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Learning Languages in the Classroom and "in the Wild"

Second language learning and embodied cognition

Post written by Aneta Pavlenko.

In my previous post, I told the story of two Russian spies who became indistinguishable from native speakers of their second languages and identified two factors that worked in their favor: early age of second language acquisition, and language learning aptitude (see here). The two also shared a third advantage – both acquired their languages in the context where they were spoken. Today, we take it for granted that such immersion is beneficial yet we rarely ask the more interesting question: What is it about immersion that facilitates second language acquisition?

Psycholinguistic findings suggest that the key differences between second language learning in the classroom and ‘in the wild’ lie in the memory systems involved and in the depth and nature of language processing. Memory is a set of dynamic integrated systems, commonly divided into implicit memory that requires little to no conscious awareness and explicit memory that encodes our knowledge about the world and is subject to conscious recall. Foreign language learning in the classroom engages explicit memory, both for memorization of new words and rules and for their conscious recall during classroom activities, quizzes, and tests. The reliance on explicit memory is also supported by patient foreign language teachers who are willing to wait and smile encouragingly, while we hunt for the right word.

Yet even the most superior conscious recall is too slow for everyday interaction – in ‘the real world’, transactions and interactions rely on automatic processes and few people are willing to wait while we fumble to retrieve our new words and order them just so. This pressure, however, gives learning “in the wild” an edge – to fit in, and keep up, naturalistic learners have no choice but to engage the same automatic processes and the same implicit memory that subserve native language use. Such engagement does not guarantee either accuracy or native-likeness, but it does ensure that both learning and retrieval of information rely on the same memory system.

A second advantage of naturalistic learning is in the depth of language processing. Classroom tasks vary widely in the degree to which they engage the learners: some can be accomplished mechanically, while others require only a modicum of attention because they focus on form and not on meaning. Even activities that try to imitate real-life situations are often experienced by students as boring because they do not have any immediate relevance to their lives. Studies in cognitive psychology show that such tasks engage what is known as ‘shallow’ or minimal processing, which results in weak memory traces and substandard retention of the information.

In contrast, outside the classroom, every interaction has meaning and personal relevance, be it banter at a holiday party, an argument over rental property, or even something as simple as getting a falafel sandwich (why am I being asked to repeat my order? was I not clear?). In the absence of predetermined answers, second language conversations force us to pay attention and engage ‘deep’ processing that results in stronger memory traces and superior retention and recall of new information. This standard can be reached only by the best of the classroom tasks, designed with learners’ immediate needs and interests in mind.

A third advantage of immersion involves the nature of language processing. Recent discoveries in cognitive science, wonderfully described by Benjamin Bergen in his book Louder than words, suggest that we understand language by simulating in our minds what it would be like to experience the things described. This process, called embodied simulation, relies on our mental images and previous experiences and makes use of the same parts of the brain that are dedicated to interacting with the world, with simulation of action, for instance, activating the same part of the brain as direct physical action.

Classroom learning, however, offers few if any opportunities to encode new mental images and experiences that would accompany new words and structures. Instead, learners link new words to their translation equivalents in the native language. Such linking is supported by foreign language textbooks where words are translated and at times illustrated by single pictures of a typical ‘jacket’, ‘house’, or ‘glass’. This approach works well if the words are indeed translation equivalents but it fails when they are not, which is very often the case. As a result, speakers of English and Russian learning each other’s languages in the classroom, for example, may misuse everyday words for years, because coats and jackets do not easily map onto the categories pal’to (long overcoat), plashch (raincoat), kurtka (jacket as outerwear), pidzhak (men’s sportcoat), and zhaket (women’s suit jacket), while paper and plastic containers we call stakan (glass) in Russian are actually cups in English.

Naturalistic learning allows you to notice such differences, to generalize the key features across multiple exemplars, and to integrate information from multiple modalities with emotions and autobiographical memories (my teal winter jacket, my black Spanish coat), consolidating memory traces and forming mental images that are more closely aligned with those native speakers rely on.

The differences between the two contexts do not imply, however, that immersion guarantees successful learning by osmosis – it doesn’t. Nor are classroom and naturalistic contexts mutually exclusive – the best results are often achieved by learners who had the advantage of both. Nor would I ever say that one cannot learn a language outside of the context where it is spoken – just look at classicists happily debating the nuances of Ancient Aramaic and Classical Latin.

The key lesson to retain is that language requires context – this context can be natural but it can also be created, in part, through books, social media, and especially movies and soap operas that offer plentiful opportunities for embodied simulation.

Dr. Aneta Pavlenko is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Temple University.

Photo of a student in a language class from Shutterstock.


Bergen, B. (2012) Louder than words: The new science of how the mind makes meaning. New York: Basic Books.

Paradis, M. (2009) Declarative and procedural determinants of second languages. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

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