Beyond Language Learning: Looking Forward in 2019

Beyond Language Learning 2019As I look back on 2018 and look forward to this coming year, I realize that 2019 will mark ten years since I discovered the Automatic Language Growth approach in the course of researching how we as adults might learn new languages to very high levels of ability.

ALG suggests that adults can effortlessly acquire new languages and even approach native-like levels in them as young children appear to, given the same “childlike” approach of implicit learning without conscious study or practice, and the opportunities for interesting and understandable experiences with the language to support it.

Pursuing my interest in language acquisition and the ALG approach over the years has brought me down an exciting path that includes:

  • Picking up Mandarin starting practically from scratch through listening to the language without study or translation, first by watching Chinese TV shows and cartoons for hundreds of hours and guessing at meaning, then having tutors speak to me in Mandarin while I spoke English to them
  • Returning to university to study psychology and linguistics with a focus on language acquisition, and independently studying the academic literature to see how it compares with ALG’s theories and claims
  • Going to Bangkok to acquire Thai as a full-time student in the AUA Thai Program, where the ALG approach has been uniquely used for more than three decades, and perhaps the only place where anything like it can be found
  • Working on developing ways that more people can benefit from this kind of approach
  • Meeting interesting people from all over the world, some of whom are doing things with language learning and teaching that appear to have never been done before

At times however, I’ve found this path lonely and discouraging, with the ALG approach still obscure after decades and often apparently very little interest in creating opportunities to acquire languages through it, advancing research into the questions it raises, or even considering the possibilities for either.

Signs of Progress

Looking ahead though, I think this year will mark the start of ALG and related ideas and concepts having a much wider impact beyond just being used in a handful of places.

One sign is how some research over the past decade has begun to control for differences between typical adult and childhood language learning, for example by having adults pick up language implicitly and finding brain activity more like that observed of native speakers.

I think that this kind of research that examines just how well adults can pick up languages without conscious study will gain momentum going into the next decade.

Another sign of progress I see is in the development of opportunities for comprehensible input, and in particular, how the YouTube channel Dreaming Spanish has been getting a lot of positive attention.

Created by Pablo Román, who like me attended the AUA Thai Program and blogs about language acquisition, the channel allows anybody, anywhere with access to YouTube to pick up Spanish from scratch by watching and listening to interesting stories and discussions, without study, translation, or practice.

It was of course inspired by the ALG approach uniquely used at AUA, and many people have been noting how different it is from other content out there, which typically focuses on the language itself and tries to explicitly teach words and grammar.

To me these kinds of opportunities to acquire language, along with the kind of research on language acquisition that I see gaining momentum, make up the two parts of a cycle where one can reinforce the other in a positive way.

More research on how well adults can acquire language will support the creation of more opportunities to do so while enjoying doing and learning other things, and more opportunities will support research into how they can be made even better and more effective.

Over this coming year I want to work with people who are developing better opportunities for comprehensible input, work with researchers who are looking into adults’ ability to pick up new languages, and also make my own contributions to both of these areas.

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