Explicit vs. Implicit Second Language Acquisition

We’ve all heard and accepted that the best way to learn languages is to immerse yourself in them, having grown up with parents always learning one language or another I’ve never doubted that. The question that never occurred to me is; why?

One possible contributing factor is the type of memory engaged when learning a new language in a classroom vs a real world setting. When learning definitions, verb tenses and composing sentences we are using explicit memory, conscious memory. The type of memory where you find yourself digging through your heading looking for a word or recalling how to conjugate a verb. This is as opposed to implicit memory, that which is below our conscious awareness. When a friend greets you in the morning in your native tongue it takes no thought at all to put together a response. In a classroom setting you are able to think and dwell on what and how you are going to say, but that’s not realistic. In the middle of a conversation time will not stop to allow you to go sifting through your word bank in order to respond, it has to be natural. To get by you have to learn and store the information implicitly.

There are more reasons that learning languages ‘in the wild’ is more beneficial then in a classroom setting, but this information alone interests me greatly in how I’ve seen it played out in my own life. I lived in Guatemala in 3rd grade and while there was fluent in Spanish, then I left and moved 5 more times until now. First to a place where they spoke Portuguese, then English, then Arabic, then Hindi and then English again. Now I’m back to learning Spanish, but this time only in a classroom and I’m finding the most interesting interplay between being able to say pretty much whatever I want except that I don’t have the vocabulary and sometimes I’ll just naturally use a wrong verb tense. The words just spew out of me like I know what I’m doing, it skips my consciousness the way that English does except for when I trip up on a word. I never had a great explanation for why that would be, but this article has finally accounted for it. When I learned Spanish originally as a child in Guatemala, it was stored to be dragged out at random from my implicit memory, but now I try to add on the details explicitly and hopefully be able to incorporate the new information in my implicit memory so I can use it naturally again.
In 1976 Dr. A. S. Reber conducted an experiment where he had subjects memorize letter strings dictated by an artificial grammar. In the course of study the participants were able to recognize letter strings which did and and those that did not belong to this synthetic grammar, though none of them could explain their reasoning. This perfectly explains how I know what I want to say sounds like but can’t necessarily find all the words for all the blanks! I learned the grammar of Spanish implicitly though exposure. ┬áThere is so much more here for me to read, to say that I scratched the surface with that I first found is amazingly simplified. I’m definitely going to come up with study tips for second languages once I’ve read more!

The article that started it:


The book that will end it:

Leow, R. P., & Sanz, C. (2010). Implicit and Explicit Language Learning : Conditions, Processes, and Knowledge in SLA and Bilingualism. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

For UMW students, this link should get you to the full text that I’ll be reading: