Enhanced incidental learning of formulaic sequences by Chinese learners of Italian

  • Ilaria Borro

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The present study has two main aims, on both a pedagogic and theoretical level. The pedagogic focus is to provide a theoretical and experimental basis for instructional techniques that trigger enhanced incidental learning. The rationale for enhanced incidental learning lies in the need to improve L2 speakers’ implicit knowledge, which requires keeping learning as incidental and unconscious as possible. At the same time, purely incidental conditions result in slow and limited knowledge gains, and this shows the need for devices capable of speeding up acquisition while simultaneously keeping the learner’s level of consciousness below the awareness threshold. Enhanced incidental learning is such a device.
The need to verify whether such conditions are capable of triggering genuine incidental learning and resulting in implicit knowledge leads to the second aim of the study. This focuses on a more theoretical and psycholinguistic issue: the relationship between the level of consciousness at the point of learning and the kind of knowledge gained. As a corollary of this investigation, the possibility for learning to take place below the level of awareness is addressed.
The target structure chosen for the experiment is formulaic sequences, since mastering them is considered both a crucial and problematic part of second language acquisition. Notably, the capacity of the human brain to unconsciously tally co-occurrences makes formulaic language an optimal target structure for the investigation of statistical incidental learning.
83 Chinese learners of Italian L2 were exposed to reading-while-listening to a graded reader including seven occurrences of each target idiom. Participants were randomly assigned to one of four experimental groups and exposed to the target items with (i) typographical, (ii) aural, (iii) typographical + aural, or (iv) no additional enhancement. A control group performed the tests with no treatment. Learning was assessed through both offline and online tests, which were performed immediately after the treatment and again three weeks later. To investigate the learners’ level of consciousness, a subsample of participants had their eye movements recorded at the process level. In addition, stimulated recalls provided information about participants’ awareness of the enhancement devices and the learning task.
Findings show that significant knowledge was gained. Awareness measures show that treatments involving typographical enhancement resulted in intentional rather than incidental learning, which was confirmed by the post-test detecting mainly explicit knowledge. While confirming the effectiveness of typographical enhancement for explicit knowledge gains, this result shows that learning conditions involving it cannot be considered incidental.
In contrast, subjects exposed to aural enhancement allocated additional attention to the target items without being aware of it, therefore engaging in genuine incidental learning. This process resulted in both explicit knowledge (at the receptive level only) and significantly increased automatic familiarity with the target items. This finding is original and important on two levels. First, it provides evidence for the effectiveness of aural enhancement, which was lacking in the existing literature. Secondly, it supports the possibility for enhanced incidental learning to take place below the level of awareness, thus contributing to a key debate in the SLA field.
Date of AwardJan 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Portsmouth
SupervisorNick Bertenshaw (Supervisor) & Alessandro Benati (Supervisor)

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