When we try to acquire a new language, many factors can influence how difficult or how easy it is for us. There are varying views on the effectiveness of different approaches, such as full immersion in the foreign language or the use of translation. One of the most difficult areas of mastery is the attempt to get a ‘feel’ for the language.

When children acquire a first language, they unconsciously pick up on those very small and hard-to-grasp patterns that make each language so unique. Studies have shown that even as we try to learn a language as adults, grasping those subtle regularities is still possible and help us develop a better understanding and mastery of new languages.

As a foreigner, I acquired much of my vocabulary and feel for grammar and sentence structure in the English language through daily reading. For me, reading was the most effective way to learn the language and its implicit patterns. But even after 12 years, some of these patterns still seem to elude me.

Implicit learning of languages

When linguists talk about unconscious or implicit learning, they don’t mean learning while you sleep. Rather, they are talking about one of the most intriguing of all mental phenomena: the ability to learn the complex and subtle regularities that underlie a language without even realizing it.

For children, such ‘implicit’ language learning seems to happen spontaneously. But in adulthood, learning a second language is generally far from effortless and has varied levels of success. Kids seem to always get it right; adults need to learn actively and deliberately to learn a language. (But, when they do learn deliberately with the right tools and methodology, they can actually learn languages more quickly than kids ).

So marked is the difference between first- and second-language learning—at least when learning the second languages takes place in the classroom—that it might suggest that implicit learning makes no significant contribution to learning a second language. Or it may indicate that typical foreign language teaching doesn’t take full advantage of the implicit learning abilities that we all have.

The challenge that faces linguists is how to test whether implicit learning is taking place. How can you differentiate between a person consciously recognizing a certain pattern or rule in the language they are learning and the same person unconsciously knowing that something sounds right simply because their brain has judged it to be right?

The brain learns without us even knowing

A new approach to solving this puzzle taken by Dr. John Williams at the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics and his collaborator, Dr. Janny Leung from the University of Hong Kong, has been to invent an artificial language. They conducted a study in which participants were tested to see whether they correctly acquired, over periods as short as one hour, an understanding of patterns embedded within the artificial language.

An example of their technique is to teach participants four novel forms of the word "the" (gi, ro, ul and ne), telling them that the forms encode a certain meaningful dimension (e.g. gi and ro should be used for describing near objects, ul and ne for far objects). The aim is to see if the participants can spontaneously pick up a correlation with another, hidden, meaning (e.g. that gi and ul should be used with animate nouns and ro and ne with inanimate nouns). The novel forms are embedded in English phrases such as "I was terrified when I turned around and saw gi lion right behind me."

Do they pick up on the concealed pattern when tested? “The answer is yes,” said Dr. Williams, whose research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. “We found significantly above-chance selection of sentence constructions that were ‘grammatically correct’ according to the hidden pattern. Yet, the participants had no awareness of what they had learned or how. Moreover, we were able to show learning of the same material by native speakers of two typologically very different languages, English and Cantonese.”

Interestingly, picking up the hidden pattern unconsciously doesn’t always happen—if, for instance, the hidden pattern is linguistically unnatural, such as a grammatical correlation with whether an object makes a sound or not. “One explanation could be that certain patterns are more accessible to language learning processes than others. Perhaps our brains are built equipped to expect certain patterns, or perhaps they process some patterns better than others,” he added.

The research provides a window onto unconscious learning processes in the mind and highlights an important element that has practical implications for language teaching. In each test, the learner’s attention was directed to the part of the sentence that contained the hidden pattern. By directing attention, it seems that other elements of the sentence construction are picked up unconsciously.

“In a teaching situation, merely teaching the rules of a language may not be the only answer,” explained Dr. Williams. “Instead, using tasks that focus attention on the relevant grammatical forms in language could help learners access unconscious learning pathways in the brain. This would greatly enhance the speed of acquisition of a second language.”

Optimizing implicit language learning

One other major factor glossed over in Dr. Williams' research is the role of the zone of proximal development in implicit language learning.

Our brains are more amenable to any type of learning when the concepts are just outside our existing skill level. For example, imagine trying to learn Chinese (or any language where you have near-zero knowledge) by just listening to people talking on the radio. You'd have zero context, and little chance of just "picking up" on the subtle grammatical rules and nuances.

In contrast, if you were listening to some foreign language where you were already partly proficient, but there were just one or two words you didn't know, your brain would be much more likely to "implicitly" fill that gap by predicting what rules have been newly uncovered by the sentence.

For this reason, we have developed Brainscape's foreign language curricula in an impeccably incremental fashion, where each bite-sized concept is introduced and repeated in exactly the right pattern for your optimal knowledge absorption. We ensure that you are always studying within the zone of proximal development.

Feel free to read more to learn more about the spaced repetition behind Brainscape's language-learning method, and if you're serious about learning a language, check out our complete toolkit with the best ways to learn a language on your own.