9 September 2017 by Rachel Paling

Never ever underestimate the subconscious when learning languages! Our subconscious brain never sleeps, as, among other things, it controls all our vital functions and processes. Even when we are asleep, our subconscious brain is awake and in a recently published study, we now have the proof that we can make memories during sleep. (Formation and suppression of acoustic memories during human sleep, Thomas Andrillon, Daniel Pressnitzer, Damien Léger & Sid Kouider, published online 8th August 2017).

Fascinatingly, our subconscious mind can even do things that we cannot consciously explain how we do them! Take the story of the Japanese Chicken Sexers, for example. As highlighted in David Eagleman´s book Incognito, and sourced in the paper “The Art of Chicken Sexing” by Richard Horsey in 2002), poultry breeders worldwide travelled to the Zen-Nippon Chick sexing School in Japan in the 1930s to learn how to separate out male and female hatchling chicks. This was not an easy task as both sexes actually look the same, (forgive me for saying that to perform this task it was necessary to look at the chick´s derriere, which looks exactly the same for both sexes!), but somehow the experts were immediately able to distinguish them and thus separate out the males from the females. This process was necessary because the feeding regime for each sex was in fact totally different. The major problem was that even the experts themselves could not explain how they were able to draw the distinction. Somehow they had instinctively developed their expertise to do so. In fact, their way of training new chicken sexers was to stand next to the learner and watch how the inexpert learner decided whether male or female based on trial and error, and then would literally give feedback to say correct or incorrect. After some weeks, the learners reached subconscious mastery and they were able to successfully distinguish baby boy chicks from baby girl chicks, and thus become themselves expert “Chicken Sexers”.

Many of us who have learnt different languages and also coach others to learn languages recognize the importance of the subconscious brain and “passive learning”. When I look back at my own learning process for Spanish, I clearly remember how, when I first moved to Spain, watching the TV with only maybe a 10% comprehension, actually greatly accelerated my learning and I always encourage learners to listen to the radio or watch TV or even just have the TV on in the background in the target language, as the subconscious brain is in fact “awake and listening”. Also, I remember week after week buying the Spanish QUIZ puzzles booklet (and I still buy them when I am there 😉) and religiously sitting hour after hour doing crosswords and puzzles in Spanish. This even took my Spanish to extraordinary native levels and even increased my vocabulary to words that even natives do not normally now, like the word for an avalanche of snow – ALUD – or the name for the lower part of the lateen sail – CAR – which I can still remember now.

Some years ago, I also had an interesting experience with one of my learners, who I am going to rename Tom. Tom was an absolutely avid reader, but quite unusually, he actually preferred reading in English and not in his native language, German. I can remember time after time, being absolutely amazed at the vocabulary he would be pulling out from his subconscious in our sessions. Vocabulary that was extremely native, sophisticated and that “normal” learners just do not use. I remember in one session he came out with the word “decimated” and I remember commenting, Tom where on earth did you learn that word? And he would nonchalantly reply, I guess it was in one of those war stories I was reading. His passive vocabulary was absolutely amazing!

So, I do believe, we should never underestimate the power of our subconscious in the language learning process and really brainstorm ways that we, as learners, can increase our “subconscious exposure” to the language or encourage our learners to explore their own subconscious potential. With the joys of modern technology gifting us with the possibility of switching languages on our devices, on TV, internet, movies, DVDs, radios etc we can easily simulate language immersion situations that can greatly enhance our passive intake.

Interestingly in the study, Explicit and Implicit Second Language Training Differentially Affect the Achievement of Native-like Brain Activation Patterns in 2012 by Kara Morgan-Short at the University of Illinois at Chicago, evidence suggests that adult learners of a foreign language can come to rely on native-like language brain mechanisms. The study involved seeing whether explicit training, the traditional grammar-focused classroom settings or implicit training, under immersion settings, affect neural (electrophysiological) and behavioral (performance) measures of syntactic processing differently. The results showed that only implicit training, the immersion settings, led to an electrophysiological signature typical of native speakers. So, in conclusion, adult foreign language learners can come to rely on native-like language brain mechanisms, but the conditions under which the language is learned may be crucial in attaining this goal. So, again, my question is, how can we stimulate our learners to recreate immersion settings even when they remain in their own countries?

The more we share with our learners about the brain, the intake of the conscious brain versus the absorbing of the subconscious, the more they can tap into and experiment different exposure to the target language and discover what works for them on their own learning journey.