How Automatic Language Growth Might Help Preserve Endangered Languages

An approach inspired in part by the language learning practices of indigenous peoples themselves could open up more opportunities to revive indigenous languages and others that are endangered.

The United Nations has proclaimed 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages to raise awareness and mobilize efforts to protect and promote the languages of indigenous peoples around the world.

With indigenous languages making up most of the thousands that are in danger of disappearing, an important question is how to keep them alive.

Before getting into this topic, I must acknowledge that preserving and reviving endangered and minority languages requires the expertise of those who specialize in that area, and of course the involvement of the speakers themselves and other members of their communities.

I am not in any of these categories, but I want to share and discuss the Automatic Language Growth (ALG) approach because I think it presents some possibilities and methods that with research and development could be very helpful to language preservation.

Of course, any applications require careful study and consideration of context to ensure they’re being used appropriately.

In this post, I want to look at how ALG might open up more opportunities for language acquisition with its theory that how we learn languages actually matters far more than when.

While adults are often written off as unable to learn languages easily and well, ALG theory suggests that with the right opportunities and approach, they may be able to pick them up as young children do and reach the same very high levels of ability.

A Tale of Two TED Talks

In thinking about this topic I’m reminded of two TED talks that deal with languages.

The first one illustrates how blindspots in thinking and research around language learning can lead to missed opportunities.

The second one, in talking about the practices of indigenous peoples, hints at a different approach to language acquisition that could create many opportunities.

“The linguistic genius of babies”

In her widely-viewed TED Talk, “The linguistic genius of babies“, neuroscientist Patricia Kuhl introduces what she calls a “critical puzzle,” asking: “Why is it that you can’t preserve a language by speaking to you and I, to the adults?”

She answers that the brain has a ‘critical period’ where the ability to learn a second language begins to decline in childhood and falls off after puberty.

“No scientists dispute this curve,” says Kuhl, referring to a graph that shows the decline of ‘language score’ with age, “but laboratories all over the world are trying to figure out why it works this way.”

A major mistake that Kuhl and other scientists are making here is to conclude that because people’s second-language attainment on average declines with age, this decline must be the result of an inherent loss of ability.

What this conclusion ignores is the huge differences between what older language learners typically experience and do compared to younger learners.

Young children pick up new languages implicitly without study, and listen a lot before speaking much.

Adults usually study and practice speaking a new language from the very beginning, before they’ve even gotten much experience with it at all.

Researchers have largely failed to ask: what would adults’ second language attainment be like if they did and experienced things much more like children?

Perhaps with the right approach, even as adults we can still access “the linguistic genius of babies”.

Another TED talk hints that adults can pick up languages quite well without study or practice, by learning them in ways that seem much like how babies and young children learn.

“Dreams from endangered cultures”

In “Dreams from endangered cultures“, anthropologist Wade Davis looks at the disappearing practices and worldviews of indigenous peoples around the world.

To illustrate how different the “different ways of being” of these peoples can be, he talks about the beliefs and practices of the Barasana people in the Northwest Amazon.

“They have a curious language and marriage rule which is called ‘linguistic exogamy’: you must marry someone who speaks a different language,” Davis says.

“And this is all rooted in the mythological past, yet the curious thing is in these long houses, where there are six or seven languages spoken because of intermarriage, you never hear anyone practicing a language.

“They simply listen and then begin to speak.”

This description suggests a childlike approach to language acquisition that’s very different from the kind of conscious study and practice that we adults in modern societies are used to struggling with.

Specific research on the language learning of these Amazonian peoples appears very limited, but the work of anthropologist Arthur P. Sorensen, Jr. suggests they pick up languages through passive exposure and reach high levels of ability in them even in adolescence and adulthood.

In other words, by learning languages like children—just listening and then beginning to speak—they appear to pick up languages more easily and much better than we’re used to seeing with adults.

A Tale of Two Wives: The Origins of ALG

As a graduate student around 1950, American linguist J. Marvin Brown heard a story of linguistic intermarriage that recalls the accounts of the Amazonian peoples.

An African woman married into another village that spoke a totally different language from her own, so she just silently listened while taking part in everyday activities.

She began to speak her new language within a year, and within a few years was almost like a native speaker.

In recounting this story, Brown contrasted it with an English-speaking woman who married into a Thai family, but instead of getting lots of experience listening and understanding the language, she struggled to speak Thai from the start.

She later tried to formally study the language in a course with textbooks, but never learned to use the language well.

Brown was impressed by the story of the African woman, but for years he tried to have adults become like native speakers in second languages through study and practice of the sort the English-speaking woman attempted.

He created more and more elaborate drills and textbooks, only to find they could never produce students who could speak the second language both fluently and accurately.

At the same time, he encountered some adults who had picked up new languages without studying or even practicing speaking.

Like the African woman, they just listened and experienced things in the language in a way they could understand, then began to speak and went on to become highly fluent.

But Brown persisted with study and practice until he finally hit rock bottom with it, finding out that his students hated his methods.

Finally he tried something more like the other approach of just listening first without trying to speak.

This was the start of what Brown would develop into the ALG, or Automatic Language Growth, approach.

He created a new program, now known as AUA Thai, where adults could pick up Thai through listening to teachers speak the language to them in ways that they could understand what was being said.

The teachers did things like telling interesting stories in Thai using gestures, drawings, and props to make them understandable, and created real-life experiences in Thai through which the students could pick up the language.

This kind of understandable experience with language is called comprehensible input, a term popularized by linguist Stephen Krashen, who hypothesized that speaking in a language emerges as the result of understanding messages in the language.

While most programs that were based on comprehensible input also had elements of speaking practice, Brown wanted to see what would happen if students just listened without trying to speak.

Sure enough, after listening to Thai in understandable ways for hundreds of hours over about a year, students started to spontaneously speak it, producing sentences that they had never heard before without having to think or try.

Like Wade Davis said of the Barasana people, these students simply listened, and then began to speak.

What’s more, by not having the students study the language or practice speaking, Brown made another discovery—one that, if investigated further, might turn the world of second language acquisition research on its head.

The many students who tried to speak Thai from the beginning anyway ended up like most people who learn a new language in adulthood, speaking with “broken” grammar, foreign accents, and pronunciation problems.

But those who just listened, letting speaking emerge in its own time without trying, and focusing on meaning rather than the language, ended up sounding a lot like they had learned Thai as children.

They were able to use the language both fluently and accurately, much like native speakers.

Brown concluded from this that adults have not lost the ability to pick up languages as easily and as well as young children do.

Instead, they usually lack the comprehensible input that children get in abundance—experience with language in ways they can understand without having to speak, study, or practice.

Even when they get these opportunities, they usually approach it differently from children, by trying to consciously study it and practice speaking from the beginning.

Brown argued that this adult approach of conscious study and practice before getting a foundation of experience with the language interferes with language acquisition, leading to the typical problems we see in adults language learners.

For example, by trying to speak a language they haven’t heard much, adults “borrow” sounds from their first language, instead of developing a sense of how the new language should sound on its own terms.

Brown believed that rather than losing the early childhood ability to pick up languages perfectly, adults have gained abilities to consciously study and practice that interfere with it.

This suggests the secret for adults to become like native speakers in new languages is to pick them up through experience without trying to speak, study, or analyze them, let speaking emerge on its own, and only later formally study them.

Applying ALG to Language Preservation Efforts

Of course, more research is needed on the ALG theory and approach to language acquisition to understand how viable it is and how it might be applied.

This kind of “childlike” approach of picking up languages even in adulthood through listening may have been commonplace in many indigenous cultures.

It may still be common today among among some indigenous peoples, as well as people who have not been influenced by modern systems of formal education.

Psychological research has tended to focus on subjects who are “WEIRD”: western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic—a small group that excludes much of the world’s population.

This bias appears to also be a problem in research on language acquisition, with many studies taking place in school settings or focusing on subjects with high levels of formal education.

Along with research on ALG through for example the AUA Thai Program where it’s been applied, more research on language acquisition in contexts like indigenous cultures may show us how adults can learn them to very high or even native-like levels by picking them up in a childlike way.

This may open up more opportunities to preserve and revive languages by making adults candidates in language revitalization efforts when they might have previously been written off.

Perhaps in developing an approach like ALG, it will be possible to do far more than we thought to preserve languages by speaking them not only to babies and young children but to adults as well.

In coming posts I’ll look further at how the ALG method and techniques might be applied to support language preservation efforts.

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