In this paper Hulstijn undertakes a detailed examination of the differences between incidental and intentional learning from popular, psychological and second language acquisition perspectives. The popular perspective is that of study versus immersion, where incidental learning corresponds to the idea of immersing oneself in a language by extensive communication with native speakers and reading/writing of native texts; and intentional learning corresponds to attending language classes. These popular perspectives only partially reflect the way in which the terms are used academically. After reviewing the development of 20th century psychology, Hulstijn says that in terms of cognitive psychology that:
intentional and incidental learning refer, strictly speaking, only to the presence or absence of an announcement to participants in an experiment as to whether they will be tested afterwardsI had been surprised when Folse (2006) had classified his study as incidental, when it had seemed to me that asking subjects to perform cloze tests involving a limited set of words, or construct sentences with those words, was tantamount to asking those subjects to learn those words. To be fair to Folse, his study did involve a number of distractor tasks, but I was still surprised by the suggestion that simply not mentioning in advance that there would be a vocabulary test would make the study one of incidental learning. I guess the common incidental learning study task is reading comprehension, where the task focus is much more clearly on something other than vocabulary acquisition. I guess Folse's intention was to avoid having subjects focus on acquiring vocabulary so that they would not attempt to memorise the words through other means, such as writing down lists of words to look at independently, or repeatedly going over the words in their heads. Of course Folse doesn't say this explicitly, but it makes me think of Eyssenck's (1982) assumption that active intention to learn does not tend to affect learning outcomes (backed up by experimental results of Hyde & Jenkins, 1973). Although this leaves me confused as to the point of the incidental/intentional learning distinction.
Fortunately Hulstijn goes on to cite a number of more detailed definitions from Schmidt (1994a) as characterising the Second Language Acquisition perspective on incidental learning. The three definitions in order of increasing specificity are:
- learning without the intent to learn
- learning of one thing while the learner's primary objective is to do something else
- learning of formal features while an individual is focused on semantic features
Whereas explicit learning involves awareness at the point of learning (e.g., by trying to understand what the function of a certain language form is), intentional learning involves a deliberate attempt to commit new information to memory (e.g., by applying rehearsal and/or mnemonic techniques)Hulstijn suggests that there is a confusion over the what and how of incidental and intentional learning; that it is almost impossible to conceive of the acquisition of grammatical features through intentional learning. This seems a little odd for me, but then grammar is not my specialty. Still I can remember being explicitly instructed on points of Japanese grammar and then trying to employ them. In some ways it seems to me that one can intentionally focus on learning grammar and lexis, but that employing both effectively requires achieving a level of automaticity where the process through which they are employed is not subject to introspection.
The involvement load constuct of Laufer & Hulstijn (2001) is only mentioned briefly in the context of incidental learning of novel words, and there is no mention of its possible relation to intentional learning. My feeling is that my colleague Yi-Jiun Shiung's intuition that the constructs of involvement load can be applied to intentional learning are correct; although I guess I start to see that the incidental/intentional dichotomy is being used to distinguish task type. If you are constructing a sentence or solving a cloze test then you are, a priori, not repeating a particular word over and over in your head, or constructing a mnemonic to help you remember an L1-L2 mapping. Thus for the purposes of our meta-analysis it seems that classification in terms of task type is perhaps more important than the incidental/intentional dimension.
The constructs that Hulstijn refers to in his section on intentional learning studes are monolingual vs bilingual, context vs. no context, rehearsal, feedback, and mnemonics. Interestingly he also says that:
It appears that a number of researchers have investigated various presentation and rehearsal regimes (with and without feedback) in computer-aided instruction, but such studies are almost never published in international journals.I think we have managed to find a few, although many number of them are post-2003. Of greater significance are Hulstijn's summaries of the findings of various studies including the indication that learning rates under genuine incidental learning conditions are low compared to intentional learning conditions. Although of course it is almost impossible to control for 'time on task'. Other studies suggest bilingual presentation outperforms monolingual presentation (although I assume this depends on learner level and the test type), that context is a difficult construct to pin down, and mnemonics should only be resorted to when other approaches have failed.
There's a study by Griffin & Harley (1996) that arguably should be in our meta-analysis, as well as a few others we should check on, particularly in the latter section on intentional learning. Of course this raises the question about whether we try to broaden the scope of our meta-analysis, or whether we compromise it by including other studies that we discover as a result of reading the core set of initial papers that we found.
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