German football

How understanding the difference between declarative and procedural knowledge makes you a better language learner

There are two types of knowledge in our brain. On the one hand there is declarative knowledge. That is knowledge of facts, dates, the mother in laws’ birthday, the friends’ phone number, the formula for the theory of relativity, etc. This knowledge is directly accessible and applicable as a “knowledge component”. On the other hand there is procedural knowledge, e.g. the knowledge of a footballer, which movements he must make when shooting a penalty kick, our knowledge of how we place one foot in front of the other etc.

Thus, procedural knowledge is knowledge that is not directly accessible in knowledge components, but is only subconsciously accessible, e.g. numerous consecutive muscle contractions that lead to an entire movement. Language is partially a subordinate of declarative knowledge, e.g. when it is about assigning a specific word of the native language to a word of a foreign language. On the other hand, language cannot function without procedural knowledge (Börner 1997, “Implizites und explizites Wissen im fremdsprachlichen Wortschatz”). The best way of imagining it is by the example of driving a car. Declarative knowledge is the knowledge of how a car functions, what you theoretically have to do when sitting behind the wheel … It is, however, something completely different, to actually be able to sit behind the wheel, to be able to let the clutch run smoothly, to be able to keep up with steering and blinking and the pace, all of which falls under procedural knowledge. Unfortunately, this is just the part that is repeatedly left ignored. And so traditional foreign language class often produces students who may have a lot of declarative knowledge of grammar and words, but when they are to actually speak fluently, they only stutter amongst themselves. This can be avoided by combining declarative and procedural knowledge (and some task-specific training) from the beginning in a way that the natural units can immediately be attributively gathered and reproduced.

Against the prevailing view and how it is done in most of classes, procedural knowledge and not declarative knowledge should be the greatly dominant part of the language learning process. The actual amount of declarative knowledge you need to be quite proficient is very little. It is amazing how few different words actually make up our entire everyday language. 30 word forms in German cover 32% of all researched publications. With 100 word forms you have almost reached 50% of the entire written language. With 1,000 words you can already cover 80% of the entire written language and 6,000 words more than 95%.

On the other hand, think about how long a football player needs to train until he or she has a dribbling or kicking technique down and can use it in a game from the point the trainer has told him how to do it. Trust me, there are lots and lots of practice kicks an failures involved. It’s the same with using the declarative knowledge (vocab, grammar, although grammar has a special role) in language learning. There is a lot of training and subconscious, procedural learning involved until you can fluently understand language and even more until you can speak it yourself. Even more, when practicing you can also gain new declarative knowledge (for example when looking up a word or a grammar form while reading in the foreign language). Because you immediately put it into context, it is oftentimes easier remembered as well.

Training in that sense also refers to practicing some special abilities connected to language learning, particularly pronunciation. In this essentially important part of language, the muscles in the jaw, mouth and throat have to strenuously adapt to and be trained to form foreign sounds. How to train pronunciation will also be coming in a future article.

So my biggest tip for you today: Don’t focus too much on the declarative. Rather focus on ingraining the language into your “muscle memory”, for example by reading texts you already understand, listening to the radio (if you’re already further along) and generally exposing yourself to the language. Why this training should be more passive and with your ears rather than with your mouth, will be the topic of a future article.

This way language learning becomes less “cramming” and more of a “training”, similar to how small children learn their native language. And that’s how language course marketing claims we all want to learn, right 🙂

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