In my last post, I wrote about the dangers of focusing on certain aspects of Automatic Language Growth as it’s applied in places like the AUA Thai Program, then emphasizing these actually peripheral things at the expense of more central and critical aspects of the approach.
I looked at the avoidance of translation or first-language use that many people take note of in ALG classes, and argued that this isn’t really central to ALG: Using the learner’s first language to help get meaning across can be compatible with ALG when the learner’s attention is entirely on meaning rather than language.
Rather than focusing on avoiding or banning translation, we should be focusing on the heart of ALG: providing abundant compelling comprehensible input in the target language for learners at every level, with the goal of creating understandable experiences so rich in context and meaning that no translation is needed.
Following some recent discussions, I’ve been thinking about another aspect of ALG as it’s observed in practice: the role of guessing.
Many people take the idea of watching and making guesses about what’s happening, what’s being said, and what words mean as central to the ALG method.
One thing that can contribute to this impression is how ALG literature talks about watching and guessing.
For example, the AUA Thai Program’s advice for students at the beginner level is to “adjust from a focus on listening to a focus on watching” in the classes and “[g]uess about what’s going on.”
While I used to think of this conscious practice of guessing as pretty central to the ALG approach, I’ve since reconsidered this.
I realize now that it’s not really desirable for learners to be actively doing a lot of guessing, as this guessing is actually something of a coping mechanism when the main driver of language acquisition is lacking in quantity and quality: comprehensible input!
The job of an ALG program is to provide such highly comprehensible and compelling input in the language that one shouldn’t have to consciously take the effort to guess, wonder and puzzle about meaning.
This means that a need to actively try to watch and guess is actually a result of shortcomings of the ALG program in terms of providing sufficiently understandable and interesting input.
For example, in the AUA Thai Program there aren’t enough teachers or classes to provide each student with material that is consistently understandable and interesting to them at their level, so students often find themselves in classes where it’s often not very clear to them what the teachers are talking about.
In this situation, it’s useful for them to practice watching and guessing for meaning because this can help them keep their attention on input that they might otherwise tune out because it isn’t very comprehensible and compelling.
Watching and guessing helps students to take better advantage of what is available to them and get from it what they can.
The AUA Thai Program’s page on advice to beginners also encourages students to bring this approach of watching and guessing to the Thai they encounter in their daily life:
“For example, you may live in a Thai household, surrounded by Thais all day, or you may work in an office where most of what’s going on around you is Thai. Treat every experience as if it were a class and you will be surprised at how fast you begin to understand what’s happening around you.”
Actively making an effort to watch and guess in these situations is useful because they are not geared to be understandable to the learner.
At any rate, learners should develop a degree of comfort with ambiguity and not understanding everything because they’re almost inevitably going to have to deal with these things out in the “real world”.
But within an ALG program and other materials intended to support an ALG approach, the input should be so compelling and interesting for learners that they don’t need to try to guess.
Other arguments for guessing
Besides helping one pay attention and get what one can from situations that aren’t as comprehensible as ALG classes or materials should be, are there any other advantages to guessing?
One argument in favour of guessing at the meaning of words one is hearing is that the memory of them will be stronger when one finally figures out the meaning.
There may be an advantage to acquisition here, but I think any such advantage would be heavily outweighed by actually being able to hear the word in more comprehensible contexts, especially the kind of compelling and memorable “happenings” that ALG aims for that are rich in context and meaning.
Some people have also talked about the enjoyment of guessing at what is happening and puzzling out the meaning of words.
Personally, I’ve also enjoyed guessing and puzzling about what is happening and what words mean, both in AUA Thai classes and in trying to apply ALG using TV shows, and I’ve found that hearing a translation or explanation can spoil the fun.
However, I would much prefer to have access to abundant highly comprehensible input in the form of high-quality experiences in the languages that are worthwhile in themselves.
Come to think of it, enjoying guessing and puzzling about meaning seems a little like, say, depriving oneself of water to enjoy the pleasure of having one’s thirst relieved.
Wouldn’t it be much better to enjoy cascades of abundant compelling and comprehensible input and never go thirsty in the first place?
Anyhow, besides this, ALG is about learning languages as young children do, with little or no conscious focus on the language as one is acquiring it.
Guessing and puzzling over the meanings of words one hears is getting closer to a conscious focus on language that ALG theory suggests interferes with adults reaching the same high levels of attainment in languages that young children routinely do.
I find when I’m getting exposure to material in a new language that is really comprehensible and interesting, what guessing I do notice seems to happen automatically on its own, for example as the meaning of a word or structure “clicks” for me from hearing it in a couple different contexts that are related in some way.
This is probably just the conscious tip of the iceberg as far more acquisition is happening on a subconscious level because of all the comprehensible input.
Making conscious guessing unnecessary
In short, when trying to apply ALG, we should be careful how much value we put on watching and guessing.
It’s not a central element of ALG, but rather a kind of coping strategy for dealing with non-optimal input and environments and getting what one can from them.
The heart of the ALG approach is about deliberately creating an environment of highly comprehensible and memorable experiences in the language.
That doesn’t mean that all the language itself is immediately comprehended, but the experiences and contexts in which it’s heard should be understood and remembered so that the brain can make connections and work out the meaning of the language used alongside them.
With this level of highly compelling and comprehensible input, we can’t help but watch, and the guessing will happen automatically, efficiently, and subconsciously.