Failure

I write here because I’m deeply and passionately interested in how the average adult can learn new languages and become as native-like as possible with the least difficulty, and ideally, have a lot of fun doing it.

However, I have not yet succeeded in even becoming fluent in any language besides English, my native language.

Perhaps I have even failed in my attempts to learn languages.

The main learning method I have been examining is Automatic Language Growth (ALG), which claims that adults can effortlessly approach native-like fluency in new languages if they learn them like children—listening first in the context of many understandable experiences, then beginning to speak.

Over the last few years I have attended classes at the AUA Thai Program, the main place where ALG has been applied to teaching language.

So far, I have achieved a good pronunciation in Thai, and routinely get comments that I can speak Thai very clearly, even though I haven’t been instructed in or practiced Thai tones or pronunciation.

However, I am not yet fluent in Thai and do not consider myself highly functional in the language.

Furthermore, while I’ve tried to follow the ALG approach of listening and gaining understanding before speaking, I wonder if I have created problems for myself with anxiety and worry about things like whether my Thai speaking and listening is correct.

ALG theory posits that adults have not lost the childhood ability to effortlessly pick up languages, but have gained abilities that they tend to use, like consciously thinking about language and trying to speak, which interfere with their acquisition of language and ultimately keep them from reaching the same high levels.

If this is true, perhaps I have interfered with my learning despite my efforts to follow the method, and will never succeed at becoming native-like as I hoped.

Having not yet succeeded at learning another language to fluency, and perhaps even having failed at learning languages following the ALG approach, I have sometimes wondered whether I have any business talking about ALG or even language learning in general.

However, my view on this has changed.

Looking at the AUA Thai Program, the vast majority of students do not bother to follow ALG principles and most take relatively little, if any, interest in the method.

Among those who have succeeded, many have had circumstances that made it easy for them to follow the method, such as having the means or support to attend classes on a full-time basis indefinitely.

In some cases apparently, these kinds of students inadvertently followed the approach, not caring about learning Thai at all.

Following the ALG method successfully is by definition effortless, and it is human nature to not value that which comes with little or no effort or cost.

I think now that those who will help develop ALG and make it accessible to the average person are not necessarily those who have succeeded with the method with ease, but more likely, those who have taken an interest in it, tried to apply it, but encountered difficulties and even failure.

Dr. J. Marvin Brown, the originator of ALG, was by his own admission not able to successfully use the method he developed.

But it was his own lifetime struggles with language learning and seeing the struggles of others that drove him to create ALG and continually develop it by finding further insights and ways to make it more accessible.

According to Brown, his attempt to pick up the Shantou dialect of Chinese using the ALG approach failed because as a lifelong linguist he couldn’t help but try to analyze the language.

But this failure also led to his insight that it wasn’t so much a “silent period” of listening before speaking that mattered to successfully applying the ALG approach, but rather what mental processes the learner uses, whether or not they are speaking.

The difficulties Brown saw students face with pressure to speak Thai outside of class led him to develop Crosstalk, a method where each person can communicate in their own language in a conversation while hearing the language they are learning.

These advances weren’t born of easy successes, but of difficulties and failure.

I’m reminded of a saying I heard from Khunkhao Sindhusen (ขุนเขา สินธุเสน เขจรบุตร), a Thai writer on psychology I enjoy listening to: “Your pain is your power.”

Through experiencing the pain of adversity and failure, and also having empathy for other people who experience pain, we can be inspired and motivated to improve things and move them forward.

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