We Need Experience of All Kinds for Better Language Learning

Experience is huge in the theory and practice of Automatic Language Growth, which claims that even as adults we can effortlessly pick up new languages and approach native-like levels of fluency and ability.

The ALG approach is based on the notion of comprehensible input popularized by Dr. Stephen Krashen, who said the only way we acquire language is “when we understand messages.”

In developing ALG, Dr. J. Marvin Brown narrowed this idea of understanding messages down to “happenings”: hearing the target language in meaningful situations that have elements like a ‘who’, a ‘what’, a ‘when’, a ‘where’, a ‘why’, and a ‘how’.

The idea is to create understandable experiences through which students can pick up language without paying attention to the language.

ALG argues that rather than age, the adult tendency to focus on and analyze language is a main reason why older learners don’t learn them as successfully as young children, who cannot consciously do that.

But in implementing ALG, Dr. Brown wanted a lot more than plain old “happenings”.

He wanted learners to get countless real-life experiences in the language that they would remember for a lifetime.

These understandable experiences should involve the emotions and many senses.

They ought to be interesting, fascinating, and indeed compelling, and can be surprising, shocking, and even offensive.

One purpose of all this is, again, to keep learners’ conscious focus off of the language itself.

But even more importantly, these kinds of experiences create very rich contexts in memory for the language that learners hear, helping these memories to subconsciously accrue in the brain and grow into the ability to fluently understand and speak.

Besides all of this, these experiences can be incredibly fun, and can give people opportunities to do and learn many things while at the same time picking up a new language.

But creating this quality and quantity of experience is a very tall order indeed.

It’s one that the AUA Thai Program, where ALG has mainly been put into practice over more than three decades, has had difficulty fulfilling.

While the Thai teachers there are very dedicated and do an amazing job of making the language comprehensible and compelling, being confined to a classroom context with limited time and resources makes it hard to consistently deliver such a level of experience.

When the experiences are not as powerful, I think it’s very helpful to provide more repetition of language as seen in techniques like circling, used in TPRS, another comprehension-based method.

brain-1728449A very strong experience like Dr. Brown envisioned might create a “flashbulb” memory, where even that single instance of hearing a word or structure is enough to ensure it’s remembered for a lifetime.

But in contrast, experiences with less emotion will leave weaker connections in the brain, and with less context and sensory involvement the connections will also be fewer.

With these weaker experiences, more repetition of the language helps ensure that enough connections will accrue to efficiently grow into usable language.

Having said all that, it must be acknowledged that for its limitations, the AUA Thai Program appears to be unique in the world in creating experiences through which one can pick up a language without study or translation.

While there appear to be other programs that offer elements of real-life experience, for example some immersion programs, these often also involve elements of study and generally expect students to produce the language even from the start.

ALG argues that consciously trying to speak is another cause of older learners’ second-language shortcomings; speaking without sufficient experience with the new language interferes with acquiring the pronunciation, grammar, and other linguistic features.

Programs that are based on acquiring language through comprehensible input appear to be rare, and ones focused specifically on creating understandable experiences as the AUA Thai Program does appear even rarer.

Besides programs, other opportunities such as materials that provide comprehensible input and experience to beginning language learners also appear to be rare.

This lack of opportunities for input and experience is surprising considering that most academics in the field of second-language acquisition consider comprehensible input to be very important, if not critical, to second-language acquisition.

Furthermore, many acknowledge the importance of experience to language learning in different ways, for example the value of involving different senses, and of getting listening experience through hearing the language from a variety of speakers.

Experience, Broadly Conceived

I’ve noticed that the dearth of opportunities for experience in language learning is much broader than the specific idea of experience that Dr. Brown had of hearing language in the context of understandable happenings that involve a variety of senses and emotions.

Take, for example, being able to hear how a language is pronounced—just one aspect, but a critically important one to be able to speak clearly.

I find that even with sites like Forvo, which collects recordings of how words in many languages are pronounced, it is still difficult to find and hear the correct pronunciation of many words and names.

Often all I can find is a spelling with perhaps a phonetic transcription, which isn’t as helpful as actually hearing it spoken by one, or ideally, a variety of speakers.

This is true even for English, where it can be hard to find and hear the correct pronunciation of things such as the names of people and places.

Another example of where I find it difficult listening experience is in getting examples of sound distinctions in languages—even, as it turns out, in my own language.

For example, many Americans still distinguish the vowel sounds in pairs of words like “cot”  (/kɑt/) and “caught” (/kɔt/), while most Canadians like me pronounce both words the same way (/kɑt/), an ongoing process called the cot-caught merger.

If one wants help in recognizing this distinction if it’s not part of one’s own variety of English, there are only some limited resources such as a YouTube video explaining it and giving a few examples.

With these limited examples, one is left to work it out for oneself with practice and some knowledge of phonetics, whereas a richer variety of examples presented in the right context might help one automatically and even better recognize this distinction (though not necessarily start producing it in speech if one has always spoken English without it).

So putting aside Dr. Brown’s specific conception of rich experiences through which to effortlessly pick up language, it seems we often don’t even have easy access to many more basic kinds of experience with languages, like being able to hear what things sound like in them.

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“This is a book.”

In his autobiography, Dr. Brown gives an example where he contrasts a “faked happening”, where a teacher holds up a book and says “this is a book”, with a real experience where an English learner observes you with a parcel in a post office saying “this is a book” (having seen you wrap it beforehand) because there’s a special rate for books.

The latter experience provides a rich set of meaningful contexts to create memories through which the language can be effectively picked up, while the former has little of this to anchor it in memory.

But despite all the technology available today, and the vast numbers of native speakers of many languages, we too often don’t even have access to something more like the former today—just hearing things described in the language.

And that, having at least sound and an image and various possibilities of presentation, would still be superior to Dr. Brown’s other example of “this is a book”—having to memorize the equivalent sentence in Mandarin in a grammar–translation Chinese class in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

In fact, a former student of the AUA Thai Program has been creating such content, with many illustrations with descriptions in Isaan, a language with over 20 million speakers but so far little content through which a beginner can pick up the language.

It even has its own example for “this is a book“.

While it doesn’t provide memorable real-life experience, it still provides many important things for learners, like the opportunity to hear the words and how they sound from a native speaker with many examples of them being used in context.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Dr. Brown’s vision of picking up languages effortlessly through rich understandable experiences is wonderful and a big part of the future of language learning.

I think it’s something that we should always be aiming for.

But today, with so many kinds of experience still scarce when it comes to language learning, I think providing even these sorts of more limited experiences is a step in the right direction.

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