Looking back and forward: One year of posts on Beyond Language Learning

I started this blog at the beginning of last year with the opinion based on my research and experiences that given the right kind of opportunities, adults might be able to effortlessly learn languages to very high or even native-like levels of ability.

I wrote that these learning opportunities could involve having a lot of fun and gaining other things at the same time, something I further envision in another post describing the possibilities of optimal language learning experiences.

The ALG approach

In many posts over this past year I have focused on the Automatic Language Growth approach to language learning, which I introduced early on as something that has greatly influenced my thinking in this area.

The ALG approach asserts that adults have not lost the ability we seen in young children to pick up languages effortlessly and reach native-like levels of ability, and can do so if they have the same kinds of learning opportunities that children have and approach them in the same way.

Because ALG has been primarily implemented at the AUA Thai Program in Bangkok, many people’s impression of ALG comes from this program, but as I discuss in a post comparing the approach and the program, AUA is not a full realization of ALG or the only way to implement it.

Both the ALG approach and the AUA program seem to be unique in the world, as I note in a post describing how my search for similar methods or programs that would allow adults to pick up languages implicitly like children found other things are always added like translation, study, or speaking practice.

In a follow-up to that post I address the idea that ALG and AUA aren’t really that different from other methods or programs with a critique of a blog post that asserts this, noting how it contains misconceptions and inaccuracies about both.

I also address misconceptions about AUA and ALG with a post that debunks the notion that they involve merely “passive learning”: AUA already has many elements of active learning, and even more active learning would be better and in line with the ALG approach. At the same time, I note the value of passive learning and conclude that there is value to including both more passive and more active approaches in implementing ALG.

The lack of language learning research and opportunities today

ALG’s claim that adults can effortlessly learn languages from no ability to possibly native-like levels of fluency naturally invites skepticism, and I’m interested in further research that would examine this idea.

As it is now, what’s missing from the research coincides so much with what ALG is about that, as I describe in a couple of posts, it’s almost as if language learning research has an ALG-shaped hole.

The first of these posts looks at what I think are the major areas of this hole: the lack of control for the dramatic differences between typical adult and child language learning environments and approaches, especially on the idea of a “silent period” of listening to a language before producing it.

While adults often try to speak a new language right away, children listen a lot first before speaking much, yet there is little research to see if having adults listen a lot before beginning to speak will result in better pronunciation and listening.

In the second post I look at other parts of this research hole, noting the lack of research on other topics that are important to ALG such as listening in language learning and interactions where each speaker uses their own language, which relates to what is known in ALG as Crosstalk.

In another post I suggest the lack of research on to what extent adults can acquire languages like children is part of a vicious cycle that retards the development of materials and opportunities that would allow adults to implicitly pick up languages in a childlike manner, without the need for study or practice. In turn, the continued lack of such materials or opportunities makes it difficult to carry out such research.

But even if we accept that language learning is indeed inherently more difficult for adults compared to children, as is commonly believed, shouldn’t we therefore give them more of the opportunities that children learning languages naturally get, in order to remediate this disadvantage?

In a series of three posts, I observe how instead, as it is today, adults get much less than children do. The first looks at comprehensible input, the second looks at the “silent period”, and the third looks at listening experience.

I bemoan this lack of language learning opportunities for adults in other posts, noting in one of them how the adage that children “soak up languages like sponges” can be true for adults as well when they are given the same kind of opportunities for massive comprehensible input, such as what students of the AUA Thai Program get.

In another I observe the lack of listening classes for learning languages through comprehensible input, whether or not they follow an ALG approach of learning implicitly without any study or practice, and wonder why such classes are not more widespread, given how many students use the AUA Thai Program as a source of listening practice and the apparent demand elsewhere.

While they seem to be relatively rare, there are other comprehensible input- and listening-based approaches in use such as TPR, TPRS, and Story Listening. In another post I describe how these approaches relate to ALG, observing that ALG can use all of them as ways to provide comprehensible input and understandable experiences in the target language.

When used with the ALG approach the difference would be that any explicit study or conscious speaking practice would be avoided, as ALG is based on the notion that its the use of these abilities that become available with maturity that interferes with adults being able to routinely acquire languages as well as children do.

Looking forward

Given that ALG hasn’t found more widespread use since it originated more than three decades ago, and how it may even be in decline, with other programs that used ALG having closed and even its presence at AUA apparently shrinking, in another post I question whether there is a future for the approach.

I consider that the use of more communicative approaches to language teaching today, the wider availability of comprehensible input through media, and even the proliferation of English may have blunted the appeal of ALG by providing “good enough” solutions to the communication problems that language learning tries to solve. But I leave off suggesting that ALG will have its day yet.

I have also written a bit about my own experiences with language learning. In one post, I write how learning Mandarin and Thai by listening a lot first and then gradually beginning to speak, I have achieved a clear pronunciation in these languages without the need for conscious study, practice, or correction, suggesting these things aren’t necessary to learn to speak a language well.

But as I describe in another post, I have not succeeded yet in becoming fluent in these languages, and have perhaps even failed in learning them through the ALG method. While this has discouraged me from writing in the past, I now see the good that can come out of difficulties, struggle, and failure, as they can help us see how things can be improved and give us the motivation to do so for us and for others.

Finally, looking back on the year, I continue to focus on the possibilities suggested by ALG of effortless language learning to very high levels while having fun and learning other things, and observe that while in the past I’ve tried to implement the approach to learn languages for myself, looking forward, I want my own language learning to increasingly benefit other people’s language learning as well.


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