The Dangers of “Cargo-Cult” Thinking in Applying the ALG Approach

A sometime enthusiast of the Automatic Language Growth approach recently remarked to me that there’s a somewhat cultish aspect to the theory.

I definitely agree that the central claims of ALG—that given the right experiences and approach, adults can acquire new languages effortlessly and approach native-like levels of fluency—are of the sort that can inspire potentially cult-like devotion.

One of the main messages I try to communicate is that there are good reasons to take such claims seriously and they need to be the subject of rigorous scientific research.

Research of this kind largely hasn’t been done yet, but I think it could yield important insights supporting far better language learning.

In the meantime, we need to think clearly and carefully about how we go about putting ALG ideas and concepts into practice.

A danger that can arise from an uncritical devotion to ALG based on aspects of the theory that can capture the imagination is to become dogmatic about applying it without regard to practical concerns such as the overall context.

Cargo-cult tendencies

One tendency I see in this vein is toward a kind of cargo-cult thinking in understanding and applying ALG.

F6F-3_Hellcats_of_VF-40_at_Espiritu_Santo_1944The term cargo cult originated from practices that arose among Pacific islanders who during World War II had observed Japanese and Allied forces receiving massive amounts of supplies by air and shared in this bounty.

After the war ended and the deliveries stopped, the islanders attempted to keep them coming by imitating the behaviors of troops receiving the shipments, even apparently going so far as to wear headphones carved from wood while sitting in mock control towers.

The fallacy, of course, was that they focused on recreating the outward appearances associated with the goods’ arrivals without understanding the actual causes that brought the shipments.

I’m not saying anyone is necessarily erring to the same extreme in attempting to apply ALG, but I do see a tendency to focus on outward aspects of the ALG method as it’s been observed in places like the AUA Thai Program, where it’s mainly been applied.

The danger here is focusing on reproducing these more peripheral features at the expense of factors that are more critical to the success of the ALG method—and for that matter, to language acquisition, period.

For example, what stands out for many people who read about ALG and observe the approach in action at AUA is the avoidance of translation, or use of the students’ first language, to make words understandable or get across meaning.

A main reason that translation is avoided in ALG is that the approach intends to establish in the learner’s brain the same kind of representation of words of the target language that its native speakers have.

In this view, giving the learner translations of words so that they can understand them creates connections in the brain that are different from the native speaker’s and interfere with ultimately being able to think in the language and use it as fluently and accurately as a native speaker would.

The use of translation can also cause people to consciously focus on the language they’re learning, again, in ALG’s view, interfering with their ultimate attainment in the language.

However, I would argue that avoiding all translation, in the sense of avoiding any use of the learner’s first language, is not such a critical factor to applying ALG successfully.

When first-language use is compatible with ALG

I broadly agree with the guidelines that linguist Dr. Stephen Krashen, who popularized the concept of comprehensible input, has given for the use of the first language, and think they could coincide with using the ALG approach successfully.

Krashen writes that first language use can increase the comprehensibility of what is being said in the target language by providing explanations that help learners to understand a topic, and by providing translations to clue people into the meaning of a difficult word that’s central to the discussion.

In fact, I’ve seen seen some AUA Thai teachers occasionally use English in both of these ways.

You should have the illusion that the class is entirely in the target language,” Krashen says in a video, “but using English [or whatever the learner’s language is] here and there for help, etc., is perfectly fine.”

Listen for overall meaning rather than individual words” is one of the main guidelines for adhering to the ALG approach.

If the illusion Krashen describes is in place, it seems that students would be keeping with this guideline because their focus must be on the meaning rather than words if they aren’t noticing the target language being used.

Both Krashen and Dr. J. Marvin Brown, the originator of ALG, have talked about the value to language acquisition of comprehensible input that’s so compelling that you forget it’s in the target language.

If the input is so compelling that the focus is entirely on the meaning rather than the language, it appears that even if the first language is used, the problems of interference that ALG is concerned with will be avoided.

The first language use isn’t being consciously attended to, but rather just contributing to understanding overall meaning.

This kind of use of the learner’s first language should be distinguished from others, such as memorizing lists of words with their translations, which puts a focus on language rather than meaning and reinforces connections between the first language and the target language.

Thus, avoiding all use of the learner’s language should not be the central focus in trying to implement ALG—how the first language is being used must be taken into account.

Lost in “no-translation”

A danger of overly focusing on aspects like “no translation” is doing it at the expense of implementing the far more central factor to ALG’s success: providing comprehensible input!

More specifically, giving learners abundant interesting and understandable experiences in the new language from the time they are complete beginners in it.

I think that developing opportunities for this kind of experience with language to high levels of quality and quantity, using rich non-verbal communication and contexts, will render a need for the first language unnecessary because they are so comprehensible and compelling on their own.

Conversely, a focus on avoiding and banning all first-language use while not sufficiently developing opportunities for understandable experience in the target language will lead to frustration on the part of students from lack of understanding, slower acquisition from not understanding the input well, and many other problems.

In another post, I’ll look at another aspect which I think many people focus on with ALG but is not central: the idea of guessing for meaning.

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