If language learning is harder for adults, why give them less and not more? Part one: Comprehensible input

I’ve written a lot about the Automatic Language Growth, or ALG, approach to language learning, which is based on the idea that adults can learn languages as easily and as well as children if they learn them like children.

While I discuss how that idea may be accurate, I don’t expect anyone to necessarily accept it without more support from formal research into this area.

Although many studies have found that people typically achieve less the older they begin learning a new language, adults and children typically have very different language learning experiences and approaches, and there is very little research that really tries to control for these differences.

Let’s assume though that the brain does lose some ability with maturity, making it inherently more difficult to learn a language well as an adult than as a child.

Given that this is the common belief, I find it strange that the response hasn’t been to help out supposedly disadvantaged adult learners by giving them more of what benefits young children learning languages.

Instead, adults typically get much less.

Let’s look at what adults and children get in terms of comprehensible input, which researchers widely agree is critically important for language learning.

Comprehensible input is exposure to language in a way that you understand what is being said, even if you don’t know all the words and grammar.

Context and non-verbal communication make the language comprehensible, so you can then pick up the language.

Young children are exposed to an enormous amount of rich comprehensible input in a new language.

They are hearing a lot of language about the “here and now”—what they can see right in front of them—so they are able to get the meaning of words in the context of multisensory experiences.

A lot of this can be incidental as children play, observe, and experience things, but in many cultures people also direct this kind of comprehensible input at children.

Observe how in a social situation, many adults will not hesitate to begin talking in their own language to a baby or young child who’s there about things that are within view, pointing and gesturing as they speak, even if the child doesn’t know the language.

In addition, media like children’s TV programming also contain a lot of context, with bold audio and visual cues that help make what is being said understandable.

Compare all of these things with adult language learners’ typical experiences.

Environments like offices and pubs are generally full of lots of talk about abstract matters and things that have happened in other places and times, so they lack many visual or other clues to help them get the meaning.

Generally, others will not readily approach them and start talking about things around them without expecting a response.

If they do approach them, it’s often to ask an abstract question like what they think of something.

Media like TV that’s directed at adults similarly lacks a lot of non-verbal communication alongside the spoken dialogue to make it understandable.

Even material designed for language learning often features mostly talking heads rather than making use of all of the possibilities for rich non-verbal communication.

Of course, if you are already at an advanced level in a language that is widely spoken, you have access to a vast amount of interesting media like books and movies that you can understand enough of to learn from efficiently.

But beginning and even intermediate adult learners just don’t have the kind of easy access that young children do to experiences and media that are both highly interesting and comprehensible to them.

They often have to rely on translation and study to get the meaning of language they are hearing and reading in a more efficient way.

And to get people speaking to them in the language, they’ll probably have to go speak the target language to those people first.

ALG theory controversially posits that it’s this kind of study and practice, which young children can’t do, that keeps adults from easily approaching native-like levels in a language—not any inherent loss of ability.

But even assuming that there is a loss of ability, why not give adults a better chance to make the best of what they’ve got with more and better opportunities for comprehensible input?

People seem to tacitly recognize the importance of comprehensible input for adults, given the value placed on being immersed in a language in order to become fluent.

Also, it’s not controversial that multimodal, multisensory experiences produce more effective learning and retention.

Children routinely get these kinds of experiences. Why not then deliberately create them for adults to help give them the best possible shot at learning languages?

The AUA Thai Program in Bangkok, which has uniquely implemented the ALG approach for more than 30 years, is doing essentially that, creating understandable experiences in Thai to give adults input that’s comprehensible even at a beginner level, without the need for translation and study.

Even skeptics of the approach have noted results, reporting AUA students having abilities in areas such as pronunciation much better than many would expect of adults learning a “difficult” language like Thai.

Although most AUA students don’t follow the ALG approach, they attend AUA classes because it offers comprehensible input in Thai that is entertaining and understandable at their level, something that seems to be very hard to find elsewhere.

These students may live or work alongside Thai speakers, but a lot of what’s being said around them isn’t comprehensible.

Thai people aren’t coming up to them and pointing to things and talking about them in Thai, as they might with the young children of foreigners.

And Thai TV is not geared to their level of understanding, except for children’s shows that are not geared to their interests as adults.

Perhaps I’m wrong and adults simply can’t pick up languages as easily and as well as young children can.

Perhaps even, contrary to ALG theory, some study and practice is beneficial and even necessary for adults.

Even if this is the case, I think adult learners would still benefit greatly from far better opportunities for comprehensible input than are available to them now.

Read part two in this series of posts: A “silent period”.


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