Incidental vs. Intentional Second Language Acquisition


One of the many ways to understand second language acquisition (SLA) is to classify the learning process in to two categories, which are, deliberate or intentional learning and incidental learning. Both types of learning take place in a classroom, however, according to my observation, educational institutions focus more on intentional learning. Lesson plans and assessment criteria are mostly set to test what students have learned through intentional study of the second language (L2), rather than what they have absorbed through incidental learning. It is important for both, teachers and students to be able to differentiate between intentional and incidental knowledge in order to make SLA more efficient and less time consuming.

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As a high school English Language teacher, I have realized that the level of students’ interest in L2 and their ability to use L2 while communicating with each other increases when knowledge is passed on to them in the form of activities, rather than in the traditional form of delivering lectures. Although such a discovery is relevant to and can be applied to most subjects, it holds significant importance in the case of second language acquisition (SLA) because teachers, such as myself, are often unable to design lesson plans which can give maximum assistance to students regarding SLA. Lesson plans are mostly focused on lectures and assessments which makes the whole process of second language acquisition (SLA) boring and monotonous for the students, as well as the teacher. In my experience, when students acquire knowledge of L2 through deliberate learning only, they move through the academic year with the intention of securing good grades in the subject, rather than actually learning the L2 and using it in future. As a result of such a mindset, I have observed that although students able to retain the meaning of English words, they are unable to use them properly and face difficulty while communicating in English after they graduate high school.

This report seeks to find a possible solution to the problems discussed above. It will first describe and differentiate both types of learning – intentional and incidental learning – in detail, and provide evidence supporting incidental learning as a better learning method. Lastly, this report will present ways of incorporating incidental learning in to lesson plans for SLA.

Literature Review

To understand intentional and incidental learning, it is important to acknowledge the fact that the building blocks of second language acquisition (SLA) is vocabulary, from which students begin their L2 acquisition (Restrepo Ramos, 2015). Deliberate learning is mainly used as an efficient and convenient method of memorizing vocabulary, and takes place usually in the form of learning through flashcards and word lists, where the target vocabulary can be personalized according to the needs and requirements of individual learners (Elgort, 2011). One of the earliest researches on intentional learning carried out by Krashen (1989) emphasized that deliberate form-focused learning can be only used to monitor performance under some specific conditions, for instance, when there is no time pressure on students. He also argued that deliberate learning does not significantly affect SLA because linguistic knowledge is only acquired only when the students’ attention is focused on the message that the content is trying to convey, rather than the form given to the message, for instance, when students read in or listen to L2 to grasp its meaning (Krashen, 1989).

An opposing school of thought suggests that L2 students can learn new words not only through intentional learning, but also through incidental learning, which is a by-product of any activity that is not explicitly aimed at lexical learning (Hatami, 2017). Lexical learning refers to the SLA where students are able to understand and produce lexical phrases as chunks (Landau, Smith, & Jones, 1988). On the other hand, incidental learning occurs when students participate in different linguistic activities, for example, listening or reading with the purpose of comprehension, information, or simply fun. Learners acquire new words of L2 during such activities, which are then processed and added to their L2 vocabulary(Reynolds & Bai, 2013). Some researchers define incidental learning as a by-product of cognitive exercises, especially the ones involving comprehension, such as, reading or listening (Gass, 1999). It is important to note here that retention rates under intentional learning are observed to be much higher than under incidental learning (Hulstijn, 2003, p. 349).

Kweon & Kim (2008) observed that reading is the primary source of input L2 incidental vocabulary acquisition. A study carried out on Chinese-speaking English L2 learners showed that L2 students who demonstrated a higher level of proficiency had learned vocabulary incidentally through reading. Higher proficiency in L2 means that the learner has enhanced his/her decoding skills, through which he/she can construct meanings from the text by giving more attention to the word, sentence, and the construct of the text (Zhao, Guo, Biales, & Olszewski, 2016). Another study carried out by Ponniah (2011) compared the performance of students engaged in reading and students who consciously learned the meaning of words from dictionaries in order to develop lexical knowledge. The results showed that the latter were unable to form grammatically correct sentences, while the former found it easier to construct correct sentences (Ponniah, 2011).

One of the earliest researches done on second language acquisition (SLA) by Schmitt & Schmitt (1995) discovered that students learn new words if they are involved in mental activities that require more elaborate thought, manipulation or processing of a new word. Building on this hypothesis, Huckin & Coady (1999) suggested that the frequency of vocabulary exposure positively affects incidental vocabulary learning because repeated and meaningful exposure to words help learners form meaning associations. Some other researchers argue that learning vocabulary in SLA does not solely require attention to meaning, but also some focus on the form and structure of the language (Ellis, 1994). To summarize the concept of incidental learning, it can be thought of as a process that is largely dependent on the context surrounding each word of L2, and the level of attention the learner gives to both, meaning and form of the new word (Webb, 2008).


The most common teaching method used by L2 teachers is the Presentation-Practice-Production (PPP) method, where the teacher introduces new words of grammatical rules for L2, and then expects students to learn and manipulate those rules through extensive practice. PPP approach assess students based on their accuracy of using L2 vocabulary and grammar rules, rather than their ability to produce meaningful content (Plews & Zhao, 2010). A more recent and innovative method of teaching L2 is the task-based language teaching (TBLT) approach, which has been developed keeping in mind the usefulness of tasks. One of the very first explanations of TBLT was put forward by Willis (1996), who categorized this approach to be one in which teachers develop problem-oriented or outcome-driven tasks. Such tasks promote meaningful learning by presenting students with activities that are comparable to real world situations.

Numerous researches have shown that TBLT combined with incidental learning can give better results than any traditional form of second language acquisition (SLA) . Learners who are taught L2 vocabulary through TBLT outperform those learners who are taught according to the PPP approach or intentional learning (Falllahrefie, Rahmany, & Sadeghi, 2015). Through TBLT, teaching takes place as an activity whose primary focus is on the outcome of the activity, rather than on the language used to achieve that outcome. Such a design provides favorable learning conditions for the students (Iranmehr, Erfani, & Davari, 2011). Language games can be categorized under TBLT which allow incidental learning to take place among learners.

Yip and Kwan (2006) carried out a study to observe the response of students when they are exposed to language games for vocabulary improvement. The results showed that students gave a positive response to digital educational games, and they found web-based game more effective and easier to understand than activity-based lessons. Around 70 percent of the students claimed that playing games helped in expanding their vocabulary of L2 (Kweon & Kim, 2008). Such an example opens various possibilities for teachers to add different types of activities into their lesson plans for the purpose of increasing students’ interest in L2. Incorporating games in lectures or encouraging students to learn L2 through games is observed to be one of the most effective ways of SLA because playing games allows students to learn new words incidentally. Vocabulary acquisition is believed to be an unconscious process because students are unaware of the fact that they will be tested later, therefore, they are able to memorize and understand new words because of their interest in the game and L2, rather than their fear of failing assessments (Letchumanan, Tan, Paramasivam, Sabariah, & Muthusamy, 2015).

With growing use of technology in classrooms, in the form of multimedia, and also among youngsters can be put to good use by transforming it into a means of SLA. A study carried out by Yoshii (2006) concluded that when teachers use multimedia annotations in classrooms, such as, pictures or video clips, the retention rate among students of L2 vocabulary increases. Visual cues help students recall information taught to them in class because they provide learners with multiple access routes and leave a deeper memory and understanding in second language vocabulary learning. Moreover, the study showed that as a result of the numerous annotations of words presented to them via multimedia, students demonstrated higher levels of active learning and achieved better vocabulary recall rates even after giving tests (Yoshii, 2006).

Another study carried out by Huyen & Nga (2003) in Vietnam further provides support for incidental learning in students through games. The researchers provided different vocabulary games to students over a period of two weeks. The study concluded that language games give learners a sense of competition, which motivates them to perform better. Higher motivation combined with a relaxed ambiance helps students develop a positive perception of the L2, and increased their interest in learning L2 vocabulary. An interesting finding which surfaced as a result of this study was that shy and quiet students of the class also actively collaborated with their fellow students to participate in language games (Huyen & Nga, 2003). One possible explanation for such behavior is that language games, especially computer based games, are able to address learners’ emotional needs, for instance, the need to feel confident or reduce anxiety. Furthermore, games are observed to reduce learners’ fear of making mistakes, which lowers the affective barrier in learning (Letchumanan et al., 2015). Teachers can use this idea to increase the level of engagement and interest of students in the classroom. In a playful and moderately competitive environment, students might come out of their comfort zones, and their excitement towards the language game may overpower their shyness as depicted in the example.

In parts of the world where multimedia has not yet made its way into classrooms, paper-based language games can be designed by teachers. Uberman (1998) conducted a study in Poland to compare paper-based vocabulary games to visual techniques, usage of dictionaries, and teachers’ explanation of L2 vocabulary. His results showed that pupils who learnt through paper-based games outperformed those who used other methods of learning. The results of his study further illustrated that games (even if they are paper-based) can be used to motivate and entertain learners, and in addition, they also make the retention and retrieval of words quicker and easier (Uberman, 1998). Language games can also be used as revision exercises, as suggested by Uberman (1998), to promote fluency and communicative competence among students. The intriguing nature of language games make them a perfect method of providing students with intensive practice, while maintaining an enjoyable classroom experience.

In my experience, one major reason why language games are met with resistance by teachers is that lack fluency in L2 themselves. Over the years, I have seen not only English teachers, but teachers of other languages as well to adopt an inflexible approach towards teaching L2. It is important to note that most second language teachers, especially at high school level, are not experts in the language that they are teaching. Adopting a traditional approach for teaching L2 and sticking to the same lesson plan, year after year, without acknowledging the individual differences that exist among students, gives more benefits to the teacher, rather than the pupils. In my experience, most teachers are comfortable in teaching what they have taught before because it makes them feel more in control.

One of the most common problems that teachers face while implementing TBLT (for instance, language games) is classroom management. Teachers usually prefer quiet, disciplined classroom, rather than noisy ones, which are a result of communicative activities (Plews & Zhao, 2010). Moreover, some teachers want to maintain the tradition role of teachers and textbooks in classrooms, therefore, they dismiss the idea of TBLT. Language games might challenge the authority of the teacher, or might highlight their lack of fluency in the language they are teaching. When students ask for explanation of new words that even the teacher does not know, the teacher might feel offended or insecure (Todd, 2006).

Another problem that teachers face regarding TBLT is that they lack theoretical knowledge of tasks. Although much research has been done on the usefulness and effectiveness of TBLT, teachers lack proper guidance regarding the role of grammar and checking for accuracy when students indulge in communicative activities in class (Plews & Zhao, 2010). Since every class has different types of students, teachers need to keep in mind individual differences among students, and therefore, amend the lesson plans according to the needs of each L2 class that they teach. Unfortunately, teachers do not have enough time to prepare lesson plans to incorporate TBLT, such as, language games or other activities that promote incidental learning. Even if activities have been incorporated in the lesson plans, teachers face a shortage of time when completing certain activities, such as, task repetition or focusing on form (McDonough & Chaikitmongkol, 2007).

Apart from TBLT, reading and listening are some other effective methods to promote incidental learning. Researchers have mixed views regarding the effects of reading on SLA. A study carried out by Pellicer-Sánchez & Schmitt (2010) investigated the incidental vocabulary learning through reading using an English novel, which consisted of approximately 67,000 words. 34 words were chosen as target words, and results showed that majority of the students were able to perform well in terms of meaning recognition and recall rates. On the other hand, contradictory results were achieved through the research carried out by Waring & Takaki (2003), which showed that on average, students acquire only one new word from an hour of reading. Their research also concluded that although graded reading helps to deepen knowledge of words already known to learners, it does not lead to the acquisition of new words (Waring & Takaki, 2003).

There are certain elements that need to be present in the lesson plan of a second language course. Although teachers will have to judge the extent to which each element should be included in the lesson plan, the following characteristics are likely to make the process of SLA, particularly new vocabulary acquisition, more interesting and effective for the students. Firstly, learners need exposure to the real and varied language of speakers of the target language (Plews & Zhao, 2010). Such exposure can be given by making pupils watch movies or video clips in L2, which will make them decipher the meaning of the word, as well as, enable them to pronounce it correctly. Secondly, learners must be given the opportunity to use L2 for their own interests or purposes (Plews & Zhao, 2010). To accomplish this objective, students can be given the task to, for example, order food in a restaurant while speaking English only, and then share their experiences with their classmates to identify the difficulties they faced while communicating in L2 (English).

Thirdly, teachers should elicit self-correction and enable personalized feedback. Wesche & Paribakht (1996) developed a Vocabulary Knowledge Scale (VKS), which is a five point scale starting at “I don’t remember having seen this word before” and ending at “I can use this word in a sentence”. VKS represents the incremental nature of vocabulary learning, and teachers can use it in classrooms to get feedback from the students. If majority of the students are leaning towards the side of the scale which implies that they cannot use a certain word properly, then the teacher must provide a better explanation, or maybe some visual annotations for that word, so that the students fully understand its meaning. Lastly, the whole language – listening, speaking, reading, and writing – should be integrated in to the lesson plan. If any one component is missing, students will fail to become proficient in the L2 they are studying.


This report presents proof that incidental learning through TBLT, such as language games in classrooms, is more effective than the PPP approach and intentional learning. TBLT engages students in activities which develops their interest in the L2 they are being taught. Language games help students become confident while communicating in L2, and reduce their anxiety and fear of making mistakes. Despite its advantages, some teachers refuse to adopt TBLT. Incidental learning process needs to be incorporated in to the lesson plan of SLA classes. Teachers must make use of multimedia while teaching L2 as increases the recall and retention rate of vocabulary of L2 among pupils. One of the key limitations of adopting an incidental learning approach is that it poses a threat to the traditional role of a teacher in the classroom and might also highlight the teachers own lack of fluency in L2. Moreover, teachers lack the guidance and information required to design and implement task-based teaching techniques in the classroom. Further research needs to be done to formulate a cohesive lesson plan for SLA, which can be implemented by L2 teachers in a hassle-free manner. According to this report, incidental acquisition of knowledge is of utmost importance in the case of second language teaching and learning, and language games can be used by teachers to ensure proficiency of L2 among students.

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