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Tracking language learning on the fly: Is awareness the product of implicit learning?
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Abstract

The construct of awareness plays a pivotal role in several big debates in the field of second language acquisition. For example, it lies at the heart of discussions about the (im)possibility of learning without awareness, or conversely, whether some degree of awareness is a requirement for learning to take place. Several studies have shown that implicit learning may arise (e.g., Williams 2005). However, implicit learning effects tend to be small and it seems unlikely that language learning can be implicit only. Surprisingly, we know quite little about the relationship between implicit learning and awareness. Cleeremans (2011) suggests two possibilities: either implicit learning and awareness are entirely unrelated, or implicit learning is instrumental in learners' capabilities of noticing the target structure: Awareness may be the product of implicit learning. The present study was designed to investigate this using an innovative design in which there was no functional separation between the learning and testing phases of the experiment. Visual world eye tracking was used to monitor learners on the fly as they learned a fully unknown artificial language with a determiner system marking for distance and animacy. While word meanings were learned easily, twenty out of 38 participants did not work out the determiner system; some became half aware and some fully. Analyses still to be carried out should tell us whether there were predictive eye movements, whether these depend on (self-developed) awareness of the grammatical structure, or whether learners can become sensitive to the cue without being aware of the structure.

Summary

We investigated whether awareness of a grammatical form may follow from implicit learning, using an eye-tracking method that allowed us to chart learning trajectories on the fly, as participants (n=40) were exposed. The results will tell whether learners can become sensitive to the grammatical structure without being aware of it.

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