‘Noticing’ the L1-L2 gap in the foreign language classroom – how it can enhance learning

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Schmidt’s (1990) so called ‘Noticing hypothesis’ proposes that noticing the ‘gap’ between the first and the second language is a powerful catalyst of language acquisition (see picture above). For example, if an English learner of French notices that ‘I have gone’ in French is ‘Je suis allé’, he will realize that the auxiliary ‘Etre’ (=to be) is used in the target language instead of ‘Avoir’ (= to have) to form the Perfect tense of ‘Aller’ (= to go); this will trigger the process of acquisition of the perfect tense of ‘Aller. The cognitive comparison between the L1 and L2 versions of grammatical, lexical or phonological structures across the key areas of linguistic competence that noticing involves would, in other words, spark off the target language acquisition process.

Schmidt’s theory is plausible, as foreign language learners always use the first language, or any other languages they are expert in, as a starting point for inferences as to how the target language system works. I have often experienced this phenomenon in my own language learning experiences.

I would add to ‘noticing the gap’ the importance of ‘noticing the similarities’ between the first and the target language, too, in L2 acquisition. This is as crucial as noticing the gap, in that the foreign language learner needs to understand the extent to which the L1 and the L2 systems overlap and L1 positive transfer may be used advantageously. In other words, noticing both the gap between the languages and their overlap help synergistically the MFL learner in gaining control over the way the L1 system works.

Schmidt (1990) views noticing as the most crucial factor in promoting language acquisition. I do not entirely agree, as I can think of several other routes to acquisition which do not involve noticing. However, I do believe that noticing is an important teaching and learning strategy which can promote the acquisition of declarative knowledge of the foreign language’s rule system.

With this in mind, one would expect noticing to be used quite frequently in the typical MFL classroom, either (a) as a starting point for the teaching of grammar, syntax, pronunciation, lexis (especially idioms and collocations) and sociolinguistics, or (b) to explicitly model it as a learning strategy that students may use to their advantage. However, this does not, in my experience, happen that often. Yes, teachers do allude to the differences and similarities between the L1 and the L2 in passing during lessons; however, the full learning potential of this powerful learning catalyst is often not tapped into sufficiently and not across all the key areas of MFL learning.

Let us consider pronunciation, for instance. As I have already pointed out in a previous post, raising awareness of the differences between the L1 and L2 phonological systems should be encouraged from the early stages of learning. Yet, this practice is often overlooked, according to the feedback I have had from many readers, especially in UK schools. To expect all of our students to spot, focus and consciously act on the differences between the two languages is naïve, to say the least. In fact, contrastive phonology is one of the most neglected MFL teaching strategies in this day and age, yet, is one of the most effective ways of improving learner pronunciation, especially when ‘poor’ pronunciation has been fossilized. Playing a recording of the same L2 sentence as pronounced with a native/near-native accent and subsequently with a typical (fairly strong) foreign accent and ask the students to spot the differences is an easy activity to set up, the students enjoy it and it is an excellent pre-speaking task (when one wants to focus the learners on pronunciation and not simply fluency).

Another context where the neglect of the learning potential of noticing and L2-L1 cognitive comparison is evident is reading. As I have argued in a previous post, texts are usually ‘read’ in the context of comprehension tasks that feel like tests; once the reading comprehension is over and done with, the text is ‘ditched’ and nothing else is learnt from it. Yet, providing the students with the translation of that text after completing the comprehension tasks, substantially enhances its learning potential, as it allows the students with a powerful tool to notice many differences between the languages at different levels: grammar, syntax, use of idioms, use of genre-specific conventions and even punctuation. I often give such parallel texts to my students and challenge them to find 10 differences across all the afore-mentioned categories; they enjoy it and it sparks off a lot of interesting metalinguistic conversations (when the students work in groups) whilst enhancing their inductive/inferencing skills.

Correction, is another ideal context for promoting ‘noticing’; but how many times do we use it to raise awareness of the ‘gap’ between the L1 and L2 word order, use of relatives and determiners, moods and tenses, etc.? Yet, in one of my studies, my informants reported learning more from error correction when the teacher had made explicit reference to the differences between L1 and L2 usage of a structure or idiom and/or had asked them to reflect on and explain such differences.

Another example of the benefits of promoting noticing is grammar instruction. However, textbooks or teachers in my experience rarely present L2 grammar examples of the target structures with the L1 translation next to it making explicit reference to the L1-L2 differences in their usage. Yet it is easy to do and with the effective use of visual aids such as colour coding and other high-tech gimmicks the translation is very likely to enhance students’ understanding of the usage of the target structure. Moreover, noticing can be used to great effect in the context of inductive grammar tasks, whereby the students are provided with several sentences (with the translation aside) containing examples of the target structure and are asked to work out the rule(s) governing that structure. In the context of this type of activities, ‘noticing the gap’ acts as a cognitive facilitator and as a useful springboard for metalinguistic inferences.

Spelling, too, can benefit from cognitive comparison and noticing. Let us consider cognates, which, especially when they are very similar in the two languages, can confuse the learners in written recall (cross-association effect) – I have had a few painful reminders of how frequent this phenomenon is today, whilst correcting an essay written by a very good student. Focusing on the differences between cognates at the level of spelling and ‘drumming them in’ through a number of activities such as gapped words, odd one outs – where three versions of the L2 cognate are given and only one is correct – , hangman, jolly old fashioned dictation, etc. can address this issue effectively.

Essay-writing is another important area where noticing the gap between the two languages can be of great advantage. MFL teachers – unlike EFL teachers – rarely, in my experience, use essays written by native writers to model the specific genre conventions and other discourse features typical of L1 essay writing. Students are expected to write essays the way they were taught to write in their L1. But a French native writer would not develop an essay like an English native writer would. Nor would the sentences written by the former be as short, concise and simple as the latter. The formulae used to open and close essays would be different, too. Etc.

Translation tasks from the L2 to the L1 are another great source of noticing, especially if the students are asked, as a follow-up task, to identify a set number of cases – like I suggested for parallel texts earlier on – where idioms, grammar, syntax or lexical collocations differ across the two languages. This is also not done often enough, at least not in UK MFL classrooms.

But if noticing can be beneficial for foreign language acquisition, why is it not explicit encouraged that often, especially through the kind of activities I envisaged above? As the insightful Steve Smith of www.frenchteacher.net wrote to me once, when one believes that lessons should be entirely or almost entirely in the target language, the use of the first language becomes almost taboo. Moreover, noticing is a phenomenon often taken for granted; teachers presume that there is no need to make the comparison between the two languages explicit, as students will do it anyway; the issue is to move this process, when it does occur, from the learners’ subsidiary to their focal awareness. Unfortunately, a lot of students are not as foreign-language savvy as we may think and noticing may require levels of metacognition that not all the students possess.

In conclusion, noticing should be encouraged and modelled more often and systematically than it is currently done, across all the key areas of MFL teaching and learning. One great benefit for learning that I have not mentioned thus far is the enhanced awareness that a language is not a word-for-word translation of another. This enhanced awareness may wean our learners off online translators which create linguistic monstrosities that upset a lot of us almost on a daily basis. An activity I do at least once a term with my students is to provide a number of (carefully constructed) English sentences with their French translation; ask them to notice and highlight the differences and finally turn those sentences into French using Google translator to make them aware of the errors stemming from L1-to-L2 word-for-word translation. An effective awareness-enhancer and/or reminder that there is more to language learning that substituting every English word in a sentence with its Spanish, French or German equivalent.

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