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.
Meaningful repetition helps learners acquire new language, both by increasing their comprehension through adding redundancy to the input and by increasing their number of understandable encounters with words and structures.
I talked a lot about the power of the circling technique, where a teacher makes a statement in the target language and then asks their students various kinds of questions based on what they just said.
Since that post, a friend has alerted me to another way of providing a lot of meaningful repetition of language.
He finds it so useful for acquiring language that he calls it “the crown jewel of comprehensible input”.
I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I can certainly see how powerful it can be.
We could call this technique the use of parallel structure.
With around a million followers across social media, A.J. Hoge is perhaps the most influential former student of the AUA Thai Program so far in terms of impacting language learning in the wider world.
In developing his Effortless English system to help learners who have studied English for years but still can’t speak it well, Hoge (rhymes with “rogue”) surveyed a variety of language-teaching methods, especially ones based on comprehensible input.
His research included attending AUA in Bangkok for over 600 hours of classes taught uniquely using the Automatic Language Growth (ALG) methodology, where students pick up Thai without study or practice through listening to teachers who speak it using non-verbal communication and context to make it understandable.
Thankfully, Hoge blogged about his experiences at AUA around 2004 and shared his thoughts and analyses, and his writings have remained online since then.
I didn’t give his posts much thought when I first read them, but after attending AUA myself for over a year, noting how it differs from what was intended for ALG, and surveying other comprehension-based approaches, I realize that I’ve arrived at very similar views on how AUA’s implementation of ALG could be improved.
As I’ll explain though, there’s another aspect of ALG that I would also emphasize strongly in improving how the approach is implemented: the power of highly memorable experiences in the target language.
With indigenous languages making up most of the thousands that are in danger of disappearing, an important question is how to keep them alive.
Before getting into this topic, I must acknowledge that preserving and reviving endangered and minority languages requires the expertise of those who specialize in that area, and of course the involvement of the speakers themselves and other members of their communities.
I am not in any of these categories, but I want to share and discuss the Automatic Language Growth (ALG) approach because I think it presents some possibilities and methods that with research and development could be very helpful to language preservation.
In my previous post, I wrote about how beyond being just theoretical, how we think about language acquisition can have real consequences.
To illustrate, I used an example of how misconceptions and limiting beliefs may have led a prominent person to give up on language learning, having consequences for his political career that in turn may have impacted a great many people.
In an interview, Canadian former politician and diplomat Stephen Lewis said he couldn’t consider a run for the leadership of a national party because he doesn’t speak French—a necessity given Canada’s official bilingualism and large populations of both primarily English and primarily French speakers.
He recalled that his efforts to learn the language included a one-month immersion course at l’Institut de Français in France where students must speak only in French, but he said that he was the first person in the history of the program to fail.
“I’m just really lousy in languages,” he concluded.
Lewis appears to have taken a number of ideas from his experience with the program and interpreted them to support this conclusion.
In this post I want to examine these ideas in more detail, and suggest an alternative approach that might suit many people better—perhaps especially those who, like Lewis, have assumed that they’re simply bad at languages.
As I look back on 2018 and look forward to this coming year, I realize that 2019 will mark ten years since I discovered the Automatic Language Growth approach in the course of researching how we as adults might learn new languages to very high levels of ability.
ALG suggests that adults can effortlessly acquire new languages and even approach native-like levels in them as young children appear to, given the same “childlike” approach of implicit learning without conscious study or practice, and the opportunities for interesting and understandable experiences with the language to support it.
Pursuing my interest in language acquisition and the ALG approach over the years has brought me down an exciting path that includes:
A highly experienced language teacher expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of the ALG method, and was unimpressed with the student’s report of being able to recognize many words, though not yet understand most of them, after 30 hours of classes.
The teacher uses TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling), another comprehensible input-based language teaching method.
TPRS teachers use tools such as translation to establish the meanings of new words, very slow speaking of the target language to ensure understanding, and asking many questions to provide meaningful repetition of language and check student comprehension.
They generally aim for very high levels of comprehension on the part of their students, with some trying to ensure that nearly 100% of the words that they say in the target language are not just comprehensible to their students, but indeed comprehended by them.
To these TPRS teachers, it may appear that the time that the student has spent in the ALG classroom has mostly been wasted.
What acquisition of language could have occurred if the student has comprehended so little of the actual language that they have heard?
In my last post, I wrote about the dangers of focusing on certain aspects of Automatic Language Growth as it’s applied in places like the AUA Thai Program, then emphasizing these actually peripheral things at the expense of more central and critical aspects of the approach.
I looked at the avoidance of translation or first-language use that many people take note of in ALG classes, and argued that this isn’t really central to ALG: Using the learner’s first language to help get meaning across can be compatible with ALG when the learner’s attention is entirely on meaning rather than language.
Rather than focusing on avoiding or banning translation, we should be focusing on the heart of ALG: providing abundant compelling comprehensible input in the target language for learners at every level, with the goal of creating understandable experiences so rich in context and meaning that no translation is needed.
Following some recent discussions, I’ve been thinking about another aspect of ALG as it’s observed in practice: the role of guessing.
A sometime enthusiast of the Automatic Language Growth approach recently remarked to me that there’s a somewhat cultish aspect to the theory.
I definitely agree that the central claims of ALG—that given the right experiences and approach, adults can acquire new languages effortlessly and approach native-like levels of fluency—are of the sort that can inspire potentially cult-like devotion.
One of the main messages I try to communicate is that there are good reasons to take such claims seriously and they need to be the subject of rigorous scientific research.
In the meantime, we need to think clearly and carefully about how we go about putting ALG ideas and concepts into practice.
A danger that can arise from an uncritical devotion to ALG based on aspects of the theory that can capture the imagination is to become dogmatic about applying it without regard to practical concerns such as the overall context.