They can’t learn what they don’t notice – on the role of salience in language learning

The extent to which a target language structure is salient (i.e. is noticeable, stands out) is likely to affect its chances to be acquired by a learner. This is consonant with Schmidt’s (1990) Noticing hypothesis (concisely discussed here) which states that noticing a given grammar structure is the starting point for its acquisition.

A number of factors concur to making certain items more salient than others; some refer to frequency and regularity of use, some to their semantic importance, some to how easy it is to hear or perceive them, some to the challenges that the items themselves or the linguistic context in which we process them pose to our working memory.

Why should this be of interest to language teachers? The answer refers to a point that I reiterate to death in my posts: effective teaching is not just about classroom delivery, but also about the way we structure the linguistic input we provide our students with and the way we plan its recycling in our medium- and long-term planning. A teacher who is fully aware of the factors that make certain L2 items s/he sets outs to teach less salient than others and uses such awareness to implement strategies to make those items more noticeable is more likely to secure his learners’ uptake of those items than a teacher who isn’t.

Take prepositions, discourse markers,  word suffixes and pronouns. They are not semantically salient, i.e. they do not provide essential cues to the meaning of a sentence one is reading or hearing; hence, when we read or hear a sentence, especially a complex one, these items will occupy only peripheral awareness in our working memory (meaning: the brain does not pay much attention to them) hence, they are less likely to be noticed and learnt. This happens in our first language and even more so in a foreign language, especially if we are novice-to-intermediate learners.

Add to this the fact that these words are usually quite short and don’t carry stress and are consequently less easy to perceive. A French example: on hearing the French sentence ‘J’y suis allé hier soir après l’école’, as pronounced by a native speaker, a novice is unlikely to perceive the ‘y’ (there). An English example: on processing aurally the sentence ‘Which one of them would you like?’, a novice is very likely not to clearly hear the preposition ‘of’. Unsurprisingly, articles, prepositions and pronouns are amongst the items that L2 learners of French notoriously find the hardest to learn and are usually acquired late in instructed (non-immersive) settings.

In this post I will concern myself with:

(a) the factors which determine the salience of L2 morphemes /grammar structures;

(b) the implications such factors have for teaching, materials design and curriculum planning ;

(c) the strategies we can implement to counteract those factors and make them play in our hands in our attempt to enhance our learners’ acquisition.

Factor 1 – Perceptual salience

As Goldschneider and DeKeyser (2001) posit, salience refers to how easy it is to hear or perceive a given structure. This was briefly touched upon previously and pertains to a number of dimensions of processing in instructed L2 acquisition. One common context refers to phonological processing; if the learner does not hear an L2 item clearly s/he is less likely to learn it. Think about the gender of definite articles in French, ‘le’, ‘la’ and ‘les’ and how difficult it is for a novice learner to distinguish them from one another, especially when they are uttered by a French native speaker at native speed or by a non-native speaker with incorrect aperture and protrusion of the lips.

Perceptual salience is the root cause of many issues that hinder our students’ target language acquisition. To go back to the definite articles example, for instance, their perceptual ‘fuzziness’ not only affects the acquisition of articles both in terms of gender and usage (which differs greatly from English) but also affects the acquisition of noun gender and pluralization because articles usually indicate to the listener if the noun they precede is masculine or feminine, singular and plural.

The fact that phonological salience of some L2 items can seriously hinder acquisition of pivotal grammar structures constitutes one of the most powerful arguments for ensuring that our learners acquire effective decoding skills (the ability to turn letters into sounds) from the very early stages of language learning.

Another common context refers to items that are not salient in one’s mother tongue and therefore one’s brain is not ‘wired’ to pay attention to. A classical example is desinences (word endings) for English learners of highly inflected languages such as French and German. The Anglo-saxon brain is less used to handling the endings of words, as in English desinences are not so important. In French, however, and more so in German, word-endings (suffixes) play a major role in signalling relationships between the various constituents of a sentence or utterance (gender, number, case). The result: the students, even when told time and again – mostly through correction – to pay attention to agreement, keep omitting the required feminine and/or plural desinences.

A third all-important context refers to processing efficiency, i.e. the brain’s ability to juggle the various tasks a novice-to-intermediate must perform in processing an utterance/sentence. Our Working Memory having only limited attentional resources to devote to production, when a sentence or utterance we process is very challenging, the brain will prioritize the items that are more salient (i.e. crucial for conveying the intended meaning) and will neglect those that are less so – a sort of survival mechanism.

As a result, novice learners processing a challenging sentence will be more concerned with its meaning than with the minute details of the grammar (e.g. whether the endings are masculine or feminine; whether an adjective is regular or irregular) and will hardly notice them. Obviously, time pressure and other interferences from the environment are likely to exacerbate processing inefficiency.

Factor 2 – Semantic weight

I have already touched on this. Content words (e.g. nouns, adjectives, most verbs) are semantically more salient than function words (prepositions, determiners, conjunctions) and affixes and suffixes; hence, they are usually noticed and eventually acquired earlier than the latter. Amongst function words, the ones that are less essential to the understanding of meaning – e.g. determiners – are more likely to be neglected by the novice-to-intermediate learners. This is one of the main reasons why your students find learning article usage so difficult to acquire.

Factor 3 – Frequency

The frequency in which an item is processed and produced by a learner makes it more salient, too. This is the strongest argument in support for extensive recycling, especially in the case of items which are intrinsically less salient.

Factor 4 – Regularity

Structures which are regular are more easily noticed than irregular ones, because of their consistency and frequency, and are consequently more salient. That is why irregular forms, unless they occur frequently in the input the learner receives, are usually acquired late and even more advanced students struggle with them.

Factor 5 – Affective response

This refers to the affective response an L2 item evokes in the learner. For instance, a student may be interested or uninterested in learning vocabulary which refer to a topic relevant to its personal interests. Or, a specific set of items is necessary in order for him to pass a test or exam or achieve a personal goal (e.g. getting by in a country is planning to visit in the immediate future).

Factor 6 – Teacher and curriculum focus

The emphasis a teacher and the materials he uses lay on specific features of the language will to a great extent determine their degree of salience. For instance, if the teacher day in day out focuses the students on the phonological qualities of L2 words, or on a specific morpheme (e.g. adjectival agreement) she will evidently render them more salient and noticeable. For example, because of the requirements of the examination board we use in our school, CIE, verb accuracy has become one of my daily foci in lessons, inevitably enhancing their salience in my students’ perception. Unsurprisingly, their attention to and mastery of verbs has increased greatly as a result. In conclusion, we, as teachers are very much responsible for what our students perceive as salient.


The issues discussed below have huge implications for teaching and learning. The salience of an L2 structure priming its acquisition, it is evident that teachers ought to try as much as possible to enhance the noticeability of less salient items.

The most important implication for teachers is to keep the salience principle in their focal awareness as they plan to teach less salient items, considering all the possible barriers to their noticeability and learnability.

Secondly such items should be recycled more frequently and systematically than one would normally do with more salient linguistic features (e.g. by using my recycling ‘tool’ in the picture below). As I wrote in an old post of mine, one of the greatest shortcomings of current MFL instruction in the UK is the lack of systematic and regular focus on the automization of agreement (both noun-to-adjective and subject-to-verb) at the early stages of instruction.

Figure 1 – Recycling tool


Moreover, since less salient items are more likely to be affected by error – as they occur less frequently – they may fossilize (become automated) earlier; hence, at the early stages of their teaching, instruction ought to be intensive.

Also, at the early stages of exposing our students to target L2 items that are less salient, these should not occur in linguistically challenging contexts, so as to avoid cognitive overload. So, for instance, in teaching and drilling in prepositions, discourse markers (e.g. connectives) or any other function words, it will be more effective to present them in simple texts, in conjunction with cognates or other words the students are strongly familiar with.

Furthermore, tactics should be devised to enhance their perceptual salience. Thus, in the case of items that are difficult to hear clearly (e.g. ‘le’ vs ‘les’ or ‘je’ vs ‘j’ai’ in French) frequent contrastive work, exaggerating sounds (e.g. through over-aperture or protrusion),  emphasis on decoding, and heuristics (e.g. a mnemonic) could be used to ensure that the students form and consolidate a clear phonological representation.

Other strategies refer to activities which, regardless of the topic-at-hand focus students on less salient items. One such activity is ‘Track the word(s)’, whereby the students whilst reading or listening to a text has to note down as many occurrences as possible of one or more linguistic features (e.g. French: track as many instances as possible of ‘un’ and ‘une’ as you can hear in the recording).

Partial dictations and Cloze reading tasks in which only less salient features are removed is another strategy I often use to focus students on these items. I have recently found partial dictations where word-endings are removed particularly effective in focusing my novice students of French and Spanish on the gender and number of adjectives and nouns – notoriously less salient features.

Typographic (e.g. highlighting word-endings; dotting or underlining letters) or graphic devices can also be very effective in drawing student attention to less salient items if used regularly and consistenly. For instance, in the sentence builders I typically use to introduce new syntactic patterns I make sure that a column is reserved to the prepositions, connectives, determiners or pronouns the students are less likely to notice.

Last but not least, the salience of less noticeable L2 items can be enhanced through teacher focus and exam washback effect. I personally try to enhance my students’ focus on smaller function words not only by recycling them more frequently, but also by rewarding their recognition and correct use both in low- and in high-stake assessments . Lists of desirable linguistic features can be given to the students for them to use for reference in drafting essays – telling them that the occurrence of n correct instances of such structures will result in n extra points.


The perceptual and semantic salience of the items we set out to teach contributes massively to acquisition. In full-immersion contexts, where the L2 learner acquires the language through exposure to naturalistic input, less salient items are acquired relatively late.

However, in instructed settings, where they have total control over L2-input, teachers have a massive opportunity to speed up and enhance the acquisition of such items by encouraging their noticing, by increasing the students’ exposure to them through frequent recycling and by ensuring that the students form a correct phonological representation in order to disambiguate as early on as possible decoding and coding problems that can have disastrous consequence for the acquisition of important morphological features.

In my experience – and that is why I wrote this piece – the principle of salience does not generally guide MFL teachers’ curriculum planning and materials design as much as it should. Evidence of that is the lack of FLE and ELE published resources that focus on function words and noun/adjective/verb desinences practice.

Poor L2 learner mastery of less salient features does not often impair communication; it does, however, often impact the clarity and cohesion of learner output and gives a sense of ‘sketchiness’. Not to mention the fact that research clearly shows that when mistakes with some of these features occur frequently they can highly irritate less sympathetic L2 native speakers.

I have personally found that keeping the barriers to salience constantly in my focal awareness in my teaching has made a world of difference to my students’ learning. In my long-term planning I now constantly look for opportunities to recycle less ‘noticeable’ items (e.g. prepositions, pronouns, discourse markers, affixes and suffixes), especially at the early stages of instruction. In my materials design I try as much as possible to minimize potential for cognitive overload and to proactively direct student attention to those features.

In conclusion, we, as teachers are very much responsible for what our students perceive as salient and have the power to bring less salient items into their focal attention through little daily zero-preparation gestures such as the questions we ask and more incisive, ‘invasive’ and long-term measures such as our material design and curriculum planning.






6 thoughts on “They can’t learn what they don’t notice – on the role of salience in language learning

  1. One phonological aspect you don’t mention is the sonority sequencing principle, which is commonly violated by English -s and -ed endings. This violation makes them phonologically unexpected, and so they do not get perceived.

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