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There’s a myth about learning a language that you can just immerse yourself in it and you’ll learn it. As if it’s a purely passive process and English can be absorbed through osmosis.
This myth is part of the reason people recommend English immersion programmes, or say that you just need to go and live in an English-speaking country—they see immersion as an easy way to acquire a language.
Of course, there are benefits to surrounding yourself with English.
But even if you do this, it doesn’t automatically sink in, or at least, it doesn’t do so quickly.
There are millions of people who have lived in English speaking countries for years but are far from fluency. And there are people who have never set foot in an English speaking country yet they could be mistaken for a native speaker.
A large part of it can be attributed to paying attention.
You might think that’s common sense. Of course paying attention helps.
But what does that actually mean? And why does it help?
In this article I’ll explain why really paying attention to language matters.
I’ll also show you that it’s a skill that you can develop, and show you how you can start paying attention more effectively to improve your English in a faster, more efficient way.
Let’s get started.
The noticing hypothesis for language acquisition
The idea that you have to consciously pay attention—or notice—language to really learn it is the central idea of the noticing hypothesis of second-language acquisition.
The hypothesis is that, in order to really benefit from the language that you’re exposed to (comprehensible input), you have to actually notice that input.
What does it mean to “notice” input?
Here, “notice” means more than simply “see”. It also means to “become conscious of”. Noticing language doesn’t just mean to understand the words. It means processing the words and thinking critically about it.
“Noticing” input could mean thinking about whether there are words you know or don’t know, whether the language is what you would expect, thinking about why that word was used instead of another one.
It is by consciously noticing linguistic input that you “take it in” and it can influence your understanding of the language.
Why does paying attention matter for English learning?
There are two main reasons.
Noticing language is necessary to learn it
One language researcher, Susan Gass, building on Stephen Krashen’s input hypothesis, explains that noticing language is one of the initial steps in the process by which we acquire language we hear or read.
- First, the learner is exposed to language.
- Then, they notice some particular features of the language that they’re exposed to.
- Then, the learner understands those features.
- Then, there is “intake”. Those features enter into the learner’s linguistic repertoire.
- Finally, the learner uses those language features as output—speaking or writing.
Noticing, for Gass, is an essential step in turning the language that you hear into language that you can use later when you’re speaking or writing.
The idea is that we all have a kind of linguistic library of language that we’re able to use.
Glass argues that without “noticing”, the language we read and hear will just flow past us. We won’t absorb it into our library.
That means we won’t be able to recall it later when we’re speaking or writing.
Paying attention changes how we encode information in our brain
Those reasons for noticing language are supported by evidence from neuroscience.
In his book Brain Rules, John Medina notes that,
“The more attention the brain pays to a given stimulus, the more elaborately the information will be encoded—that is, learned—and retained… A multitude of studies, both old and new, show that paying attention improves retention of reading material, increases accuracy, and boosts clarity in writing, math, science, and every academic category that has ever been tested.”
In plain English, there is a very good neurological reason to pay attention—paying attention helps our brain form the neural connections that help us remember.
Together, the research suggests that being an active learner—one who pays attention to the language and notices it—is much more effective than being simply a passive English learner.
What should you notice?
There’s a tonne of information that’s communicated when we’re talking—and not all of it is about the words.
Here are some of the features that you can pay attention to for insights on becoming a better English user.
Pay attention to the words people use. Try not just to notice new words and phrases, but also observe when they are synonyms for other words you know, strange words, words that convey a lot of emotion, regional vocabulary and slang, and idiomatic expressions.
If you’re having a conversation with someone, don’t be afraid to ask them to repeat that word, or why they used that word instead of another one.
If you’re reading a book or article, look the word up and add it to your own personal dictionary.
Then try to use it in your own writing or conversations.
You can pay attention to the tenses that people are using, irregular verb conjugations, when a phrasal verb is split and when it isn’t, etc. You might also notice when and how native speakers break certain grammar rules, or when they don’t really apply in certain dialects.
Noticing new grammar structures, as well as the patterns around their use, will make it easier for you to use them too.
Pay attention to how words are pronounced, especially since there are so many strange pronunciation exceptions in English.
For example, it’s worth noticing how some words that are spelt similarly are pronounced differently (though and through) and how some that are spelt differently sound the same (sea and see).
If you’re listening to a podcast, try to shadow it, or record yourself speaking. Then listen back to it and compare it to the original - pay attention to the differences, and then correct any mistakes that you noticed.
You’ll find that the more you do this, the better you get at noticing the differences, and the better your pronunciation will get.
Prosody is the musicality of language—the rhythms, intonations, pitches, and melodies that we use when we speak. One example of noticing prosody would be to observe how English speakers raise their pitch at the end of a sentence to indicate a question or uncertainty.
Paying attention to prosody will help you develop speech patterns that sound more like a native speaker.
Body language isn’t really part of the English language, but it’s just as essential to learn to be fluent and not feel like an imposter.
For example, I’m currently living in Brazil and learning Portuguese. I’ve noticed that there’s a particular finger wave that’s characteristic of how Brazilians communicate that they disagree. When I use that same body language, it helps me convey my message better and in a way that’s closer to how native speakers of Brazilian Portuguese would.
Noticing body language cues like these can help you develop cultural fluency as well as language fluency.
What can you do to start paying attention more?
So, now you know some of the most important things to pay attention to in English. Here are some other strategies you can use to make it easier to pay attention.
I don’t mean practise English, I actually mean practise paying attention.
Paying attention is like a muscle: the more you use it, the better it gets. That means you can develop your ability to focus with practice.
So work to pay attention when you are learning English and you’ll get better at it.
Choose activities that make it easy to pay attention
Some activities lend themselves more to active engagement.
For example, while Netflix or YouTube can be used for active learning activities, most people use them passively. You’re more likely to get distracted by the great graphics or the story than you are to pay attention to the actual language. So do these activities less.
Instead, try listening to an English podcast.
Since there are no visuals, it’s easier to pay attention to the actual language itself.
Simultaneously reading a transcript can also really help you pinpoint new vocabulary or grammar structures.
And to make this an especially active exercise, you can do things like print out a transcript and circle new words, write a summary afterwards, shadow the speaker, add new words to your personal dictionary, and more.
Limit the time you spend doing passive learning activities
You don’t always have to do active learning. In my own journey learning Portuguese, I often do passive learning activities: I’ll listen to an audiobook while doing the dishes or read while I’m on the treadmill.
Just be conscious of how you’re spending your time.
Most of us have limits to the time we have for learning English. Make sure that you’re creating some time in there for more active engagement with English. That might mean limiting some of your more passive activities.
For instance, if you have an hour every day earmarked for learning English, don’t spend it all watching Netflix because it isn’t as effective as other activities.
Instead, limit your Netflix to a 30 minute show and use the rest to transcribe a podcast, chat with a conversation partner in English, record yourself speaking, or shadowing.
Choose activities that you like
As John Medina so succinctly puts it, “We don’t pay attention to boring things.”
You’re more likely to pay attention to English in an activity you like. For example, you’ll be more likely to notice and learn new verbs if they’re in a recipe and you love to cook than if they’re in a boring textbook.
The lesson is to fill your English learning programme with activities that you actually like.
Final thoughts: pay attention to English to learn faster
If you’re a serious learner of English, you’ll want to not just go through the motions by listening to it or reading it. You’ll actually want to pay attention when you’re learning it.
Noticing the language that you come across will speed up the learning process and make your learning faster and more efficient.
Paying attention may be especially important for independent learners, since the more you pay attention, the faster you’ll learn, and the less time you’ll spend in the classroom or with private English tutors.
So try not to just listen or read.
Try to also think critically about the language you’re seeing when you’re listening or reading in English.
Do that and you will be on the fast track to English fluency.
Gass, S. M. (1988). Integrating research areas: A framework for second language studies. Applied linguistics, 9(2), 198-217.
Medina, J. (2011). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Pear press.
Schmidt, R. W. (1990). The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied linguistics, 11(2), 129-158.
Zeidan, F., Johnson, S. K., Diamond, B. J., David, Z., & Goolkasian, P. (2010). Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition, 19(2), 597-605.