It’s funny how much can happen in language learning – even when, on the surface, not a lot has changed. Today’s Portuguese update is just about that. Can you actually learn a language without effort? And if not (obviously) – what’s going on in language study that you’re not fully aware of?
1. Business as usual (or is it)?
My setup for this week hasn’t changed at all. I found some great grammar introduction on Memrise, and spent my commute going through podcasts and refreshing my basic Portuguese phrases – with the addition of verb conjugation flashcards. These things make up the most of my study time at the moment. I gave up on Duolingo, sadly: the machine pronunciation worked OK for German, but leaves a lot to be desired in Portuguese. I much prefer to listen to human recordings.
So it looks like I haven’t changed a thing. You wouldn’t expect a lot of progress, not many language learning breakthroughs. Here’s what actually happened.
2. “I see grammar people:” How your linguistic sixth sense gets activated
So first, I learned a little bit about verb endings in present and past tenses. I did a few flashcard-based revision sessions on Memrise. Didn’t consciously study a lot: just went with it. It seemed similar to English in some ways, and French as well. So far, so good.
But then, a funny thing happened to my podcast listening. I used to just focus on noun phrases: these were crucial to understanding what the message was about. But after the grammar course really kicked off, I started noticing the verbs.
Along with making sense of the message, there was another thing happening in my head as I was listening: “Okay, so there’s an -ou ending which means that’s the past tense. And now there’s an irregular verb. The frequent ones are more likely to be irregular. Oh, and another one. This ending, I don’t know it yet…the context suggest a subjunctive maybe?”
This is not supernatural. It’s not even something you have to expertly train for. In fact, language learners can rely on already existing features of their memory to become much better at using their language.
3. Implicit memory: you know it, you just don’t know it yet!
The study on implicit memory only began a few decades ago. It turns out that there’s more to learning and remembering than just consciously and explicitly remembering and studying things. This makes sense when your first language is explained: you didn’t attend classes to learn your L1 – you acquired it. So there was a lot you actively remembered, but implicit memory also had a lot to do with it.
There’s a way to train yourself to use it more in language learning: the process, in methodology, is called noticing. The research on this is still not all there. It’s received plenty of flack, and nobody is 100% sure how, when and why it works.
So far, two things seem to be pretty confirmed:
– Your memory works on an explicit and implicit level, in language learning and many other fields.
– You are expected to recognise and notice patterns in language before you actively and consciously begin to use them.
4. Noticing for language learners: how to train it easily
What can you do with all this research as a language learner? As it turns out, common sense works quite well here. There are some habits and techniques you can use to make sure your memory (both explicit and implicit) benefits from noticing.
- Study proper forms carefully. It all has to start with formal, explicit learning. In my case, it was a quick course in Portuguese verb conjugation. This gives you the range of items to notice later.
- Don’t aim for 100% accuracy all at once. This is a very ineffective way of doing things: teachers shouldn’t really expect all learners to get it right the first time. And very frequently, those bright kids in language classes are only bright because they’d seen the form before! Make sure you know what the form is when you recognise it. But don’t aim for full-on native-like production from day one.
- Get long, real texts. It doesn’t make sense to notice stuff in short, contrived pieces of language. Textbooks are great for presenting language, but newspapers are brilliant for those who notice. A Portuguese classroom recording is perfect to showcase the past tense – and for noticing, a Portuguese podcast will provide the authentic context. So get real, and get authentic.
- “Mark” the language you’re noticing. On paper, highlighter pens are a trusted option. On screen, formatting works great (highlighting for new words, bold for verbs, italic for noun forms etc…) And in listening, a simple way to do this is to try to repeat a phase immediately after you hear it. This is not foolproof, and in intensive language work you’d be expected to do much more. But for a quick noticing exercise, it will do.
- Trust your other languages. What you learned previously may work just fine. The knowledge of your first language may not be enough to let you explain everything to everyone in class, but it will suffice to make sense of what you’re encountering. You don’t need to know all the fancy terms, either: “oh, there’s that past thingy again, right next to the third case gizmo” – if it works for you, keep it.
5. Do you notice, dear reader?
How does memory work for your learning, guys? Do you trust your explicit and implicit memory alike? Let us all know and good luck with your languages.
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