As a non-native English speaker I recently tried to understand difference in phrases "to study" and "to learn". I found some explanations here on English language and usage SE, stating that learning is a subconscious activity. Then in some articles I've found, authors stated that language learning is subconscious and that acquiring knowledge and skill isn't the same [ also that learning language is actually learning a skill, while learning history is acquiring knowledge.] .

So I got confused : is all learning subconscious or not?

Is there a difference in learning language and learning anatomy, laws of physics or programming?

Additionally some articles got me confused, especially those that want to sell you hypnosis DVDs and instruction manuals to "boost" your subconscious mind. Aren't we already equipped with proper subconscious mind?


2 Answers 2


We should not confuse the psychological terminology of consciousness, the subconscious and the unconscious with the lay meaning of activities being performed consciously or subconsciously.

The distinction between "conscious" learning and "subconscious" acquisition of linguistic knowledge goes back to the Monitor Model that linguist Stephen Krashen developed in the 1970s and 1980s. According to this theory, human beings develop linguistic skills in two ways: either we

  • "subconsciously" acquire knowledge, without realizing that we do so (e.g. by growing up in a certain linguistic environment), or we
  • "consciously" learn (e.g. by memorizing lists of words in a foreign language).

Krashen's theory has been both praised and criticized, but this is not the place to go into that debate. It should be enough to note that the hypothesis has as yet not been empirically proven.

From a psychological point of view, learning – of which acquisition is a part, namely that a response to a stimulus has been established – is always not conscious. A conscious activity is one that we are aware of (like intentionally putting a book on a shelf), but learning, that is: the storing of information in the brain, takes place through processes of which we are unaware and in parts of our anatomy over which we have no control.

For example, when you try to memorize a foreign word and its meaning, you cannot consciously put that knowledge in your memory like you can place a book on a shelf. What you must do, for example, is repeat the information until you no longer forget it. But you have no awareness of wether or not the storage was successful. You can only deduce that success from your ability to retrieve the information (i.e. correctly remember). A conscious storage would give you a direct (sensory) feedback of the storage process, similar to how your eyes show you wether or not the book is now on the shelf. If the placing of a book on a shelf worked subconsciously like storing knowledge in your brain, you'd have to retrieve the book from the shelf again to know that it had been put there. Until you took it off the shelf, you couldn't know if it was actually there.

So to answer your question:

For a psychologist, all learning is "subconscious" (but he would not use that word).

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you so much for this explanation and for using examples so I can understand it better. I'm not confused about it any more. Now I realize that authors of some articles and videos use mixture of layman and professional terminology, therefore making contradiction with one another i.e.making any layman (like me)completely confused. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 30, 2014 at 14:42

What you describe here is two types of memory the declarative memory and the implicit memory.

Declarative memory is consciously retrieved and stored. It is this kind of memory that is used to store historical facts. See below extract from wiki :

Declarative memory (sometimes referred to as explicit memory) is one of two types of long-term human memory. Declarative memory refers to memories that can be consciously recalled such as facts and knowledge

Implicit memory is created with practice, by doing things. This is the type of knowledge that is mostly used in language learning (We also learn some declarative knowledge at the beginning e.g. grammar rules. But after we apply these rules many times, implicit memory is created and usually the declarative rules fade away). See below extract from wiki :

Implicit memory is a type of memory in which previous experiences aid the performance of a task without conscious awareness of these previous experiences. ... In daily life, people rely on implicit memory every day in the form of procedural memory, the type of memory that allows people to remember how to tie their shoes or ride a bicycle without consciously thinking about these activities.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.