For years, I've been toeing the line that non-native languages never become like native languages, and that there's two language processing mechanisms in the brain: one for the infant learner, and one for the adult-learner. This was science's best guess based on the data they had to hand: victims of "selective aphasia". These people had suffered brain damage that had affected their abilities in languages, but not equally across languages. The observed pattern was that all native languages would be affected more or less equally, and all non-native languages would be affected more or less equally, but the two would often be differently affected.
Well, via an article in the New York Times, I came across this paper at PLoS ONE that says otherwise. Apparently they've been able to track the brainwaves of learners and find that there are similarities between the brainwaves of a proficient learner and patterns typical of the native. This I find really cool. (I wish I could afford a brainscanner so that I could measure my proficiency in terms of native-like brainwaves!!)
I'm concerned, though, that one thing they say will be overinterpreted:
Interestingly, both before and after the delay the implicitly trained group showed more native-like processing than the explicitly trained group, indicating that type of training also affects the attainment of native-like processing in the brain.There are many people who advocate immersion from day one, and this would appear to be proof of the efficacy of the approach. However, we are dealing with a very simple language here -- 13 words and a handful of extra inflectional morphemes, leading to a sum total of 1404 possible sentences in the language. Even if the grammar's very different from English, there's still a very small number of "decision points" to be considered, so it is much easier to devine the meaning from the context -- this is something that just doesn't match the experience with real language.
They do, of course, admit as much in the body of the paper:
it may be that the results reported here are due to the limited size of the artificial languageFurthermore, the study says:
In the explicit training condition, participants were provided with 13.5 minutes of input of a type similar to that found in traditional grammar-focused classroom settings. Auditorily-presented metalinguistic explanations structured around word categories (e.g., nouns, verbs) were presented along with meaningful Brocanto2 phrases and sentences (which were also auditorily-presented, together with visually-presented corresponding game board configurations).It's a shame the paper doesn't include the script. My concern here is with the mention of "metalinguistic explanations". Explicit instruction does not necessarily mean a lot of "metalinguistic" explanations -- yes, it will always require some, but often what starts out as an explanation overcomplicates things with unnecessary jargon and overly conscious processing. Finely tuned explicit input can be very clear to the learner even if it looks messy on paper, and poorly tuned explicit input can be nigh-on impenetrable to the learner even if it looks neat on paper.
Which is why I object when they claim that:
A second possibility is that at end of training the explicit group's dependence on explicit, declarative memory-based knowledge resulted in the inhibition of the learning or use of procedural knowledge (see above), thus precluding anterior negativities. On this view, explicit training actually prevents, or at least slows, the development of native-like processing.It is impossible for them to state that explicit training in particular prevents anything -- but that the training that they provided did. (Of course, if I was to see their scripts, I'd definitely find fault with them, but that could always be me rationalising away anything that disagrees with me -- classic confirmation bias. We're all guilty of it at times.)
Anyway, despite their statements about the difference between the explicit and implicit instruction, the study does state towards the end:
the implication of declarative and procedural memory in this study is consistent with the predictions made by the declarative/procedural model for second language acquisition. This neurocognitive model posits that during L2 learning grammar initially depends largely on declarative memory, but that gradually aspects of grammar are increasingly learned and processed in procedural memory.I am heartened to see that they haven't out-and-out supported the hardline distinction between "learning" and "acquisition" that Krashen and his ilk propose.
So it looks like I may have been wrong about the neurological differences between native and adult-learned languages, and I might still be proven wrong about the benefits of explicit vs implicit instruction, but this is not the study that proves that one. If and when one comes along, I'll rethink my position. Until then, I'll stick with what I currently believe.