More on whether ALG and AUA are really that different from other language learning methods and programs

In a previous post I discussed the apparent uniqueness of the Automatic Language Growth (ALG) approach to language learning and the AUA Thai Program where it has mainly been implemented.

I wrote how I inquired in an online group discussing comprehensible input-based approaches as to whether there were any other methods or programs that were “pure” comprehensible input in the sense of not including study or practice.

All of the suggested answers turned out to involve some element of translation, study, or speaking practice—the kind of conscious learning that ALG and AUA seek to avoid.

I wrote that I still find it hard to believe there doesn’t seem to be anything else like ALG and AUA, and questioned whether perhaps they’re not really as different as they seem from other methods and programs.

Nìall Beag suggests the latter in a post on his blog Lingua FranklyTake nobody’s word for it: a case study.

However, while this post, like others on his blog, raises a lot of great points, it contains a number of inaccuracies and misconceptions about ALG.

That is perhaps understandable, given how so much information online about ALG and AUA has come from second- and even third-hand sources.

Beag makes reference to a lecture called On the mortality of language learning methodsby Wilfried Decoo, a professor of applied linguistics and language education.

This insightful talk looks at the cyclical nature of methods and an ignorance of the past in language teaching. Beag summarizes it in another post as follows:

“One of the key points of Decoo’s argument is that most methods have a broad basis of similarity, and differ in the inclusion or exclusion of one or two particular features, or even just in declaring that one particular feature is made more prominent.

In short, for all their arguing, most methods are incredibly similar.”

Beag suggests that this similarity applies to Automatic Language Growth, describing it as “in essence a variation on the Direct and Natural methods of the late 19th century, which suggests that we can only learn a language through that language itself.”

While ALG is indeed similar to the direct and natural methods in its avoidance of translation, it contains a number of prominent differences, perhaps most prominently in the use of a long “silent period”: students are not compelled to produce the language but instead allow it to emerge gradually as a result of listening and understanding.

These differences ultimately stem from the theory behind the ALG approach, but more on that in a moment.

Beag continues his post suggesting that ALG in practice actually deviates from the supposed principle:

“Of course while the principle of ALG is learn a language through itself, in practice, ALG uses a structured course to introduce grammar and vocabulary in a controlled manner.”

This is simply not the case.

While ALG as practiced in the AUA Thai Program is broadly structured into classes of different levels, this structure is based around the students’ level of comprehension of Thai, not introducing particular grammar and vocabulary.

Beginner levels will rely on a lot of non-verbal communication to get meaning across and involve simpler topics and activities, while more advanced levels will involve more abstract discussion and less non-verbal communication.

Any lesson plans that are used provide ideas for topics and activities; there is no curriculum around grammar and vocabulary.

While, as I have written, AUA is not a perfect or ideal implementation of ALG, it does follow the approach faithfully and facilitates being able to following the method.

For its shortcomings, AUA is not delivering something opposite to ALG’s stated principles, like Beag’s example of an approach that advocates picking up grammar through examples but has books that are mostly devoted to grammatical explanations.

Regarding stated principles, Beag writes about methods having “one all-important concept”, citing Decoo’s words:

“A new method draws its originality and its force from a concept that is stressed above all others. Usually it is an easy to understand concept that speaks to the imagination.”

While Beag claims that ALG’s “all-important concept” is “we can only learn a language through that language itself”, if we talk about ALG having an “all-important concept”, a more accurate description might be one that starts with the theory behind ALG:

Adults have not lost the young child’s ability to pick up languages and effortlessly become native-like, they have gained abilities to consciously study and practice language that interfere with this ability and cause the limitations we typically see adult learners. With the same kind of environment and approach of unconscious, implicit learning that children have, they can achieve the same results as children just as effortlessly.

The rules that Beag touches upon, such as the avoidance of translation, and a “silent period”, come from this concept that “the child’s secret” to approaching native-like levels of ability come from this unconscious picking up of language without consciously trying, as is involved in practicing speaking.

ALG’s theory seems to be distinct from every other approach, including those that talk about “learning like a child” but, as Beag describes in another post, in practice introduce things from the beginning like speaking practice that young children cannot do.

The teaching at the AUA Thai Program in Bangkok supports ALG’s stated approach, apparently more than any other language program does.

However, as I have noted before, the vast majority of AUA students do not follow the approach, choosing to do other study or practice outside of AUA, often using the program as listening classes.

It is this fact that brings us to what is perhaps the most useful point raised by Beag’s post, for its inaccuracies about ALG and AUA.

That is how trying to go by the principles and theories of ALG, even if they are as I suspect from my experiences and research quite accurate, can have unintended consequences in practice.

While the major principle, if not “all-important concept”, of ALG is that an adult can “still do what the child does”, adults are different from children in their needs, opportunities, and circumstances.

The AUA students who follow the ALG approach faithfully tend to be those like missionaries and retirees, who have the time and resources to dedicate many hours to listening before speaking much.

An adult who needs to work a day job might not be able to attend enough hours a week to see any significant progress, and so growing frustrated, will seek out other tutoring to achieve at least level of basic functionality in Thai in what to them is a reasonable timeframe.

Then we have attempts to implement the method based on the principles without the support of a program like AUA—the sort of thing Beag warned about: “[P]eople are going out and trying to recreate these methods for themselves, not based on the content of the methods, but on these stated principles.”

It was one such attempt spurred Beag’s post about ALG.

Language blogger Keith Lucas had been writing about ALG and then attempted to apply the method to learn Mandarin, using Chinese TV series as a substitute because of the lack of availability of classes that provided comprehensible input in Mandarin like AUA does for Thai.

In accordance with ALG theory, Lucas reasoned that translation or other conscious learning of the language would impose a ceiling on his results, so he chose to watch TV for a 2000-hour silent period and guess at the meaning, avoiding translation or other study.

As Beag correctly points out, AUA is deliberately made highly comprehensible for learners while TV is not, though he is incorrect on the details: AUA uses non-verbal communication to make language understandable, not structured teaching of vocabulary and grammar.

In the end, Lucas’s results were underwhelming in terms of his understanding and speaking ability, although he showed signs of having acquired a good accent and pronunciation, consistent with my and other people’s experience of AUA and ALG.

Having learned about ALG, I tried something like Lucas’s “TV method” myself to learn Mandarin practically from scratch, watching TV shows and videos for around 1000 hours, then conversing with tutors using Crosstalk (I would speak English and they would speak Mandarin) all without study or translation.

If I started again, I would still have taken an ALG approach but would have gotten tutors from the beginning to speak to me in a more comprehensible way than TV alone could provide so I could pick up the language more efficiently.

But more on that in future posts.

Beag is right to be concerned about focusing on the principles of a method while overlooking how it plays out in the real world.

Even with a source of input like AUA, attempts to have people adhere to the method may perhaps result in worse consequences than any damage that ALG argues conscious learning might cause, as suggested by this comment from a Usenet discussion about AUA and its long “silent period”:

“I’ve met three or four people who have done that course and they all complained about it. They way they spoke when they complained was revealing too. They always sounded defeated and resigned, as if that course, regardless of what they may have learnt from it, had destroyed their enthusiasm for learning the language.”

In my opinion, much of this kind of problem would be avoided if adults everywhere had easy access to a much greater quantity and quality of comprehensible input than is available now, from which they could easily pick up language even as total beginners—far more than what’s available with AUA and other sources today.

But in such a future, as with now, a careful look at each language learners overall situation is critical, not just following stated principles or ideas.

So are ALG and AUA really different from other language learning methods and programs?

As far as I can tell, they are.

But what’s critical here is that what makes ALG different from other approaches—the idea that adults can still effortlessly pick up languages like children given the right opportunities—is nowhere near fully realized.

The AUA Thai Program, while different, is really just a starting point.

To realize the difference in ALG theory, what’s needed is widespread and abundant opportunities for comprehensible input—understandable experiences that will allow adults to pick up languages efficiently and fit with their needs.

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