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How can teachers help students develop an intuition for target language grammar? (4 easy tips for acquiring a “feel” for grammar)


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Welcome back, language teachers, to Adventures in Language!

Kamusta kayo? In this article, we’re talking about building students’ intuition for target language grammar. It all boils down to implicit learning activities. What exactly are implicit learning activities, why does building intuition matter, and what are 4 easy things that you can do about it as a teacher? All that and more is covered in this article! Well, sem mais demora (‘without further ado’ in Portuguese), let’s get to it!

Why does intuition building matter to language learning? 

Most learners (and teachers) would agree that when learning a foreign language, we want to feel as comfortable and confident as possible. No one wants to stall at the learning stage in which processing target language grammar requires a taxing level of mental energy. In other words, the goal is to get to a point where speaking and understanding the language feels more or less effortless. The key to getting there? Building intuition for target language grammar! And teachers can help students build their intuition by incorporating more implicit learning activities into classes. If you’re wondering what exactly implicit learning is, it can be best understood by its contrast with explicit learning... 

Definition time!

  • Implicit learning = subconscious learning 

(learners induce grammar rules on their own and self-correct though trial & error)

  • Explicit learning = conscious learning

(learners study grammar rules and their errors are corrected through metalinguistic feedback)

To better understand this, let’s consider an example. 

Imagine there’s a language learner - we’ll call her Aliyah. Aliyah didn’t formally study Spanish, her target language. Rather, she moved to a Spanish speaking community to immerse herself in the language. She spent very little time studying grammar rules. She just learned by listening, speaking, and trial and error. When Aliyah speaks in the target language, she just goes off of what “feels right.” Now, imagine another (very different) learner - let’s call him Brian. He’s enrolled in a Spanish class. He has spent time studying grammar rules. If you asked him how the subjunctive works in Spanish, he could tell you that verbs get the subjunctive conjugation when the preceding clause expresses grammatical uncertainty. When preparing to say something in the target language, he carefully reviews the appropriate grammar rules in his mind. Aliyah and Brian represent two extreme ends of the implicit-explicit learning continuum. Brian lies at the explicit learning end and Aliyah, at the implicit learning end. While Brian has a stronger metalinguistic understanding of Spanish’s grammatical structure, Aliyah has developed a superior intuitive sense for it. Of course, most real-life learners live somewhere in between those two extreme cases, ending up with a combination of metalinguistic awareness and intuition.

You may be wondering…

 “What does the research say about the benefits and drawbacks of each approach?” The answer to that question is quite nuanced, but for our purposes here, what you should know is this: in the classroom, there’s a place for both implicit and explicit learning activities. When it comes to the main differences in learner outcomes, explicit instruction typically yields a faster learning rate (Norris & Ortega, 200), while implicit instruction generally leads to more automatic and fluent use of the language (Hulstijn, 2005, 2007). This means that the “right” balance of implicit and explicit learning activities for your class will depend mostly on learning goals. To that end, it can be a fun exercise to ask your students where they want to be on the Brian-Aliyah continuum. Asking them this at the outset of the semester can help them think critically about how they study outside of class, based on their language learning goals. If you’d like a worksheet to facilitate that exercise, sign up here to get your FREE copy of our Setting Good Goals worksheet!

Most language learning curricula could use more implicit learning opportunities

Language learning curricula often tend to rely too heavily on explicit learning strategies -- which can put students at a disadvantage where intuition building is concerned. So when it comes to finding the right balance, it’s usually a conversation about how to integrate more implicit learning to the classroom. So, now the real question: how can you offer your students more implicit learning opportunities in your class? Let’s dive into our 4 tips!

#1 Examples examples examples! (input)

In order to get a true intuitive sense for a language’s grammar, students need lots and lots of examples of what grammatical sentences can look and sound like. Here are two easy ways you can provide your students with more authentic target language input:

  • Regularly assign them podcast episodes to listen to outside of class.
    Pair this with comprehension quizzes to encourage active listening. 

  • Routinely read and discuss blog articles in class.
    Don’t make the mistake of  thinking that reading time during class is time wasted! Reading during class can be one of the best ways to ensure they’re making time to do it.  

#2 Produce produce produce! (output)

It’s not enough to know what kinds of sentences are grammatical. Students need to learn what kinds of sentences are ungrammatical too. The best way to do that is to get them to produce, produce produce! If they’re speaking and writing frequently (and getting timely corrective feedback), they’ll end up with an intuition for the kinds of sentence structures that aren’t grammatical. You can help students produce more freely and frequently by reminding them that it’s okay (and actually helpful) to make errors! 

#3 Do weekly “Intuition Builders”

An “intuition builder” is a rapid-fire activity that targets learning at the subconscious level. That’s why, in fact, some scholars have aptly described them as activities where students get to “learn without thinking.” (Carey, 2015). So, how do they work? Let’s say your learning objective is to have students identify when the subjunctive vs. indicative form should be used in Spanish verbs. You would then create a series of Spanish sentences in which the verbs in question have been removed. Present the sentences to students; simple slide decks work well for this. For each sentence, give the students just enough time to read the sentence and submit their answer (indicative or subjunctive), then reveal the answer, and move on to the next sentence. The key is that they are under a quick time constraint. They can’t sit and think strategically about the grammar rules. They just have to go with their gut. Want to learn about the cool research that backs up this learning strategy? Check out the book chapters and articles we’ve linked for you at the bottom of this blog. Or simply do a web search for the jargony that educational psychology has given to “intuition builders,” which is Perceptual Learning Modules

#4 Have your students use the Mango Languages app!

The Mango app builds learners’ intuition for the target language grammar through critical thinking exercises and our “Intuitive Language Construction” methodology. Many language-learning apps focus on memorization alone which does not help to create independent communicators. Mango's critical thinking exercises help learners start to naturally think in a second language and intuitively speak their own phrases and sentences. How? The app doesn’t only ask you to produce sentences you’ve previously seen; it also pushes you to induce grammatical patterns from previous examples to novel situations. To learn more about the Mango app yourself, check out our White Paper, which explains how the Mango App builds student intuition for target language grammar! 

To recap…

  • Give lots and lots of examples of what grammatical sentences can look and sound like

  • Get students to produce speech freely so they can discover what’s ungrammatical

  • Do weekly “intuition builders”

  • Use the Mango Languages app!

Thanks for reading! 

Paalam! We look forward to seeing you back here for our next article. And we look forward to hanging out with you here next time. Bye! 

For more language teacher content, join the Mango fam! 

Want to explore more of the research underlying this article? 

  • Check out Chapter 9 of Benedict Carey's 2016 "How We Learn." (p.175-194). It’s a great read with a nice meta-review of “intuition builders” (A.K.A. Perceptual Learning Modules). For more on the implicit-explicit instruction continuum, consider the following three articles:

  • Norris, J. M., & Ortega, L. (2000). Effectiveness of L2 Instruction: A Research Synthesis and Quantitative Meta-analysis. Language Learning , 50 (3), 417–528. https://doi.org/10.1111/0023-8333.00136 Olson, D. J. (2014). Benefits of Visual Feedback

  • Hulstijn, J. H. (2005). Theoretical and empirical issues in the study of implicit and explicit second-language learning: Introduction. Studies in Second Language Acquisition , 27 (2), 129–140. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0272263105050084

  • Hulstijn, J. H. (2007). Psycholinguistic perspectives on language and its acquisition. In J. Cummins & C. Davison (Eds.), International Handbook of English Language Teaching (pp. 783–795).New York: Springer.

Wondering what languages were used in this article? 

  • English (recording language)
  • Tagalog| Kamusta kayo? is ‘how are you?’’ and paalam is ‘goodbye’ 
  • Brazilian Portuguese | Sem mais demora means ‘without further ado’ 

Interested in learning English, Tagalog, Brazilian Portuguese, or one of the other 70+ languages that the Mango app offers? Click here to learn more!

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Emily Rae Sabo
Written by Emily Rae Sabo

A travel-hungry content creator with a Linguistics PhD in bilingual language processing, Emily has studied 7 languages and loves getting to use them to connect with people around the world. When she’s not creating content for the Mango community, you can find her dancing, yoga-ing, or performing some good ole’ fashioned standup comedy.

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