Development of Skill in Language Learning

Understanding the two faces of SLA

Knowing what mechanisms help us acquire language and how they work has huge implications for how we structure our own language learning. Our linguist team at Immerse follows the latest Second Language Acquisition (SLA) research to improve our language learning design and method. In 2010, SLA expert Bill VanPatten published research that outlines the two faces of SLA: Mental Representation and Skill.

Mental Representation is “the abstract, implicit, and underlying linguistic system in a speaker’s mind.” Essentially, it’s how the language exists in your mind- you might call it “competence”. Your mental representation of a language is what allows you to know what’s possible (and what isn’t) in a language. For example, an English speaker knows that when using the passive voice, the object becomes the subject and comes first in the sentence (e.g. ‘I kick the ball’ becomes ‘the ball is kicked by me’). Most people are unaware that they know of all the rules that make up their language, but nonetheless, they have a mental representation of how their language is structured.

The other half of SLA is skill. Skill is a measure of the speed and accuracy with which people can perform certain actions or behaviors. Someone who is highly skilled in a language comprehends and communicates promptly and with very few mistakes.

So there you have the two faces of SLA: mental representation and skill. But how does this help us with designing the best language learning methodology?

How does one develop Skill in language learning?

Skill in language is developed like any other skill: it is improved through practice. As VanPatten puts it, “A  person learns to write essays by writing essays … In short, people become skilled at doing something not by mechanistic activity, but by engaging in the very activity they would like to become skilled in.”

Whether you believe it or not, you learned your first language without explicitly being taught any of it. Your acquisition came through being in the correct context and having appropriate opportunities. So how can one “teach” comprehension to language students? VanPatten notes that teachers can facilitate SLA by providing opportunities for learners to engage in the target language. More explicitly, this means that memorizing conjugations and lists of irregular verbs does not lead to acquisition. Instead, activities like reading books, discussing important ideas, and meeting new people in a second language bring a student to fluency.

Virtual reality creates the best environment for skill development

Skill in language learning isn't developed solely through practice, but through context-appropriate practice. Simply reciting grammar drills is not enough, as this isolates that skill from the context it is used in. In VanPatten’s words, “people become skilled at doing something not by mechanistic activity, but by engaging in the very activity they would like to become skilled in.” Virtual Reality allows language learning to mimic real-life language use as closely as possible.

This is where Immerse comes in.The days of chanting verb conjugations and vocab lists are over. For more information on why virtual reality is the best way to learn language, check out this blog here.

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Van Patten, B. (2010). The Two Faces of SLA: Mental Representation and Skill. International Journal of English Studies, 10(1), 1-18.

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Posted on

November 28, 2018