Answering a Reader’s Questions about the ALG Approach and Language Acquisition

A Beyond Language Learning reader has emailed me with some good questions about second language acquisition, comprehensible input, and the Automatic Language Growth approach. I’ve decided to post my answers here, as I’m sure other readers will have similar questions. I answered each question much like an interview, with the things that first came to mind, and then edited it. These answers should be taken as some of my thoughts on each question and not the final word. There’s much more I could say about any of them.

What led you to follow the ALG method?

Having grown up monolingual, as an adult I became interested in how adults could reach very high levels of ability in second languages. I discovered ALG and it interested me because of its claim that adults can pick up new languages like children, without conscious effort, and approach native-like abilities, and its theory that it’s how we learn languages that matters far more than when.

I returned to university to study psychology and linguistics and examine the research on second language acquisition in light of these ideas. I was surprised to find that there wasn’t any research that really tested ALG theory, for example by having adults learn languages more like children over extended periods of time by having them learn implicitly without forcing speaking and so on.

Given both this lack of research, and my interest in the possibility of being able to pick up a new language to very high levels of ability as an adult, I wanted to try out the ALG approach and experience it for myself to see what would happen.

How have you seen it succeed personally?

Personally, I have found that listening to a language a lot in understandable contexts  first—in other words, hearing many hours of spoken comprehensible input before speaking much myself—allowed me to acquire clear and accurate pronunciation, tones, etc., in Mandarin and Thai, without the need for instruction, correction, or practice, even though these languages are widely considered difficult for English speakers to learn to pronounce correctly.

I’ve seen the same with other people who have followed the ALG approach, while those who tried to speak a lot from the beginning generally ended up with pronunciations and accents heavily influenced by those of their first language. I don’t consider myself fluent yet in the languages I’ve been acquiring, but seeing that following the ALG approach of listening a lot first appears to allow one to approach more native-like accents and pronunciations effortlessly, and considering that phonology seems to be the first area where an age-related decline is observed in second language learning, these things taken together suggest that more native-like results will follow in other areas such as grammar just by continuing to acquire the language with the same approach.

Is there anything you would change about it?

First, I think it’s important to recognize that there has so far been little formal research that deals with the central claims of ALG theory. I’ve read a lot of existing SLA literature and I don’t find anything that really invalidates ALG, and many things that I think point towards it being accurate, but a lot more research is needed on the kinds of questions that ALG raises. Second, the ALG method hasn’t yet really been implemented fully as Dr. J. Marvin Brown envisioned. There is the AUA Thai Program, but as great as it is, it has a lot of limitations especially with its classroom context. Brown’s vision was for learners to be able to get plenty of real-life experiences, or highly memorable understandable “happenings”, from moment to moment in a second language. Because the theory and method which make up the ALG approach haven’t even really been put into research and practice yet, I think it’s hard to really talk at this point about what to change about it.

Having said that, I have thought about whether there would always have to be some compromise away from a “purist” implementation of ALG to get the best results for the average adult. Perhaps it’s simply unrealistic to expect most adults to learn languages like children so much when they aren’t children anymore. At the same time, academics who specialize in the field generally agree that second language acquisition, even in adulthood, has a lot in common with first language acquisition. They also generally agree that comprehensible input is foundational or critical to language acquisition. Given these things, ALG is not nearly as radical or extreme as many people think, and I find it surprising that there aren’t more opportunities and content to provide adults with lots of highly interesting and comprehensible input that would take advantage of the abilities that they still have to acquire languages implicitly. By making input and implicit learning such a focus, I think the ALG approach has a lot to offer in terms of helping to advance research and develop opportunities for more and better comprehensible input, and so it makes sense to me that the main focus should be on moving forward with putting ALG into research and practice rather than on how to compromise it.

Just to give some background on my thinking here: In my interactions with many people who were familiar with AUA or attended AUA classes, I heard many of them say good things about how it provided so much comprehensible Thai, but at the same time they talked about wanting elements like translations, corrections, or speaking practice added to the program, while not seeming particularly interested in how the kinds of opportunities that AUA provided to just pick up languages through memorable experiences could be developed and made available to more people. I suppose this was generally because they were concerned more with their own perceived immediate needs as Thai learners, rather than with how the benefits of ALG could be brought to be more people. This is however understandable as many of them came in contact with the program because of a need or desire to learn Thai, while my interest in it has been primarily about finding better ways for people to acquire languages and applying them.

My experience with using a combination of comprehensible input, some non-immersion resources (specifically Language Transfer podcast) and a bit of Anki has been very successful. Do you think these other resources are inherently detrimental?

I think a lot depends on how the other resources are used. ALG theory would say that any conscious study or practice in the early stages of acquiring a second language, or which deals with language we haven’t yet acquired unconsciously, is going to interfere with ultimately coming as close as possible to native-like abilities in the target language (contrary to the widely accepted idea that adults have simply lost the ability to pick up new languages as young children do and approach native-like levels in them, ALG theory says adults retain this faculty, but it’s the typical use of abilities they’ve gained with maturity that get in the way).

Having said that, I think some activities are much more detrimental than others. Take translation or the use of one’s first language. If one starts learning a language by memorizing lists of words using translations, and practices translating between languages and saying them a lot, they’re creating and reinforcing a lot of connections that are different from what a native speaker of that language has. Among other things, the L1 translations won’t reflect the full meaning of those words in the L2 with their usages and connotations, and by practicing saying them without hearing the L2 a lot first, one is likely to practice saying them with at least an accent influenced by their L1, if not mispronounce them. Getting a lot of subsequent experience with the language might not correct these kinds of mislearning entirely, even after many years.

On the other hand, if the use of the L1 or translation is limited to things like checking a translation of a word when one can’t get the meaning from context, or checking subtitles when one is watching a show and doesn’t know what is being said, this is far less detrimental. This is closer to the ALG guidelines of focusing on listening to comprehensible input and focusing on overall meaning rather than individual words. By using translation as a comprehension tool to understand overall meaning, connections based on hearing the words in context that are more like what a native speaker would have are being reinforced more from the beginning. So I think this would be far less detrimental and the effects may perhaps even be negligible from a practical standpoint in the long term.

Many language learners today who are self-studying following comprehension-based approaches find it necessary to use their L1 or translations in some way because of the lack of content that’s both interesting provides enough context to be highly comprehensible to them, especially at the beginning stages. These kinds of L1 use help them to understand the content and get more comprehensible input out of it, especially at the early stages then someone who avoids that. As I’ve said, I think it would be much better to just be able to access plenty of content that’s highly comprehensible and interesting on its own without translation, even for total beginners.

I teach recent immigrants to the US, and the curriculum I use is very production based because these people have a necessity to use English every day. How would you use the principles of ALG in the teaching of such a group?

First, I would caution anyone against simply trying to turn an existing program with students into an ALG program like the one at AUA for many reasons. Among other things, it takes time and resources to develop such a program properly, and students might not take well to suddenly having a very different methodology imposed upon them.

Having said that, one thing I would ask is how much English is it actually necessary for them to speak at their current stage. Can they get by using the English structures they’ve really acquired without forcing speaking beyond this? I realize that for many adult second language learners there is pressure and even a need to produce the target language. At the same time, I think the need to speak a lot from the beginning can be overestimated, even for language learners such as immigrants.

What’s often forgotten in language learning and teaching is that language is just one part of communication, and in many situations other things can contribute as much or more to communicating effectively, such as making good use of context and non-verbal tools. By focusing only on language, a learner might think for example that they can’t communicate something because they don’t know a certain more complex structure in their target language, and forget about all the other tools like non-verbal communication that they can use with the language they have at that point to communicate effectively. By focusing more on communication as a whole rather than language, which is just one part of it, they might become more effective at communicating even with limited English.

One big aspect of ALG is focusing on that bigger picture of communication rather than on language itself, again, treating language as just one part of communication. So as a teacher you might look at what your students’ communicative needs are from day to day and figure out how they can meet them using all the communication tools available to them, of which the English they’ve acquired so far is one part, and help them to be able to develop their communication abilities further and acquire more English.

Another big aspect of ALG is getting plenty of experience with the language in understandable ways, in other words, getting lots of comprehensible input. I would want to have the students be getting as much understandable experience with English or comprehensible input in English that’s really meaningful to them from day to day. One way to accomplish this could be to help each student find content to watch and listen to that they find interesting and understandable at their level, and encourage them to spend as much time getting this as possible.

Another way might be to try to help them find opportunities and activities in the community where they can have contact with English speakers and get a lot of experience with English and opportunities to interact and communicate at their level of English. I would see how they could elicit a lot of understandable language from English speakers in these interactions, so they can get a very high ratio of hearing and understanding English to their speaking.

When is someone ready to begin speaking using ALG methods?

Theoretically, one might begin to speak even almost from the very start, as it isn’t so much speaking in itself that creates problems as it is consciously trying to use and produce language. Many young children exposed to a new language start to say some things from very early on, but they generally aren’t consciously trying to it in the way that older learners typically are. However, for many adults learning a language, it seems that trying to speak is so ingrained that they might think that they are just speaking the second language much like the child would, when actually they are practicing it using adult abilities, like trying to practice saying things and getting them right. Because of this, I’ve often thought that it might be better in general to encourage adults who are following ALG-style approaches to deliberately and actively maintain a silent period for a few months or a few hundred hours of input at least.

What I found was by just listening a lot to my target languages first, I could start to get a feel for what kind of speaking would be natural where I was at and what would be forced speaking. With Thai, over time I started to hear the language in general more and more clearly, and in particular I heard words that I had heard and understood a lot in context much more clearly. Then these would start to “pop up” or come to mind automatically in situations where it would be natural to say them. This started with things like greetings, “yes/no” answers, and numbers, then more words and very simple phrases, then grew to longer sentences. So speaking emerges gradually based on input, not all at once, although there might be dramatic leaps in some cases. Basically one should stick to what just comes to mind, what’s just “there”, rather than trying to consciously contrive language.

Again, it might be so ingrained in many adults who start acquiring a second language to practice repeating or speaking that holding to a “silent period” might be necessary to develop a feel for what is natural output and what is forced. I did actively refrain from speaking to some extent partly for this reason and also as an experiment, but as I said I did start to say some things that I found started coming out naturally after a few months of input.

How does one make sure not to create a ratio of too much output compared to input?

Spend as much time as possible with content that you find highly interesting and highly comprehensible at your level. Find enjoyable opportunities to interact and communicate with speakers of the language in ways that you are hearing a lot of understandable language from them and have opportunities to use the language that are suited to your current level. While your ratio of listening to speaking will be very, very high at the early stages, as you gain a foundation with the language you can spend a much greater proportion of time on output later on.

You’ve written about how to use ALG to learn a language with a tutor. What do you think the best way to learn without a tutor would be?

You could seek out content that’s understandable and interesting in your target language and start by watching and listening to it a lot, though as we have seen, this content is still scarce. Besides tutors, you could find language exchange partners or people who want to learn a language that you speak fluently and together use Crosstalk, where each person speaks their own language and communicates using non-verbal tools as necessary to get across the meaning of what they’re saying. You could also try to find a situation that suits you where you can be surrounded by your target language a lot in ways that you can understand it without being expected to speak it or do other things from the beginning, for example maybe a homestay.

I have been trying to make videos for English comprehensible input as there are so few even though more people are learning English than any other language. Your videos really inspired me and I plan on sharing your channel with my viewers. Are there any other ways I could contribute to the spread of ALG and other revolutionary language learning methods?

Please share my YouTube channels and videos with others who might be interested. Besides my English Comprehensible Input channel, there is also the Beyond Language Learning channel. Anyone who wishes to can also support my work through my Patreon or PayPal.

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