The nature of explicit knowledge in foreign language learning
Tucker, Stanley Keith
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Previous research on second language learning indicates that explicit knowledge may foster competence in a foreign language; however, language learners have difficulty articulating such knowledge. For native speakers of English, perfective and imperfective verb aspect present particular obstacles, since they are not grammaticalized in English. This study investigated the contents of third- through fifth-year secondary school Spanish learners’ explicit knowledge of preterite and imperfect. That knowledge was characterized by either (1) abstract principles, (2) teacher and textbook rules of thumb, or (3) student-generated rules. It also examined the relation of that explicit knowledge to ability to produce preterite and imperfect forms in timed and untimed writing. Participants completed a computer-administered preterite and imperfect grammatical judgment test that was story-based. The story was presented in English with preterite and imperfect verb judgment choices given in Spanish. Participants recorded oral rationales for their aspect choices on the judgment test and rated their confidence in their judgments. Subsequent production tasks included in-class timed and out-of-class untimed writing. Knowledge of teacher and textbook rules was the best predictor of learner competence in grammatical judgment. It was not until the fifth year of study that a knowledge of more abstract aspectual principles affected performance. Contrary to previous research, students at all levels of study displayed abundant explicit knowledge of perfective and imperfective aspect. Teacher and textbook rules were most often invoked. The most frequently recited rules were highly concrete and case specific, regardless of the degree of potential learner exposure to those rules. In both in-class and out-of-class writing, teacher and textbook rules were the best predictor of successful aspectual verb usage. These findings suggest that the teaching of both teacher and textbook rules and aspectual principles is warranted and that explicit knowledge of perfective and imperfective aspect does benefit learners in competence and production.