An ALG student understands only a few words after over 30 class hours. Has that time been wasted?

Recently I was following some discussions that an Automatic Language Growth enthusiast prompted through writing about their experiences as a student for the first time in the AUA Thai Program, where the ALG approach has mainly been applied.

A highly experienced language teacher expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of the ALG method, and was unimpressed with the student’s report of being able to recognize many words, though not yet understand most of them, after 30 hours of classes.

The teacher uses TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling), another comprehensible input-based language teaching method.

TPRS teachers use tools such as translation to establish the meanings of new words, very slow speaking of the target language to ensure understanding, and asking many questions to provide meaningful repetition of language and check student comprehension.

They generally aim for very high levels of comprehension on the part of their students, with some trying to ensure that nearly 100% of the words that they say in the target language are not just comprehensible to their students, but indeed comprehended by them.

To these TPRS teachers, it may appear that the time that the student has spent in the ALG classroom has mostly been wasted.

What acquisition of language could have occurred if the student has comprehended so little of the actual language that they have heard?

My response to this is not much actual acquisition may have occurred yet for the student, but—depending on just what’s happening in the classes—the student might be getting a strong foundation that will support massive future acquisition.

Understandable experience in the target language

ALG’s concept of comprehensible input emphasizes not merely understanding messages in the language, but hearing language in the context of understandable and memorable experiences.

These experiences are automatically remembered along with traces of the language heard alongside them.

Dr. J. Marvin Brown, the originator of ALG, theorized about how these memories develop into language in chapter two of “Learning Languages Like Children”, his treatise on the approach.

He writes how over time, the brain subconsciously makes connections between the experiences to get the meanings of words, makes connections between the traces to get the sounds of words, and connects sound and meaning to understand words and eventually be able to produce them.

Brown cites the psychological term priming as describing the recording of these traces in memory.

Even if none of the language itself is comprehended in the early classes, if they are heard in the context of understandable and memorable experiences, they are providing massive priming—implicit memories supporting eventual acquisition of language.

Making connections across time

With memorable experiences, we can make connections even far across time that will build into understanding.

In my own experience with language acquisition, I’ve sometimes heard someone say a word, and been reminded of hearing the same word weeks or even months earlier in a related context.

Because the original context was memorable enough, I was able to automatically make the connection far across time and see the word become clearer, or even have the meaning “click” for me, with no need to actively try to guess or puzzle it out.

The earlier experience with the word wasn’t necessarily anything elaborate, but involved some combination of the visual and other senses, a meaningful situation, and perhaps some emotion.

In these cases, I was consciously noticing some connections being made, but when one is getting a lot of understandable and memorable experience with a language, this is just the tip of the iceberg, with a far greater number of connections being made subconsciously.

AUA and the ALG vision

So is the student who wrote about his AUA experiences getting this level of experience in the classes, eventually paying massive dividends in terms of acquisition if he continues with Thai?

Unfortunately, I have to say that what he’s getting is nowhere near optimal.

It’s important to recognize that while the AUA program does provide a lot of value, it’s hardly a full realization of what was intended for the method.

Dr. Brown envisioned programs that provide countless understandable real-life experiences in the language that would be so compelling that you forget you’re learning a language—meaningful happenings moment after moment, each creating a lifelong memory.

In contrast, the AUA program lacks even resources like enough teachers and classes so that students at different levels can choose classes that are personally interesting to them and understandable at their level.

As a consequence, the student writes about understanding very little in some classes—for example, hearing a story but not really knowing what it was about.

Without understanding the story there is little to connect the language to, so besides providing some additional exposure to the sounds and patterns of the language, and a sense of how people communicate in it, much of this class time is going to waste.

“Anything not attached to an experience is worthless,” wrote Dr. Brown, discussing how to apply ALG in a classroom setting.

Even a story can provide experience—research finds our brains treat stories as “privileged” over other material and suggests they can in some respects have the same effects as real-life experiences—but it must be understood to some degree in order to be remembered and allow the brain to connect sound and meaning.

A different set of classes that provided more compelling and memorable understandable experiences could do far more to support eventual acquisition, even if it yielded even less conscious understanding of words after several dozen hours.

An example of such an ALG class, especially for total beginners who don’t know any Thai at all, might be one where the students got to try many different Thai foods.

The teachers could describe the foods’ colours, textures, smells, and flavours as the students sampled them, exclaiming how sour or how spicy they were as students reacted to these tastes.

With these rich experiences involving a range of senses, the students’ brains would alongside strong memories record traces of dozens or perhaps even hundreds of different words, some of which might lead to acquisition of the word months or even years later when a student hears it again in a related context.

Future developments

It’s important to recognize how this store of remembered experiences and traces accumulates in the brain over time.

“[T]he brain continues to build language out of memories of happenings and traces of sounds while the students are away,” Dr. Brown wrote.

“Class time can be compared with eating a meal. Digestion and growth take place later.”

The phenomenon Dr. Brown describes can be observed in the experiences I and other AUA students have reported of being away from classes and even the Thai language in general, in some cases for months or even years, then coming back and finding that our understanding had actually improved despite the break.

This illustrates that a lot of acquisition does occur through AUA classes, even if it can seem like not a lot is happening, and even if many classes are not optimal in terms of being interesting and understandable enough for each student.

But with more development I think we could see far greater results.

ALG has had only a handful of people actively working to develop it, and at most just a couple dozen teachers practicing it.

This is far fewer in comparison to other more established comprehensible input-based methods like TPRS, which has dozens if not hundreds of people actively researching and developing it, and perhaps tens of thousands of teachers applying it all over the world.

With many more people around the world working to develop and apply ALG, we could see how much is possible through acquiring languages through not only understanding messages, but getting understandable, memorable, and compelling experiences.

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