Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Why Explicit Knowledge Cannot Become Implicit Knowledge

Academic journal article Foreign Language Annals

Why Explicit Knowledge Cannot Become Implicit Knowledge

Article excerpt

In this essay, I address the idea that explicit learning and practice somehow help the development of implicit knowledge, or for that matter, might even become implicit knowledge. Based on the nature of language as mental representation and the nature of acquisition, I argue that explicit knowledge cannot become implicit knowledge or help its development. This essay is motivated by a reading of Lindseth (2016), but as becomes clear shortly, my comments are not limited to the research presented in that particular publication.

I begin by noting that research on the effects of instruction often neglects to define or describe what is meant by "language," "rule," or "knowledge." This lack of a concern for the nature of language is endemic to the field of instructed second language acquisition (ISLA) and not particular to any one study. For example, in the special issue of Studies in Second Language Acquisition focusing on "Theoretical and Empirical Issues in the Study of Implicit and Explicit Second-Language Learning" (see Hulstijn, 2005), not a single contribution discussed the nature of language. In his introduction, Hulstijn offered a distinction between explicit and implicit knowledge based on behavioral characteristics of use; that is, effort in making use of "rules," awareness of "rules," ability to verbalize "rules," and where language might reside in the brain, among others. Notably missing was any discussion of what a "rule" is and what the content of explicit or implicit knowledge might be (Hulstijn, 2005, pp. 130-131). In short, Hulstijn defined explicit and implicit knowledge in behavioral terms. Likewise, in a more recent collection of articles, Rebuschat's (2015) introduction described the distinction between implicit and explicit learning without any reference to what might be learned. In their meta-analysis of the effects of explicit and implicit learning conditions, Spada and Tomita (2010) also left out any discussion of the nature of language and what explicit and implicit knowledge actually are. Finally, within ISLA, the construct of "noticing" (Bergsleithner, Frota, & Yoshioka, 2013; Schmidt, 1990) has been a cornerstone for making arguments about the role of instruction. Yet what gets noticed and what winds up in learners' heads has never been articulated in any clear fashion (see, for example, the critical discussion in Truscott, 1998).1 Finally, one of the terms constantly used in the literature is "rule." However, like language more generally, researchers have offered at best descriptive notions of what a rule is. As I will argue, the notion of "rule" as typically conceived in ISLA and in language teaching is questionable on linguistic and psychological grounds. "Rules" are not really rules but descriptions of the consequences of underlying processes in language.

Based on work by Gregg (1989), Schwartz (1993), White (2003), and others, I have argued that explicit knowledge and implicit knowledge are fundamentally different things (e.g., VanPatten, 2013, 2014, forthcoming; VanPatten & Rothman, 2014, 2015). As such, explicit knowledge (i.e., explicit "rules") cannot turn into implicit knowledge, or what I call "mental representation. " At this point, I turn to a particular study published in Foreign Language Annals that represents, I think, a prevailing set of notions in language teaching. In her short study, Lindseth (2016) found some evidence for improvement with German subject-verb inversion in second language learners after a treatment period that targeted this particular "rule." Using a classic design, she pretested student-learners on the subject-verb inversion "rule," had these student-learners participate in a treatment that targeted this structure, and then tested them after the treatment. She reported a significant improvement from pretest to posttest. In discussing the data, she said, ".. .the results suggest that the intervention supported the development of implicit knowledge. …

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