determiners for distance and animacy, and if so, during which of 7 sets of trials they had become aware. Of the 39 participants, only 13 reported awareness, with times ranging from the 2nd to the 7th set of trials.
Analysing eye tracking data showed that for the 13 aware participants, learning coincided with awareness and did not precede it.
For the remaining 26 participants, who were not consciously aware of the target language structure, there was no eye-tracking evidence of learning at all.
Andringa was not expecting so few of the participants to learn the target language structure, and this effectively reduced the sample size from 39 to 13, meaning that the results are not statistically robust. Nevertheless, the pattern that emerges is distinct, and hopefully a larger study will follow.
As to why so few participants were able to learn the target language – it may be just a matter of giving them more time. There are also unanswered questions concerning the possible role of implicit, unconscious learning, which might be gradual over time, and if so, how that would be measured.
A crucial question for students and teachers is – if awareness is necessary for learning, how, why and when is that awareness triggered? Also intriguing is the variation in how long it took for the aware 13 to become aware, which might reflect individual differences in implicit learning or cognitive skills.
■ Andringa, S. (2020). The emergence of awareness in uninstructed L2 learning: A visual world eye tracking study. Second Language Research. https://doi.org/10.1177/02676583 20915502