Is correction needed to learn to speak a language well?

When discussing language learning and input-based approaches like Automatic Language Growth (ALG), I encounter many people who insist that you need to have someone correcting you in order to learn to speak a language properly, especially if it’s a “difficult” one like Thai or Mandarin that has tones and other features that don’t exist in English.

They are often quite adamant about the need for instruction and constant correction and can’t seem to conceive of an adult learner being able to pronounce a language correctly without study and practice.

In my experience, it is possible even as an adult to learn to speak a language pretty clearly, to say the least, without any explicit instruction or practice.

The key is to have massive exposure to the spoken language in a way that you can understand it—what is known as comprehensible input—and have this input sufficiently precede output.

This is one of the main tenets of the ALG approach: a “silent period” of many hours of listening with little or no speaking.

I first tried this several years ago to learn Mandarin Chinese. Starting almost totally from scratch, I watched around 1000 hours of TV shows and videos in the language, and spent a few hundred hours with tutors using Crosstalk, having conversations where I would speak English while they spoke Mandarin to me.

Throughout this time I barely spoke any Mandarin at all. I simply listened and grew in my comprehension of the language.

Finally, after some 1500 hours of listening over three years, I decided to try speaking with one of my tutors. Unsurprisingly, I was not speaking fluent Mandarin in this first conversation, but she remarked that my pronunciation was very clear. This came as a relief to her, as she said she had worriedly imagined me speaking Mandarin with English pronunciation. She had described other students who had difficulties with Mandarin sounds. Besides having problems with intonation, it appears that they substituted sounds from their native language that made them incomprehensible to Chinese speakers.

Not long after this, I put my Mandarin learning on hold to go to Thailand and experience the AUA Thai Program in Bangkok firsthand. At present, it appears to be the only program in the world to use the ALG approach, giving students the opportunity to pick up Thai through listening without translations or explanations, and without requiring them to practice speaking.

Keeping with the approach, I spoke practically no Thai at all for the first few months that I attended classes. I then started to say simple words and phrases that were clear to me because I had heard them spoken countless times. After several months I was making basic conversation in Thai, and my speaking ability has continued to grow from there.

While I am not fluent yet, when speaking Thai I routinely hear Thais remark that my pronunciation is very clear. As with Mandarin, I’ve never really practiced pronunciation or tones, and I have received almost no corrections at all.

Some people might suggest at this point that I have a talent for languages. It is possible that I have an above-average ability with languages. Also, when I learn languages I have the intention and desire to sound as much as I can like a native speaker.

But while I aim to pronounce a new language as accurately as possible, I find my ability to do so successfully and with ease is a function of how much prior exposure I’ve had to the language through listening.

In contrast I see many AUA students who have tried to speak Thai from early on in their learning having a lot of difficulty with tones and tending to use sounds from their native language. For example, in classes I would hear an American speak Thai with a strong American accent, while an Italian would speak it with Italian sounds and cadence.

Based on my experiences, I think there’s little or no need for instruction and correction in pronunciation or other aspects of a language, provided one gets a foundation of exposure to the language as the basis for speaking. Input must sufficiently precede output.

It appears that learners who try to speak their target language without this foundation of input tend to fall back on the sounds of their native languages when speaking their target language. This can then become like a habit that simply getting more input might not fully correct.

In these cases, instruction and correction are probably necessary in order to sound more native-like, or even just intelligible to native speakers. If one has been speaking in the same way for a long time, some pronunciation problems might be quite resistant to correction.

I think in general, language learners would have much better results if they went through a “silent period” of getting an ear for the language, limiting their speaking to what they can already hear clearly.

In the mainstream communicative approach to language teaching, there appears to be talk of internalization, the notion of giving students the necessary time and exposure to new language to digest it before expecting production. However, in its focus on speaking, the communicative approach seems to discount the value of a “silent period”, especially with older learners.

Speaking in terms of internalization, I would describe the ALG approach of a long silent period as extreme internalization of the target language, to the point that one becomes self-correcting. When one has heard native speakers pronounce words in their language in context so many times before producing them oneself, it can become more difficult not to pronounce them correctly than to pronounce them correctly.

Dr. James Marvin Brown, the originator of ALG, described this internalization of language as having a mental image of the target language features to guide one’s production. Just as a thermostat’s setting will cause an air conditioner to adjust the room to the set temperature, having a clear mental image of the sounds of a language will cause one to automatically position one’s speech organs to produce the correct sounds. Learning to hear the sounds of the language clearly first through massive exposure will produce the correct mental image.

This doesn’t mean production will be perfect right away, especially if one’s muscles are not used to making the new sounds. But if one has gained a clear mental image through listening, this will provide the basis to eventually physically produce them without the need for explicit instruction or practice.

Often people talk about adults having “hard tongues” that prevent them from pronouncing a new language like a native speaker. But by first listening to the target language, “the ear loosens the tongue,” to use the words of Canadian educator Dr. Robert Gauthier. Gauthier co-created the Tan-Gau method that was used to teach French in some Ontario schools. As with ALG and Crosstalk, students listened to their teacher speak French and could respond in English until they could speak French spontaneously.

Again, I’m writing largely from my own experience and observations. Unfortunately, and surprisingly to me, there is very little formal academic research into the question of whether a “silent period” of listening before speaking results in more native-like production of a second language, although the few studies that have been done on this area suggest this is indeed the case.

It is my hope that more research in this area will show the value of the silent period, and as a result encourage the development of more opportunities to pick up languages through listening to comprehensible input.

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