How Can We Learn to Speak a Language without Speaking It?

Answering questions from readers about applying the ALG approach—acquiring a language by listening to comprehensible input—with tutors and language exchange partners

A pictographic illustration shows a student seated in the middle of a row of students listening while watching a Thai language class where two people dressed in traditional Thai clothing stand at the front as the teacher gestures towards them

In my last post I described the language exchange method that polyglot and language instructor Jeff Brown has explained and demonstrated in a couple of popular YouTube videos.

With his method, you pick up a language from partners or tutors who speak it by having them speak it to you in ways that you can understand, such as by using actions, describing pictures, and telling stories using illustrated children’s books.

I wrote about how the method provides a way to acquire a language following the Automatic Language Growth (ALG) approach, which at present is only being used in one program to teach one language—the AUA Thai Program.

Both ALG and Brown’s approach are based on Dr. Stephen Krashen’s input hypothesis, which says we acquire languages by listening, not by speaking, and that we subconsciously learn to use them correctly and fluently by getting comprehensible input—hearing them in ways that we can understand—not by studying and practicing things like grammar rules.

The main difference with the ALG approach is that it advocates delaying producing the target language until it emerges naturally, without trying.

Therefore, to use Brown’s approach with the ALG approach, one should avoid speaking it from the beginning, and avoid doing things like trying to repeat words that one’s partner says in one’s target language.

The idea is that by internalizing the language first through just listening to it and gaining understanding, and letting speaking emerge on its own time, we will eventually be able to produce it much more like a native speaker.

ALG theory says it’s adults’ ability and tendency to try to speak and use languages they want to learn before they’ve first heard them much that interferes with them learning them as well as young children do—not any loss of ability as commonly believed.

Since publishing that post, I’ve received questions from readers who want to better understand how to implement Brown’s language exchange method with the ALG approach.

Essentially, they want to know how we can learn to speak a language if we don’t speak it.

How does this happen, and how do we go about acquiring a language this way?

In this post, I’ll answer the main questions that I’ve received.

When using the method, how do I not speak in my target language?

As I described near the end of my last post, the simplest way to not have to speak in the target language with your language exchange partners or tutors is by just speaking to them in your own language, or in a language you share.

If your partner or tutor doesn’t understand your own language well or even at all, you can use the same tools when speaking to them that you want them to use when speaking to you—things like drawings, gestures, and pointing to make the language understandable.

An additional advantage here is by each speaking your own language in this way, you can use the method to acquire each other’s language at the same time.

In the ALG approach, this kind of multilingual conversation, where each person uses non-verbal communication as necessary to make themselves understood, is known as Crosstalk.

You can read more about Crosstalk in my posts about my experiences using it to acquire Mandarin Chinese and acquiring Thai.

When should I start to speak my target language?

The ALG approach is not about avoiding speaking the target language entirely for hundreds of hours, but rather about avoiding forced or “pushed” speaking of the target language.

As AUA Thai Program coordinator David Long has written in a post clarifying this point, “based on our experience…best results are only achieved by not speaking until things are ready to come out naturally.”

What this means is we want to avoid consciously trying to produce the language we’re acquiring and instead, let a clear “mental image” develop of how it should sound through extensive listening, and let speaking emerge on its own time based on this image.

In his treatise “Learning Languages Like Children“, ALG originator Dr. J. Marvin Brown theorized that by building up this mental image first through listening, it will act as a “reference signal” that our eventual speaking will automatically tune itself to.

Rather than having lost the ability to acquire and speak a new language as clearly as children, Dr. Brown theorized that the adult habit of consciously trying to speak from early on was interfering with the development of a clear image or reference:

“Krashen’s theory wasn’t working nearly as well with adults as with children and the AUA [Thai Program] experience suggested the reason. Adults talk too much. And while everything they hear makes their reference signals better, everything they [consciously try to] say makes them worse.”

In practice, some natural speaking in the target language can begin fairly early on with simple things that we’ve heard many, many times such as greetings and yes-or-no answers, and this will grow to very simple two-or-three-word sentences.

Eventually, the ability to begin to produce novel utterances, longer sentences that one hasn’t heard before, will emerge.

This “speaking threshold” comes after hundreds of hours of listening, when the sounds and other features of the language have mostly become clear.

With languages that are related culturally and linguistically, such as Spanish for English speakers, it may come after only 300 or so hours of comprehensible input.

For others that are totally unrelated, like Thai for English speakers, it may take around 800 to 1000 hours of comprehensible input.

At every stage, we should be limiting our speaking in the target language to what comes to mind naturally, or what “pops up” automatically, without trying to think about the language.

For example, at more advanced stages we will be able to say many things, but still not yet be able to express ourselves with nearly the same level of detail and nuance that we can in our first language.

In a post describing what ALG learners can expect at different stages, David Long gives this advice to those who are at the stage where they have a fairly clear mental image and the basis for fluency in the target language:

“What’s important here is that the learner does not pre-think. This is rather difficult but necessary. Focus your attention on the meaning you want to communicate rather than the language you’re using. The difficulty at this stage is caused primarily by the gap which exists between your thoughts and your limited ability to express them. Your thoughts are adult – but your ability to express those thoughts is child-like. This can be somewhat frustrating however it’s a fantastic thing when one learns to simplify their thoughts and get to the basic communication. Learn to think simply. The ability to form a truly complex sentence is not yours at this time – use what you have but don’t force things.”

Gaining a sense of natural versus forced or pushed speaking

While many language learners may accept this advice to not force or push things as valid, I think an additional note of caution may be necessary.

This is because many adults are so used to listening and repeating what they hear and practicing speaking from the start when learning a language that these things may seem entirely natural and automatic to them, not like they are forcing or pushing anything.

However, in these cases, they are usually not repeating what they have heard accurately because they haven’t built up a clear mental image of how the language should sound through listening.

Furthermore, because they don’t have this image as an internal reference, they often aren’t aware of how or even that they are saying it wrong.

It may then actually be helpful for many adults who want to follow the ALG approach to take a “vow of silence” in producing or using the language they are acquiring for the first several hundred hours of listening or several months.

During this time, without over-analyzing things, they could devote some mindful attention to their experience of listening to the language, observing how it becomes clearer to them over time, and how words and phrases begin to come to mind without trying, triggered by thoughts and experiences.

“Breaking the vow” and speaking the language a little bit from time to time is probably not a big deal, and if done keeping with the same observant attitude, might be instructive as one sees what comes out right and what doesn’t.

The idea is to develop a feeling for how the language becomes clearer through experience and the mental image develops, and a sense of what kind of speaking is forced or pushed and what kind is natural, so that one can stick with the latter.

Would self-talk or talking to myself for practice be a good idea?

According to Krashen’s input hypothesis and the experience of programs like AUA Thai, language acquisition is the result of listening and understanding, not speaking.

Speaking will emerge on its own from getting comprehensible input, so practice is not necessary.

But if one wishes to talk to oneself in the language, the same advice would apply as for speaking with others: for best results, it should be allowed to come naturally as a result of internalizing the language, based on the mental image that has built up through input, rather than being forced or pushed.

When I was acquiring Mandarin Chinese I purposely avoided speaking it for a long time, but for a brief while, after hundreds of hours of listening, I did experiment with “babbling” in the language, letting myself say to myself whatever sounds or words came up.

With this I could see that my mouth, tongue, and other speech organs were automatically finding their way to match the mental images of Mandarin sounds and words I had acquired from all that listening.

In other words, it appeared that my mental image, which had become quite clear by that point, was acting as a reference signal that was guiding my production.

By that time, I had been hearing Mandarin “popping up” and bits of imagined conversations playing out in my head a lot.

It appears this was the kind of “involuntary mental rehearsal” that Krashen refers to as the “Din in the Head“.

He theorizes that this phenomenon is “a result of obtaining comprehensible and interesting input” (as I had been getting), and that the babbling and self-talk of infants and young children is an outward manifestation of it (as opposed to being like the conscious practice and drills of many classroom language learners).

For language acquirers, this kind of babbling or self-talk, which is really just letting speaking occur rather than deliberate practice, might be helpful in building confidence with speaking and with the process of natural language acquisition.

Possible advantages of practicing speaking

I think the main advantage of deliberately practicing speaking is if by learning to say things to speakers of the language you’re acquiring in their language, you’re able to get a lot of comprehensible input from them that you otherwise wouldn’t get.

As adults, it does seem that we often have to speak a language we’re acquiring to its speakers to get them to speak it to us.

So in some cases, the opportunity to get much more comprehensible input than we would otherwise get might outweigh any problems caused by this kind of “forced” speaking from an ALG perspective.

What about speaking in one’s head and reading?

A woman in the background points to a picture of a rice bowl and says the Thai word for "rice" (ข้าว) while a man in the foreground thinks to himself how the word sounds like the English word "cow"
An AUA Thai student hears the teacher say the Thai word for rice (ข้าว) and thinks about how it sounds like the English word “cow”. By doing this, they end up missing out on acquiring critical features of the Thai pronunciation such as the tone and vowel length.

One more important thing to note here is that speaking the target language in one’s head has much the same effect as speaking out loud to oneself or to others.

Therefore this internal speaking should also “pop up”, or come to mind automatically based on input, rather than being forced or pushed.

Some AUA students, while not speaking out loud, have deliberately repeated what they are hearing to themselves in their head to try to practice or memorize it, sometimes comparing words they are hearing to sounds in their first language rather than letting them become clear through continued listening.

As a result, they end up with similar problems with pronunciation as those who try to speak out loud from the beginning, as Marvin Brown described in a mid-1990s email on the development of the ALG approach:

We thought that the reason students who ended up bad even though they refrained from speaking was because they were THINKING about the language as they listened to it. For example, they would hear the word for ‘rice’ and think ‘that sounds just like ‘cow’.’ By thinking this, they were recording the sound of ‘cow’ for the Thai word for ‘rice’ instead of recording a bare echo in their heads. The solution was that we had to make the teachers’ activities so interesting that the students forgot that it was all in Thai. We had to constantly offer up things that made them laugh, made them mad, kept them in suspense, titillated their sexual fantasies, etc.

Because reading also involves speaking in one’s head, it should also be limited until one has internalized the sounds of the words one is reading through listening, although more reading might be done earlier when one can listen to accompanying audio of a native speaker as one reads.

With Mandarin, I still try to listen to audio along with whatever I read to help reinforce correct tones and pronunciation, especially when there is vocabulary that I don’t know or haven’t heard that much.

Many language learners, while not speaking the language they are learning that much from early on, have ended up with pronunciation problems and a strong accent because in reading extensively before hearing much of the target language and how it sounds, they borrowed the sounds and prosody of their first language.

Photo of Joseph Conrad in 1904 by George Charles Beresford
Renowned English-language novelist Joseph Conrad, whose first language was Polish, was noted for speaking English with “a very strong foreign accent”

This can be especially easy to do when the target language shares the same script as one’s first language, as without a strong mental image of the sounds of the target language to attach to the letters, one may reflexively read them as one would read words in one’s first language.

In some of these cases though, other aspects of these learners’ language, such as their grammar and vocabulary, might be quite good from all the input they have gained through reading.

An example might be the Polish-British writer Joseph Conrad, considered one of the greatest novelists to write in English despite not being fluent in the language until his twenties and being noted for speaking it with a “very strong” or even “horrible” accent.

How do you progress if there are no corrections?

With the ALG approach, the idea is that through massive listening input, you are building up a strong and clear mental image of the various aspects of the language.

When production emerges, even if it isn’t perfect at first, it will over time converge on this mental image that’s been established through getting all that comprehensible input first.

A learner may find that when they make a mistake and someone corrects them on it, they already realize that it came out wrong.

This is a sign that they’ve internalized the language through listening and their production will automatically come to conform to this model.

I’ve written more about my own experiences with acquiring language without corrections in my post Is correction needed to learn to speak a language well?

In my post about Jeff Brown’s language exchange method, I wrote how in one of his videos Krashen, citing research by Dr. John Truscott, says that similar to grammar study, correction is “ineffective” for language acquisition in that it is also based on consciously trying to learn and remember rules.

In other words, we will achieve the ability to produce correct speech automatically without thinking about it only through acquisition, which results from getting comprehensible input.

This view that correction is useless or futile is controversial within second language acquisition research, with some academics arguing that some correction and instruction can have positive effects on second language attainment.

From my research and observations, I think that careful instruction and correction with focused practice can help in certain cases, such as helping those who initially learned a language through reading a lot without much listening achieve more accurate pronunciation.

However, experiences like that of the AUA Thai Program suggest that the need for correction can be avoided in the first place by having input sufficiently precede one’s output and other use of one’s target language.

Through such an input-first approach, we become self-correcting because we have a strong mental image of the language that our output can match up to, so our ability to use the language will progress and grow automatically over time without the need for any correction.

This is why the approach that Dr. J. Marvin Brown developed came to be called Automatic Language Growth.

So far, not very much academic research has been carried out to see what the effects are of a so-called “silent period” of focusing on input and limiting output when first acquiring a language.

Such research may reveal that any benefits of correction and instruction might be to solve problems that need not exist in the first place, if learners can take an input-first approach.

If I don’t speak the target language, will I still learn it and will speaking start to happen naturally?

Again, speaking ability will develop and emerge on its own time with exposure to comprehensible input.

Students of the AUA Thai Program find they can start automatically using individual words and short phrases that they’ve heard a lot, and this grows over time.

When I attended AUA Thai classes, I was able to speak mostly in single words and short, simple sentences by the end of my first year in Thailand.

When I returned to Canada for about a year-and-a-half, I hardly spoke Thai at all, but I continued to listen to audio, watch TV dramas and videos, and do some Crosstalk, averaging half-an-hour to an hour of input a day over that time.

When I returned to Thailand, I found that I could speak confidently in longer sentences and have more extensive conversations all in Thai.

It seems that my speaking ability had grown as a result of the comprehensible input I had gained, even though I had spoken Thai very little since I had left Thailand.

What I think is helpful is to have opportunities to interact with speakers of your target language where you can speak what comes up for you naturally and automatically.

At early stages, those you are speaking with will be doing a lot to maintain the conversation such as completing and elaborating upon what you can say.

However, it will help a lot that as a result of learning through input, you will have quite good listening comprehension in one-on-one conversations.

This makes it possible to participate in them proficiently, as one AUA student described his ability to converse in Thai even though his output was still quite limited.

Over time, your ability to express yourself in your target language with longer and more complex sentences will emerge and grow.

“My speaking ability followed along the same curve of development as my listening had, at a gap of about 800 or 900 hours,” writes David Long of his experience after attending AUA classes for one year and then beginning to speak Thai.

I already know some of my target language and just want to become fluent. What should I do?

If you already have some knowledge of the language you want to acquire and become fluent in, much the same advice applies as with those who are starting from scratch.

Seek out lots of content and opportunities so that you can listen to lots of comprehensible input in your target language, hearing it in ways that you can understand.

Find opportunities to interact with people who speak the language where you can limit your production to what emerges naturally, and hear a lot of understandable language from them so that you get a high ratio of listening to the target language to producing it.

What you have done previously may have advantages, disadvantages, or both for your acquisition of the language.

For example, already having some knowledge of the language may help you access more content at this point than otherwise, meaning that more opportunities for comprehensible input will be available to you.

On the other hand, if you’ve focused a lot on things like studying grammar rules previously, this can interfere with doing things like speaking naturally and automatically without thinking of these rules.

And if you’ve been practicing speaking a lot before hearing how the language should sound much, this can lead to habits of pronunciation strongly influenced by your first language.

However, even with these drawbacks, I would focus on the positive side.

Comprehensible input is powerful and will take you very far.

Shifting to a focus on comprehensible input and acquisition seems to help learners a lot in “letting go” of a conscious focus on things like grammar rules and instead start to get a more natural and intuitive feel for the language.

For example, a friend described to me unconsciously giving up his old language learning techniques when he started to get a lot of opportunities to hear the language he was learning in understandable and meaningful situations.

A focus on listening will help you also automatically improve your pronunciation and, if not achieve a native-speaker like accent, achieve at least a good and understandable one.

The main thing I would suggest with pronunciation here is to seek help in correcting difficulties with hearing and pronouncing sounds in the language that don’t resolve themselves with continued input.

Enjoy!

With all this in mind, I think the most important thing is to enjoy the process and enjoy yourself while acquiring the language you want to acquire.

Keep listening to things that interest you in the language and keep seeking out content, conversations, and situations that you enjoy.

Have fun!


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