Consciousness and Second Language Learning

Consciousness and Second Language Learning

by John Truscott


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Consciousness and Second Language Learning by John Truscott

This book explores the place of consciousness in second language learning. It offers extensive background information on theories of consciousness and provides a detailed consideration of both the nature of consciousness and the cognitive context in which it appears. It presents the established Modular Online Growth and Use of Language (MOGUL) framework and explains the place of consciousness within this framework to enable a cognitively conceptualised understanding of consciousness in second language learning. It then applies this framework to fundamental concerns of second language acquisition, those of perception and memory, looking at how second language representations come to exist in the mind and what happens to these representations once they have been established (memory consolidation and restructuring).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783092659
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 11/13/2014
Series: Second Language Acquisition Series , #83
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

John Truscott is a Professor in the Center for Teacher Education, National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan. His research interests include second language acquisition, cognitive science, linguistic theory and syntax and he has published extensively on these topics.

Read an Excerpt

Consciousness and Second Language Learning

By John Truscott

Multilingual Matters

Copyright © 2015 John Truscott
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78309-268-0


Introduction: Setting the Problem

What this Book is About

The goal of this book is to explore the place of consciousness in second language (L2) learning. Such an exploration is worthwhile for at least two reasons. First, the subject of consciousness is inherently interesting and important. I would suggest, in fact, that it is the most interesting and most important topic there is, as nothing is more fundamental to human experience than consciousness. It is no exaggeration, to say that consciousness is human experience. It would make no sense to talk about what we experience if we were simply unconscious zombies. It would not even make sense to say that we exist at all. Second, issues involving consciousness are of great importance for the field of second language acquisition (SLA), even when they are not recognized as such, because differing ideas about teaching and learning methods are typically based to a very large extent on assumptions about the role of conscious and unconscious processes in learning and in cognition in general.

The goal of exploring consciousness in L2 learning is not a novel one by any means. The topic is in fact quite popular now in SLA. But some of us are profoundly uncomfortable with the way it is being handled. I, for one, have three major concerns. First, this research tends to show insufficient concern with work on consciousness in the source fields, namely cognitive psychology and neuroscience. There is a rich body of research and theoretical development in those fields, but this work has had relatively little impact in SLA, the main exception being the implicit learning literature, which is interesting but has its limitations – limitations that have been imported along with it into SLA (see Chapter 6). Second, SLA work has relied extensively on a very problematic concept: noticing. This is a deeply flawed notion (see Chapter 6), but in nearly all the SLA work related to consciousness its validity is uncritically assumed.

The third concern I have about SLA work on consciousness is its reliance on a very debatable assumption about language and its place in the human mind: the assumption that language is nothing very special and so its acquisition is to be explained without appeal to specifically linguistic principles. Language has played a fundamental role in human development, human survival and human success. It spontaneously develops in all people, under a wide assortment of conditions, and has never developed in any member of another species, under any conditions. So it is difficult to escape the conclusion that there is something distinctively natural and distinctively human about language and its development. This conclusion was well expressed by Derek Bickerton, discussing Noam Chomsky's claim that language is innate: 'If what Chomsky said about innate capacities had been said about any species but ours, everyone would have accepted it years ago. The evidence that language is a biologically determined, species-specific, genetically transmitted capacity is simply overwhelming. ...' (Calvin & Bickerton, 2000: 4).

So, like many others who have looked at this topic, I am profoundly uncomfortable with an approach that assumes that there is nothing special about language, that there is nothing in our evolved nature that got there specifically to make language work. And so I find it difficult to believe that a research programme built on such assumptions is the best way to understand L2 learning or, specifically, the place of consciousness in that learning.

Many have argued that even if language is something special, this specialness does not apply to languages learned after childhood, that learning an L2 at that point is essentially the same process as learning to play chess, for example. The main justification offered for this fundamental divide between first language (L1) and L2 learning is that the latter is typically far less successful than the former. But there is no problem of principle in explaining this difference without assuming that language is special in one case and is not special in the other. In addition to the obvious extraneous differences, such as motivation and learning context, the presence of an entrenched L1 has to be considered a crucial factor in L2 learning, as it inevitably exerts a strong influence on processing of all sorts. This includes the processing of input, which is inseparable from learning, as well as the processing that results in output, which is the usual measure of success and also plays a significant, if smaller role in development.

Of course, saying there is no problem of principle is vastly different from saying there is no problem. Whatever assumptions we make about the specialness of language, the acquisition of an L2 is an immensely complex business, a genuine understanding of which will no doubt require generations of hard work, on the somewhat optimistic assumption that it can really be accomplished at all. The essential point here is that the observed limitations of L2 learning do not indicate, or even weakly suggest, that the specialness of language and its acquisition disappear after childhood. The frequent success of L2 learners in fact suggests the opposite, that the distinctively linguistic processes that guide the acquisition of an L1 remain active in the learning of an L2. This view, I suggest, also represents the most natural and parsimonious assumption a priori.

So my exploration of this topic will adopt a rather different perspective from that which is commonly found in discussions of consciousness in L2 learning. Specifically, my assumption will be that knowledge of language, both L1 and L2, is based on a distinct component of the human mind, one that interacts with and shares important features with other components but also has its own distinctive character.

In the following chapters, I will look at the understanding of consciousness that is developing in psychology and neuroscience. This work is quite extensive and often challenging. But I believe that acquiring some grasp of it is a prerequisite for any serious investigation of consciousness in L2 learning, and so I will examine this literature in some depth. A second prerequisite is the adoption of a reasonably clear and explicit view of the cognitive system within which consciousness and L2 learning are to be studied. Any investigation of the place of consciousness inevitably makes assumptions about the nature and functioning of the mind; the more coherent and explicit these assumptions are, the more productive the investigation is likely to be. So in the first half of the book, I will discuss in some depth both the nature of consciousness and the nature of the human mind. These discussions will then serve as background for the exploration of consciousness in L2 learning in the second half of the book.

This Thing Called Consciousness

In a sense, we all know what consciousness is. It is what we have when we are awake, lose when we go to sleep, briefly recover (in an odd sort of way) when we dream and more lastingly recover when we wake up in the morning. But behind this familiar, obvious sort of understanding lie a host of profoundly challenging questions. Why are we aware of one particular thing at this moment instead of the countless other things that we could be aware of? How do we become aware of that one thing? How is the experience of consciousness related to the physical processes of the brain? Can our experience really be the product of electrochemical activity? What exactly does consciousness do for us? Does it really do anything?

For those of us who seriously consider them, such questions can take on great significance and can sometimes arouse great passion – because they are in essence questions of what we are. There is no doubt that we are conscious creatures, in the sense that we are constantly aware of ourselves and our activities (except when asleep, of course). And since the things we directly know about ourselves are exactly the things we are conscious of, it is easy to believe that the conscious me is me, that there is nothing else, or that whatever else there is must be relatively minor. If we set aside these intuitions and accept the existence of extensive and important unconscious aspects of 'me', the results can be upsetting – it is easy to feel that we are not the masters of our own minds and bodies, that we are puppets of something we cannot see or control. On the other hand, the idea of an unconscious mind that is wise and powerful can have considerable appeal. It says that I am much more than I appear to be and maybe I can use this subterranean me to accomplish things that the surface me is not capable of.

Given these natural attitudes toward consciousness and self, it is not surprising that popular discussions often present us with a choice between two relatively simple answers to the question of what we are. One is a common-sense conception in which we are conscious creatures; what we see is what we are. The other holds that an unconscious mind represents our true nature. A natural consequence of the first view is that our decisions and actions should be guided by rational thought; consciousness can be and should be in control. The second prefers to bring consciousness down from this lofty position, suggesting instead that we should go with our intuitions. These two views of consciousness and human nature can be stated, for the sake of argument, in the following rather stark forms.

View 1: We are in essence conscious creatures and should rely on conscious processes in everything we do. Any unconscious aspects of us are unintelligent and unreliable.

View 2: Our conscious selves represent only a limited part of what we are. We have, beneath the surface, a powerful and intelligent unconscious mind that is better equipped than the conscious mind to guide us.

I believe these statements capture, if perhaps in a somewhat exaggerated form, normal untutored ideas about human nature (View 1) and a popular reaction against those ideas (View 2). I will suggest that while each has its roots in genuine features of human nature, each is also flawed in fundamental ways.

However, before critiquing these ideas, I want to reject a common assumption. Discussions of consciousness are commonly framed in terms of contrasts between 'the conscious mind' and 'the unconscious mind'. But these terms are more misleading than helpful, because they turn a complex, fluid reality into a simplistic dichotomy. Many authors have argued, quite reasonably, that each of us has an enormous number of different 'minds' or, more or less equivalently, that we have one mind with a very large number of semi-autonomous components (e.g. Baars, 1988; Gazzaniga, 1985, 2011; Minsky, 1988; Ornstein, 1991; Prince, 1925). This array of minds or mental components does not divide neatly into a conscious mind (or minds) and an unconscious mind (minds). Some components can never be conscious; others are sometimes conscious and sometimes not. Nothing is continually conscious, the sole exception perhaps being the sense of self, which I will consider below. Characterizing these phenomena in terms of two minds, one conscious and the other unconscious, will not help us understand consciousness or human nature.

What's wrong with View 1: Most of what goes on in the mind is unconscious. Unconscious processes are sometimes superior to conscious processes.

Unconscious processes are everywhere. We now know, for example, that an enormous amount of unconscious processing lies behind our conscious perceptual experiences. The most studied case is vision. Light strikes the receptor cells on the retina, which register the presence of light at millions of different points. This primitive display triggers activity in the primary visual area at the back of the brain, which is followed by activity at a number of separate component modules dealing with different aspects of the scene. All of these are then somehow unified to produce a single coherent visual experience. Thus, a very great number of highly sophisticated processes underlie our visual experience. But we are not conscious of any of this rich activity. A similar description could be given for each of the other senses. In each case, the vast majority of what goes on is entirely unconscious. We are conscious only of the outcome of all this activity. And in many cases, we do not even have that much awareness. Subliminal perception, once considered controversial, is now a well-established phenomenon (Greenwald et al., 1995; Kihlstrom, 1996; Merikle et al., 2001).

Language processing is similar. Understanding or producing a typical sentence requires a vast amount of unconscious processing, involving sounds, both as they actually occur and in more abstract forms, plus complex syntactic and morphological processes identifying or establishing the form of the sentence, and of course analysis of meaning. But, again, none of this activity is conscious. And this performance is based on linguistic knowledge that is extremely rich and complex but is also almost entirely unconscious, a point that is nicely demonstrated by the problems that generations of linguists have experienced in determining exactly what this knowledge looks like. The existence of such knowledge also brings out the unconscious nature of language learning: no one seriously believes that three year olds consciously figure out the grammar of their language(s).

We might also ask how a memory gets stored in the brain, and how it is retrieved from memory. What is the capital of Japan? The concept 'Tokyo' is only one of an almost unimaginably large number of concepts that we possess. The process by which this one item is brought up in response to the question has to be quite sophisticated, but we have no awareness of it, nor are we aware of the process by which the information came to be stored. It should be clear as well that skilled performance of all sorts relies very much on the unconscious control of actions: the skilled pianist plays without awareness of individual finger movements; accomplished tennis players hit their strokes without consciously thinking about how to swing the racket or how to place their feet; experienced drivers do not require conscious awareness of the specific hand and foot movements they make. Creativity is another area in which unconscious processes typically play a prominent role, as has been repeatedly shown by reports from the work of artists, scientists and mathematicians (see Hadamard, 1954). To this list of unconscious functions we can add the fine details of muscle control that are essential for ordinary movement, or the processes that maintain our balance or that regulate our body functions.

Research has also identified a great number of more subtle ways in which unconscious processes dominate. There is a wealth of evidence, for example, that our decisions are shaped by factors that we are not aware of (e.g. Bechara et al., 1997; Nisbett & Wilson, 1977; Persaud et al., 2007). Dijksterhuis et al. (2006) provided some striking evidence that decisions can be better when they are made without conscious consideration (see also Dijksterhuis & Aarts, 2010; Gigerenzer, 2007; Gilbert, 2005; Lehrer, 2009). In social psychology research, countless examples can be found of unconscious influences on our judgements and actions. One example is Bargh's (1997: 2) finding that dilation of a person's pupils significantly affects how much we like that person. Bargh's review of the literature, including his own very extensive research, led him to the conclusion that 'much of everyday life — thinking, feeling, and doing — is automatic in that it is driven by current features of the environment (i.e., people, objects, behaviors of others, settings, roles, norms, etc.) as mediated by automatic cognitive processing of those features, without any mediation by conscious choice or reflection'. This conclusion does not appear to face any serious opposition now.

There is even extensive evidence that our spontaneous, voluntary actions are initiated by unconscious neural processes before we experience any intention to act (Baumeister et al., 2011; Libet, 1966; Libet et al., 1983; Soon et al., 2008). Wegner (2002) argued at great length against the whole idea of conscious will, maintaining that the feeling of choosing to do an action is something entirely different from the processes that actually produce the action. His claim is a strong one and it might be disputed. But the evidence he presented against conscious will makes it clear that our intuitive ideas are at least in need of some strong qualifications: a substantial gap exists between our actions and our conscious intentions to carry them out.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements ix

1 Introduction: Setting the Problem 1

What this Book is About 1

This Thing Called Consciousness 3

A Few Preliminaries 9

Overview of the Book 11

Part 1 Consciousness in Mind: Building a Framework

2 The Mind: Representation and Processing 15

Perception 16

Memory and Learning 16

Emotion 19

Value 21

Self 24

Language 26

Attention 28

Modularity 30

Conclusion 37

3 Theories of Consciousness 38

Some Early Efforts at a Cognitive Account of Consciousness 38

Baars' Global Workspace Theory 42

Dehaene's Global Neuronal Workspace 47

Cooney and Gazzaniga's Account of Consciousness in Certain Neurological Disorders 48

Damasio's Body- and Self-oriented Theory 49

Edelman's Dynamic Core 51

Tononi's Information Integration Theory 53

Crick and Koch's Neurobiological Framework 54

Jackendoff's Intermediate-levels Theory 55

Baddeley's Working Memory Model 58

Some Holistic Treatments of Consciousness 59

Quantum Theories of Consciousness 60

Towards a Synthesis; Some Common Themes in the Theories 60

Conclusion 70

4 MOGUL: A Framework for Understanding Consciousness and Learning 71

MOGUL: Its Nature, Goals and Applications 71

MOGUL Architecture 72

MOGUL Processing 83

Acquisition by Processing Theory (APT) 89

Conclusion 95

5 Consciousness in the MOGUL Framework 96

The MOGUL/Activation Account 96

Informativeness and the Activation Hypothesis 103

Relations to Some Prominent Theories of Consciousness 111

Accounting for Some Major Characteristics of Consciousness 118

Conclusion 125

Part 2 Consciousness in Second Language Learning; Applying the Framework

6 Consciousness in Second Language Learning: A Selective Review 129

Consciousness and the Language Teaching Tradition(s) 129

Krashen's Monitor Model 130

Universal Grammar Approaches 131

Krashen's Critics 132

Noticing 142

Implicit and Explicit Learning 147

Conclusion 155

7 Perception: Processing Input 156

Perception: Input and Intake 156

Consciousness and Perception 159

The Establishment of New Representations in Perception 168

Perception and Learning: Implicit, Explicit and Subliminal 181

Enhancing Input 188

Conclusion 199

8 Memory Consolidation and Restructuring 201

Consolidation and Consciousness 202

Restructuring and Consciousness 218

Conclusion 229

9 Conclusion: Consciousness in Second Language Learning 231

Second Language Learning is Primarily an Unconscious Process 232

Consciously Learned Knowledge can Contribute to Language Use 232

Conscious Processes Support Unconscious Learning 235

Some Final Thoughts 238

References 249

Author Index 277

Subject Index 283

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