If language learning is harder for adults, why give them less and not more? Part two: A “silent period”

In my previous post, I wrote that while the ALG approach suggests adults can pick up languages as easily as young children can if they have the same learning environment and approach, even if language learning is harder for adults, the response should be to help them by offering them more of what children get rather than less.

I focused on how children naturally get many understandable experiences that allow them to pick up language without translation or study.

This kind of high-quality comprehensible input isn’t easily available to many adult beginning learners.

I asked why more such opportunities for input are not being created for adults, as has been done with the AUA Thai Program, which uniquely implements the ALG method.

In this post I want to look at another language learning opportunity that children get in abundance but is normally denied to adults.

This is the so-called “silent period”, but perhaps it’s better to refer to it here as “the right to remain silent”.

Besides getting the rich environment of comprehensible input I’ve described, young children learning a language aren’t expected to speak it much, if at all, for the first several months.

Rather, they are allowed to listen and gain understanding and begin to produce the language on their own time.

In contrast, going from childhood into adulthood, learners not only get less opportunity to internalize a language through listening experience, they are also by necessity or expectations pushed to start speaking it sooner and sooner.

Indeed, many language classes for adults expect students to speak right from the first class, for example to “listen and repeat”, even if the sounds of the new language are not at all clear to them.

According to ALG theory, this common practice of consciously trying to speak a language before hearing it much causes many of the problems that adult language learners commonly experience.

By trying to produce before internalizing the features of the new language, the adult typically falls back on those of their native language, leading to the accents and “broken” grammar of many second language learners.

In contrast, the young child lacks the adult’s ability to consciously try to speak, and gets to internalize the sounds of the new language before speaking much.

ALG suggests that if an adult first listens to a new language for many hours and gradually begins to speak, they can eventually without effort produce the language as clearly, fluently, and accurately as if they had learned it as a young child.

The AUA Thai Program implements this by encouraging students listen to Thai for hundreds of hours before speaking much, letting the language emerge naturally.

As well as speaking, reading is delayed. (While I focus on speaking here, reading also tends to be introduced sooner the older one begins learning a language, and ALG suggests it has similar effects to speaking when one does it without an adequate foundation of listening.)

As I have described and others have reported, listening first and delaying speaking as an adult learner seems to lead to clear and accurate pronunciation without the need for practice or drills.

ALG theory suggests that adults have not lost any ability to effortlessly approach native-like levels in a language, but things like speaking and reading without sufficient exposure to the spoken language interfere with the development of the new language.

But even if the conventional wisdom is correct and adults have lost ability, wouldn’t a more sensible response here be that being at a disadvantage, adults should perhaps take even more time to listen before speaking?

Common sense suggests a value in “getting an ear” for something, and that hearing something many times will help one to reproduce it correctly.

Yet going from childhood to adulthood, learners are expected to produce more and do it sooner.

Besides having this expectation in settings like schools, older learners find they have to speak the language in order to get people speaking to them and get more opportunities for exposure to the language, whereas children as I noted often have people automatically speaking to them in a new language.

One solution to this is providing adults which better opportunities for comprehensible input, as this would both give them more of a chance to listen without having to speak, and also more experience with the language to allow speaking to emerge naturally sooner.

Another solution is to use communication techniques that can help one interact with speakers of the target language without having to speak the language much oneself.

One such technique is Crosstalk, an ALG-based technique where each person speaks their own language, using non-verbal communication as necessary to get meaning across.

As with comprehensible input, whether or not we believe that language learning is inherently more difficult for adults, it seems that giving adults more opportunity to listen a lot first and gradually start producing the language would be beneficial.

Read part three in this series of posts: Listening experience.

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