There’s more to L2 grammar acquisition than meets the eye: learned attention and its implications for teaching


Learned attention (Nick Ellis, 2012) is a phenomenon whereby the way we parse input in the L1 constrains the way we process the L2 . In other words, our first language has conditioned us over the years to parse language through cues in the input which may be different in the target language.

For instance, English speakers learning Spanish may not notice Spanish nouns/adjectives’ masculine or feminine endings in the input we provide them with, because the notion of gender does not exist in their first language. By the same token, English learners of French may not notice that a French verb is in the simple future because in English the simple future is cued by ‘will’ whereas in French it is indicated by a bound morpheme (i.e. inflectional changes to the verb ending). For English learners of German, the issue is of course even more complex as word order requires parsing mechanisms which are completely different in their L1 and cases do not exists at all in English.

This is particularly important when teachers stage traditional listening and reading comprehension tasks whereby the texts are flooded with an L2 language feature which is processed differently in the L1. Since the brain can’t process meaning and form (e.g. grammar) simultaneously, when carrying out such tasks, many learners are not likely to notice the target L2 feature, especially in listening, when the time window for parsing any given sentence is about 1 to 2 seconds. Flooding aural/written texts is only effective when listening and reading tasks include alongside focus-on-meaning tasks a substantive focus-on-form component which directs the learners’ attention to form, i.e. prosody (e.g. intonational patterns), grammar (e.g. verb endings), syntax (word order), etc.

It should be noted that grammar structures are not merely acquired through productive use, as many believe, but also through many repeated encounters in the aural and written input they process. However, if our students are blind and deaf to the target linguistic features because they are ‘blocked’ by our L1-induced learned attention, this is not likely to happen. This is very important considering that in many UK classrooms a big chunk of the daily classroom work occurs through reading – even when the students engage in writing, it is often with the support of reading materials or written scaffolds (e.g. knowledge organizers), which is basically… reading!

But isn’t it enough to simply raise their awareness, do a nice PPP (presentation – practice – production) lesson and lots of gap-fills, translations and other structured drills? The answer: for starters, these are productive (usually written) tasks which won’t necessarily transfer to listening and reading (according to the Transfer Appropriate Processing principle). Secondly, learned attention has been automatised (learnt subconsciously) through thousands and thousands of hours of first language use. Hence, any training aiming at successfully ‘rewiring’ the brain must be regular and sustained over time– if you believe it’s a priority, of course.

Figure 1 – Learned attention defined

Obviously, the blocking effect of L1-induced learned attention is stronger, the more demanding the parsing of a text is from a cognitive-load point of view. So, for instance, sentences which are longer, more syntactically complex and/or contain unfamiliar vocabulary are more likely to exacerbate the phenomenon. The same happens when a grammar feature is redundant in terms of meaning building; for example, in the sentence ‘Demain on va aller au stade’ (Tomorrow we are going to go to the stadium), the time marker already cues the students to the fact that the action is future and the subject pronoun ‘on’ that it is ‘us’ going. This means that there is no need for the learner to pay attention to the verb ‘aller’ (‘va’) and to the syntactic pattern underlying the construction ‘present of aller + infinitive’.

Based on Tomlin and Villa’s (1997) model of attention (see figure 2 below) we may posit that the detection of a target linguistic feature is more likely to occur when language learners are alert to it. In other words, a learner who has been alerted to a specific feature in the input may orientate their attention to it and eventually notice it. Hence the importance of helping learners notice less salient L2 items by making them more distinctive; of raising their awareness of cross-linguistic differences in processing those items; of staging activities which focus them regularly and deliberately on those items by making them task essential (i.e. necessary for the successful completion of a task).

Figure 2 – Tomlin and Villa’s model of attention

Implications for the classroom

Whilst language teachers are usually aware of other ways in which our first language may work against L2 acquisition (aka L1 negative transfer), learned attention is in my experience a phenomenon many are less aware of and don’t deliberately plan for. Yet, this phenomenon has important implications for teaching, especially when we ask our students to process aural/written texts. Here are some of them:

(1) since the brain cannot process simultaneously meaning and form (e.g. grammar & syntax), traditional reading and listening comprehension or ‘Find the French equivalent in the text’ sort of tasks will not help learners consolidate the target grammar structures, as many teachers think, it doesn’t matter how much they flood the texts with instances of the target grammar features. Texts need also be exploited, as we do in EPI, in ways which target all levels of processing, i.e.: spelling, sound to spelling correspondence, grammar, syntax, etc (figure 3).

Figure 3 – In EPI, texts are exploited by staging activities which ‘hit’ every single level of processing

(2) input-enhancement techniques (Sharwood-Smith, 1994) aimed at making the features ‘blocked’ by our learned attention SALIENT maybe used (e.g. acoustic cues such as raising your voice whilst reading aloud/speaking or visual cues such as highlighting word endings (figure 4)

Figure 4: Input enhancement used in the modelling phase to help learners of L2 Italian notice masculine and feminine endings in the past participle of verbs requiring Essere in the perfect tense

3) noticing activities such as (i) deep processing techniques contrasting (inductively or through guided discovery) the way a target grammar structure is deployed in the L1 and the L2 may be used to make it more salient and memorable such as ‘Dodgy translation’, ‘Faulty echo’, ‘Track the structure’ or ‘Write it as you hear it’ and (ii) receptive tasks (e.g. Partial dictations, Track the structure,) which make the target grammar structure task essential (see figures 5 to 7 ); (iii) editing activities in which the students are given texts flooded with errors with a specific grammar structure;

(4) daily efforts to ‘rewire’ the brain by training it to direct attention to inflectional endings may also be desirable in the early stages of instructed second language acquisition;

(5) in planning grammar instruction, it is key to identify the L1 ‘blocking’ mechanisms which may impede our learners’ noticing of the target structures, then try to counter them by raising learner awareness and by providing tons of practice, as already suggested above;

(6) it is key to model and practise the problematic items vulnerable to learned attention in highly familiar contexts so as to reduce cognitive load;

(7) if these structures are very important, like word order in German, for instance, make them your universals, as we call them in EPI – i.e. the core non-negotiables that you will focus on almost obsessively for a whole year.

Figure 5, 6 and 7: Activities which help enhance the saliency of blocked linguistic features

Concluding remarks

In conclusion, teaching grammar is not just about teaching rules through examples on a powerpoint or YouTube videos and ask the students to practise them through oral and written tasks. To enable language learners to see and hear the L2 linguistic features ‘blocked’ by learned attention, grammar instruction is also, and possibly more importantly at the early stages of ISLA, about redirecting the learners’ attention when they read and listen to L2 input, by training them day in day out to focus their eyes and ears on parts of the target language words and sentences they wouldn’t normally see or hear because of their first language processing habits. Grammar and Syntax are not only acquired by doing a few gap-fills and drills here and there, but also by processing masses of aural and written input many times over.

Processing input for meaning only isn’t sufficient, especially aural input, which is particularly fragile due to its fleeting nature (it decays from sensory memory after 2 seconds only and every new incoming sentence erases every physical trace of the previous one…). Hence, teachers need to find the way to rewire the way their learners process L2 input and create an alertness to the features which are processed differently in their first language. This means that curriculum design should consider, especially when dealing with beginner learners, the ways in which L1 learned attention majorly hinders the effective parsing – and, subsequently the learning – of the language features they purport to teach. Once identified the potential areas to target, teachers should provide a regular diet of brain-rewiring receptive activities, deliberately targeting those areas. This can be done through minimal prep/high impact receptive tasks such as: Faulty echo, Partial dictations, Listen and correct, Spot the silent endings, Track the structure, Dodgy translation, Editing tasks, Choose the correct endings; Complete the endings with the options provided, etc. In other words, the bread and butter of EPI.