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Incidental Learning

What is incidental learning, and how can we use this when teaching foreign languages?

Incidental learning refers to any learning that is unplanned or unintended. It develops while engaging in a task or activity and may also arise as a by-product of planned learning. “Incidental learning” can imply that the acquisition of knowledge is unconscious in nature, though in contrast to implicit learning, there is no expectation that such knowledge should remain largely inaccessible to conscious awareness. There is a suggestion, mainly from an educational perspective, that incidental learning involves subsequent conscious reflection on material that was consciously noted at time of study but not recognized as relevant or useful. Source: Steve W. Kelly

There are many advantages to learning a foreign language (FL), such as a better understanding of another culture or a better chance of employment in an increasingly multilingual society [1]. However, learning a FL can be a difficult and frustrating experience. Informal exposure to a FL requires little effort and benefits FL learners. For example, in childhood, such exposure has been shown to help FL learners acquire a more native-like accent as adults [2]. Advanced learners can also improve their FL speech perception by watching a FL film with FL subtitles [3]. Furthermore, exposure to a short FL weather report resulted in an increased sensitivity to the words heard in the weather report compared to other foreign language words [4]. Thus, informal exposure to spoken FL can give rise to speech perception and production benefits. However, can it lead to the acquisition of vocabulary through linking new FL forms with existing meaning representations? Source: “Incidental Acquisition of Foreign Language Vocabulary through Brief Multi-Modal Exposure” Marie-Josée Bisson , Walter J. B. van Heuven, Kathy Conklin, Richard J. Tunney

According to a study published in the US-based journal Psychological Science, exposure to new objects makes people ready to learn. What’s even more interesting is that the exposure could be incidental – meaning people are not even trying to understand the object and know nothing about it. They don’t set out to learn, but simply being exposed to a novel thing makes an impression in their minds, sparks their curiosity and gets them in the frame of mind to learn about it later. When that “something new” that you seek out to understand, is a skill that can be studied and used, the reward is even more significant.

Physically, as we learn a new skill, it can rewire our brain within hours. According to a November 2009 study published in the UK-based journal Nature, the brain makes and breaks connections – both strengthening synapses that connect neurons to each other, or retracting them. The hippocampus region of the brain also grows new cells – a process known as neurogenesis – as it learns a new skill.

But it’s worth realizing that many of the new brain cells that are generated with the learning of new skills eventually die, unless we engage in consistent, effortful learning. So, if you tried your hand at learning a new language, but weren’t able to practice it regularly, you might see the vocabulary and conjugations slowly fading from your mind and memory – a skill forgotten as your brain prunes away certain pathways that it thinks are no longer needed. The phrase “use it or lose it” comes to mind. It’s certainly true when it comes to learning new things – an essential if we want to broaden our perspective and embrace new ideas and skills. Source: Gulf news

Research on incidental learning in foreign languages

Research paper:

Learning L2 vocabulary from audiovisual input: an exploratory study into incidental learning of single words and formulaic sequences Eva PuimègeElke Peters

Television is considered an important source of comprehensible input for second language learners of English and there is some evidence that L2 words can be learned incidentally by watching television. Few studies have looked at the role of TV viewing for learning formulaic sequences, despite the ubiquity of formulaic sequences in spoken English, and the importance of formulaic language in the development of second language proficiency. This study aims to find out whether single words and formulaic sequences can be learned incidentally by watching English language television, and whether learners’ prior vocabulary knowledge and item-related factors affect the learning process.

The following research questions were addressed in this study:

  1. Can single words and formulaic sequences be learned from watching L2 television?
  2. Which item-related and learner-related factors affect the incidental learning of single words from watching L2 television?
  3. Which item-related and learner-related factors affect the incidental learning of formulaic sequences from watching L2 television?


The aim of this study was to explore the incidental learning of single words and formulaic sequences through TV viewing. The results of our experiment show that words and formulaic sequences can be learned from exposure to L2 television, even at the level of form recall. Learning gains were affected by prior vocabulary knowledge and item-related factors such as concreteness and collocate-node relationship. Given that formulaic language is ubiquitous in spoken discourse and on television, watching L2 television might be an effective way for learners to expand their knowledge of formulaic sequences outside the classroom. More research is needed to explore the potential of L2 television for incidental learning of FS, and to improve our understanding of the factors affecting the learning process of single words and formulaic language. Source; Learning L2 vocabulary from audiovisual input: an exploratory study into incidental learning of single words and formulaic sequences Eva PuimègeElke Peters

This paper investigates the effects of watching an entire season of a French series with the streaming service Netflix in an out-of-classroom context. University Dutch-speaking low- to high-intermediate learners of French were divided into two groups: a control group who only took the tests (N = 37) and a treatment group (N = 65). Learners in the treatment group watched six episodes with glossed captions provided by the Chrome extension Language Learning with Netflix (i.e., they could access the meaning of the words in the captions whenever they wanted) within a maximum of 21 days. We examined learners’ incidental vocabulary learning gains by means of a form and meaning recall test and also analysed learning gains in relation to different variables: word-related factors, the use of glossed captions and learners’ vocabulary size. Results revealed that participants recalled approximately 35% of the word meanings and 28% of the word forms. Besides, learning gains were positively influenced by the use of the glossed captions as well as vocabulary size scores. Findings also demonstrated that frequency of occurrence positively impacted learning gains, especially when target words appeared more concentrated in one episode rather than across different ones.

Recently, however, extensive viewing has been put forward as an effective out-of-classroom activity for incidental vocabulary learning (Webb, 2015). Rodgers (20132016) argues that films and series are adequate language learning materials because they meet Nation’s (2007) five conditions for suitable input:

  1. available in large quantities,
  2. interesting
  3. familiar to the learners,
  4. comprehensible
  5. allow learners to gain vocabulary from the input thanks to contextual cues.

Research questions

  1. Does watching a series in an out-of-classroom context lead to vocabulary gains?

  2. To what extent do learner-related variables (i.e., vocabulary size and lookup behaviour) and word-related factors (i.e., retention interval, relative frequency of occurrence) influence vocabulary from watching a French series?

Six episodes from the first season of the series Dix pour cent (i.e., Call my agent!, Besnehard, 2015) were used as input for the experimental group. The participants watched the episodes via the streaming service Netflix. The mean length of the episodes was 51 minutes and they varied in length from 47 to 54 minutes, totalling 307 minutes of exposure.

Captions were the original captions from Netflix. For the glossary, we chose to use the freely available Chrome extension Language Learning with Netflix2 to give the participants direct access to L1 translations.

Conclusion and implications

The findings of this study point to the potential of extensive viewing for L2 incidental vocabulary learning. They demonstrate that watching an entire series with glossed captions in an out-of-classroom context leads to substantial form-meaning knowledge gains. Moreover, the findings support the hypothesis that learners with a higher vocabulary size will learn more words, but that acquiring new word forms and meanings is still possible at a lower proficiency. In the same way, looking up the meaning of words during viewing seems to stimulate its learning, even though learning also happened when guessing from context. Finally, the present paper was one of the first viewing studies that made use of a French programme and a multiple-session design. It is therefore also one of the first studies investigating the effect of relative frequency of occurrence. The results seem to indicate that the impact of frequency of occurrence on word learning is moderated by range of occurrence, in other words, words encountered more concentrated in a single episode seem more likely to be learned than those encountered across multiple ones.

The findings of the present study have pedagogical implications. Results confirm that viewing as an out-of-classroom activity can lead to incidental word learning. Teachers should therefore encourage their students to engage in (extensive) viewing for L2 vocabulary learning as an out-of-classroom activity, even at a low proficiency level. Furthermore, findings point to the effectiveness of glossed captions for vocabulary learning. Teachers should therefore consider using this type of on-screen text, by using, for instance, new technologies such as Language Learning with Netflix, to support learners in their learning process.

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