Scholarly article on topic 'How Alert should I be to Learn a Language? The Noticing Hypothesis and its Implications for Language Teaching'

How Alert should I be to Learn a Language? The Noticing Hypothesis and its Implications for Language Teaching Academic research paper on "Languages and literature"

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Abstract of research paper on Languages and literature, author of scientific article — Aslı Ünlü

Abstract The role of awareness in language learning has gained strength with the increasing popularity of cognitive approaches in the field. The Noticing Hypothesis- any form should be noticed in the input and registered consciously to be acquired (Schmidt, 1990, 2001)- contradicts the earlier popular approaches to language acquisition which focus on subconscious processes (Krashen, 1981). The extend that awareness and noticing play a role in language learning is important especially for practitioners to design more effective teaching courses and programs. The implications of related studies will also be determinant of teacher and learner roles in the learning process. Therefore, this paper presents a review of the related studies on ‘noticing’ and discusses the important concepts of the Noticing Hypothesis. With the purpose of detecting and refuting the contradictory arguments in these studies and clarifying the conceptual issues, the paper adopts a critical perspective. Highly polarized view of the involvement of either conscious or unconscious processes in learning is in the centre of discussion in the paper. One of the main conclusions of the study is that such a dismissive tone may impede a more comprehensive perspective on the subject and may lead the practitioners to adopt absolute approaches to language learning.

Academic research paper on topic "How Alert should I be to Learn a Language? The Noticing Hypothesis and its Implications for Language Teaching"

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Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 199 (2015) 261 - 267

GlobELT: An International Conference on Teaching and Learning English as an Additional

Language, Antalya - Turkey

How alert should I be to learn a language? The noticing hypothesis and its implications for language teaching

Asli Unlua*

aBogaziçi University, Istanbul, Turkey

Abstract

The role of awareness in language learning has gained strength with the increasing popularity of cognitive approaches in the field. The Noticing Hypothesis- any form should be noticed in the input and registered consciously to be acquired (Schmidt, 1990, 2001)- contradicts the earlier popular approaches to language acquisition which focus on subconscious processes (Krashen, 1981). The extend that awareness and noticing play a role in language learning is important especially for practitioners to design more effective teaching courses and programs. The implications of related studies will also be determinant of teacher and learner roles in the learning process. Therefore, this paper presents a review of the related studies on 'noticing' and discusses the important concepts of the Noticing Hypothesis. With the purpose of detecting and refuting the contradictory arguments in these studies and clarifying the conceptual issues, the paper adopts a critical perspective. Highly polarized view of the involvement of either conscious or unconscious processes in learning is in the centre of discussion in the paper. One of the main conclusions of the study is that such a dismissive tone may impede a more comprehensive perspective on the subject and may lead the practitioners to adopt absolute approaches to language learning.

© 2015 TheAuthors.PublishedbyElsevierLtd.This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license

(http://creativecommons.Org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).

Peer-review under responsibility of Hacettepe Universitesi.

Keywords: noticing; consciousness; awareness; acquisition

1. Introduction

The long journey of Second Language Acquisition from the mid-40s till our time began with a purely behaviouristic approach to language learning (Skinner, 1957; Lado, 1964) but has come to a point of more complexity with the introduction of innate mechanisms (Chomsky, 1959; Dulay & Burt; 1973) and later cognitive

* Corresponding author. E-mail address: basarirasli@hotmail.com

1877-0428 © 2015 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license

(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).

Peer-review under responsibility of Hacettepe Universitesi.

doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.07.515

science into the field (Schmidt, 1986, 1990; Ellis, 2003). Human mind has always raised curiosity with its complex and mysterious nature. Marriage of Cognitive Science and SLA has opened a new door to the field with more doors to open to the human mind and language learning. Schmidt, whose studies on consciousness, attention, and awareness (1990, 1993, 1994, 2001) have led to the emergence of the Noticing Hypothesis, is one of the few names who tries to make a connection between the way people learn a second language and cognitive processes as this connection is hardly achieved by the researchers (Doughty & Long, 2003).

In this paper, the reader will be first informed about the origins of the Noticing Hypothesis. Then, some concepts of the Noticing Hypothesis and different perspectives to the 'noticing' will be discussed with an emphasis on the difficulty of meeting on the common grounds and from a critical view point. After connections between the Noticing Hypothesis and some well-known SLA hypotheses are evaluated in the scope of conscious and unconscious processes, the implications of the hypothesis for teaching practice will be discussed.

2. Origins of the Noticing Hypothesis

The Noticing Hypothesis has its roots in the study where Schmidt (1983) questions the underlying reasons behind the consistent lexical and grammatical errors in the proficient language use of a Japanese learner of English, whom he calls 'Wes'. As an explanation to this stabilization of some specific errors in Wes' English, he suggests that Wes may not have noticed the correct form of the errors in his interlanguage. He may not have known that he had been saying them wrong. Whether that was the case is not explained in his paper but that study is the origin of the Noticing Hypothesis.

Already aroused curiosity of Schmidt into the impact of learner awareness in the learning process is reinforced and supported with evidence from his study of his own language learning experience of Portuguese (Schmidt & Frota, 1986). In this study, he documents accounts of his own learning by keeping a journal which contains his notes during the time he was taking official language courses and also during his daily conversations. His written accounts of his learning are compared with the recordings of the conversations in Portuguese between Schmidt and Frota (1986). Two main findings create a base for his hypothesis; frequency of a language form in the input did not result in acquisition if it was not noticed by the learner and corrective feedback of his mistakes did not contribute to his learning if they were not noticed by him (Schmidt & Frota, 1986). The findings of that study played the main role in the proposal of the Noticing Hypothesis.

These two main studies raised the questions that led Schmidt to propose the term "noticing" and the Noticing Hypothesis. To get a more comprehensive understanding of the hypothesis, a closer understanding of the terminology is essential. Therefore, the following section will provide some definitions for the key terms with reference to some related criticism for the confusion that terminology causes.

3. The Noticing Hypothesis and 'noticing'

Schmidt and Frota refer to "noticing" as conscious awareness of the target language which requires the attendance and awareness of the learner to the input (1986). In other words, the learner needs to be aware of the input and attend to it to be able to process the input, which means that input becomes intake. However, Schmidt and Frota avoid operationally defining the term in their study where they make their initial claims of the hypothesis (Schmidt & Frota, 1986). Subjective nature of the term is accepted by Schmidt (2001) as he refers to it as a "subjective correlation" of attention. Schmidt (2001) aims at suggesting a neat definition with clearer boundaries of 'noticing' by offering equivalent terms such as "apperception" (Gass, 1988), "detection within selective attention" (Tomlin & Villa, 1994), and "detection plus rehearsal in short term memory" (Robinson, 1995). However, these definitions do not truly comply with his definition of the term. First of all, definition of "apperception" contains some form of understanding of the relations between the past and new knowledge (Gass, 1997) while Schmidt (1990) states that noticing does not require understanding, which is stated to be a higher process. Although Gass' (1997) comprehended input concept seems more similar to the concept of understanding (Schmidt, 1990), it is important to point out the conceptual ambiguity that is caused by naming similar concepts differently. Similarly,

"noticing" requires attention and awareness because Schmidt (2001) accepts the view that attention and awareness are inseparable. Tomlin & Villa's (1994) equivalent term is not actually equal to noticing, either, since "detection with selective attention" does not necessarily require awareness. Finally, Robinson's (1995) definition of "noticing" seems to help Schmidt more to create a clearer picture of the Noticing Hypothesis. On the other hand, all these terms emphasize the subjective nature of 'noticing'.

Another attempt to clarify this confusion is the separation of noticing of the surface structures in the input from becoming aware of the principles and rules that can be inferred from these surface structures, which is called "metalinguistic awareness" (Schmidt, 2001). Similar to what Swain (1995) proposes in her the Comprehensible Output Hypothesis, Schmidt and Frota (1986) offer three terms of noticing; 'notice' the surface forms, 'notice' the rules and 'notice the gap' between what a learner produces and what the actual target form is, and latter two of these concepts are not claimed to be essential for input to become intake.

According to Schmidt (1990, p. 132), "the subjective experience of noticing" is the necessary and sufficient condition for the conversion of input to intake". Although the importance of input is widely recognized in the field of SLA from different perspectives, the way it is processed is a broader area of debate (Doughty & Long, 2003). Krashen's comprehensible input hypothesis (1981) attributes the biggest role for learning to input which one level beyond the learners' actual competence is while he does not say much about the way this input is processed. On the other hand, Gass (1997) points out the difference between comprehensible input and comprehended input. Comprehended input seems similar to what Schmidt (1990) calls intake. However, the difference between noticing and comprehending that is emphasized above should not be forgotten. While comprehended input is not defined as intake (Gass, 1997), the 'noticed' input is 'intake' (Schmidt, 1990). Schmidt defines intake as "that part of the input that the learner notices" and claims that the process is absolutely conscious (Schmidt, 1994, p.139). In other words, if any language form is not noticed, it is not taken as intake and not processed for learning.

This abundance of terms defining a common process from different perspectives adds to the intricacy of the term 'noticing' and the Noticing Hypothesis. Hopefully, the following section that will position the Noticing Hypothesis among other contrary and complementary views of consciousness will shed light on this complicated issue.

4. Conscious and Unconscious Processes in Learning

Dichotomous approach of cognition studies results in a strong separation between unconscious and conscious learning processes (Krashen, 1981; Paradis, 2004, 2009; Ullman, 2004, 2005) some of which reject any interface between them (Paradis, 2004, 2009; Krashen, 1981). That is to say, non-interface approaches to learning object to any transfer or interaction between conscious and unconscious processes. Krashen's once popular differentiation between learning and acquisition is a good example for a non-interface approach. While learning a language means consciously picking the rules of the language usually through instruction, acquisition can be defined as how children learn their native langue and it is mainly meaning-based. According to this separation, language that is learned cannot become a part of the acquired language (Krashen, 1981). Popularity of this distinction has led to the Natural Approach to language teaching, proponents of which basically believed that immersing children into the settings where only the target language is spoken would suffice for the learners to learn and use this language. Any possible role of the native language in learning an additional language and of the form has been disregarded by the believers of this approach.

Substitute terms have been adopted to avoid the broad area of consciousness such as explicit vs. implicit learning in the field and this distinction has become another dichotomy. While explicit learning necessitates awareness, implicit learning occurs without awareness in Schmidt's definition (1990). Although he created a new dichotomy in his distinction between these processes, Schmidt (1994a) is aware that this will not solve the conceptual problems. Therefore, he aims at stabilizing this inconsistent terminology by categorizing consciousness as intentionality, attention, awareness, and control (1994a). Only consciousness as attention and consciousness as awareness are concerns of "noticing". In this clarification, "noticing" does not require any learner intention or control (Schmidt, 1994a). For a long time, Schmidt excluded any unconscious learning process from the scope of the Noticing

Hypothesis. However, Schmidt's insistence on the involvement of purely conscious processes does not last till our present time.

One of the strongest positions of the Noticing Hypothesis (Schmidt, 1990) has actually lost its strength lately (Schmidt, 2010). Instead of pursuing his stand against unconscious learning, Schmidt has proposed a milder rejection of a wholly unconscious learning of a language and has cautiously limited the importance of consciousness to adults (2010). This view is a more acceptable one when compared to the strong position he takes in his earlier studies (Schmidt, 1990). In that sense, he seems to embrace a more flexible view and meet at a more common ground with the proponents of unconscious processes.

This change in his view is very understandable especially when the difficulty of drawing a line between where unconscious processing ends and where conscious processing begins is considered. Baddeley's (1976) proposal of consciousness as a continuum from an unconscious to highly conscious process might provide another explanation for the source of this challenge. Having clear boundaries between conscious and unconscious processes might not be possible as it has been claimed. However, this does not refute any claim, including the Noticing Hypothesis, for the involvement of any distinct conscious or unconscious process in learning. What is important might be the degree the conscious and unconscious processes are involved in learning rather than an "either or" situation.

A similar approach to the role of awareness in language learning is adopted in the Output Hypothesis by Swain and it shares some common points with the Noticing Hypothesis (1995). Swain's Output Hypothesis explains the learner's process of attendance to their own output. That is to say, while the Noticing Hypothesis primarily intends to explain the learners' attendance to the input in terms of comprehension, the Output Hypothesis' primary intention to explain the learner's attendance to the their own production and the role it plays in their language development (Swain, 1995). In the Output Hypothesis, learners either 'notice' that something is missing in their own production or they 'notice' the difference between their own production and the target language as Schmidt & Frota (1986) also claim in their 'notice the gap' principle. She depicts the learning process as a hypothesis testing process when learners reflect on their own production and build the language. In that sense, learners' own output is the language input-'autoinput' (Schmidt & Frota, 1986; Sharwood-Smith, 1981; Gregg, 1984)- which learners should make use of to learn a language. Emphasis on conscious mechanisms and attention are notable in these hypotheses and Swain (1995) looks beyond just noticing the surface language and states noticing might help learners to attain a higher metalinguistic awareness.

Understanding the role of consciousness in different language learning views is important to position the Noticing Hypothesis in the excessive amount of knowledge in the field. This positioning will also contribute to the clarity of its implications in terms of language learning and teaching practice. In the following section, some of these implications will be discussed.

5. Implications for Learning and Teaching Practice

Embracing the role that attention and awareness play in the learning process gives a greater responsibility to academicians and practitioners in terms of some intended and unintended consequences. It also raises some questions for the application of this theory into practice.

First of all, the agent who will decide what the learners need to focus on may need to be defined clearly. Should teachers "respect the learners' internal syllabus" (Ellis et al, 2001) and provide learning setting where the learners freely learn things they automatically attend to? This sounds very similar to the way the Naturalistic Approach would favour; a meaning based teaching style whose expectation from the learners is to attend to the language forms as much as their language proficiency allow. Or should teachers design the learning setting in a way that some prompts guide learners to some specific target language forms so that the teacher has some sort of control over the learners' syllabus, but still has more flexibility and gives some space for the learner to attend to or not to that specific input? Or should there be a specific agenda of the lesson that needs to be attended to, processed and learned at any cost? Leaving the choice to the learners would apparently be very problematic since studies show that students' self-initiated focus is usually on lexis. Yet, having an answer for this dilemma would ease the decision-making process for teachers as they design their courses.

Another problem area arises from the connection between the learners' awareness level and their proficiency level. Whether there is a correlation between these two variables has been studied by some researchers. Qui and Lapkin (2001) claim that the more proficient the learners are, the easier it becomes for them to notice the gap between their interlanguage and the target language in comprehension. On the other hand, Shin (2010) claims that as the learners become more proficient, their self-confidence increases and they attend less to the mismatches between their interlanguage and the target language. These studies show that although more proficient learners become more vigilant for the different forms when they comprehend input, they may not be so when their own production differs from the target language. This can be explained with the cognitive processing required at high levels. Since the learners are more familiar with the language and comprehend most of it, it is very sensible that they can recognize new forms easier. This has an important implication for task design. Contrary to the popularity of authentic material use even with lower level learners, adaptation of the oral or written texts for the target level lowers the cognitive load and guides learners to attend to the new target language forms. In addition, presenting the input in a context may also reduce the cognitive load. However, more studies on this area would provide a better understanding of the correlation between proficiency level and awareness of the input.

Last but not least, recasting as an oral error correction technique is in the scope of the Noticing Hypothesis and the Output Hypothesis. Although recasting is the most frequent feedback, it is the least effective one (Lyster & Ranta, 1997). This is because the learners usually do not notice the gap between their own output and the teacher's recast. They may be confused by different possibilities such as whether the teacher corrected their error for meaning or grammar, in what part of their speech the error was, and whether their teacher was merely repeating the sentence to clarify meaning. To increase the chances that recasts are attended, Song (2007) suggests that there should be fewer changes in the recasts. Similarly, Han (2004) emphasizes that the saliency of the changed part would make recasts more effective. Awareness of the role of noticing in corrective feedback and becoming knowledgeable of the ways that what can be noticed more easily may contribute to the teaching practice.

Only some of the implications of adopting a 'noticing' perspective to language learning have been discussed here. There are definitely more implications of the Noticing Hypothesis for the teaching practice which will not be elaborated on here.

6. Discussion

Although the Noticing Hypothesis has many valid implications for teaching practice and evidence advocates its contribution to the field, it is not without criticism. Some evaluation of conceptual ambiguity has already been addressed in the previous sections. Other problematic areas of the Noticing Hypothesis will be addressed in this part.

One of the criticisms is directed to the strict unity of attention and awareness in the hypothesis. Schmidt emphasizes that attending to the input automatically means that the learner becomes aware of it. On the other hand, VanLier claims that awareness is not a precondition for attending to the input (1991). The learner may show a conscious tendency to register the input but may not fully become aware of its existence. Although it is a criticism directed against the Noticing Hypothesis, how the learner does not become aware of what he attends to is questionable.

Another problem area emerges when the Noticing Hypothesis is evaluated with an understanding of Universal Grammar Theories. The way the Noticing Hypothesis and the SLA theories explain the overgeneralization errors is very contradictory. Schmidt and Frota's (1986) interpretation of the overgeneralization errors is based on autoinput hypothesis (Sharwood-Smith, 1981; Gregg, 1984). In their claim, learners make creative errors, like producing words they have never heard such as foots because they listen to their own error and memorize it as a whole and until they notice what they produce is not what they are supposed to produce, they continue making this error. Then, why do all of the learners of English have to go through the same route with the same structure but not another structure? Wouldn't we expect randomness of routines depending on individual differences instead of the some predictable routines such as developmental stages (Dulay & Burt, 1973; Bailey, Madden & Krashen, 1974)? This is where the SLA theories' explanation of the overgeneralization errors becomes a more valid source and provides

more solid evidence. Explaining these similar routes taken by different learners with an individualistic view does not seem to be as provable as the SLA perspective.

Last but not least, language learning does not only mean learning some grammatical forms. It embraces a wider list of language components that are learned such word meanings, forms, intonation, syntactical rules, textual rules etc. However, the studies of noticing mainly focus on grammatical items. The main focus of the Noticing Hypothesis seems to be attending to some surface forms, not even their underlying structural rules. At this point, its approach to learning becomes more debatable and some intriguing questions arise. Do learners need to attend to each bit of new information related to different domains to be able to learn them? For example, do they need to notice falling intonation in sentences or appropriate way of saluting people at different times? If they have to notice them, how many different things can a person notice at a time? Would noticing things related to different domains take the same attention time or would it differ depending on the domain or even on the specific language item or rule? How long would it take to learn a language under these circumstances? Each of these questions need to be studied to have a more comprehensive and evidence-based understanding of the hypothesis.

In addition to the related critique, some careful consideration should be given to the way the Noticing Hypothesis is studied. Most importantly, the scope of the studies to evidence the Noticing Hypothesis should devote special attention to the age factor since cognitive mechanisms will not be the same at different ages. Park (2000) suggests that processing speed and working memory capacity decrease with aging. Working memory and processing speed can be associated with the process that learners notice the target language, become aware of it and this turns input to intake to be processed and sent to the long term memory. On the contrary, similar mechanisms in language processing such as 'noticing' might be also at play as Robinson claims (2002). To understand if the studies on attention and awareness would yield the same or different results on children and adults, age factor should be taken more seriously.

Whether learning takes place in naturalistic or instructed environment would also matter for the level of awareness. Schmidt (2010) keeps uninstructed learning apart from implicit learning in contrast to others (Ortega, 2009).Attention and awareness are not peculiar to the instructed teaching environments. On the contrary, in the studies Schmidt refers to (Schmidt & Frota, 1986; Ioup et al., 1994), the main learning environment is naturalistic. However, Schmidt highlights the facilitating effect of instruction in the initial stage of his own learning experiences of Portuguese (Schmidt & Frota, 1986). The effect of the learning environment on the results of the related studies and the prospective studies should be considered well.

Not any theory or hypothesis is prone to criticism. The areas, where the Noticing Hypothesis has been inadequate to comprehensively respond to, have been evaluated in this part.

7. Conclusion

This paper has presented an analysis of the position of the Noticing Hypothesis among different approaches to the language learning, its implications for teaching practice, and an evaluation of the hypothesis with its shortcomings. This analysis has shown that adopting a polarized view of conscious and unconscious processes involved in language learning may not be sufficient to explain problematic issues such as overgeneralization errors no matter which side is advocated. Both ends of this continuum are apparently not enough to explain the whole language learning process with all its details only from their own perspective. Embracing either side fanatically might lead to unintended and undesirable outcomes for the learners and teachers.

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