The difference between ALG and AUA

An explanation of the Automatic Language Growth, or ALG, approach to language learning and the AUA Thai Program in Bangkok, where the ALG method has mainly been applied.

Image search results for ALG "Automatic Language Growth"
An image search for ALG and “Automatic Language Growth” brings up mostly stills of AUA classes. However, ALG and AUA aren’t synonymous.

At present, the ALG approach is being implemented in only one language program: the AUA Thai Program in Bangkok where it originated over 30 years ago.

Because of this, and perhaps also the uniqueness of both the approach and the program, people tend to conflate the two, drawing conclusions about ALG based on their experiences with AUA, or what they’ve read and heard about AUA.

Therefore, it’s important to make a clear distinction between ALG and AUA.

ALG is the language learning method and AUA—specifically, the AUA Thai Program in Bangkok—implements ALG, giving learners an opportunity to follow the method.

What is ALG?

ALG, or Automatic Language Growth, is based on the theory that adults, starting from zero, can effortlessly reach near-native or native-like levels of ability in a new language just as young children appear to.

Ias t asserts that adults typically fail to reach these levels not because they’ve lost any ability, but rather because they use abilities that they’ve gained with maturity that interfere with the language acquisition process.

The adult learner typically consciously tries to produce language before they’ve internalized it through experience, leaving them with persistent “broken” grammar and pronunciation problems influenced by their first language.

The young child, on the other hand, gets a lot of experience hearing and understanding the language through context first and, without conscious effort, gradually begins to speak it, eventually attaining native-like fluency.

According to ALG theory, an adult who goes through the same process of immersion without consciously analyzing or trying to produce the language, instead letting speaking emerge on its own time, will experience the same results.

How to apply ALG

To apply the ALG approach to learning a language, you need the opportunity to pick up the language without study or translation.

You need many hours of comprehensible input that will allow you to efficiently gain understanding of the spoken language.

And you need to get this input in an environment where you aren’t being made to consciously focus on the language and you aren’t being forced to speak it, instead having, at most, opportunities to produce what you’ve already internalized from many hours of experience with the language.

This is the kind of opportunity that the AUA Thai Program in Bangkok provides, and it is perhaps the only language school in the world to do so.

The Thai teachers provide hundreds of hours of comprehensible input in the form of spoken Thai that they make understandable using stories, experiences, and non-verbal communication like gestures, drawings, and sounds, without translation or linguistic explanations.

Keeping with the approach, the classes often feature outrageous comedy, controversial topics, and discussions that will provoke strong emotions.

Besides making things more fun and interesting, this is meant to distract students from consciously focusing on the language, and also promotes subconscious acquisition by making the content and thus the language used alongside it more highly memorable.

Students are not forced to speak or otherwise produce the language, and in fact are discouraged from trying to speak.

Reading and writing and any conscious study is held off until students already have a strong basis of experience with the spoken language.

Apart from the AUA Thai Program, it is almost impossible to find a language school or program that will facilitate using the ALG approach to learn a language.

Some programs teach entirely in the target language and avoid explicit teaching of grammar, but they expect students to practice speaking from the beginning.

Other comprehension-based teaching methods may allow for a silent period, but often use translation and introduce things like reading and writing from early on.

AUA vs. ALG

The AUA Thai Program is thus perhaps unique in the world in supporting the ALG approach to language acquisition.

However, it’s important to note how it’s not an ideal or perfect realization of ALG. For example:

  • These days, because of the program’s limited size and number of teachers, students have no choice what class they can take at a given hour. If you’re attending AUA for many hours a day, as you’ll likely want to if you’re following the ALG approach, you may find yourself spending many hours in classes with topics that aren’t especially interesting to you. In contrast, with the ALG approach, ideally the content should be so compelling that you forget you’re learning a language.
  • While the teachers make great efforts to provide fun multi-sensory experiences with activities like cooking meals and teaching dance, they are confined to a classroom and limited in what they can do. This is even more the case today with AUA in Bangkok having moved to an office tower from its former building where the outdoors were easily accessible. The ALG approach emphasizes picking up language through many understandable real-life experiences.
  • The vast majority of students who attend AUA do not follow the ALG approach. Many attend other schools where they study and practice speaking Thai, and they go to AUA because it’s a good source of comprehensible listening input, especially at the beginner level—something that itself seems to be very rare. In class, students can often be seen looking up words in dictionaries. With so many students doing other study, I wonder whether as a result, there is less pressure on the teachers to make the language as comprehensible for those who, following the ALG approach, are relying on context alone to get the meaning of words.
  • Occasionally, a teacher may switch to English and give a brief translation or explanation of meaning. However, if a student is focusing on the overall meaning and experience rather than the words, this shouldn’t hinder their following the ALG approach. While I would have preferred no English at all, I found these interjections were done in a way that didn’t break the flow of the discussion.

These points are of course not meant to dissuade anyone from studying at AUA. I would definitely recommend to anyone interested in learning Thai in Bangkok to seriously give the AUA Thai Program a try.

However, the program shouldn’t be seen as the ultimate manifestation of ALG, but rather, as a resource that strongly supports the ALG approach by providing comprehensible input without studying language or practicing speaking.

It’s certainly possible to follow the ALG approach without a program like AUA, but it can be difficult to find or create enough resources to support the approach.

A beginning for ALG

More than three decades after the American linguist Dr. J. Marvin Brown originated the approach, ALG is still very much in its infancy both in theory and practice.

On the theory side, there is still a great lack of research that relates to ALG, even on specific issues such as whether a “silent period” of listening to a second language before speaking it leads to a more native-like pronunciation.

Without this kind of formal research, the ALG assertion that adults can implicitly pick up languages like young children do and become native-like should not be dismissed outright.

One cannot draw conclusions about ALG theory based on the AUA Thai Program alone. To the contrary, the successes of some AUA students who have followed the ALG approach should inform and inspire language learning research.

On the practice side, despite its shortcomings, AUA is providing something that is still not easily available anywhere: listening input geared to beginners in a second language that’s highly comprehensible through context alone, without translation or study.

While more target-language media is available to language learners than ever before through the Internet, it’s generally aimed at native speakers and thus lacks the context necessary to make it very comprehensible in itself to beginners or even more advanced learners. Video and TV is certainly one area where ALG has hardly been applied.

“One of the goals of ALG is to create many varied opportunities for input,” the AUA Thai Program’s coordinator has written. “TV is definitely a great source and from my perspective, is a largely unused source for this.”

At AUA, other ways that Dr. Brown proposed of implementing the ALG approach have been tried at various times.

In the mid-1990s, a “Max Thai” program was briefly set up, creating a full-time immersion environment where AUA students and teachers lived together.

More recently, in place of the usual classes, a group of students and teachers had conversations using Crosstalk, where each person speaks their own language using non-verbal communication as necessary to make themselves understood.

This was reported to produce significantly faster acquisition, even with the students spending more time speaking in English.

The ALG approach can and has been implemented in many ways beyond the AUA Thai classes where many have seen and experienced it, and could be implemented in many other ways.

The AUA Thai Program should perhaps therefore be seen as just the beginning of what’s possible with this approach to language learning.

If you know of another program out there today that supports learning a language using the ALG approach, please share it in the comments.

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