We Need Opportunities To Pick Up Languages Without Study

About a month ago I released a video telling the story so far of Automatic Language Growth, the AUA Thai Program, and the need for better research and opportunities to support language acquisition for adults.

The response has been positive from those who are already familiar with AUA and the ALG approach, as well as from others who are involved in language teaching using comprehensible input-based approaches.

Of course, to focus on the response from this audience would be, to some extent, just preaching to the choir.

I’m more concerned about feedback from people such as those who are unfamiliar with comprehensible input and those who are skeptical of approaches like ALG, so that I can respond to their questions and criticisms and learn from them.

A couple of points in my video and writings that have been criticized are the talk of effortless language learning and learning like a child.

It seems that these expressions have been used so often to advertise language learning products and methods along with other claims that they don’t deliver on, with the result that many language learners instantly view them with suspicion.

I plan to address the use of these expressions more fully in separate posts.

I’ll explain how practically every program advertised as “learning like a child” actually includes things that young children don’t do when learning languages, like reading or conscious speaking practice, whereas the ALG approach almost uniquely avoids these things.

I’ll also explain what “learning language like children” means in ALG, and what it does not mean.

On effortless language learning, I will make the case that this is indeed possible in adulthood as well as in childhood, and what’s needed is the right approach together with the right opportunities to support it.

In this post, I want to address an objection that relates to that last point—the need for the right opportunities.

One commenter responding to my post on a language learning forum appeared to presume that I was advising people not to study languages.

They wrote that they agreed on the importance of a lot of listening and exposure, and advised intermediate and advanced learners to focus on this much more than speaking or other practice.

However, they noted that every day they found beginners who had tried to do the same as the more advanced learners disappointed by their poor results.

I think the main reason why these beginners aren’t learning much language through exposure and listening is what I have repeatedly pointed out in the video and on this site: there is an incredible lack of content that is highly understandable and interesting to pick up language from efficiently at the beginner level.

This means beginners must do some form of study and practice, such as looking up words, to understand what content is available and get to a level where they can efficiently pick up language from it just by watching and listening.

Programs that deliberately create comprehensible input for beginners to pick up language from without study or practice appear to be exceedingly rare.

I had to go halfway around the world to find a program that taught this way: the AUA Thai Program, which uses the ALG approach.

Interestingly, Dreaming Spanish, a YouTube channel based on the ALG approach, started getting attention on the same forum about the same time I had posted my video.

A poster asked if there were any other channels like it that taught a language in the language using only comprehensible input.

Nearly everything that others posted in response involved some kind of study or translation, or were focused on teaching about the language in the language, rather than simply communicating interesting things in the language.

To be clear, the main message of my video is that we need more and better opportunities for adults to pick up languages through comprehensible input without study, research into how well adults are capable of learning this way, and research on how to create better ways to do so.

If the main message that people are taking away from the video and my writing is just “don’t study” rather than the need for opportunities and research, that’s a problem and I’ll have to reconsider my approach.

In raising awareness of ALG theory, I think it’s important to avoid what appears to be an unintended consequence that followed Stephen Krashen’s popularization of the idea that we acquire languages not by studying or practicing them, but through comprehensible input—that is, understanding messages in the language.

It seems that in many corners, this was used to deprecate the explicit teaching of language in classrooms, but not enough comprehensible input was being provided to take its place.

The same commenter who wrote about the disappointed beginners gave an example of a group of ESL students getting exposure to English in classrooms without study or practice and being unable to speak in sentences after several years, while another group who were given grammar instruction were speaking in just a few years.

I suspect the problem for the first group was that the “exposure” they were getting was not really that comprehensible, and together with the limited time available in the classroom, they just didn’t get enough that they could begin speaking spontaneously.

While I favor implicit, comprehension-based approaches to language learning, I do think that in the hands of good teachers, explicit instruction and practice with a focus on communication over abstract study of rules can give learners a foundation where they can speak enough to interact outside the classroom and pick up more of the language from its speakers and media.

Krashen popularized comprehensible input in the early 1980s, and it wasn’t until years later that methods such as TPRS were developed to provide highly comprehensible input that leads to speaking in classroom situations where time is limited.

Methods like these have been slow to catch on, while at the same time, it seems that many language teachers tend to greatly overestimate how much of their language in the classroom is actually being comprehended by their students (I too have been guilty of this).

The question remains: Where is all the comprehensible input?

Simply getting people to follow an approach like ALG, where they pick up a language through listening and exposure, without plenty of comprehensible input to support them—input that is highly interesting and understandable from day one—would be disastrous.

Without this support, especially at the beginner stage, many learners will become extremely frustrated and discouraged by their slow progress and just give up.

I think it’s safe to say that in most cases, that’s probably much worse than missing out on any of the potential benefits of following the ALG approach, such as effortless language acquisition and more native-like results.

While I think it’s still important to keep writing and talking about ALG, feedback like the commenter’s remarks about discouraged beginners have made me consider how much I should focus on this angle.

If many more people know about the ALG method, but can hardly apply it because of the lack of highly comprehensible input from the beginner stage, I don’t think that’s a very good outcome.

“An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching,” the saying goes.

Perhaps a better focus at this stage is to do more to help put ALG into practice, leading by example through working on creating ways for people to follow the method.

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