Automatic Language Growth, or ALG, is a comprehensible input-based approach to language teaching, meaning it’s based on the idea that we learn languages by being exposed to them in ways that we can understand what is being communicated.
This puts ALG in the same category as better-known CI-based approaches such as TPR (Total Physical Response), TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling), and Story Listening.
What sets ALG apart is that it is a developing theory and method of language acquisition that was conceived with the goal of bringing adults from zero knowledge to native-like fluency in second languages.
The ALG approach can in fact subsume these other CI-based approaches where they are consistent with its approach to language learning.
ALG posits that adults have not lost any of the child’s ability to effortlessly pick up languages and become native-like, but it’s the use of abilities they’ve gained with maturity to consciously practice and study language that typically keep them from reaching such a level.
Therefore, if adults learn languages implicitly like children, through first gaining understanding through listening and letting speaking emerge on its own, they too can eventually approach native-like levels of ability without effort.
Put another way, ALG is about providing a sufficient foundation of listening before speaking, and acquiring language implicitly through experience before consciously studying and analyzing it.
It’s the adult ability that children don’t have to study and practice language before having sufficient input and experience with it that interferes with their results.
To implement ALG requires creating listening input that is comprehensible for learners at different levels, from complete beginner to fluency, and approaches like TPR, TPRS, and Story Listening all provide ways to accomplish this.
The critical difference is that when using them with ALG, any use of conscious abilities with regards to language that are not available to young children are avoided.
In practice this means there will be some significant differences from how they’re commonly implemented.
A long “silent period”
ALG is often characterized as involving a very long “silent period” in contrast with other “natural approaches” where speaking is often introduced or expected after a few hours.
TPR and TPRS in practice often have the students speaking from early on, for example giving TPR commands they’ve heard or retelling TPRS stories themselves.
With ALG, students are not compelled to speak and in fact discouraged from consciously trying to do so.
Instead, speaking is allowed to emerge on its own, which typically starts with a few words and set phrases, and after several hundred hours of listening, grows into the ability to produce one’s own sentences spontaneously.
In this way students will have internalized the correct pronunciation, grammar, and usage from native speakers and their speaking will naturally and effortlessly converge on this model.
Approaches like TPRS often incorporate reading from an early stage as a source of input.
ALG would delay reading until one has first had sufficient exposure to the spoken language, arguing that as with speaking, reading without first sufficiently internalizing the sounds of the language will result in pronunciation problems.
Not having a strong “image” of the sound of the words in mind, one may fall back on the rules of pronunciation from their first language.
Additionally, reading words that one hasn’t internalized the sound of through listening first can result in pronunciation influenced by their spelling or by transliterations.
TPRS in particular uses translation to introduce words, with the intention of establishing their meaning before they are used in a story.
In contrast, ALG avoids any use of translation, based on the idea that meaning should be built up through experience, and that the use of translation will result in less than native-like ability to access and use the target language.
Therefore, storytelling in ALG uses things like drawings and gestures to help communicate the meaning of words, and students pick them up through context and successive guesses.
Focus on meaning, not language
ALG avoids conscious learning of language as much as possible, so it avoids deliberate teaching of structures or focus on the language.
In practice this means there will be no direct modelling of individual words or structures in the language.
Students are instructed to focus on the overall meaning of what is being communicated, rather than individual words.
In line with this is ALG’s focus on not merely having students understand messages in the target language, but creating happenings and experiences.
The purpose is to provide rich and memorable contexts to help one acquire the language, and to keep the student’s conscious attention on what is happening instead of on the language itself.
Therefore the ALG approach would especially emphasize the idea of making stories compelling—for example, telling stories that are hilarious, outrageous, or even offensive in some way.
TPR, TPRS, and Story Listening are all excellent tools that can be used in a way that is compatible with the ALG approach to help implement it.
In another article I’ll look more at how these approaches relate to how ALG has been implemented in the AUA Thai Program, and how they could be further used in such a program to implement the ALG approach.