Things started pretty normally yesterday. I looked at Twitter, and, as usual, there were numerous tweets by Dr. Conti urging readers to revisit his web site. Unable to resist, I thought I’d have a quick look at the post on parallel texts, which, I soon learned, are good because they encourage ‘noticing’. Dr. Conti explains:
According to Schmidt’s (1990) ‘Noticing hypothesis’ the learning of a foreign language grammar structure cannot occur unless the learner ‘notices’ the gap between the way that structure is used in the target language and his/her own L1. In my classroom experience I have witnessed many a time that Eureka moment when a student said, almost thinking aloud, “Oh, I get it! ‘I went’ in French is actually ‘I am gone’. That would be an occurrence of ‘noticing’
“Well, but would it?”, I wondered. Surely Schmidt’s noticing hypothesis makes no such claim; surely noticing the gap is more a trigger for noticing than noticing itself, and anyway, surely it’s not a question of noticing the gap between the L1 and the L2 but between features in input and output? Isn’t it?
As I sipped my third green tea of the morning, I hunted for Schmidt’s 1990 paper, but came across Truscott’s critique first. On the first page of his paper, Truscott (1998) says that he’s going to ignore the “noticing the gap” claim altogether:
Proponents of noticing also give much attention to noticing the gap – learners’ awareness of a mismatch between the input and their current interlanguage (see especially Schmidt and Frota, 1986). It is important to avoid confusion between this idea, which necessarily involves awareness, and the more general notion of a comparison between input and interlanguage. Theories of unconscious acquisition naturally hypothesize an unconscious comparison process. Thus, arguments that learners must compare input to their interlanguage grammar (e.g., Ellis, 1994b) are not arguments for noticing.
This is where I think things started to get a bit odd. Was the green tea starting to kick in? Surely Schmidt says that the conscious comparison of input and interlanguage triggers noticing, so surely Truscott is wrong to just kick Schmidt’s rejection of Krashen’s “more general notion” under the carpet? Why was ‘noticing the gap’ nothing to do with ‘noticing’? On the other hand, wasn’t Truscott right to challenge the claim that the only way L2 learners make progress in interlanguage development is through consciously attending to new features of the L2 that are present in the input? I got a panicky feeling that I needed to remind myself of what I thought about all this before some student asked me. More tea.
Right, then. What had I said publicly? I found a post on the blog where I lamented the way Schmidt’s Noticing Hypothesis was being used to support all manner of explicit teaching practices. Whether it’s presenting the present perfect on Tuesday at 8pm, making the explicit teaching of lexical chunks the number one priority in a course, or using a red pen to indicate all the missing third person ‘s’s in a composition, it’s all OK because the Noticing Hypothesis says that bringing things to learners’ attention is a good thing. “Schmidt’s construct has been watered down so much that it now means no more that noticing in the everyday meaning of the word”, I’d said. Hmmm. Things were now getting Alice-in-Wonderland weird: suddenly I found myself unable to say what the special, unwatered down meaning of ‘noticing’ was, or to remember why it was so highly regarded. I searched for Schmidt, 1990, again, found it and found this:
subliminal language learning is impossible …… noticing is the necessary and sufficient condition for converting input into intake (Schmidt, 1990: 130).
OK, clear enough, but why would anyone believe such a thing? If input can’t get processed without being noticed, then ALL second language learning is conscious. Surely this is either trivially true by adopting some very weak definition of ‘conscious’ or ‘learning’, or obviously, monstrously false?
Dear oh dear, I was falling down the hole fast. And I’d been so absorbed reading Schmidt that I’d made a triple expresso with freshly ground Robusta coffee beans and drunk it without, OMG, noticing!
Trying to get a grip, I carried on reading. Schmidt says that the term ‘unconscious’ is used in three distinct senses:
- to describe learning without ‘intention’,
- to describe learning without metalinguistic ‘understanding’,
- to describe learning without attention and ‘awareness’.
He goes on to assert that although L2 learning without intention or metalinguistic understanding is clearly possible, there can be no learning without attention, accompanied by the subjective experience of being aware of – that is of ‘noticing’ – aspects of the surface structure of the input. Intake is
that part of the input which the learner notices … whether the learner notices a form in linguistic input because he or she was deliberately attending to form, or purely inadvertently. If noticed, it becomes intake (Schmidt, 1990: 139).
“What?”, I thought, “You can notice things purely inadvertently? Without paying attention? But with focal awareness??” I tried some deep breathing but it didn’t help. Anyway I had to focus. Apart from confusing me about what ‘noticing’ meant, where was Schmidt’s argument? How could he just DEFINE intake as noticed input in the way he did? What had I missed? I went back and tried to read it again, but all I could think was that I’d read it a dozen times already. I drew a little diagram:
There it was: Consciousness as awareness, level 2, noticing. But what did it mean? And what was all the rest about? Schmidt claimed that it was all supposed to sort out the “confusion” he saw in the use of the terms conscious and unconscious, but in fact, all I could see was a terrible muddle.
- we notice
- we pay attention
- we are aware
- we are focally aware
- we deliberately attend to form
- we notice purely inadvertently
- our focus of attention is on surface structures in the input
- we perceive competing stimuli and may attention to them (notice them) if we choose
- storage without conscious awareness is impossible
- the primary evidence for the claim that noticing is a necessary condition for storage comes from studies in which the focus of attention is experimentally controlled
- the basic finding, that memory requires attention and awareness, was established at the very beginning of research within the information processing model.
I needed a drink. Time, I thought, for a good shot of tequilla.
I decided to concentrate on the question of what exactly ‘noticing’ refers to, and how we can be sure when it is, and is not being used by L2 learners. I had 3 sources: Schmidt and Frota (1986), Schmidt, 1990, and Schmidt 2001. Schmidt claims that ‘noticing’ can be operationally defined as “the availability for verbal report”, “subject to various conditions”. He adds that these conditions are discussed at length in the verbal report literature, and cites Ericsson and Simon (1980, 1984), and Faerch and Kasper (1987), but he does not discuss the issue of operationalisation further until 2001, and even there he fails to provide any reliable way of knowing if and when ‘noticing’ is being used.
But in the 2001 article Schmidt says that ‘noticing’ is related to attention and argues that attention as a psychological construct refers to a variety of mechanisms or subsystems (including alertness, orientation, detection within selective attention, facilitation, and inhibition) which control information processing and behaviour when existing skills and routines are inadequate. Hence, learning is “largely, perhaps exclusively a side effect of attended processing”. (Schmidt, 2001: 25). Oh no! We’re back! What’s “attended processing”? Is it ‘noticing’? Is attention the same as awareness? Another shot needed.
I was so dizzy by now that Truscott’s words came floating towards me like a lifeline:
current research and theory on attention, awareness and learning are not clear enough to support any strong claims about relations among the three. … they do not offer any basis for strong claims of the sort embodied in the Noticing Hypothesis (Truscott, (1998, p. 106).
Well at least that sounded right. Schmidt was tossing all these theoretical terms of attention, awareness and learning around like Humpty Dumpty, wasn’t he? Tuscott was surely right to question the assertion that attention can be equated with awareness, and obviously right to say that there is no evidence to support the sweeping claim that “learners must consciously notice the particular details to be learnt”. But why does Truscott say “consciously notice”? ‘Noticing’ can’t be unconscious, can it? Agghhh!
Start again. ‘Noticing’ is part of the first stage of the process of converting input into implicit knowledge. Learners notice language features in the input, absorb them into their short-term memories, and compare them to features produced as output. The claim is that noticing takes place inside short-term memory, and Schmidt explains that it is triggered by different influences, namely instruction, perceptual salience, frequency, skill level, task demands, and comparing.
I decided to take ‘noticing’ to mean‘noticing’, defined by the OCD as “becoming aware of something”. It seemed to me preposterous to suggest that second language acquisition could be explained as a process that starts with input going through a necessary stage in short-term memory where “language features” had to be noticed in order to get any further along the way towards knowledge of, or competence in, the target language. What, ALL language features? Seriously? All language features in the L2 shuffle through short-term memory and if unnoticed have to re-present themselves? Was that a serious suggestion for the acquisition of grammatical competence, for example? I recalled what Gregg had said to me:
Noticing is a perceptual act; you can’t perceive what is not in the senses, so far as I know. Connections, relations, categories, meanings, essences, rules, principles, laws, etc. are not in the senses.
So how on earth can one build up grammatical competence by simply noticing things in the input?
And how had the Noticing Hypothesis come to be accepted as an explanation of how input becomes intake, prior to processing and availability for integration into a learner’s developing interlanguage system? I found R. Ellis’ diagram, which is reproduced all over the place:
It appears to suggest that the 3 constructs of ‘noticing’, comparing and integrating are what turn input into output and explain IL development. Can it really be making such a claim? Where’s the noticing supposed to take place according to the figure? And what is short/medium-term memory? Anyway, as Cross (2002) points out, Ellis (1994, 1997), Lewis (1993), Skehan (1998), Gass (1988), Batstone (1994), Lynch (2001), Sharwood-Smith (1981), Rutherford (1987) and McLaughlin (1987) all agree that noticing a feature in the input is an essential first step in language processing. How depressing.
By now I was most of my way through the bottle of tequilla, and I became reckless: I decided to confront the main man, M.H.Long. I opened the obra maestra, Long (2015) SLA and TBLT, to page 55:
With Nick Ellis and others, what I claim is that explicit learning (not necessarily as a result of explicit instruction) involves a new form or form–meaning connection being held in short-term memory long enough for it to be processed, rehearsed, and an initial representation stored in long-term memory, thereafter altering the operation of the way additional exemplars of the item in the input are handled by the default implicit learning process. It is analogous to setting a radio dial to a new frequency. The listener has to pay close attention to the initial crackling reception. Once the radio is tuned to the new frequency, he or she can sit back, relax, and listen to the broadcast with minimal effort. Ellis identifies what he calls the general principle of explicit learning in SLA: “Changing the cues that learners focus on in their language processing changes what their implicit learning processes tune” (Ellis 2005, p. 327). The prognosis improves for both simple and complex grammatical features, including fragile features, and for acquisition in general, if adult learners’ attention is drawn to problems, so that they are noticed (Schmidt 1990 and elsewhere). This is the first of four or five main stages in the acquisition process (Chaudron 1985; Gass 1997), in which what is noticed is held and processed in short-term, or working, memory long enough for it to be compared with what is in storage in long-term memory, and, as a result, a sub-set of input becomes intake.
A couple of pages on:
Noticing in Schmidt’s sense, where the targets are the subject of focal attention, facilitates the acquisition of new items, especially non-salient ones, and as Schmidt maintains, and as demonstrated by 20 years of studies, from Schmidt and Frota (1986) to Mackey (2006), “more noticing leads to more learning” (Schmidt 1994, p. 18).
I’d read this before, lots of times, nodding sagely at the wisdom of the maestro, but suddenly, I doubted it all. Was Long really signing up to the explanation that Schmidt offered of how input gets processed? Well it seemed that he was, and as the tequilla worked my rational doubts into sentimental despair, I flapped at the pages, turning them back and forth, trying to find the bits that I’d liked so much before. He CAN’T be saying that ALL new ‘items’ MUST be ‘noticed’, can he?
Ah! What was this?
Crucially, however, as claimed by Gass (1997), and as embodied in the tallying hypothesis (N.C. Ellis 2002a,b), once a new form or structure has been noticed and a first representation of it established in long-term memory, Gass’ lower-level automatic apperception, and Tomlin and Villa’s detection, can take over, with incidental and implicit learning as the default process.
Black clouds threatened. I’d forgotten about the lower-level automatic apperception stuff. What, for pity’s sake, was THAT all about? I found some notes I’d made years earlier. “Gass claims that apperception is “the process of understanding by which newly observed qualities of an object are related to past experiences”. It “serves as selective cueing for the very first step of converting input into intake”. It “relates to the potentiality of comprehension of input, but does not guarantee that it will result in intake”. Beats me! It “relates to the potentiality of comprehension of input” indeed! Must ask Kevin.” In fact, much later I did ask Kevin, who told me that he’d actually been there at the plenary of whatever conference it was when Susan Gass introduced the lucky listeners to apperception. Now what exactly had he said about it?
Thankfully, the tequilla rescued me from musing on apperception’s mysterious properties, and allowed me to grasp what I was sure was the main message. Hallelujah! The Empire strikes back: incidental and implicit learning as the default process return! Phew! And there was more good news:
whether detection without prior noticing is sufficient for adult learning of new L2 items is still unclear – perhaps one of the single most critically important issues, for both SLA theory and LT, awaiting resolution in the field.
Yes! Now I remembered! I’d read the bit about noticing maybe not being necessary at all somewhere else. I found this in a document I’d done myself, but most of it was directly from Long, 2015:
In this view, once a new form or structure has been noticed and a first representation of it established in long-term memory, lower-level “apperception” (Gass) or Tomlin and Villa’s “detection” take over, with incidental and implicit learning as the default process. So the first representation in long-term memory primes the learner to unconsciously perceive subsequent instances in the input. The big question is of course whether noticing is necessary for any representation to be established in long-term memory: is consciously attending to and detecting a form or form-meaning connection in the input the necessary first stage in the process of acquiring some features and form–meaning connections? Long calls this “perhaps one of the single most critically important issues, for both SLA theory, and language teaching, awaiting resolution in the field”.
In other words, Rather than see ‘noticing’ as the necessary and sufficient condition of SLA, I could now interpret Long as saying that incidental and implicit learning are still the main ways adults learn an L2. Furthermore, while noticing might facilitate the acquisition of “new items”, it’s still an open question as to whether it’s a necessary condition for acquisition.
“This is surely a gap worth noticing” was the last thing I remember saying to myself.
To be continued.
Cross, J. (2002) ‘Noticing’ in SLA: Is it a valid concept? Downloaded from http://tesl-ej.org/ej23/a2.html
Ellis, R. (1997) SLA Research and Language Teaching. OUP
Krashen, S. (1994) The input hypothesis and its rivals. In N. Ellis (Ed.), Implicit and explicit learning of language, (pp. 45-77). London: Academic Press.
Long, M.H. (2015) Second Language Acquisition and Task Based Language Learning. Wiley.
Schmidt,R.W. (1990) The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics 11, 129–58.
Schmidt, R. (2001) Attention. In P. Robinson (Ed.), Cognition and second language instruction (pp.3-32). Cambridge University Press.
Schmidt, R. and Frota, S.N. (1986) Developing basic conversational ability in a second language: a case study of an adult learner of Portuguese . In Day , R.R., editor , Talking to learn: conversation in second language acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury.
Truscott, J. (1998). Noticing in second language acquisition: A critical review. SLA Research 14, 103-135.