Implicit Language Learning

Learning a language is a monumental task. It requires mastery of an alphabet, grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and even aspects of a culture. While all of these elements are critical, learning enough words to communicate effectively (i.e., vocabulary acquisition) is the most important. As one scholar wrote, “while without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed” [2].

Fortunately, the human mind is innately designed to learn vocabulary. Consider that native English speaking 12th graders know around 40,000 words, having learned approximately 3,000 words annually — a staggering 8 words per day [1]. While some are explicitly taught in classes, the vast majority of new words are learned implicitly from context in a process that researchers call “incidental vocabulary acquisition.” If we learned the vast majority of our native language words implicitly, then can we do so when learning a new language?

The answer is a resounding YES! Here are some key takeaways discussed in two review articles on incidental vocabulary learning in second language acquisition [3,4]:

  • Reading is the primary mechanism through which incidental vocabulary acquisition occurs. Several studies show that reading “texts that are personally interesting to learners stimulate incidental vocabulary acquisition” [4]
  • Learners can accurately guess the meaning of a new word when 95–98% of the surrounding words are already known. Unfortunately, this means picking up new words from everyday texts requires existing knowledge of the most common 3,000-5,000 words when reading texts in a target language. This includes many more advanced words such as fragrant, mortgage, dubious, nurture, and skid.[4]
  • The more you are exposed to a new word, the more likely you are to remember it. Exactly how many exposures it takes varies depending on many factors, but is likely between 5 and 16 [4].
  • Combining extensive reading (incidental learning) with explicit vocabulary instruction (intentional learning) is particularly effective at vocabulary acquisition [3–4]. One effective technique is to annotate new words by showing definitions and native language words when clicked on [4].

Even though most words are acquired by incidental vocabulary acquisition, it has significant limitations for new language learners [4]. First, as mentioned above, it works best when you already know nearly all of the surrounding words, which requires a high vocabulary to start with if reading a text in a new language. Second, learners may guess a word wrong. Third, it can take time and distract from the primary activity of reading.

Fortunately, these problems can be overcome through the use of a technique called a “diglot weave” (see separate article) that blends a known language with a target language. Por ejemplo, this sentence combina palabras English and Spanish palabras. In this example, it is easy for the reader to recognize that “por ejemplo” means “for example.” This approach has been shown to be effective at vocabulary acquisition for decades. However, it took a revolution in computational linguistics and machine learning to enable the creation of a dynamic diglot weave that can work on any webpage in realtime.

Our LoomVue Browser Extension enhances your ability to learn new words from context by overcoming the limitations of implicit language learning. Specifically, it solves the problems outlined above by (1) surrounding the new words with words you already know from your native language (using a diglot weave approach) or known words from the target language; (2) reducing inaccurate guesses by providing the native language synonym and additional information about the new word; and (3) showing the native language synonym with an easy mouse-over action that takes little time and distraction from the primary goal of reading. The end result allows you to frictionlessly enhance your vocabulary using your mind’s innate ability to learn new words from context.

So put away your flashcards and join us in our endeavor to create the most useful implicit learning platform available today!


[1] Nagy & Herman, 1984, Limitations of Vocabulary Instruction.

[2] Wilkins, 1972, Linguistics in Language Teaching

[3] Ramos, 2015, Incidental Vocabulary Learning in Second Language Acquisition: A Literature Review.

[4] Huckin & Coady, 1999, Incidental vocabulary acquisition in a second language: A review.

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