The role of attention in language learning

Scientists have long debated the extent to which attention and conscious effort improve or harm the process of learning a foreign language. This controversy did not lead to a compromise as each side became entrenched in their respective positions, and the only thing that was changed by the passing years was toning down their positions and making some concessions. This article aims to elucidate the complicated situation on the effective mechanisms of language learning.


In 1977. Stephen Krashen put together the observations of previous researchers and created an input hypothesis. It was based on the assumption that the only things required to learn a language are comprehensible spoken or written utterances in the target language that do not greatly exceed the student’s understanding. Krashen believed that it is mostly the absorption of prepared materials similar to the way children learn, and not listening to teacher’s instructions, that leads to mastery of speaking skills. Moreover, in his opinion knowledge of grammar rules does not translate into greater fluency of speaking, but serves only as a tool for conscious checking of its correctness. Until this day, these assumptions continue unchanged.

Every great idea, however, has its opponents. For example Rost (1990) pointed out to Krashen that understanding does not necessarily translate to mastering, because someone can easily guess what something is about but at the same time not know the grammar rules that were used. A similar view was shared by White (1987), who stated that the lack of problems with the interpretation of the meaning does not necessarily contribute to language acquisition. Fuel to the fire was added by Doughty and Williams (1998), who stated that although the dominant view was that a large part of the language can be learned in a natural way, some of its elements can be mastered only with a teacher’s assistance.


One of the main opponents of Krashen was, however, Richard Schmidt, who in 1983 came upon the case of an English learner who was still committing significant errors in spite of a long stay in a foreign language environment. Schmidt concluded that his failure could result from not noticing that he speaks in a different way to his interlocutors. His subsequent experiment with the teaching of Portuguese (1986) confirmed his conviction that frequent contact with a foreign language ceases to be significant when the learner does not notice the constructions that are used. In a similar way, not getting a correction may make it difficult to learn from one’s mistakes. This discovery later became the basis on which the noticing hypothesis has been coined as a response to Krashen’s idea.

Of course, Schmidt could not avoid criticism either. One of the most important was the analysis performed by Truscott (1998) who stated that the mastery of grammar rules may not be possible because of the difficulty associated with the conscious noticing of all these abstract rules in an utterance. And he was talking only about drawing attention to them and not understanding them, because according to Schmidt (1990) drawing conclusions is not a part of the process. Due to these reservations, he moderated his postulates two decades later, recognizing that the concept of conscious learning applies mainly to adults.

However, some positive opinions in support Krashen idea also appeared. For example, Ellis (1995) found that most of the features of the language escape learners’ attention if they are not instructed by a teacher. In addition, in the case of things that have a chance to latch on by themselves students do not cope too well with their subsequent use. On the other hand, Rosa and Leow (2004) showed that the very awareness of the existence of certain elements of a language helps in their later acquisition. Subsequent research by scientists such as Takahashi (2005), and Simard (2009) confirmed the importance of learning methods that improve attention that include consciousness raising, emphasing selected parts of source utterances, high exposure to content, etc.

According to Ellis (1997) consciousness raising consists of explaining specific rules of a language and then ordering students to carry out certain tasks with the source materials, which stimulates them to understand how the rules work in practice. An alternative to this technique, described by VanPatten (2004), is to learn the rules and try to achieve some goal, which requires the use of acquired knowledge. The results of Amiran and Sadegi’s experiment (2012) show that consciousness raising is more effective than traditional teaching of grammar, but in the study of Jafarigohar (2015) it came out worse than performing practical tasks.

In the same experiment, emphasing fragments of texts, e.g. using bolds, turned out to have no impact on generating utterances. Moreover, Lee and Huang’s meta-analysis (2008) suggests that this way of increasing noticing might not be very effective or even completely ineffective when it comes to learning grammar and could also hinder understanding of the content. This calls into question the implementation of solutions focused on text enlarging, underlining, bolding, italicising etc.

Many researchers, such as Lightbown and Spada (1993), have confirmed the effectiveness of exercises in which the emphasis is put on communication, and grammatical explanations are only used from time to time, for example when there is an interruption in speech or a teacher decides to take a closer look at some rule that seems to be needed at that time. According to Fotos (1998), this approach is a response to the lack of evidence on the effectiveness of the methods of science in which most attention was paid to grammar. Of significant importance could also be the fact that according to Jean and Simard (2011) rigid learning of rules is considered tedious and demotivating.


However, Krashen did not have to deal only with the supporters of Schmidt’s thesis. The third person who joined the controversy was Merrill Swain. In 1985 she created the output hypothesis, which was kind of a mirror image of Krashen’s claims. It was grew from her observation of participants in a long-term program emphasizing immersion in a foreign language. The results of this study were surprising, because it turned out that although children significantly improved their understanding and pronunciation skills, the level of grammatical competence was far less than the one presented by native speakers. In this respect, they knew only just as much as they needed to cope with normal situations and tests. Based on these findings Swain came to believe that simple contact with a language is not enough to acquire it.

One of the key tenets of the output hypothesis is that the imperfect attempts of communication are essential because they allow people to spot gaps in their knowledge and language skills. On this basis, learners build a picture of what needs to be improved and pick up with greater ease, for example, useful grammatical structures when they come across them in the future. According to Qui and Lapkin (2001), the higher the level of fluency students present, the easier it becomes for them to notice things that need improvement. However, according to Shin (2010) people who know quite a lot also encounter problems with noticing, which may be due to the complexity of the issues that occur at this stage.

Unfortunately up to this point, not enough studies have been performed to fully verify the validity of this hypothesis. The previous findings come mainly from experiments coauthored by Izumi (1999 – 2002), who studied the impact of the production of statements on noticing and obtained ambiguous results. Another attempt was made by Russel (2014), who ordered the subjects to learn the text filled with target structures and then take grammar tests. It turned out that their ability to use the practiced rule improved, although no one had explained to them how it worked.


On the basis of Ünlü’s (2015) words, it can be concluded that a significant number of scientists insist upon maintaining their opposing positions regarding conscious and unconscious language learning. This is particularly visible in Krashen (2013), who does not take into account any significant interaction between the knowledge acquired unconsciously and the one that is learned. The growing amount of research does not help to determine which hypothesis is the right one, because there will always be some counterarguments. Each group may very well be partly right without providing a complete explanation of the process of learning a language. People who are looking for effective prescriptions should then look for insight from the lucky ones who have managed to achieve their language goals, because the dispute among researchers still waits to be resolved.


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  10. Ünlü, A. (2015). How Alert should I be to Learn a Language? The Noticing Hypothesis and its Implications for Language Teaching.Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences199, 261-267.
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