The power of noticing in language learning

What is attention, and what role does it play in foreign language learning?

That’s the question that this little language note will explore.

This idea is something we could slide under the category of cognition (the field that looks at how information is processed and learned in the human brain).

  • As a little side note, the etymology of the word cognition comes from the latin verb cognoscere: to get to know.  I always thought looking at a word’s etymology was a cool way of seeing it in a new light.

Personally, attention is something that I often wondered about in my own experiences of learning a foreign language and its role in learning a language has and continues to be a debated issue.

What is attention? What do we mean when we say “pay attention!” What is it that we’re really paying, and why am I paying it?

I know I could use a little help in this department, I find my mind wandering and day dreaming a bit more than I’d like, but when I do pay attention I guess I could say it feels like I am noticing something and locking on to it with my consciousness at that moment.  Like when I was trying to learn conjugation of French verbs, I paid attention (sometimes) to how french verbs using the pronoun ‘we’ almost always end with -ons.  Nous allons, nous mangeons, nous bavardons, nous rions, and at those first stages, I thought, aha! I can just tack that on the end to the verb’s root and voila! There’s one little key I can use to get this down!  Of course there are irregular verbs and some of the tricky ones too, but more or less this proved to be a nifty learning moment for me.

This highlights one of the big controversies in second language acquisition: do we acquire a foreign language or do we learn a foreign language.  If it’s the latter, maybe we should call the field second language learning.

Big Idea # 1: Noticing becomes Understanding

The transition from noticing to understanding or induction/abstraction is the heart of the controversy in language learning vs. acquisition.

Can we pay attention to everything all at once?  Um…Nope.

Our brain can’t quite handle consciously processing the huge amount of stuff that is available to our senses out there.  Out of the bombardment of phenomena hitting the rods in our eyes, flowing across our skin, activating our taste buds, drifting into our nostrils, and vibrating our eardrums (and maybe even triggering our extra spidy sense for those who go with 6 instead of 5) our brain selects what to admit into our weird little worlds and what to let go by the wayside or perhaps seep into our unconscious lives.

Attention is a word that is a bit difficult at first to define, but if we can break it up a bit into little pieces, I think it should be a bit easier to chew: here’s a little chain of 4 concepts that lead up to and past the concept of attention to help us get some handle on the idea while we’re climbing up the treacherous slopes of trying to understand the human mind.

4 Characteristic of Attention:

One major characteristic of attention is that it’s limited. Yup, we are definitely not omniscient creatures, as much as we might like to be.  And because it is limited, it is selective. Our attention can only take in so much, so it’s a bit choosy with what gets the honor of occupying our moment-to-moment consciousness.

Another key feature of attention is that it is controllable, or voluntary. We actually get to choose what we pay attention to.  If what we had to pay attention to was entirely random, we might not even make it out the door in the morning, much less drive a car or learn a foreign language.

And lastly, we can talk about our feelings and thoughts.  This means that attention gives us access to our consciousness; we can tell others (and researchers) what we are thinking about.


Big Idea # 2: What is your quality of attention?

Attention is limited, selective, voluntary and provides access to consciousness. Much research looks at what quality of attention we need in order to learn, how consciously focused on something do we need to be to ‘learn’ it?

So now that’s all behind us, let’s ask a simple question: is attention necessary to learn a foreign language, or can we just soak it up without needing to ‘pay attention’?

Dr. Richard Schmidt, a professor in SLA writes the following on his noticing hypothesis:

A low level of awareness, called here “noticing,” is nearly isomorphic with attention, and seems to be associated with all learning.  A higher level of awareness (“understanding”) is involved in contrasts between explicit learning (learning on the basis of conscious knowledge, insights and hypotheses) and implicit learning (learning based on unconscious processes of generalization and abstraction).  It can be shown that many claims of unconscious learning in this sense follow either from over-estimation of what has been learned (abstract rules claimed to exist unconsciously without adequate justification) or from under-estimation of what learners know consciously (often they are not even asked.)

This is a big debate, and one of the reasons why some people choose to keep separate the terms second language acquisition and second language learning.  If we acquire something, it just happens to us like ‘getting a pot belly, or acquiring a taste for brie.’ But if we learn something, it means that we have gone from induction to abstraction, from specific instances to generalizations, from ‘noticing to understanding.’ Knowing if and when this ‘learning’ takes place is pretty hard to pin point. How can you ever say whether someone had ‘zero’ awareness of something at the time…you can’t.  Even if the person doesn’t remember noticing a particular word, it might have somehow grazed the edge of her consciousness…you just never know.

I have to get a bit more specific for a second just to show what all the fuss is about in this debate that rages like a wildfire in the minds of seemingly peaceful attention researchers (okay, maybe the debate just flickers like a Zippo lighter, but it’s still interesting).  The question above asks what kind of quality of attention we need, whether something has barely registered in the mind like a tree that we pass driving down the road that we forget about moments later or rather, if it has our complete focus, like following a recipe to bake a cake?  Again, what quality of attention de we need in order to ‘learn’ a foreign language?

Traditionally, there are more or less 3 views on attention and how to learn a foreign language, and I present them to you now in no particular order of preference:

  1. Learning a foreign language starts with knowledge, then practice and finally applying it to other situations.  This view stresses the ‘total attention must be paid all along’ extreme of the debate.
  2. On the other extreme is the approach that focuses on meaning rather than form (like grammar rules and such).  Just by being exposed to a language without explanation, over time we can gain fluency, much like the baby learning theory of foreign language learning: we can just soak it up.
  3. The last view takes both positions and mixes them a bit together.

Dr. Richard Schmidt has a fairly strong opinion about all this and stands by the view that one must be fully paying attention in order for foreign language learning to take place.

To be clear though, Schmidt’s basic idea however is that what you learn has to occupy your attention to some degree at the time of learning.  You don’t have to remember it later necessarily for learning to take place, it just needs to be in your focus that moment you were exposed to it.

So how should we think about it? In his article on the noticing hypothesis, Schmidt writes:

Suppose that a second year foreign language student is given a long list of words, some of which appeared in the first year instructional materials and some of which did not, and asked to say whether or not he or she had seen them before, and if so, when.  What we would expect is that such a student would be able to give quite specific details when and how some words were learned.  This is called episodic memory.  In other cases, the learner would be able to say that a word had been encountered before (there would be some incorrect reports as well) but not give details.  Recognition memory of this kind is explicit memory but not episodic memory.  There would be many other cases where the learner would not be able to recall whether or not a word had been encountered before, but if we asked learners to go through the list rapidly and indicate which of all the words on the list were real words in the foreign language, we should find that both accuracy and speed (response latency) are much better for the previously encountered words, that is, evidence for implicit memory.

and goes on later to say:

In my opinion the whole area of implicit memory is simply irrelevant for the noticing hypothesis.  The noticing hypothesis claims that learning requires awareness at the time of learning. It does not require that memory of that event be preserved, much less recalled each time the learned material is encountered.

Big Idea # 3: Attention, awareness, and consciousness…it’s all just a metaphor.

Metaphors have been a great tool for helping to visualize the difficult questions that science grapples with.  And they can generate the tiny, quiet shifts in thinking that can start whole revolutions.  In Newton’s case for example, mathematics supplied the tight little conceptual metaphors needed to begin grappling with things such as gravity.  For example, an equation like F=ma linked his understanding on force with his understanding of mass and acceleration thus creating the equation, which is really just a metaphor, for describing force.

Or they can be a bit looser too, like thinking of the immune system as a city with various sanitation systems, or evolution as a ‘tree of life.’ Other possibilities could have been the ‘shrubbery of life,’ or perhaps ‘the coral of life’, but the ‘tree of life’ must have seemed the most apt for Darwin at the time.

The metaphors used in language learning abound as well, and often whole research agendas are built and demolished on their assumed validity or invalidity.  They can be incredibly useful tools, but just like the Zen monk and the novice in the moonlit garden, we always have to be a bit careful about confusing the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.


…getting back to how we can take this all in and apply these big ideas in our own life, some of the main metaphors involving attention have likened it to a flashlight only lighting up tiny pieces of the world or a kind of filter that sifts out unnecessary information, or perhaps a bottleneck only letting in so much phenomena available to our senses at one point in time.  But whatever metaphors we can come up with for attention,  it must be a pretty powerful thing:

Alan Watts once described the ego as ‘nothing other than the focus of conscious attention.’

W. H. Auden wrote: “Choice of attention – to pay attention to this and ignore that – is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, a man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences, whatever they may be”

Ortega y Gasset

And Jorge Ortgea y Gasset describes it this way: “Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are.”

This whole topic of ‘attention’ is a tough one to grasp.  We haven’t even really broached the relationship between long-term memory, short term memory and working memory; skill acquisition theory; the ties between attention and intention; awareness.  And we definitely haven’t really opened the Pandora’s Box of consciousness either.  Not to mention the fact that all these are English words; what we mean by the word attention in English may be more different when translated into other languages than we imagine, and this has consequences for psychology in which the vast majority of research has been conducted through the medium of the English language.

So let’s end with…

Big Idea # 4: Attention as Psychic Energy

This last idea may be a bit further out in space from this post, but I was thinking about it so here you go:

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes the following in his awesome book Flow:

“The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will,to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer. And the person who can do this usually enjoys the normal course of everyday life.”

So the quality of your attention (and where you consciously choose to point your little attention flashlight), over the seconds, hours, days, years, and decades of your life, can determine the quality of your life.  If anything, learning another language exercises our attention brain muscles.  And learning to achieve a higher quality of attention in our daily life through daily language exercise can’t be a bad thing…right?

If you enjoyed this post, you might like this one.

Update: 05/06/2013

Here’s a video that tests your awareness, you might need to watch it twice:-)

The main resources I used for this post are:

The Role of Consciousness in Second Language Learning

Understanding Second Language Acquisition

For those of you who are especially interested in Dr. Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis: Here is a very recent paper (2010) by him covering the whole evolution and current status of the concept: The Noticing Hypothesis

The featured image for this post was taken in Lahaina, Maui, looking towards the island of Lana‘i.

8 responses to “The power of noticing in language learning

  1. Hey great post. Still working through it, but I wanted to say that I think the four points are right on about noticing. I would add that it seem there is also an element of surprise to noticing. My last year of college while playing Hacky Sack on the lawn one day, I was suddenly hit in the head by the hacky because my attention had been stolen away by a beautiful young lady who was walking across campus. My attention had suddenly become limited and selective and I voluntarily left the game to follow her, talk with her and over time I began to talk about my feelings with her. In the beginning though, she caught me totally by surprise. After the surprise though, the four characteristics of attention kicked in and hasn’t wavered for the last 12 years now as she became my wife.

    I think in language learning something similar often happens. The next thing (i+1) often jumps off the page and catches our attention without us realizing it. Or we are in conversation with a friend and they use what we know is an expression – we notice, give it our attention and then make it our own.

    Now I have to get back to reading the last half of the post.

    Take care,

    • Hey Aaron, what a great story! thanks for sharing it!. It’s amazing how one brief moment of attention can direct the course of the rest of your life! I totally agree that surprise is also an important aspect of noticing. There’s actually some cool research on ‘language play’ and language learning where an element of surprise is said to be what gets us to notice something in the first place, and some cool ideas for teaching and learning come out of this too. That definitely seems to be the case with how you met your wife! There’s probably a lot more I could have written on this, but I guess that always seems to be the case with interesting topics. That’s cool how your related i+1 to noticing and surprise. I always had trouble figuring out exactly what that +1 input (the next thing) might be in the language you are learning, but what you said made me think perhaps what’s noticeable and/or surprising in the language is precisely what your i+1 would be. Definitely might have to work it in sometime in the future though.

      Thanks again for your great comment Aaron. I’ll be shooting for about one to two language notes a week so keep checking back when you get a chance.


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  3. Great post!
    Great story Aaron. One observation I would like to make about it is that what prompted you to shift your attention was a quality of energy – in this case attraction. And that is what kept you moving in the direction of the object of your attraction. I reckon it’s a lot like that with effective learners. There has to be an affective component for our attention to be moved in a way that keeps us focussed. This is where the flow that Csikszentmihalyi talks about can kick in. And Aaron certainly got into a flow! 🙂
    The “other” way of learning is where our intellect determines the object of our attention. A very poor cousin. This kind of learning leads to the holes that so many learners get into and don’t know how to get out of.

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