How do you teach “noticing”?

Last week I was teaching a workshop on Canadian English, and as we were touching on some regional vocabulary differences, a student said “Yeah, I was noticing that when I ask ‘where’s the toilet?’ or ‘where’s the restroom?’ people here usually respond ‘Oh, the washroom’s over there.'”

I congratulated on being such a good “noticer”. Spontaneous noticing–be it of sounds, vocab, grammar, or language use–is, in my opinion, what differentiates high-achieving language learners from those who stagnate on the high-intermediate plateau. Noticing is ideally accompanied by a curiosity as to the “why” of what’s been noticed and subsequent incorporation of the feature in question into the learner’s own language.

But how do you teach noticing and curiosity? This is something I’ve always struggled with. You can talk to your classes about the importance of this skill, and carry out exercises and tasks that allow them to practice it. But not all students carry this curiosity with them to the real world, and exhibit a natural curiosity about the language  around them. It strikes me as somewhat of a “you have it or you don’t” type of skill.

Do you agree? Any ideas for developing language noticing and curiosity so that it “sticks”?

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