Several years ago when I was learning Chinese, I encountered a guy at a language meetup.
He had lived in Taiwan and spoke fluent Mandarin.
As I remember it, he remarked that the vast majority of foreigners in Taiwan failed to learn the language.
He also said that the people there wouldn’t understand you if your pronunciation was even slightly off—even with very common words in their language like numbers.
I remarked that all these failures and difficulties pointed to a need for better resources to support language learning.
“You’re looking for a shortcut,” he told me with what sounded like a hint of annoyance.
I tried to explain that I was looking for better opportunities to learn languages—not so much a shortcut.
“And I’m telling you there isn’t one,” he reiterated.
He said that you had to put in the time and effort, and there was no way around it.
I am putting in the time and effort, I protested; I am listening to Chinese.
“You’re not going to find a shortcut,” he said, turning away and ending the conversation.
I felt a bit offended as it seemed like he was suggesting I was lazy or impatient.
But by that point I had spent several hundred hours trying to pick up Mandarin by watching videos and TV shows.
Moreover, I was doing it without studying or even looking up words, but simply watching and guessing.
I was trying to follow the approach I had learned about called Automatic Language Growth.
ALG says that adults haven’t lost the ability to learn languages as easily and as well as children.
Rather, adults have gained and use abilities to consciously study and practice language, and these get in the way.
This suggests we can learn languages as well as children if we learn them like children.
This means picking them up through comprehensible input alone—hearing them in ways we can understand without translation.
For beginners, this often means having a lot of non-verbal communication alongside the language so we can get the meaning of what is said.
But I couldn’t find any Chinese videos like this that were highly understandable for me as a learner starting from scratch.
Because of that, I settled for watching cartoons and dramas that were intended for native speakers.
While I was indeed picking up Mandarin this way, it was rather inefficient because so much was incomprehensible to me.
This seemed like the very opposite of a shortcut!
Of course, the person I was talking to at that meetup didn’t know all about what I was doing.
In my passion to get across my points, I may have also come across as rude and uninterested in what he had to say.
Perhaps with a longer discussion we may have come to a better understanding.
No true shortcuts, but more efficient ways
But was he right about what he said?
Am I looking for a shortcut?
If our goal is to have anything like the kind of abilities a native speaker of a language has, I don’t think there are any real shortcuts.
To get this representation of the language into our heads, it takes time and experience to form the necessary neural pathways.
Given what we know about the brain, it doesn’t appear that we can simply install this knowledge like we install software on a computer.
It’s true that we can take shortcuts like memorizing hundreds of words using mnemonics and flashcard software like Anki.
This can be like putting a dictionary or phrasebook in one’s head, but it won’t give us the same representation of the words that a native speaker has.
Worse, it may interfere with developing a native-like representation.
For example, by translating and memorizing words, incorrect pronunciations and usages can become ingrained and very hard to overcome.
This is an example of how ALG theory suggests that adult abilities interfere with learning to speak languages as fluently and accurately as children do.
As Dr. J. Marvin Brown, the originator of ALG, wrote: “Words have to grow—gradually. Experience by experience.”
There’s no way around it—if we want real fluency in a language, we need lots and lots of comprehensible input in the language.
While there are no true shortcuts, better opportunities for this understandable experience with languages could help us pick them up far more efficiently.
Today, there just isn’t much comprehensible input available to most language learners.
While advanced learners can take full advantage of content made for native speakers, those at lower levels lack material that’s both highly interesting and understandable.
This is despite the fact we know that even as adults, we can pick up a lot of language through comprehensible input alone, without study.
ALG goes further, suggesting that adults can go from zero to approaching native-like fluency with input alone, if they do it in a childlike enough way.
But, as I found, there aren’t the opportunities for adults to efficiently pick up a language this way—by just watching and listening, starting from scratch.
Because of that, I struggled in applying the ALG approach to learn Mandarin.
To find a program that gives beginners input that’s comprehensible without study or practice, I had to go all the way to Bangkok, Thailand.
At AUA, the teachers tell stories, make jokes, play games, and do activities, all in Thai.
They make it understandable with gestures, props, drawings, and other non-verbal tools.
This way students can effortlessly listen and understand, and in time, automatically begin to speak it with correct pronunciation and usage.
One student has created a YouTube channel using the same techniques as the program, so that anyone can watch it and pick up Spanish without study.
Given how little of this kind of comprehensible input learners have today, developing more and better opportunities for it might make language acquisition so much more efficient and effortless that it seems like a shortcut.
Language acquisition as a bonus
The possibility of another apparent “shortcut” becomes clear when we consider that even as adults we can pick up language through comprehensible input alone, without direct instruction.
This means that if we can get this input while doing other things we benefit from, we’re not spending any extra time or effort to pick up the language.
Dr. Brown wrote that the adults he saw over the years who became fluent without study or practice were doing things they would have done anyway, even if the language wasn’t a part of it.
It was as if they had acquired the language as a free bonus.
These unwitting learners had stumbled upon situations that gave them experiences they enjoyed with the language alongside them in a way that they could pick it up.
What we need are content and situations created on purpose so that we don’t have to rely on chance to find them.
With these opportunities, we could pick up languages while enjoying doing, learning, and experiencing the things we choose.
What could these opportunities look like?
There could be TV shows and video games that are highly understandable through the visuals alone, with language alongside them that viewers can pick up through watching.
This kind of material might become its own kind of genre, but it could also be something enjoyed both by native-speakers and learners alike.
One inadvertent step in this direction today is audio description, which is intended for people with blindness or visual impairments.
By describing exactly what’s on screen, this narration provides sighted language learners with plenty of comprehensible input in the spaces between a show’s dialogue.
There could also be many more opportunities to learn knowledge and skills in a new language while at the same time learning the language.
Using multimedia and tools like graded readers that make use of simplified language and repetition, we could learn about many things in the languages we’re learning, even as beginners.
These things could range from information about the country of the target language to other domains such as math and science.
We could also learn new skills such as dance or martial arts in a language we want to learn.
The instructor would teach us entirely in the language while using rich non-verbal communication to make their instruction clear.
People could also enjoy experiences like travelling and touring new places in ways that they could pick up the language at the same time.
For example, a cruise inspired Dr. Brown to envision a tour where the guides spoke their language like the AUA teachers, using the experiences and non-verbal tools making it understandable.
“The speaking is merely a running sound track to a happening, while the happening is carrying most of the meaning,” he wrote.
With ALG, Dr. Brown aimed not merely at making the language comprehensible, but connecting it to rich experiences that would create lifelong memories.
I’m sure you can imagine many other great experiences that could be presented in a way that you’re picking up new language all the while.
Much better than a shortcut
Again, there are no true shortcuts to natural language acquisition and fluency.
But if we can get input that’s interesting and comprehensible at every step, our language learning will be much more efficient and effortless.
And if we can get this input while enjoying doing other things that we want to do, it’s as if we don’t have to spend any time or effort on learning a language.
As the old saying goes, its not the destination that matters, but the journey.
In that case, these opportunities for a better journey to fluency will be far better than any shortcut.