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.
The response has been positive from those who are already familiar with AUA and the ALG approach, as well as from others who are involved in language teaching using comprehensible input-based approaches.
Of course, to focus on the response from this audience would be, to some extent, just preaching to the choir.
I’m more concerned about feedback from people such as those who are unfamiliar with comprehensible input and those who are skeptical of approaches like ALG, so that I can respond to their questions and criticisms and learn from them.
The Automatic Language Growth page on this site features the script of the video and will eventually include and link to more detailed background information and research. For now you can watch the video and read this synopsis:
Automatic Language Growth, or ALG, is a comprehensible input-based approach to language teaching, meaning it’s based on the idea that we learn languages by being exposed to them in ways that we can understand what is being communicated.
This puts ALG in the same category as better-known CI-based approaches such as TPR (Total Physical Response), TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling), and Story Listening.
What sets ALG apart is that it is a developing theory and method of language acquisition that was conceived with the goal of bringing adults from zero knowledge to native-like fluency in second languages.
The ALG approach can in fact subsume these other CI-based approaches where they are consistent with its approach to language learning.
It’s been over 30 years since the American linguist Dr. J. Marvin Brown originated the Automatic Language Growth approach to language learning.
The ALG approach claims that adults can become like native speakers of second languages as easily as young children do if they learn them the same way, picking them up implicitly with a lot of listening before speaking much.
Since its inception in 1984, the AUA Thai Program in Bangkok has been one of the few programs anywhere that allows adult learners to follow the ALG method, giving them the opportunity to pick up Thai language through understandable experiences without translation or study, and without having to practice speaking.
Today, after more than three decades, ALG has hardly gotten any further than where it began in Southeast Asia.
In a previous post I wrote that what’s missing from research on second-language acquisition overlaps so much with Automatic Language Growth theory and methods that SLA research could be said to have an ALG-shaped hole.
I focused on what I think are the largest areas of this research hole, starting with the lack of scientific control in research on the issue of age and second language acquisition.
ALG posits that adult language learners typically attain less with greater effort than children learning languages because of how their approach and environment typically differs from children.
Yet researchers have generally observed the lower rates of attainment in adults and assumed that they result from some loss of ability, without even proposing to try to control for these differences.
I argued a major part of controlling for these differences would be research into a “silent period” of listening to a language before speaking, based on the observation that while a child gets a lot of exposure to a new language early on, for some time their production is quite limited.
Every academic discipline has its research gaps and holes—those areas that haven’t been adequately investigated and the questions that haven’t been answered, or even asked.
The field of second language acquisition is no exception.
What’s fascinating, and at times maddening, about looking at the Automatic Language Growth, or ALG approach, alongside existing research on second-language acquisition is how so much of what ALG asserts and touches upon has not really been examined.
These gaps coincide so much with ALG theory and practice that I would say it’s as if the research on second language acquisition has an ALG-shaped hole.
In this post I will focus on what I think are the most prominent parts of this research hole: scientific control in research on the issue of age and second language acquisition, and the so-called “silent period”.