When I first learned about Automatic Language Growth (ALG), I wanted to acquire a language by following this unique approach, but I didn’t know how.
ALG theory suggests that adults can effortlessly learn languages as well as young children do when they learn them like children: picking them up through listening and understanding without conscious study or practice.
However, I couldn’t find any classes that taught a language like the AUA Thai Program, where ALG has mainly been applied.
This means teaching the language by speaking it in ways that students can understand it at their level, using non-verbal communication as needed, without adding things like translation or speaking practice.
I also couldn’t find any content that was suited to this kind of approach, such as videos in a foreign language that are both highly understandable and interesting for adults who are just beginning to learn it.
How then could I acquire a language the way I wanted to?
I had decided I wanted to pick up Mandarin Chinese, so I settled on what was most readily available: TV shows like dramas and cartoons in Mandarin.
Starting from practically no knowledge of the language, I watched around 1000 hours of video, just guessed at what was being said using context like the stories and visuals, and gradually, started to understand more and more Chinese.
Having gained some comprehension, I continued to acquire Mandarin through listening by having tutors speak it to me while I spoke English to them, before putting it on hold to go to Thailand and see the AUA Thai Program for myself.
I don’t recommend anyone start out with a language as I did with Mandarin, unless they can find a lot of video content that’s much more understandable and interesting for them as a complete beginner.
This kind of content still seems to be largely unavailable (but this is changing!).
If I did things over again, I would have started by having Mandarin speakers communicate with me in a way that would be much more understandable from the very beginning.
But few tutors are familiar with this kind of comprehension-based approach to language teaching.
Most tutors are used to teaching about the language, teaching things like grammar and vocabulary, and often they don’t have a good idea of how to make their language very comprehensible to a beginner.
An inspiring blueprint
How can we get tutors and other speakers of the languages we want to learn to give us a lot of highly comprehensible and interesting input, especially when we’re just starting out?
A couple of inspiring videos by language instructor and polyglot Jeff Brown provide an easy-to-follow blueprint.
The first, “How to Acquire any language NOT learn it!“, is an hour-long documentary in which Brown shows and tells about his approach, documenting his acquisition of Egyptian Arabic over the course of one year.
In the past couple of months, this video has exploded in popularity, getting thousands of views every day—another sign perhaps of the growth of interest in acquisition and comprehension-based language teaching that I’ve observed over the past year.
Learning versus acquisition
The video’s title refers to the distinction between “learning” and “acquisition” put forth by linguist Dr. Stephen Krashen, who himself appears in the video and explains it.
Language learning means learning about a language by studying features like its grammar and memorizing words and rules.
Language acquisition is the natural and subconscious process of picking up a language through comprehensible input, which is exposure to language in ways that we can understand what is being said.
According to Krashen, fluency in a language results from acquisition, not learning, and this is true for adults as well as children.
We see this distinction sharply when we look at people who have studied a language in school for years and can explain its grammar rules in detail, yet can hardly speak it.
In contrast, we find others who have been immersed in the language without study and can converse freely, using the same rules correctly and automatically even though they can’t explain them.
Like me, you’d probably prefer to just understand and speak a language fluently to knowing a lot about the rules.
So how can we go about acquiring a language through comprehensible input?
Another of Brown’s videos shows his method in action in greater detail.
This 20-minute video, “How to Language Exchange!“, provides instructions and a demonstration.
In this post, I’ll summarize the main aspects of Brown’s method as described in his videos, explain how it can be used with the ALG approach I described at the start, and share some resources you can use to apply the method.
Finding people to help you acquire
The first thing you need is to find one or more speakers of the language you want to acquire who are willing to provide you with the comprehensible input you need.
In his videos, Brown suggests many ways to go about finding them.
Brown suggests finding “language parents”—people who are willing to help you acquire the language—from among family, friends, or co-workers, by asking (or begging) them to each help you out for a couple hours a week.
While we may be fortunate enough to find people who are willing to help in this way, we of course can’t always expect that others will or can be so generous with their time.
Brown gives a couple other options if you can’t find enough people to be language parents.
Brown is big on doing language exchanges, which he describes in “How to Language Exchange!” as “trading an hour of your language for an hour of somebody else’s language.”
He says the advantages of language exchange are that it’s free, you can teach them how to teach you, and you get to meet and make friends with many people who speak the language.
“[T]hat’s actually the best part about the whole thing,” Brown says. “It’s the relationships that you’re going to be making with the people you meet who speak the language that you want to acquire.”
He says that the best way for an English speaker to find people to exchange with is approaching instructors of ESL (English as a Second Language) classes at local schools, colleges, universities, or English language centers, and ask if they can connect you to students who speak the language you want to acquire.
Other avenues he suggests for finding partners are through language Meetups, Facebook, posting ads on Craigslist, and the language exchange apps HelloTalk and Tandem.
Another way Brown suggests is to simply hire someone as a language tutor and have them teach you using the method he sets out.
For acquiring Egyptian Arabic, Brown makes use of paid tutors himself a lot as a beginner.
He starts with a tutor for the first couple dozen hours, then, while he starts doing some language exchanges, he also hires another person to be a full-time tutor.
In all, 200 of the 300 hours of input he gets in sessions during his initial nine months of acquiring Arabic in the United States come from this tutor.
When he goes to Egypt, he focuses on language exchanges, doing 500 hours over 12 weeks.
Paying tutors of course costs money, but also saves the time required to provide one’s own language as part of a language exchange.
I suspect most people who can afford it will find it easier to start by hiring tutors than relying on language parents or language exchanges.
Paying tutors can make it easier to get many hours of input and gain initial comprehension of the language, providing motivation and momentum.
You may also find it easier to have tutors provide language that’s highly comprehensible to you as a beginner if you present them with this method.
Among other reasons, this is because they will likely have more experience communicating with low-level learners than a typical speaker of their language.
However, tutors are also often used to “traditional” language teaching methods that involve explaining words and rules to you in your own language, and this can get in the way.
With this method, of course, we want to acquire the language through input rather than learn about the language.
How to acquire with a tutor or partner
Once you have one or more language parents, partners, or tutors, it’s a matter of getting them to provide you with comprehensible input so that you can acquire the language.
Rules of acquisition
In his videos, Brown sets out three main rules for you to tell your tutors or partners and have them follow:
- “No English”: The tutor should stay in the target language as much as possible, well over 90% of the time, using non-verbal communication like gestures and drawings as needed to communicate. Brown explains that this is because he wants to acquire the language through comprehensible input—hearing the words in context, in ways that he can understand. By hearing the language a lot in understandable ways, it will go into his subconscious memory, whereas translating everything into English will just produce short-term memories that will disappear.
- “No Grammar”: Again, Brown says he wants to acquire the language subconsciously rather than learn about it. As with vocabulary, he will pick up the grammar of the language through comprehensible input. He explains that while he can just look up grammar rules himself if he wants, he can’t get comprehensible input himself, so he wants to focus on getting this during the exchanges. Elsewhere he says that if we study grammar explicitly, we will have to consciously monitor our speaking to use it and this will slow us down, whereas acquiring grammar subconsciously through input will allow us to use it correctly without having to think about it.
- “No Corrections”: “Correction does not work,” Brown says. “It’s basically a waste of time.” He cites research by Dr. John Truscott that finds corrections to be ineffective in language acquisition. Recommending Truscott’s work, Krashen says that correction is basically the same as grammar study in that it is learning about language rather than acquiring, so it’s easily forgotten.
In short, the focus in your sessions should be entirely on getting comprehensible input from your tutor or partner—hearing the language in ways that you can understand it and pick it up implicitly without translation, instruction, or correction.
This brings us to the question of how your tutor or partner can provide you with comprehensible input.
With Brown’s approach, your tutor or partner provides comprehensible input in three main ways: giving commands with actions using the Total Physical Response (TPR) approach, describing pictures from magazines, and telling stories using children’s books.
The TPR commands and descriptions of pictures will help you to pick up a lot of vocabulary initially, and this will help you to understand the stories, which will make up the bulk of your input.
“Storytelling is the most powerful way to acquire any language,” Brown says. “I cannot say enough good about storytelling for language acquisition.”
As I mentioned in a previous post, research finds our brains understand and remember stories better and even treat them like real-life experiences in some ways.
Two successful comprehension-based methods are based around stories: TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) and Story Listening, and along with Krashen’s work, Brown’s approach is also based on the former.
Brown says if you already know a lot of the language you’re acquiring, you could jump right into children’s stories.
Otherwise, you can start with activities like the magazines and TPR.
Total Physical Response
With TPR, your tutor or partner gives commands in the target language and acts them out, and you imitate their actions.
In this way, you acquire the words and their meanings.
With repetition, you’re soon able to act out the commands just by hearing them, without your tutor or partner doing the action.
Brown also demonstrates that the commands and actions don’t all have to be carried out literally.
For example, in “How to Language Exchange!”, Brown demonstrates commands like “touch the table” and “touch your nose” with his partner.
This shows how verbs (e.g. “touch”) and nouns (e.g. “table”, “nose”, etc.) can be picked up from hearing them in the context of various commands and doing the actions.
Since most of his partners know English already, Brown suggests giving a list of words in English to one’s tutor or partner, who can then give the equivalent commands in their language.
For example, commands like “walk” or “run” can be acted out using just one’s fingers and hands to avoid getting up.
Others, like “complain” or “watch TV”, can be acted out with gestures to represent those actions.
He says he wants to hear words at least 40 times to acquire them, but all these repetitions don’t have to be in one session.
Brown says that he has different lists of words for TPR and will do it every session, spending the first 10 minutes of the session on TPR commands.
He says he wants to get up 500 commands with TPR eventually, doing 50–100 different commands in one session.
Brown also says he doesn’t start with TPR right away, but from a week to a month after beginning with a language.
To start acquiring a language and pick up a lot of basic vocabulary as a complete beginner, Brown advocates using magazines that have a lot of pictures, and having your tutor or partner point at the pictures and describe them to you.
Brown emphasizes that they shouldn’t simply point at things and name them, but rather describe them thoughtfully in detail.
“You want your partner to give you this loving explanation, again like you’re the baby and he or she is mom or dad,” he says.
These descriptions will start off simply, but as you acquire the language, Brown says you can get your tutor or partner to “ramp it up a little bit”: provide new, more varied and complex language by giving more detail, elaboration, and commentary.
This way you’re continually hearing new language that you haven’t yet acquired in ways that you can understand and pick it up.
Krashen refers to this as “i+1”, where “i” represents the words and structures that you’ve acquired already, and “1” is new language that you will pick up because you understand it by hearing it in context with non-verbal communication and the language you’ve acquired.
To provide interaction and repetition of language, the tutor should not only describe the pictures, but also ask simple yes-or-no questions about the pictures that you can answer.
To interact further and get more input from the tutor, you can also ask the tutor questions about the pictures.
Brown asks his partner how to ask questions in the target language such as “What is this?”, “What’s that?”, “What’s he/she doing?” and “Why?” so that he can use them.
He also finds out how to say “it’s not important” if he doesn’t understand something and just wants to move on.
Brown says about 20% of the time will be spent on magazines.
Another activity that Brown suggests, which like magazines can involve descriptions and like TPR can involve physical actions, is the use of “props”: objects that can be talked about and manipulated like food, clothing, and sports equipment.
After acquiring about 500–1000 words through magazines, Brown will start with children’s stories, which he says will make up 80% or more of his input in his sessions.
Brown recommends ordinary illustrated children’s books that have big pictures and small text.
As the focus is on describing the pictures and what is happening in the target language, Brown says it doesn’t matter what language the magazines and children’s stories are in.
Rather than translating the story, your tutor or partner will describe the pictures and interpret or retell the story in their language.
The pictures will make the story very easy for you to follow.
“The reason I love children’s stories is everything goes together,” Brown says. “So I’m going to…acquire all the words and I’m going to get to follow that story and my brain loves that. That’s pure comprehensible input.”
As with the magazines, your tutor or partner will ask you simple questions about the pictures and the story, and you can point to things and ask them questions.
Brown notes that with this method you don’t retell the story yourself, as this will be difficult to do especially as a beginner, and your focus is on listening and getting comprehensible input rather than speaking.
Other ways to make the language comprehensible
Besides the use of actions with TPR and pictures in the magazines and children’s stories, Brown talks about other forms of non-verbal communication that your tutors or partners can use to make what they’re saying comprehensible to you without using English.
These include using gestures, drawing pictures, and pointing to themselves, you, and the things around them.
Brown wants his partner to minimize their use of English as much as possible, using instead non-verbal communication to make the language comprehensible, but he says he isn’t against using English if stuck or in an emergency.
As Krashen says in “How to Acquire any language…”: “You should have the illusion that the class is entirely in the target language, but using English here and there for help, etc., is perfectly fine.”
In the video, Spanish professor Jeanne Egasse points out that when a language teacher is speaking to a learner almost entirely in the target language, it also has to be about topics that are familiar to the learner and things that they can see in the here and now.
If your tutor or partner consistently uses non-verbal tools with their speaking and keeps the language about things that are familiar to you or that you can see, they can easily stay in the target language practically 100% of the time and be highly comprehensible to you.
Recording audio of sessions
Brown also uses his mobile phone to record audio of all of his sessions.
He says that having these recordings to listen to doubles or more the amount of comprehensible input he can get.
He says he will listen to his recordings of sessions again later in the week at times such as while driving or before going to bed.
This gives him extra hours of comprehensible input and additional repetition of vocabulary.
He says it’s especially important to record the sessions with stories, and says he wants to gather recordings of a hundred different children’s stories, which he can listen to at any time long after and maintain the language he is acquiring.
Reading and writing
Brown says that reading is also an important source of comprehensible input and that it can help us acquire the grammar we started picking up through listening to our target language.
Spanish professor Denise Cabanel-Bleuer recommends starting off by reading small things you are familiar with and really interest you, for example, the results in your target language of a baseball game you just watched if you’re a baseball fan.
However, Brown recommends you avoid trying to read from the start for languages that have very different writing systems from English, and instead focus on listening and acquiring the spoken language first, just like a baby does before learning to read and write.
He points out that he sees students studying languages like Chinese and Japanese struggling with trying to memorize writing the characters while spending very little time getting comprehensible input of the spoken language.
Spanish professor Jeanne Egasse notes that reading and writing foreign scripts will be far easier after one has acquired a vocabulary of thousands of words in the spoken language.
Using the method with ALG
The second language acquisition method that Jeff Brown describes and demonstrates in his videos is very similar to the Automatic Language Growth (ALG) method.
In fact, both methods were inspired in large part by the natural approach, created by Dr. Tracy Terrell, who working together with Dr. Stephen Krashen developed it and co-authored a book named for the method.
Krashen developed the theory behind the natural approach: essentially, how adults acquire languages and become fluent in much the same way as children, through comprehensible input.
Similarities with Automatic Language Growth
In accordance with Krashen’s input hypothesis, both Jeff Brown’s approach and ALG are based on acquiring languages through listening and gaining understanding rather than trying to practice speaking.
“Remember, language acquisition is all about listening and not speaking,” Brown says in “How to Acquire any language…”, advising against trying to retell the stories that your tutor or partner tells you in the language you’re acquiring.
His advise echoes the words of ALG originator Dr. J. Marvin Brown, who wrote “you learn to speak by listening—not speaking”, inspired in large part by Krashen’s ideas:
Krashen’s method, in my view, can be reduced to these two sentences. “Humans acquire language in only one way—by understanding messages,” and “Speaking is the result of this acquisition—not its cause.” I especially liked the two word version of the second sentence: “Speech emerges.”
In other words, through hearing enough comprehensible input, speaking will come without trying.
Avoiding grammar study
Jeff Brown’s approach and ALG both advocate picking up grammar implicitly—meaning subconsciously—through comprehensible input, and warn that studying grammar will interfere with your ability to speak the language you’re acquiring fluently.
“So if you study grammar, it actually hurts,” Jeff Brown warns in “How to Acquire any language…”, referencing Krashen’s monitor hypothesis.
“[W]hat the monitor hypothesis says is this,” he explains. “If you study grammar…when you go to speak the language, you’re going to think of the grammar first and it’s going to get in the way. It’s going to hinder your natural production of the language.”
This describes Marvin Brown’s difficulties with speaking Thai, which he began learning through hundreds of hours of conscious study and practice before getting a lot of comprehensible input.
He reported that while through all that study and practice he had achieved “perfect delivery”—the ability to sound like a native speaker of Thai—his need to monitor, or think about the language, prevented him from achieving “perfect production”: the ability to produce Thai as spontaneously as a native speaker.
“[T]he neural machinery used for perfect delivery was built at the expense of that used for perfect production,” Marvin Brown wrote. “The need for monitoring my delivery had prevented the machinery for perfect production from building.”
Even after getting comprehensible input in Thai for decades, he wrote that he still had to think about the language to produce it correctly:
Sometimes I felt like I had two different Thai languages in me: the conscious monitor (built by study and kept alive by my daily editing of Thai textbooks) and the subconscious language (built from [experiences] in real life). And the conscious part could never get completely out of the way.
In “How to Acquire any language…”, Jeff Brown suggests that if you want to study grammar, wait until after you’ve acquired the language and are at least semi-fluent, just as children pick up a language implicitly through comprehensible input first before they do any formal study.
Similarly, the ALG approach has students only consciously study the language, if ever, after they’ve acquired the language subconsciously through experience and are fluent.
Both Jeff Brown’s approach and ALG avoid translation between the target language and the learner’s language.
As Jeff Brown explains, when he gets comprehensible input, hearing the language he is acquiring in ways that he understands, it goes into his subconscious memory, while translations will just go into his short-term memory.
Similarly, Marvin Brown wrote about how words acquired through comprehensible input or understandable experience with the language exist in the brain as part of a web of many connections based on the contexts in which they’ve been heard.
This makes these words easily to access and highly durable in memory, whereas memorizing words using translations produces memories that are hard to retrieve when you need them and easy to forget.
While language learners who spend their time memorizing vocabulary lists are used to forgetting words, Marvin Brown described ALG students who returned after being away from Thai only to find their ability had actually improved.
His explanation was that their brains were subconsciously continuing to build and refine connections based on all the comprehensible input and experiences they had gotten.
As he reassured one student who thought he would need to repeat a level, “you never forget natural learning”!
How the ALG approach is different
ALG has been characterized as “the purest application” of Krashen’s input hypothesis and one that takes it to its logical extreme by avoiding any speaking practice in favor of just letting speaking emerge, and avoiding all conscious study and focus on language in favor of subconscious acquisition and focus on meaning.
In developing his version of Krashen’s natural approach, Marvin Brown avoided having the students speak the target language, at first thinking it was a waste of time that could be better spent on listening to the teachers provide comprehensible input.
But he found that students who tried to speak from the start anyway ended up speaking broken Thai with poor pronunciation, while those who waited until speaking emerged without trying usually ended up sounding a lot like native speakers of Thai.
Marvin Brown thought that by trying to speak without first internalizing a clear “mental image” of the language through input, adults typically interfered with developing the ability to speak a language as well as a native speaker.
Later he discovered that some students who were outwardly silent but failed to speak Thai fluently and accurately were still thinking about the language—analyzing it or speaking internally.
Marvin Brown concluded that adults had not lost the abilities to pick up languages like children and speak them with native-like levels of fluency and accuracy, but rather they had gained abilities to try to speak and think about language that interfered with their results.
Therefore, if an adult wanted to come as close as possible to native-like abilities, while acquiring a new language they should avoid using any abilities that aren’t available to young children, like translating or using knowledge of grammar rules to speak.
Avoiding conscious focus on language
In “How to Acquire any language”, Jeff Brown talks how many people who want to learn languages want to study grammar.
Students of ALG classes like the AUA Thai Program are no exception—many of them also want to learn about the language they’re acquiring.
While Jeff Brown emphasizes the need to focus on getting comprehensible input and tells these people to wait until they’ve acquired the language and become fluent, he also suggests that if they really want to, to “just browse grammar” for one or two minutes a day.
In keeping with its goal of producing native-like speaking and hypothesis that thinking about the language can interfere with this outcome, ALG would have students avoid even this limited conscious focus on the language while acquiring it.
Jeff Brown also talks about how translation should be avoided, and says he wants to stay away from English at all costs, using the target language nearly 100% of the time except for emergencies, but says “if you want to do five percent English, that’s perfectly fine”.
ALG would want to avoid translation entirely, using every available non-verbal tool like drawings and gestures to communicate.
However, if the focus is fully on meaning and communication rather than language, as I’ve suggested before, this sparing use of translation or first-language use to clear up confusion and aid communication may not be a problem from an ALG perspective.
Krashen’s comment about having “the illusion that the class is entirely in the target language” but using English occasionally for help but seems consistent with a focus on meaning rather than language.
What creates problems is when the focus becomes on the target language and consciously making connections between it and one’s first language before acquiring it, which is what’s involved in memorizing vocabulary with translations.
As with grammar, ALG students only begin to learn to translate between languages, if ever, after they have acquired the language and become fluent in it.
A long “silent period”
The AUA Thai Program, where ALG has mainly been implemented, is noted for a very long so-called “silent period” where students listen to the language for hundreds of hours before speaking it much.
The idea is that speaking should not be forced, but will emerge in its own time as we internalize the language through listening to comprehensible input.
Consciously trying to produce language before hearing it much will interfere with this process of building a clear “mental image” of how it should sound.
While most comprehension-based approaches and natural approaches have some notion of focusing on listening first and comprehensible input preceding output, in practice there is production of language from fairly early on, which ALG would consider “forced”—occurring before it would emerge naturally.
For example, in his demonstration with Korean, Jeff Brown repeats many of the Korean words that his language exchange partner says.
He also asks for translations of certain phrases like simple questions to use with his partner.
This early speaking may be a double-edged sword in the sense as it can allow someone to gain speaking ability in the language earlier on through output practice, but this may come at the expense of later attainment.
In keeping with the ALG approach, I would recommend avoiding trying to repeat what your tutor or partner is saying in the target language, and waiting for the language to start emerging naturally.
Gradually, the new language will become clearer to you and will start to come out without trying, starting with the ability to say words that you’ve heard many times like “Yes” and “No”, then growing to short sentences and phrases, and eventually, longer sentences.
While many practitioners of natural approaches take it for granted that adults cannot speak with native-like pronunciation or other abilities, ALG would argue that this is not inevitable the result of trying to produce the language without a sufficient foundation of input.
Without developing a clear mental image of how the language should sound through listening, we are forced to “fall back” on sounds and other features of our first language, sacrificing accuracy, and though we will improve with further input, this is difficult if not impossible to completely overcome.
In the case of some people, like Marvin Brown, they can learn to speak more accurately through practice but as a result they tend to have to sacrifice fluency for accuracy.
At any rate, the approach in Jeff Brown’s videos is so highly focused on input that it should result in a decent pronunciation and very good other abilities, but the experience of ALG suggest a focus on listening first and delaying speaking will lead to more native-like results.
Jeff Brown suggests avoiding trying to read the language if it has a very different script from one’s own because it will be much easier after you’ve acquired a lot of the language, so it’s better to focus on getting comprehensible input you need first.
ALG would go further and advise avoiding beginning to read from early on even with languages that use similar scripts to one’s own, like Spanish for English speakers, until one has sufficiently acquired the sounds of the new language through at least a couple hundred hours of listening.
When reading a similar script, it can be easy to supply the familiar pronunciations that we are used to attaching to the letters we are seeing as a result of reading them so much in our first language.
By first acquiring and gaining a clear “mental image” of the sounds and pronunciations of the new language through listening, we will supply these sounds when reading instead of “borrowing” sounds from our first language.
Even without speaking outwardly, reading is like speaking to oneself internally, and as Marvin Brown discovered, those ALG students who practiced speaking in their heads while acquiring still had problems with pronunciation despite being outwardly silent.
Understandable experiences vs. comprehensible input
ALG has a somewhat different conception of comprehensible input than the idea of “understanding messages” that Krashen talked about.
ALG is about not merely getting comprehensible input through understanding messages, but hearing language in the context of meaningful “happenings”, or rich and memorable experiences involving many sense and emotions.
In more recent years Krashen has emphasized the importance to language acquisition of not merely “understanding messages” but getting compelling comprehensible input through things like really interesting stories, as opposed to input that’s comprehensible but of no real interest or meaning to us.
Again, stories are treated by the brain like experiences in some ways, so using compelling stories is compatible with ALG.
Jeff Brown’s focus in his method on stories and real-life interactions and relationships with speakers of the language we are acquiring is also in line with ALG.
Though ALG programs aim to provide the target language alongside real-life experiences as much as possible, it also uses stories and interactions with people who speak the language we are acquiring, and these provide kinds of experience with language that are often much more accessible and easier to create.
Advantages of the ALG approach
The most important thing that I would recommend in using the language acquisition approach Jeff Brown describes and demonstrates in his videos is just listening first to the target language and waiting to speak it, limiting output to what’s clear and comes out without effort.
As I mentioned, any method that focuses so heavily on listening to comprehensible input from the beginning should produce very good results.
However, a delay in speaking in the target language, limiting production to what starts to emerge on its own without thinking, should lead to more native-like production because our speaking will be based on a clear mental image we’ve acquired through listening, instead of “borrowing” from our first language.
While some may be satisfied with fluency even with non-native pronunciation, accent, and usage, going for a more native-like abilities can have some important advantages.
It may be especially important when dealing with languages that are very different from one’s own and make unfamiliar distinctions like tones that can seem very subtle to many learners.
With some languages, many speakers may have difficulties understanding those who speak it with even a slight foreign accent, in many cases because they are not at all used to hearing foreigners speaking their language.
A more native-like grasp of the phonology of a language should also make it easier to pick up vocabulary and other aspects because we can hear these things more clearly.
For example, because many English grammatical features like past tenses, plurals, possessives, and conjugations produce consonant clusters at the ends of words, many learners whose languages don’t allow these sound combinations have difficulty with not only the sounds but the grammar they carry.
A focus on listening to English first before speaking and reading it much, without analyzing it in terms of one’s first language, would produce the ability to better discern and then produce these sounds.
Lastly, for better or worse, a more native-like pronunciation can open up more opportunities for those who speak it as a second language, for example by leaving a better impression because listeners find it easier to understand and more familiar.
Focus on listening and speak your own language first
So how can we avoid speaking the target language entirely at the beginning, especially if we want to interact?
ALG offers an alternative to early speaking in the target language that still allows you to interact in ways shown in Brown’s videos, like asking questions.
This is to just speak your own language at first, and only start producing language you’re acquiring that comes to mind without effort.
As you acquire the language, you will start to be able to produce more and more of it automatically in this way, but you can continue to use your own language to express what you can’t yet say in the new one.
Even if your production of the target language doesn’t come out completely correct at first, if you aren’t “pushing” speaking but just letting it emerge on its own, your speaking will self-correct and converge upon the clear mental image that you’ve acquired through listening.
Crosstalk: Acquiring each other’s language together
Speaking your own language while your language partner speaks theirs presents another possibility for language exchange and acquisition.
In ALG, this kind of multilingual communication, where each person uses non-verbal tools as needed to make themselves understood, is known as Crosstalk.
With Crosstalk, each person can acquire the other’s language at the same time through getting comprehensible input by listening to it and understanding.
With language exchanges, as opposed to hiring tutors, this tends to work best when you are at similar levels of understanding of one another’s language.
What you could do is seek out people who are just beginning to acquire your language, or who are otherwise at a similar level to you, and do Crosstalk with them.
Crosstalk conversations can be free conversations where you just converse and share about yourselves, your interests, your life, each using non-verbal tools like drawing, gestures, pointing, etc. to get across meaning.
You could also use the tools Jeff Brown outlines in his method to give your sessions more structure, and provide you with things to talk about, for example, describing and talking about the pictures, and telling one another the stories.
Though there is first-language use here—you are each speaking your own language—unlike with translating, you are focused on communication and meaning rather than the language.
If you are both beginners, you will have to make good use of non-verbal communication tools as necessary to make yourselves understood to one another.
At more advanced levels, you can have Crosstalk conversations without having to rely on these tools nearly as much, instead simply rephrasing or elaborating upon what you say as needed to get across meaning.
Eventually, you will have acquired enough of the language through listening and understanding that you can seek out opportunities where you can easily start to produce the language and have it come out naturally and automatically.
The language exchange method Jeff Brown presents in his videos provides a great way to acquire a language without study through comprehensible input with tutors or language partners, and gain the ability to use it fluently without having to think.
It can be used with the Automatic Language Growth (ALG) approach, which suggests that by acquiring languages like children, adults can approach native-like levels of fluency and accuracy.
Using it with the ALG approach, one would avoid conscious focus on the language entirely and avoid repeating, speaking, or reading in the target language until we have heard it a lot and it emerges naturally without effort.
Speaking our own language at first and just listening to the one we are acquiring allows us to develop a clear “mental image” of how the new language should sound to base our speaking on, which should lead to more native speaker-like results.
This can have advantages, for example being better understood by speakers of a language who are not used to hearing it spoken with non-native pronunciation.
Speaking one’s own language with a language partner who speaks their own language also opens up the possibility of both partners acquiring one another’s language simultaneously through hearing the other speak it, a method known in ALG as Crosstalk.
Jeff Brown’s approach offers great materials and structure to use with Crosstalk, where each person uses non-verbal tools as needed to make what they are saying in the language understandable.
Finally, here are some resources I’ve found that can help you get started with acquiring a language using this kind of method with a tutor or language partner.
Many of them are focused on Southeast Asian languages such as Thai, but they can be used for other languages as well.
Total Physical Response
The website Women Learn Thai has a post with a PDF of over 500 words that can be learned with Total Physical Response, with English and Thai translations.
The list was adapted from Reid Wilson’s list, which can be found on a site for the Growing Participator Approach (GPA), another comprehension-based method with many similarities to Jeff Brown’s approach and ALG.
You could supply your tutor or language partner with this list, or use it to create your own lists.
Besides magazines that have many photos, you can use other sources of pictures that your tutor can describe.
There are even books that provide pictures specifically for language acquisition, such as Lexicarry, which has hundreds of illustrations covering an enormous range of everyday vocabulary and topics.
One great free source of these kind of pictures that’s online is Aakanee.com, developed by a former student of the AUA Thai Program.
It contains hundreds of illustrations in the form of comic strips of 16 or so panels that show activities from everyday life in Southeast Asia.
It also contains hundreds of illustrations for basic vocabulary, illustrating common nouns, verbs, and adjectives, again with a focus on things found in Southeast Asian countries.
The site also has recordings describing the illustrations in Thai, Isaan, and Khmer.
You can find a collection of hundreds of free illustrated children’s stories online at the digital library of Let’s Read, a project of the Asia Foundation to provide stories to children in their own languages.
The stories range from very simple series of pictures about everyday activities to longer fantastic adventure stories.
Another collection of stories is Storybooks Canada, which has 40 illustrated stories with the text also recorded in a variety of languages. The source of the stories on that site is a project called African Storybook. (links via Websites and Apps with FREE Multilingual books for Kids from CHALK Academy).
Another site, Children’s Books Forever, has scans of many printed illustrated children’s books by author Hans Wilhelm, available free for non-commercial use.
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8 thoughts on “How to Acquire a Language with Tutors and Exchanges, and Speak It Like a Native Speaker”
Great resourses! Thank you so much.
Jeff Brown is inspiring indeed. I use all his principles while having language sessions with the Russian learners. All except using children’s stories and illustrations. Because there is still a question of the content. For how long an adult can tolerate children’s stories? Depends on the adult of course 🙂 I can’t. I’ve tried but I get bored very fast. I want some adult stuff. Brown is a language nerd, learning languages makes him happy from the beginning. Plus he is a very enthusiastic type of person, which helps a lot. But there are so many people who don’t care about language learning but just ‘have to’…
To satisfy the condition that the content should be compelling we need to create either a lot of content so that the learner can choose what he likes or improvise to adjust to his interests while individual sessions providing him something that is meaningful exactly for him. In reality that requires such qualities from the language parent as: advertence, tact, natural wish for real human communication, patience to find common ground, creativity and enthusiasm to wake and develop an interest to the language and the culture in the learner.
When I have sessions with a learner I talk to him choosing topics just as if I talked to him in English, but in Russian with comprehensible input using all the principles described by Jeff Brown. There are so many things that two people can share especially if they are from different cultures. Life, people, ideas, culture, science. It’s funny how complecated adult ideas very often can be expressed in basic vocabulary if patience takes place.
I would really like to hear from other practicing language parents what principles they stick to and how they find the content for their sessions.
Excellent points Inna! I find that some children’s stories will probably be more interesting to adults than others, for example, those aimed at older children rather than say preschoolers. They may have an interesting story and, if they’re from the country where the language is spoken, they may present cultural information and aspects of daily life that the teacher or tutor can describe. It may be a matter of looking through a lot of illustrated children’s books to find ones that will be interesting.
There may also be illustrated storybooks out there that are aimed more at adults, but still have the features of children’s books that make them useful for this kind of method, like big pictures and relatively simple stories that can be communicated visually. If there aren’t then maybe somebody needs to make some 🙂
Free discussions are very good too, just using things like pictures and drawings, and I think they’re worth making at least part of one’s sessions, but I’ve found stories are definitely powerful as Jeff Brown says: with stories “everything goes together”.
This is so interesting!! I admit, I came to your blogpost because I didn’t have the patience to watch Jeff Brown’s 1 hour documentary 😂 you covered everything concisely yet comprehensively, thank you! I loved the bits about “storytelling” and acting things out – that’s how I love to learn.
I find this particularly interesting, because I’m an unwitting recipient of the ALG method. In my case, my silent period lasted 24 years LOL. All my life, my parents, relative and grandparents have spoken Cantonese to each other, but English to us. They never bothered translating for us. I’ve never attempted to speak a word of Cantonese in my life. This summer in a fit of boredom, I decided to start learning Cantonese. To my surprise, I was chatting in full sentences with my tutor from the get-go. Reading back, I’m like (and you may well be thinking) “well duh, you should be able to recite the encyclopaedia after 2 frickin decades of exposure-cum-eavesdropping”. But if you think about it, people from other parts of the world are exposed to English-language media their whole life, but some don’t gain fluency – maybe because there were native language subtitles? Not sure.
On a sidenote, I’m just wondering about how well the ALG method (avoiding reading) would gel with visual learners. Acting things out & illustrations/photos definitely help with visual association. However, as a VERY visual learner and terrible audio learner, audio acquisition may not be the natural path for me. I’ve had tutors who just spoke to me in French or Russian from the start, and after literally months I was still no closer to hearing anything but a jumble. (Maybe I just need 23 more years, like my Cantonese 😂)
Basically, say it 10 times and I’ll need you to say it another 20 times; in contrast, put a word on paper and I pick it up in seconds. I literally visualise words in my head as I speak. The catch, as you / ALG noted, is my pronunciation is often literal. I’ve found a solution to that is to completely ignore the correctly spelled word and only write out (on flashcards, etc) my transliteration. What do you think of my dilemma? 😊
I’m going to study your blogpost some more, and implement these techniques in my learning of other languages! 😊
Thanks for your comments! Your story is really interesting. As it happens I am working on some posts that explore the question of how fluent we can be in a language when we’re just starting to speak it after only listening a lot first. On that topic, if you’re interested you might want to check out this paper by Stephen Krashen that gives some examples of people starting to speak well after mainly just getting input: http://www.sdkrashen.com/content/articles/down_with_forced_speech_pdf.pdf
Congratulations on your Cantonese! I think that many heritage speakers of languages and others who were exposed to another language growing up underestimate how much they have picked up already. I worry that many end up going down a discouraging path of taking classes that focus on things like grammar study and artificial speaking practice, when what they really need is input in the language that’s comprehensible and interesting for them at their level, and opportunities for meaningful communication in the language.
You mention that people are “exposed to English-language media their whole life, but some don’t gain fluency”. What’s critical here for fluency is that they’re not merely getting “exposure” to English but they’re hearing a lot of it in ways that they can understand—in other words, getting comprehensible input. If someone has watched a lot of English shows but has always just read the subtitles in their own language, as you mention, they might be tuning the English out for the most part so end up not picking up much at all. In your case it sounds like even though Cantonese wasn’t directed at you, you heard enough Cantonese around you in a ways that you could understand the meaning of what was being said so you were able to pick it up.
Regarding learning styles, while there are individual differences, the idea of there being different kinds of language learners or learning styles in general such as visual or audio learners is something of a myth. My friend Pablo has written a post on this topic on his blog: https://dreaminglanguages.wordpress.com/2016/07/05/the-mythical-visual-learner/
You have to get a lot of aural exposure to a language, especially in ways that are understandable, to “get an ear” for the sounds of the language. You may feel that you are a visual learner and not an audio learner because things don’t sound clear in a new language but they seem clear when you see the writing or try to write a transcription. The problem is that this tends to involve applying sounds that you are familiar with already to make it seem clearer, rather than becoming clear on the sounds of the new language on their own terms. I think you realize this as you say that your “pronunciation is often literal”. It takes many hours of input for the sounds of a new language to become clear. Are your tutors doing a lot to make what they say in French or Russian comprehensible to you? At the early stages they should be providing a lot of support using things like visuals and context, not “just speaking” to you.
Thanks again for commenting and for reading my blog!
Wow, your Youtube channel as well your blog are amazing!!! I`m here because of Krashen & Jeff’s videos. You just explained in detail what Jeff said in his video. Thank you so much!
I`m in a bit of a struggle now because I “learned” English already and now I want to acquire it through stories and comprehensible input. I know it will be hard because sometimes I just translate things into English from Portuguese. However, I don’t want to make the same mistakes. I want to acquire them. However, based on the discussion above, why after many years of exposure, the person doesn’t speak Cantonese, even though getting lots and lots of comprehensible input? Is it not risky for us acquiring languages end up like that: being able to understand but no speak the language, like happens with a lot of immigrants kids? How to prevent that to happen?
I will start applying “acquisition” with my English now. I hope it’s not too late. I am advanced in English, somehow hehehe, but I lack a loooot of things, basic things like describing pictures like a native would do or daily conversation in a way natives do. I lack that and now I`m looking for tutors to help me acquire the English language.
So, in cases where we already have a high level in the language, how can we use stories in our advantage and in a way that will help?
Thank you for your time and all these amazing tips you’ve given us!
I was taught in my university about Krashen’s theories, including those of Vygotsky’s, Cummins’, Gardner, etc., so I can teach languages with structure but in the TL…but I learned that I could simplify the combined methods I used before by incorporating more comprehensible input, TPR, a bit more storytelling, and remove anything that might seem grammatical, and that includes removing or not even putting in or using words, so that it encourages the brain to focus on the one basic task of listening, thereby allowing more understanding and acquisition….lotsa units broken down to “potential” lessons that can also be broken down into more lessons, depending on how any given session flows. After all, the goal should be fluency (quality) rather than form (quantity) cuz once the long-term memory has what it’s getting, content (i.e. vocabulary) is already included, but that also includes knowing how to use acquired information…as well as nuances, humour, intonation, pronunciation and grammar…all acquired from such basic, yet intrinsic, natural abilities……..Now, I just wonder how I could do that for self-acquiring (sounds funny), because most people still don’t know anything about all this…let alone comprehensible input and TPR one would see on youtube….some of my strongest ‘intelligences’ are natural, music, intrapersonal, and kinesthetic…and not finding anything online for myself is frustrating…and most native speakers (I find – namely on sites like languageexchange.com or conversationexchange.com or iTalki, or on apps like Tandem) are clueless…so many that are just wasting so much time because they don’t have the right tools, sacrificing fluency for speed and instant gratitifcation…so, I decided enough is enough…by creating steps that lead to not only informing people but also giving them the tools I’ve learned AND re-structured so that this lack turns into abundance.
I found this information to be very helpful! Jeff Brown is quite an inspiration to language learners and his methods are spot on. I love learning languages and have found that language activities that help me to make meaningful connections are much more effective and enjoyable than repetitive rote-style learning methods. While studying Mandarin, I enjoy watching Chinese films and will sometimes watch them several times, with and without subtitles, and it’s been really cool to see how I’m able to pick up on previously studied grammar and vocabulary in context. Additionally, as an Applied Linguistics student, it’s interesting to see how Jeff Brown and Dr. Krashen’s work extends the hypotheses of prominent linguists like Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, B.F. Skinner, etc. The concept of ALG is awesome and from previous experience, language partners are a valuable resource that helps to accelerate the acquisition process. Thanks for sharing!
I found Brown’s first video a couple of years ago and it completely transformed my French study, though I’ve not been using those methods–doing languages with someone else like a tutor or partner hasn’t been practical in my circumstances, but I discovered Alice Ayel (dot com) who teaches French through a series of comprehensive input videos and they’re amazing; I’ve picked up so much. She tells stories entirely in French with a whiteboard, gestures and sound effects, so they’re easy to understand, and often quite funny too. There’s plenty for free on her Youtube channel but her membership program has a self-paced course where she uses stories to demonstrate concepts and teach idioms etc, again entirely in French.
I’m wanting to start Ukrainian and struggling to find any comprehensible input at all, let alone of the same quality. Crosstalk is something I haven’t come across before and that sounds much less daunting than a language exchange, though it may have to wait for a change in my circumstances. I don’t know if you have something already on this blog–I’m going to have a look–about acquiring a language when you have no choice but to do so alone.
It was really interesting to read this article–much easier to understand than the notes I took while watching Brown’s video, and I’d forgotten a lot of it. I’m really interested in second language acquisition, but I haven’t learned all the terminology yet, so this is a useful reference for that as well!