Some Limiting Ideas about Language Learning and an Alternative Approach

In my previous post, I wrote about how beyond being just theoretical, how we think about language acquisition can have real consequences.

To illustrate, I used an example of how misconceptions and limiting beliefs may have led a prominent person to give up on language learning, having consequences for his political career that in turn may have impacted a great many people.

In an interview, Canadian former politician and diplomat Stephen Lewis said he couldn’t consider a run for the leadership of a national party because he doesn’t speak French—a necessity given Canada’s official bilingualism and large populations of both primarily English and primarily French speakers.

He recalled that his efforts to learn the language included a one-month immersion course at l’Institut de Français in France where students must speak only in French, but he said that he was the first person in the history of the program to fail.

“I’m just really lousy in languages,” he concluded.

Lewis appears to have taken a number of ideas from his experience with the program and interpreted them to support this conclusion.

In this post I want to examine these ideas in more detail, and suggest an alternative approach that might suit many people better—perhaps especially those who, like Lewis, have assumed that they’re simply bad at languages.

I’m not saying that these ideas are being put specifically forward by the French program itself, but they represent the kind of things that many people believe about language learning, and may take from such a program.

Misconception #1: You should expect concrete results after one month

On its page about its method, the Institut de Français describes what results students can expect of their four-week course as follows:

[A]t the end of this intensive, all-encompassing French language course, the student will be able to speak French correctly and be readily understood in everyday conversation. Total beginners will be able to say much of what they want to say, simply and correctly.

While it’s certainly possible to make a great deal of progress in a language over a few weeks, especially when using it intensely for many hours a day, we can’t expect that this progress will be always visible and measurable, especially within such a short time.

Sometimes it can seem like there is no progress at all for some time, when actually plenty can be happening behind the scenes, laying the foundation for a lot of progress later.

With French, I have heard anecdotes of people having breakthroughs in the language after some time of seemingly little or no progress.

For example, one learner wrote of how despite months of daily exposure to French through TV and listening to his homestay mother talk, he was not understanding much and felt he was barely improving.

Then, he reports, one day while watching a TV show it suddenly seemed to him that he could understand almost everything that was being said without effort, and he was able to make rapid progress in the language thereafter.

While we shouldn’t necessarily expect such a dramatic leap, if we’re getting a lot of good experience with the language in the form of meaningful comprehensible input, we shouldn’t be concerned if we don’t see much progress after a few weeks.

I would say that learning a language to real fluency is something that unfolds over a period of months and years, not days and weeks.

Misconception #2: You need to learn a language through speaking it

The site’s page on its method goes on to describe what will produce the results it promises:

“The key to this fluency is talk and more talk – ONLY IN FRENCH”

This statement seems to fly in the face of the input hypothesis that we learn to speak not through speaking but through listening, and we become fluent through getting a lot of comprehensible input.

But it does make sense in some ways and doesn’t necessarily contradict it.

First of all, if you and everyone else are only speaking the target language, as in the Institut’s program, you are likely to get a great deal of input this way.

Speaking a lot can also help one become more fluent in the sense of producing language one knows more automatically.

However, I think there are a number of drawbacks to this approach of attaining fluency through a focus on speaking rather than listening.

For one thing, speaking a lot without a foundation of listening and internalizing the sounds and structures of the new language can result in errors as one tends to do things like “borrow” the more familiar sounds and structures of their first language.

With repeated use these mispronunciations can become ingrained, or “fossilized”, making them very difficult to correct.

This can be less of a problem when learning a similar language, as with an English speaker learning French, but can be more serious when learning an unrelated language like Thai that has features like tones to distinguish words, which the English speaker doesn’t have experience with.

With a focus on speaking, one may end up speaking “fluently” but with broken grammar and pronunciation that is difficult for others to understand.

If one is immersed in the language as with the French program, all this input may help correct these mistakes, although another problem might be getting incorrect input from other learners’ errors and mispronunciations.

Another drawback of this approach of only speaking the language is that many people may be very uncomfortable with having to only speak in the language they’re learning, particularly when they have had little experience with it.

This drawback is potentially worse, because rather than leading to people speaking the language but with errors, it might discourage some people from speaking the language at all or not even try in the first place.

While a common belief is that you have to speak a language in order to learn it, in fact it’s possible to pick up a lot of language though a focus on listening without much speaking at all.

For example, when I returned to Thailand after being away from the country for about a year-and-a-half, I had found that my speaking had improved a lot, even though I had hardly been speaking the language the whole time I was away.

What I had been doing was listening to Thai for around half-a-hour to an hour a day, mostly by watching videos that interested me, through which I improved my comprehension and picked up more of the language.

Whereas before I had left I was only speaking in very brief sentences, after I had returned, I found that I was able to speak much more comfortably in longer sentences and have extended conversations with people.

In his paper “Down with Forced Speech“, Stephen Krashen writes about how requiring students to speak the target language in classes can produce anxiety, and gives more examples of how language can emerge through gaining comprehensible input, without forcing it.

Misconception #3: You can make a pass or fail judgement on someone’s language learning

Lewis says that he was the first person not to pass in the history of the program.

I don’t see anything on the site about passing or failing the course, and I find it a little hard to believe that he would be the one and only person to have ever failed since the program started in 1969.

I’m not sure, but perhaps Lewis was interpreting something that someone had said to him in this way, rather than there actually being a formal pass/fail judgement.

Whatever happened, in his mind he sees himself as having failed to learn French.

I wholeheartedly disagree with his assessment.

First, he almost certainly learned some French from the course, as well as from other experiences he has had with the language, so I would view him as being one step closer to succeeding in being able to use the language comfortably.

If he continues to get enough exposure to the language and opportunities to speak it, the point will come that he will succeed in learning French and be comfortable in the language.

An alternative approach

There’s an alternative to this sort of approach of expecting results in a very short timeframe, having to only speak in the language one is learning, and dealing with pass-or-fail evaluations—one which may be much more successful for Lewis and many other people.

This alternative is an approach based on picking up languages through listening first, getting lots of comprehensible input in the form of highly interesting and understandable experiences in the language from the beginning, and then getting opportunities to speak the language without pressure.

This is the kind of approach used at the AUA Thai Program, which I attended to pick up Thai from scratch because I couldn’t find anything like it anywhere else.

It uses the Automatic Language Growth, or ALG, approach, where students pick up the language through listening without study or practice.

The Thai program can seem like the opposite of the l’Institut de Français program in the sense that rather than only speaking in the target language, students are not supposed to speak it at the beginning.

Instead, for their first several hundred hours of listening to Thai, AUA students who follow the ALG approach are mostly silent in it, using their first language or non-verbal tools like gestures to communicate with the teachers and other Thais.

The purpose of this “silent period” is so that students can first internalize the language as it’s pronounced and used by its speakers, so when they gradually start to speak it they will be able to speak this way too, fluently and accurately.

ALG theory suggests that a main reason why adults speak second languages with poor pronunciation and “broken” grammar is because they produce the language without first getting a sufficient foundation of experience with it through listening and understanding.

It appears that many of the AUA students who take best to the ALG approach and do well with it are those who struggle in other language programs.

While there are few programs that like AUA Thai are based on comprehensible input, I think someone like Stephen Lewis, especially given his resources and connections, could easily create for himself opportunities to get daily understandable exposure to a language so that he could pick it up and eventually become fluent.

For example, Lewis could arrange to meet with French speakers with shared interests who also wanted to improve their English for an hour or two a day, and they could talk using Crosstalk, a part of the ALG approach where each person speaks their own language, using non-verbal communication as needed to make themselves understood.

They might require a lot of non-verbal tools like drawings and gestures at the beginning to be understandable, but over time they would be able to communicate mainly by just speaking and rephrasing and elaborating as necessary to be understood.

This was my experience with using Crosstalk to pick up Mandarin Chinese: I went from meeting with a tutor in person who gestured and drew pictures a lot so I could understand him to being able to talk over Skype with tutors in China and understand them, even though our conversations were usually audio only (and sometimes terrible sound quality at that!).

For Lewis, because the Crosstalk discussion topics would be interesting and meaningful to him, he would be able to enjoy the process, pick up the language and vocabulary that is most relevant to his needs, and also learn a lot about other things in the process.

Eventually, he could start to speak himself in low-anxiety situations, producing more and more of the language.

After two or three years of this, and perhaps far less time, he would probably be quite comfortably able to speak French.

I don’t think that someone like Lewis is truly bad at languages—it’s just a matter of time and exposure to comprehensible input for him to become fluent.

In general, adults are written off as bad at languages in comparison to children, but what is ignored is the role of the environment and approach that allows children to succeed where adults don’t, and adults are thus not given the same kind of opportunities.

A final note

I don’t want to be excessively critical of the French program that Lewis attended.

There is actually a lot to recommend about it; for example its focus on communication rather than the language itself seem to have a lot in common with ALG, as well as its audio-visual methods, as its site describes them:

Called structuro-global, they are based on the oral language (spoken and heard) and place the emphasis on the structures, sound, rhythm and intonation of the language which the student absorbs as a whole and reproduces in the same way a child learns its mother tongue, without the need to dissect or excessively analyze the language.

At the same time, I think the program’s emphasis on speaking and expecting results in a short-time frame can be limiting and not suit many learners.

I think an approach such as ALG that emphasizes building a foundation with the language over time and allowing speaking to emerge without pressure has its own advantages, and if developed could be successful for more people.

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