Review: Cambridge Elements – Explicit and Implicit Learning in Second Language Acquisition – Bill VanPatten and Megan Smith

Some time ago, Cambridge released VanPatten and Smith’s Explicit and Implicit Learning in Second Language Acquisition as part of the Cambridge Elements series. Whenever these Cambridge Elements come out, there is usually a period of about two weeks in which they are free to download. I took advantage of this, got myself a copy, and over the last month or so read and re-read it. What follows here are, as usual, my thoughts around the Element, and some ideas on who it might be appropriate for.

Three-sentence summary

VanPatten and Smith’s Cambridge Element, Explicit and Implicit Learning in Second Language Acquisition aims to delve deep(ish) into the different roles that explicit and implicit learning have within second language acquisition, as well as present a number of issues surrounding this debate. The Element is quite short, but packs a punch as it looks at not only the definitions of important concepts in the implicit/explicit debate, but the research behind the writers’ beliefs that acquisition is by and large an implicit process, and problem inherent with the research process. Whilst at some times, a great deal of technical knowledge is needed to understand some parts of the Elements, there is an amazing amount of value is this element that deems it a must-read for all language teachers and teacher educators.

Three takeaways

“Acquisition is comprehension-dependent in that the primary data for acquisition reside in the communicatively embedded input that learners are exposed to. Internal mechanisms select and operate on data over time, making use of both language-specific and general learning mechanisms to tag, organize, and store linguistic data. Much of what is tagged, organized, and stored involved highly abstract concepts and features that interact in complex ways.”

VanPatten & Smith, 2022, p.14
  • Language acquisition is an implicit process: The authors, and many other SLA and ISLA researchers, linguists, etc. state that, in effect, acquisition is an implicit process. That is, implicit learning, not explicit learning, is what leads to interlanguage development and, thus, language development. To make this a little clearer, first we need to understand what is meant by language system – and this is where it gets a little abstract. Why? Well, language is abstract, and the formal linguistic system that the learner is learning is very complex, involving ‘inputs’ such as Tense, Case and Question, as well as “operations such as Move and Agree” (VanPatten & Smith, 2022, p.14) – all within a specific set of language universals. What the authors are trying to get at is that it is highly unlikely, if not impossible, that a learner tries to ‘learn’ these features. To give an example of how complex the system is, take a look at the lexical entry presented for the word ‘Dog’ (see below). This is a representation of how the word is stored in the lexicon (as a morpheme) – we can see that it is quite difficult to be able to ‘learn’ all of this and be attending to this during communication. We can also think about a syntactic example using What did you eat? This question “involves moving what, which is the object of the eat, to the beginning of the sentence to form a question”. This is a very simple example, involving Move, but they can get far more complex!
PF = Phonological form; Category contains information about the syntactic category of the morpheme; AGR = agreement features; SEM = the words meaning – VanPatten & Smith, 2022, p.6

“Explicit learning helps learners comprehend meaning, but the actual processing of the formal elements associated with that meaning will happen outside of awareness, that is, implicitly. In a nutshell, we believe it might be a fruitful avenue of theory and research to consider a bifurcation of the rules of explicit and implicit learning during L2 acquisition. One is relegated to one kind of thing and the other is relegated to something else. The don’t really “interface” under this scenario”.

VanPatten & Smith, 2022, p.22
  • Explicit and implicit learning serve different purposes – but only one leads to L2 acquisition: The authors go through an analyse different positions regarding the implicit and explicit learning debate. They come down to the fact that, as mentioned, language acquisition is an implicit process. But what about explicit knowledge – does it play a role? Can it become implicit knowledge? Well, the authors talk about three different perspectives, and basically come to the conclusion that they are all wrong. Perhaps the most interesting is the perspective that explicit knowledge CANNOT become implicit knowledge but “somehow” it helps development through interfacing – this is quite popular within ELT. However, as the authors write, “this position makes sense as long as one takes a nonlinguistic approach to the nature of language. That is, the position assumes that language can somehow be presented to learners in ways that are usable in instruction. However, we know this is not the case” (VanPatten & Smith, 2022, p.21). Basically, explicit and implicit knowledge are two different ‘things’ and are even stored differently within the brain. The authors get round to saying that explicit knowledge may help in understanding/comprehending meaning, but the actual processing of formal elements will occur implicitly.

“We would be remiss if we did not mention here research on explicit and implicit teaching, which is often conflated with explicit and implicit learning. In explicit and implicit teaching research, learners are either provided with rules prior to exposure/practice or aren’t – and scholars often take the results of such research to draw conclusions about explicit and implicit learning, namely that explicit teaching (providing rules) is superior to implicit teaching (and thus explicit learning is better than implicit learning). […] However, most of this research is questionable on methodological grounds”.

VanPatten & Smith, 2022, p.36
  • Explicit teaching is not explicit learning, and in fact may not be superior to implicit teaching: Whilst the authors don’t go into too much detail in this part of the Element, they do mention that explicit teaching is not the same as explicit learning, and also that explicit teaching is not superior to implicit teaching (i.e., not providing rules). They do mention, however, that we are largely referring to morphosyntax, and that aspects of vocabulary learning are explicit. I assume that by saying this, that the authors would agree with the idea of explicit raising awareness of certain lexical features in instruction.

What I liked

“[…] the existence of linguists who know a lot about the underlying systems of specific languages without being able to speak those languages provides some evidence that explicit attention to these underlying structures does not lead to language acquisition.”

VanPatten & Smith, 2022, p.14
  • Makes things very clear on the explicit-implicit debate: The authors write that more research is still needed, and that there are arguments against what they are presenting; however, with the evidence we do have, they make things very clear about explicit and implicit learning regarding language acquisition. I loved how they made it clear that what we, especially as language teachers, view as ‘grammar’ is not anywhere close to how syntax is actually represented in the brain. For example, our brain doesn’t store information as ‘present perfect’ or ‘cleft sentence’. And as such the explicit teaching and explicit learning of these structures will not lead to acquisition of said features.

“It is important to note, though, that in the Andringa and Curcic study, as many of the studies that seek to explore explicit and implicit learning, there is the lingering problem of the nature of language. […] In such studies, language is sometimes stripped of its natural properties for the purpose of laboratory research to create rules that are highly learnable explicitly. Yet, out of the laboratory, language is not stripped in the same way and is most likely acquired using implicit processes because of language’s natural complexity and subtle, abstract properties. Given this, it’s unclear how much the results of laboratory studies that strip language of its complexity for the sake of looking at the interface between explicit and implicit knowledge bear on the acquisition of language outside of the laboratory.”

VanPatten & Smith, 2022, p.36
  • Sheds light on the negatives of laboratory studies: As the quote above alludes to, the authors are somewhat sceptical of laboratory studies and their focus on discrete syntactic features. I really liked how they emphasised that language is much more complex that any single feature, and as such we should be wary of any laboratory research that aims to focus on one feature of language. VanPatten and Smith were, in my opinion, not trying to say that we should not focus on these; rather, we should be aware that these laboratory studies that aim to show explicit and implicit learning are often flawed and that they may not actually show what they say they show. As usual, research should be taken with a grain of salt.

“It is not the intent of the present Element to make claims about pedagogical approaches or to support one approach over another. Practitioners often make curricular decisions independent of what the research says about L2 acquisition or they may be selective about research in order to bolster one approach over another.”

VanPatten & Smith, 2022, p. 42
  • The authors don’t aim to support any specific pedagogical approach, but…: In the concluding remarks, the authors are quite specific that they are not aiming to support any pedagogical approach, but what they do say is that practitioners should draw their own conclusions – with much of the research supporting “non-structural, non-grammar-based approaches to teaching because, in the end, explicit teaching and learning don’t seem to be driving forces in acquisition” (VanPatten & Smith, 2022, p.42) one could expect practitioners to ‘want’ to teach in a way that embodies these findings. They also state that there may be other factors that come into play, for example the role explicit knowledge plays in preparing learners for exam, or how social factors may determine the approach that is taken. I, personally, feel that we should take on the findings from such research, but need to take into account not only social and political factors, but also learner objectives – and make informed decisions surrounding what occurs in the classroom.

What I didn’t like

There was not too so much anything ‘wrong’ with the element, but there are a few things that came to my mind when reading.

  • Written for linguists, not teachers: I don’t think that the authors had ‘teachers’ as the only target reader in their minds while writing, and it’s noticeable in a number of the sections. There is a lot of linguistic terminology that is defined only briefly, but used quite heavily throughout, and some of the examples are quite complex. This is not to say that I think this should be removed – in fact, it’s very interesting and I hope teachers do not get turned off by it. However, with teachers often not having any background in linguistics, this might present a barrier. In saying this, much of the Element is written in ‘plain’ speak, and can be understood without too much technical knowledge.
  • The authors don’t support any pedagogical approach: Ok, so you’re probably a little confused as I’ve got this under I liked/I didn’t like. I understand the rationale behind the authors’ hesitation to recommend any one pedagogic choice (and I agree with it), although I would have liked more of a ‘push’ in the concluding remarks, emphasising approaches, methods, techniques and practices that give priority to implicit learning. You could say, “well the whole Element basically says that” – and you’re right. BUT, I can see some people looking for arguments against ‘implicit learning’ approaches, etc. focusing on this last section, cherry picking these few lines.

Applying to practice

So, what to take from this Element? How can I apply this information to my practice. Well, there are few important ‘applying to practice’ elements I’d like to focus on:

  • Continue with fluency-first teaching: This Element really has solidified (along with many other things I’ve read, such as Long’s masterpiece and Ellis et al.’s book on TBLT) the need to really focus on fluency and work from learners’ internal syllabi. This is not always that easy because, as the writer’s have said, both learners and materials often DEMAND accuracy-first approaches. BUT, there are many ways in which modern materials can be adapted so that we are not focusing on discreet grammatical points (and ‘explicit learning’). You might like to check out this video from Neil Anderson and Neil McCutcheon for some ideas.
  • Raise more awareness of this research in teacher training and development sessions: One of my ‘roles’ as a teacher educator is to raise teachers’ awareness of research findings – even if this research goes against their own personal teaching theories. This needs to be handled with care, but it does need to be done – and perhaps one way to do this could be to present shorts quotes from this in a workshop. I also really liked how the authors showed that how syntax ‘functions’ in the brain, and how what we think of as grammar has almost nothing to do with these syntactic functions. I think this as an example could be a good tool to use when raising awareness of the ‘futility’ of teaching grammatical points for SLA.
  • Emphasising that explicit knowledge CAN be useful: Of course, explicit knowledge can be useful for exams skills, etc. and I’ll be looking to continue the judicious use of activities that aim to develop this kind of knowledge.

Who should read this book?

  • Teachers: Even though I think this book is, at times, written more for linguists than teachers, I do think that teachers should read this Element. I think it has some excellent examples to highlight the difference between implicit and explicit knowledge, and what affects these types of knowledge when speaking about SLA.
  • Teacher educators: Trainers, managers, etc. should be the first people to be reading this as they are the ones who are most likely to pass on this information in their local contexts.

Final notes

A short, ‘fast-paced’ Element that packs a punch. Informative and well worth the read. If you can get your hands on the digital version, great. If not, I think you can buy the physical copy for £15 here.

Book details

Book title: Explicit and Implicit Learning in Second Language Acquisition

Author: VanPatten and Smith

Pages: 58

ISBN: 9781009044325


VanPatten, B. & Smith, M. (2022). Explicit and Implicit Learning in Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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