The ALG-shaped hole in second-language acquisition research: a further look

In a previous post I wrote that what’s missing from research on second-language acquisition overlaps so much with Automatic Language Growth theory and methods that SLA research could be said to have an ALG-shaped hole.

I focused on what I think are the largest areas of this research hole, starting with the lack of scientific control in research on the issue of age and second language acquisition.

ALG posits that adult language learners typically attain less with greater effort than children learning languages because of how their approach and environment typically differs from children.

Yet researchers have generally observed the lower rates of attainment in adults and assumed that they result from some loss of ability, without even proposing to try to control for these differences.

I argued a major part of controlling for these differences would be research into a “silent period” of listening to a language before speaking, based on the observation that while a child gets a lot of exposure to a new language early on, for some time their production is quite limited.

ALG would argue that the young child gets the chance to internalize the language as it’s spoken by native speakers before producing it, while adults typically use abilities they have gained with maturity to try to speak from early on, interfering with their acquisition of the language.

Yet, there’s very little research that has adults first spend many hours listening to comprehensible input in a language without having to speak it, to see if their eventual production of the language is more native-like than if they had spoken from early on.

ALG, which has primarily been applied in the AUA Thai Program in Bangkok, claims that by listening and understanding a lot of a new language first before speaking, reading, or study, adults can approach native-like abilities in it without effort.

Some researchers have noted this lack of research on whether the early speaking typical of adult language learners impacts their end results, and thus whether limiting production early on will eventually lead to better results.

In Input Matters in SLA, editors Martha-Young Scholten and Thorsten Piske conclude their introduction with the “hope that at at least one [reader] will take up the challenge to investigate whether an initial silent period does, in fact, ultimately lead to more native-like [second language] phonology.”

While I think controlling for the differences between typical adult and child language learning and the silent period are the biggest areas, there are many other parts of this ALG-shaped research hole.

Listening

You learn to speak by listening—not speaking” is a fundamental tenet of the ALG approach.

Yet, as some academics in the field of SLA have also noted, research into listening is particularly lacking.

“Listening comprehension lies at the heart of language learning, but it is the least understood and least researched skill,” writes Dr. Larry Vandergrift in a paper on second-language (L2) listening comprehension research, calling for more work in this area to improve language teaching.

“Research into L2 listening is important because a better understanding of the process will inform pedagogy,” he writes. “Students who learn to control their listening processes can enhance their comprehension. This, in turn, affects the development of other skills
and overall success in L2 learning.”

Pronunciation

Pronunciation is also central to the ALG approach, which argues that listening to new language sufficiently before speaking, reading or trying to analyze it will eventually lead to effortless native-like pronunciation.

Part of what spurred the American linguist J. Marvin Brown to develop ALG was Thais’ difficulties with English pronunciation and foreigners’ difficulties with Thai pronunciation and the impact he observed it had on their results.

Yet pronunciation is another area where research seems to be lacking.

Again and again it has been referred to as the “Cinderella” of language teaching or language learning, Cinderella being a fairy tale character who was neglected and hidden away.

This is surprising since so much of one’s intelligibility, and likely also success in other areas of language acquisition, depends on having a decent if not good ability to pronounce a language.

As Brown observed, and other academics have noted, not grasping the sound system of the language well can create difficulty with other aspects.

For example, English grammatical features such as plurals and past tense often produce consonant clusters at the ends of words at that are not possible in many other languages such as Thai and Mandarin.

If speakers of these languages can’t grasp these sounds, they will have trouble picking up the grammatical features they carry.

Crosstalk

Crosstalk is the ALG term to describe multilingual interactions where each person speaks their own native language using non-verbal communication as needed to make themselves understood.

It is part of ALG as practiced in the AUA Thai Program, in that teachers speak Thai using non-verbal communication to make the language understandable and the students can respond in their own languages.

But Crosstalk can also be a way in itself to learn languages following the ALG approach.

By having people speak their native languages to one another in this way, each person gains understanding of the other language, and according to ALG theory, starting from scratch and with sufficient input they can go on to speak and eventually approach native-like levels of ability in the language.

Again, there appears to be relatively little research into anything like Crosstalk.

In recent years there has been some research into what is known as intercomprehension, with the main focus being as a way for speakers of different European languages be able to communicate with one another

This kind of multilingual communication is similar to Crosstalk, but differences in the method being promoted include involving reading and writing early on and encouraging conscious awareness of language.

Crosstalk, in keeping with the ALG approach, would delay reading and writing until one has first listened to the language sufficiently, and encourages a focus on overall meaning rather than language.

A couple more similar concepts are receptive multilingualism, where speakers comprehend the other language or languages spoken in a conversation while speaking their preferred language, and semi-communication, which usually describes people contriving to understand one another while speaking highly mutually intelligible languages like those of Scandinavia.

But research on all of these kinds of multilingual interactions is very limited, and there is even less that specifically looks at how they could be not merely ways of communication but contribute to language learning or even be a full-fledged language learning method, as is intended of Crosstalk.

Long-term research

Another area that is lacking in SLA research is long-term studies of language learning and longitudinal studies of language learners.

ALG is very much concerned with results in the mid- to long-term, and the AUA Thai Program is noted for its very long “silent period” of hundreds of hours of listening before saying much in the language.

The idea is the foundation of experience with the language through listening to comprehensible input must be laid for speaking to emerge with native-like fluency and accuracy.

Research has found that generally adults are faster at learning languages than children in the early stages but have lower ultimate attainment.

ALG theory would say that the abilities gained with maturity to consciously think about and use language allow adults to do more in a new language from earlier on but interfere with long-term results.

Experiments and observations in the short run will thus favour explicit teaching of language and memorization.

To compare an input-based approach like ALG with other methods requires long-term studies over months and years, not merely days and weeks.

Language learning outside of the classroom

Much SLA research has been done on classroom teaching of language, but relatively little has been done on language learning outside of the classroom, where probably the majority of it takes place.

While ALG has been primarily implemented in a classroom with the AUA Thai Program, it is designed to replicate and concentrate the informal learning environments where adults as well as children have picked up languages and reached very high or perhaps even native-like levels of ability.

These adults who take a “childlike” approach of immersion in a second-language environment without trying to speak much may often be people with little or no formal education; in contrast, many studies on language learning have focused on people with high levels of formal education.

Psychological research has shown a strong bias towards “WEIRD” subjects: western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic, which excludes much of the world’s population.

This suggests that SLA research has focused on adult language learners who are likely to have studied language in a classroom or otherwise used conscious learning methods that ALG posits are responsible for adults’ typical lower attainment.

Anthropological research into tribal societies suggests adults in these cultures successfully taking a childlike approach to language learning of listening before speaking.

In a TED Talk on endangered cultures, the anthropologist Wade Davis describes a people in the Northwest Amazon that have a rule where one “must marry someone who speaks a different language.”

“Yet the curious thing is in these long houses, where there are six or seven languages spoken because of intermarriage, you never hear anyone practicing a language,” Davis says. “They simply listen and then begin to speak.”

Dr. Brown described in his autobiography hearing a similar story as a graduate student of linguistics: a woman who married into an African village where a completely different language was spoken listened without speaking for the first year, and within a few years was almost like a native speaker.

However there seems to be little or no research specifically into these peoples’ language learning and the results they attain.

In more modern environments, there are probably many adults worldwide who have picked up languages through massive exposure from watching and listening to media like television first without trying to speak or study, and then gone on to use them and approach native-like levels of ability.

Again, the research would have to deliberately seek out such learners.

The future of SLA research

This is not an exhaustive list of areas where SLA research is lacking, which relate to ALG in some way.

It is not to say either that existing research in the field is necessarily wrong or of no value.

The field of second language acquisition has been described as a relatively young discipline.

I think significant research into these areas that relate to the theories and claims of ALG could lead to major steps forward in the field, and perhaps even other areas like our understanding of the human mind itself.

Though some of this research could be very expensive, considering the amount of time and money spent worldwide on language learning, a fraction of this going toward answering these questions could lead to new insights that could significantly help people learn languages.

 

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