I believe this is one of the key concepts to understand the process by which a language is actually acquired.
We adults are used to wanting to have conscious control over everything in our lives, and it’s certainly the case as well when it comes to language learning.
And we’re also so used to those traditional language classes based on the conscious study of the language and its grammar rules, that we believe this is the only possible way to learn a language.
When we consciously learn a certain grammar rule or memorize certain vocabulary words, we experience a (false) feeling of improvement thanks to this “measurable” knowledge. However, we all know what happens when you come out to the real world and try to hold a conversation after learning a language this way.
What happens is you need to consciously think about absolutely everything you want to say, and you need time to access that conscious knowledge you got from traditional grammar classes. The problem is, unlike what happens when you take on a grammar exercise or exam, you just don’t have that time in a real life conversation.
Like I’ve said many times before, this is why we keep witnessing that sort of hesitant speech with a lot pauses when someone speaks in a foreign language. This happens because they’re trying to access that conscious knowledge and they need time for that. We all know as well how tiring this process of having to consciously think about everything you want to say is.
On the other side, true language acquisition is a subconscious process. Through comprehensible input, we process the language in our head and build a mental representation of it, and eventually our natural and spontaneous speech will show up.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to this: we improve when we understand what is being said to us. As strange as the previous paragraph may sound, it’s nothing but the same process by which each and every person acquires their native language.
If you pay close attention, kids get comprehensible input (it is comprehensible because their parents make the effort to make it so through simple language, gestures, props...) for quite a while until they’re ready to start speaking.
Obviously, nobody would think about teaching their kids the grammar rules or basing their language acquisition process on any sort of conscious learning. Kids actually acquire the language subconsciously thanks to the context and understanding what is being said to them.
This concept of subconscious language acquisition may be hard to understand for our conscious learning prone mind, but I believe it’s one of the most important ideas to be able to understand how the process actually works and to realize that learning a language is way more pleasant than what we thought it was.
We don’t need to consciously learn grammar rules or memorize vocabulary lists any more (a process I’m sure we all “love”), but rather we can truly acquire a language by carrying out interesting and pleasant activities like reading books, watching TV shows or series, talk with people from different countries… Activities that, ironically, are way more appropriate and effective.
We can also acquire languages through interesting and enjoyable language classes that are based on the right principles.
The idea then is for our attention to be focused on understanding the message (every time I talk about understanding, I mean the message or the storyline, I don’t mean each and every word) and following the storyline whenever we’re reading a book or watching a TV show. Because if we understand what’s going on, we’re subconsciously acquiring the language.
This is the way a language is truly acquired. Thanks to a story and a context, we’re able to process the language in our brain and link certain words or expressions to their meaning. And again, this happens subconsciously when we understand what is being said to us.
The main problem is that our minds are so used to conscious learning that they’re terrified when they can’t control or “measure” that knowledge. This is why there’s always a certain degree of uncertainty when subconsciously acquiring a language. However, we’ll be able to challenge that uncertainty when we realize that we can understand more and more of the language, and when we see that we start being able to speak naturally and spontaneously, just as it happens with our native language.
In that sense, the main difference between us adults and children is that the latter (due to lack of consciousness) don’t worry about the process and start speaking whenever they’re ready for it. Thanks to their lack of consciousness, they don’t worry about obtaining a conscious knowledge of the language, all they care about is the message and communication, and they’ll start speaking only when they’re ready.
On the other side, we adults love to have conscious knowledge over all the things in our lives, and we want to be able to speak as soon as possible. Although I do understand that we want to be able to speak as soon as possible and the fact that this is a result of an entire life learning languages with the traditional grammar approach, at the end of the day it’s all about trusting the same process and principles by which we all acquired our native languages.
Communication is the truly important thing here, and not form, and that’s why we’ll be improving if we understand the message.
Moreover, once we realize that the process works like this and we internalize it, this whole process and any activity are going to be a thousand times more pleasant and interesting.
I personally can tell you that watching TV shows, series or movies in a foreign language has become a way more pleasant activity than it used to be. I don’t worry about understanding each and every word or focusing my attention on a specific word one of the characters mentioned any more, my attention is rather focused on the message and following the storyline, because now I know that all I need to do to improve is understand the message. Believe me when I say that it’s way more interesting and pleasant.
I’ve already mentioned many times the fact that the message obviously needs to be comprehensible, because it would be just noise otherwise and no improvement would come about. That’s why I wrote the free eBook “The World of Languages”, to provide ideas about interesting and pleasant activities and resources broken down into different levels to keep improving on our own outside of the classroom.
Thanks a lot for reading this article and I truly hope it helped you start thinking outside the box a little bit, and realize that the language acquisition process is actually subconscious, because I believe this is one of the key ideas we need to understand for our language acquisition journey to be successful.