Is Automatic Language Growth “passive learning”?

Automatic Language Growth, or ALG, is a comprehension-based language learning method with the distinct proposition that adults can effortlessly approach native-like abilities in new languages if they acquire them as young children appear to—learning implicitly without study, translation, or practice, and letting speaking emerge gradually over a long “silent period” of mostly listening.

The ALG approach has primarily been implemented at the AUA Thai Program in Bangkok.

Students there attend classes where they watch and listen as two teachers tell stories, have discussions, make jokes, and give demonstrations, all in Thai.

The AUA Thai teachers use tools like props, gestures, and drawings to make what they’re saying comprehensible; this non-verbal communication is reduced in higher levels as students gain understanding of the spoken language.

The teachers might be better referred to as guides because they aren’t explicitly teaching the language, but rather communicating in Thai about things based in Thai culture in a way that is understandable to learners of Thai.

After several hundred hours of classes, students who follow the ALG method begin to produce their own sentences spontaneously and clearly without practice, and reportedly in some cases, go on to achieve near-native or native-like levels of fluency without conscious effort.

Perhaps because of the emphasis on watching and listening at AUA, Automatic Language Growth has been labelled a passive language learning methodology, often with negative connotations.

This is a misconception, although it does raise the important point of the value and need for active learning.

The idea that ALG is passive learning comes in part from people’s experience of ALG in the AUA Thai Program.

So it’s important to note that while the AUA Thai Program in Bangkok uniquely uses the ALG approach, it’s not a perfect implementation of the approach, and it’s not the only way to implement the approach. (I discuss this in much more detail in another post: The difference between ALG and AUA.)

However, the misconception applies to the AUA Thai Program as well as the Automatic Language Growth method.

AUA and ALG are not just passive learning

“[ALG] is a totally passive learning methodology,” reads one review of the AUA Thai Program. “It’s based around the concept that children learn a language by watching and listening to adults interact.”

Dr. J. Marvin Brown, the originator of ALG, relating his own childhood experiences, indeed described toddlers as being mainly in a passive role of listening and experiencing.

However some of this passivity is a function of immaturity.

As they grow, young children interact more and more actively with other people and the world around them, first in non-verbal ways and later increasingly verbally as they acquire language.

The review continues: “What this means is there’s no verbal interaction between the students and the teachers; as in you can’t ask questions and there’s no ‘repeat after me’ or question/answer stuff in Thai with this type of learning.”

It’s incorrect to say there’s no verbal interaction between the students and teachers; it would be more accurate to say that certain kinds of verbal interaction are avoided in ALG and at AUA.

According to ALG theory, what learners should avoid is focusing on language and consciously attempting to speak, as this interferes with the natural acquisition process.

Therefore students are discouraged from trying to produce Thai that they haven’t internalized through listening and experience, and from asking questions about the language.

Other than these things, at times there can actually be a lot of verbal interaction at AUA.

Early on students may ask and answer questions in their own language (although in practice both native- and non-native speakers of English generally speak English), while the teachers respond in Thai.

Teachers also may ask questions of students, not about the Thai language but about things like where the students are from, what did they do on the weekend, and so on.

Later students can speak more and more Thai in class as it emerges spontaneously, without effort, as a result of listening.

This starts with simple expressions like giving yes/no answers and grows into more complex utterances.

Beyond speaking, there is a great deal of non-verbal communication and interaction between students and teachers.

Many classes, especially at beginner levels, consist of games and other activities that the students can actively participate in.

All in all, students have opportunities to interact and be actively involved in the classes, and indeed can get more out of the class by taking a more active role in observing and interacting.

In fact, ALG learning that involves a more active role on the part of the students may be much more effective.

Classes were done using an ALG technique called Crosstalk, where instead of a class format with students mainly listening to teachers, the students and teachers engaged in conversations with the students speaking English and the teachers speaking Thai, using non-verbal communication as needed to get across meaning.

Students reportedly picked up Thai faster in these classes, even though they were spending more time speaking English and less time listening to Thai overall.

Passive learning does work

While ALG is more than just passive learning, the value of passive learning shouldn’t be dismissed either.

“Passive learning never works,” wrote one commenter in a discussion thread on LINK, a school that taught Khmer in Cambodia using the ALG method.

I think this is an overly general statement.

We have all picked up an enormous amount of language and other information through passively hearing without making any real effort to learn it.

For example, we can recognize and recall an enormous number of names of famous people.

We didn’t try to memorize or practice using these names, but we became familiar with them from repeatedly hearing them in TV, movies, and conversations.

Similarily, much of advertising is based on learning through passive exposure.

Through repetition in many contexts we remember brand names, products, and jingles.

Within AUA, I found that constantly seeing teachers use gestures with particular words would really cement those words and their meanings in my memory.

Even though this was mainly passive observation, it resulted in me being able to automatically remember and recall the words.

Given the right kind of experiences, the human brain seems to be primed to pick up language whether we want it to or not.

Of course more active learning might well be more effective in many of these situations.

However, I don’t think we should simply dismiss the value of passive learning in supporting language acquisition.

More active learning is better

While it’s a misconception that the AUA Thai Program and the ALG method only involve passive learning, and at the same time, passive learning can be effective in its own right, these criticisms implicating passive learning raise the important point that there should be more opportunities for active learning in implementing ALG.

While the AUA classes are often entertaining to just sit back and watch, after many classes of just watching and listening, it can be easy to tune out, which greatly reduces the amount of language acquisition that will take place.

So certainly, having more active engagement that keeps with the ALG approach would be an improvement.

Using Crosstalk to make the format a conversation between students and teachers instead of mainly listening to one or two teachers speak is one way to accomplish this.

Another possibility is more integration of techniques like Total Physical Response to get students physically active and engaged.

Furthermore, more opportunities for students to participate in activities with the teachers inside and outside of the classroom setting, such as cooking meals or learning things like dance, would definitely be beneficial.

More of both active and passive learning is best

In order for more people to succeed using the ALG method, I think that they need to have access to a wide variety of understandable experiences in a given language.

Though active engagement might well be more effective, having the opportunity to just sit back, watch, and listen to entertaining comprehensible input in the language can contribute a lot to acquisition.

This more passive learning takes less energy, so someone could spend many more hours a day with the language than they could with active learning alone.

Besides providing more choice and the ability to follow one’s interests, hearing language across multiple contexts is very helpful for language acquisition.

A fuller implementation of ALG will have many opportunities for both more passive and more active ways of acquiring language, and I think each learner will pick up language with a combination of both.

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