Freedom to Play

As someone who’s interested in advancing research on second language acquisition to help people better learn languages, I think that a careful and rigorous scientific approach is tremendously important.

Good research of lasting value involves carefully planned studies and experiments that require the investment of a lot of time, money, and human resources—not things that can be thrown together on a whim.

At the same time, I think there’s enormous value in also being able to research and experiment in a much more informal way: through unbounded play with language acquisition.

The ability to try out many things spontaneously can help us break away from preconceived notions and generate new insights, and this can ultimately lead to better research questions and better formal studies.

The value of play

I’ve written before about how many opportunities that are beneficial to language acquisition are abundantly available to young children but not to adults.

Another thing I could include is the opportunity to play around with things: to interact with one’s environment without pressure to produce something or have a right answer or even have an answer at all.

“It’s been noticed that children learn the most during their first 5 years of life,” writes David Long of the AUA Thai Program, which uses the Automatic Language Growth (ALG) approach of picking up languages in a childlike way.

“Much of that learning must have something to do with the fact that they’re playing all the time.”

Adults generally lack the same freedom to play, not only in learning a new language but in most areas of life and learning.

For those of us involved in language learning and teaching, this often extends to experimenting with techniques, methods, and approaches.

Too often, attempts to try out something different or new are cut short or shut down.

Artificial boundaries are put in place.

People don’t have time in their schedules for it, or another item has to be moved on to in the agenda for the day.

There’s also the pressure we face as adults to do things correctly from the start.

We fear embarrassment from attempting something unprepared or trying something new that might not work.

But in order to develop better ways and means for people to acquire languages, I think it’s important to be able to try out things that might seem ridiculous, stupid, or even crazy.

“Often the seed of a great and workable idea is inherent in an absurd one,” writes Henriette Anne Klauser in Writing on Both Sides of the Brain, which advocates free expression on the page before editing as the key to good writing.

For research on language teaching, play can allow for rapid feedback that can promote creativity and lead to new insights and serendipitous discoveries.

These discoveries would be less likely to happen in the context of a controlled study.

At the same time, just as free writing before careful editing produces a better product, the insights generated through play can be used to ask better questions in setting up more formal research.

Breakthroughs through “play-like” conditions

I think here about how Dr. James Asher came to develop the Total Physical Response (TPR) approach to language teaching in the 1960s.

His breakthrough came from a willingness to take a break and try out something different when it became evident that what he was doing initially wasn’t working out.

At first, Asher had a graduate student from Japan give commands in Japanese that he and his secretary would repeat and then act out, but he found that this failed to result in remembering the language.

“Each new command seemed to erase the memory of the previous command,” Asher writes in Learning Another Language Through Actions.

Upon taking a break, he proposed something different: the student would say something in Japanese and do the action, and he and his secretary would silently follow.

Asher discovered that they could internalize the spoken commands this way and begin to understand and follow them, even without seeing the action.

He recalled growing more and more excited as they could understand longer commands in Japanese, including novel combinations of the words that they hadn’t heard before:

Another fact: The more complex the direction in Japanese, the easier it was to understand. There was still another interesting twist. As we went along, our sense of time disappeared. We “worked” for hours with no awareness that time was passing. And the more we worked, the more exhilarated we were.

Asher wrote of being on “a natural ‘high'” and “a most extraordinary intellectual adventure”.

He would go on to develop the TPR approach of effortlessly acquiring language through actions, which would influence other comprehension-based methods such as TPRS.

I think a critical factor in Asher’s discovery was the “play-like” conditions he had created: the opportunities to relax, try new things, and run with something that appeared to be getting good results—unbounded by a fixed schedule or other externally- or internally-imposed conditions.

If Asher had needed to stop and think further about his idea to change approaches in order to, say, convince a committee of people or write a proposal, his discovery might have never come about.

This is especially likely considering how Asher’s finding flew in the face of the prevailing belief that production, or speaking, was necessary for language acquisition to occur.

Play was also crucial in many ways to linguist Dr. J. Marvin Brown’s development of Automatic Language Growth (ALG), another approach to language acquisition based on learning to speak by listening.

It was in observing how he and others succeeded in acquiring languages doing things they enjoyed that Brown realized that true fluency came not through hard work like study or practice, but from getting understandable experiences, or compelling comprehensible input—often through play.

In his autobiography From the Outside In, Brown also noted how play was critical to generating insights for his research and development of language learning methods.

“Now creative thinking can’t come from trying,” wrote Brown. “It comes by accident while doing something else—with the mind prepared and relaxed.”

Working only served to provide his mind with material from which it could generate insights while Brown was away from work.

“Work prepared my mind and the new ideas came during play,” he observed.

His work as a linguist at AUA Language Center in Bangkok was also like play in that he had conditions that allowed him to rapidly try out new ideas and get feedback.

“Within AUA, I had complete freedom to pursue my job as I saw fit,” he wrote.

After he returned to America in the early 1980s and began to develop what would become known as ALG, the freedom AUA offered was key to his decision to go back.

“I couldn’t accept a job that didn’t give me complete freedom to teach languages my way,” he wrote. “I knew of only one place in the world that could give me this freedom. AUA.”

I think that the insights that Dr. Brown generated through the play-like conditions he had will help lead to formal research on important questions in second language acquisition that remain largely unasked.

These questions include to what extent can adults pick up languages like children, and whether a “silent period” of listening to a lot of comprehensible input before much speaking can help adults approach native-like abilities in new languages.

I believe that research on these kinds of questions will help create a revolution in language learning where far more opportunities are available to everyone to pick up new languages at every age, through countless opportunities for compelling comprehensible input and exciting understandable experiences.

In this positive cycle of more research and more opportunities for language acquisition, freedom to play and try out many different things will be important to continuing to generate new insights for further research and greater opportunities.

Resources we have today like the internet give us unprecedented opportunities to connect and more spontaneously try new things.

Let’s all who are interested in researching and developing better ways to improve language acquisition embrace this freedom to play.

Also, it’s more fun this way!


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