Friday, November 1, 2013

Evidence that "implicit learning" (subconscious language acquisition) results in L1-like brain processing: A comment on Morgan-Short, Steinhauer, Sanz & Ullman (2012)

Stephen Krashen
November, 2013

Morgan-Short, Steinhauer, Sanz and Ullman (2012) recently reported that adults using an artifical second language had different electrophysiological (ERP) responses depending on the way the language was initially presented to them.  At higher stages of competence, those who were initially "immersed" in the language  ("implicit" training," consisting of "meaningful examples" of the language) had "L1-like"  ERP responses suggesting "L1-like brain processing for syntax." This was not present for subjects whose initial exposure to the language consisted of explicit presentation of rules with examples.

This is a remarkable result: The initial exposure to the language was only 13.5 minutes for each group, and was followed by two rounds a few days apart of identical "practice sessions"  consistenting of comprehension and production activities, with feedback /correction provided. The sessions were continued until all subjects reached a predetermined level of proficiency.

At the conclusion of the study, the groups did not differ in their mastery of the artificial language.  Morgan-Short et. al. state that in some studies, implicit and explicit methods produced similar results, and also state that they "are not aware of any clear empirical evidence suggesting an advantage for implicit training," an astonishing statement in light of the many studies done over the last 45 years showing an advantage for implicit learning, usually termed "acquired" competence (as contrasted with consciously learned competence) and hypothesized to be the result of receiving comprehensible input.  

Implicit learning has been shown to be superior to explicit learning for studies contrasting comprehension-based methods with traditional methods for beginning foreign language teaching and intermediate foreign and second language teaching, as well as studies showing the superiority of self-selected reading over traditional instruction for intermediate second and foreign language students.

I present a list of these studies below: all included comparison groups subjects and subjects were high school age or older.  In addition, there are a multitude of studies that confirm these results using multivariate techniques and case histories.

It thus appears to be the case that comprehension-based methods are superior because they stimulate natural language acquisition mechanisms.


Morgan-Short, K., Steinhaur, K., Sanz, C. and Ulmann, M. 2012. Explicit and Implicit Second Language Training Differentially Affect the Achievement of Native-like Brain Activation Patterns. J Cogn Neurosci. 2012 April; 24(4): 933–947.


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  1. I don't see how anyone can say that there is no empirical evidence as to the advantages of implicit learning/memory. There are dozens of courses available that teach implicit learning, such as author Paul Scheele's "Photoreading". His system is just one of several that I'm aware of that enable anyone to assimilate an entire 300 page book within 45 minutes to an hour and a half with approx 70% comprehension, depending on the complexity and familiarity of the subject. Surely this is an advantage.

  2. that is why we have the word " stubborn " in the dictionary. Those who are refusing the implicit learning are stubborn. I am a graduate student at St.Cloud State University , MN. I had one hour discussion with all my classmates including the teachers who were all supporting the explicit learning. I showed them evidence , data , I did demonstrated a lesson using TPR but it didnot work. Then I came to a point that they will lose by the end of the day when their students fail.

  3. Thanks for providing information it is very useful for students

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