What is the future of Automatic Language Growth?

It’s been over 30 years since the American linguist Dr. J. Marvin Brown originated the Automatic Language Growth approach to language learning.

The ALG approach claims that adults can become like native speakers of second languages as easily as young children do if they learn them the same way, picking them up implicitly with a lot of listening before speaking much.

Photo of former AUA building behind gate on Ratchadamri Road in Bangkok, Thailand
The AUA Thai Program’s former location on Bangkok’s Ratchadamri Road. This building has since been demolished.

Since its inception in 1984, the AUA Thai Program in Bangkok has been one of the few programs anywhere that allows adult learners to follow the ALG method, giving them the opportunity to pick up Thai language through understandable experiences without translation or study, and without having to practice speaking.

Today, after more than three decades, ALG has hardly gotten any further than where it began in Southeast Asia.

Near Bangkok, an English school operated using ALG for several years, and an international school used the method to teach Chinese, English, and Thai, but both shut down years ago.

In 2012, a school opened in Phnom Penh in Cambodia to teach Khmer using the ALG method, but it closed down in 2016.

Recently another opened in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to teach Vietnamese using ALG, but hardly got off the ground before closing.

Meanwhile at AUA, the presence of ALG has been slowly contracting: a Japanese program using ALG that began there in the late 1990s ended a few years ago, and the AUA Thai Program has fewer teachers than in past years.

The Thai program has survived despite little or no marketing or advertising through the help of word-of-mouth, as well as the benefit of AUA’s name and reputation.

With ALG seemingly on a slow decline, what is the future for this method?

“Language teaching globally is ever so slowly moving toward a natural methodology as people realize that experience is the key to gaining understandable input. And this is the basis of language acquisition,” writes David Long, the coordinator of the AUA Thai Program.

“Most often it seems that this ‘realization’ is not a conscious one however.”

These days comprehensible input in many languages has incidentally become increasingly available through digital media, and more natural exposure to language is becoming part of language learning with popular methods like the communicative approach.

Because of this, perhaps the ALG approach of deliberately creating experiences from which to pick up language appears less impressive than it was a few decades ago, when it starkly contrasted with the grammar-translation exercises and audiolingual drills that were more popular then.

Furthermore, as language teaching, especially of English, is introduced at younger ages in schools, while being accompanied by more naturalistic and communicative approaches, more students will be more likely to emerge highly functional, having had so much exposure to the spoken language.

With these more satisfactory results, ALG’s claim of native-like results is perhaps not as enticing, and its seemingly counter-intuitive ideas like listening before speaking and study and practice causing damage perhaps too off-putting.

Meanwhile, with English prevailing and machine translation advancing, perhaps most people will see less need to learn languages other than English to a high level.

Will “business as usual” continue with language learning, and the ALG approach simply wither away?

Or will it explode?

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