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.

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How “Parallel Structure” Can Enhance Comprehensible Input with More Meaningful Repetition of Language

In a recent post I wrote about how meaningful repetition of language can help provide comprehensible input (CI) to language learners and support acquisition.

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.

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Abundant Compelling Comprehensible Input: What We’re Aiming For, and How to Get There

There’s no shortage of compelling things to communicate in every language. The challenge is having people make them highly comprehensible even to those who don’t yet know their language at all.

In order to acquire new languages as effectively, efficiently, enjoyably, and effortlessly as possible, the most important thing is to have an abundance of compelling comprehensible input at every level.

Compelling comprehensible input means being able to hear the language you’re learning in ways that are both highly interesting and highly understandable to you.

Unfortunately, although we have both the technology and human resources to create it in abundance today, compelling comprehensible input remains needlessly scarce.

This is especially the case for total beginners, but it’s true for every level of learner, all the way up to advanced.

This blog, Beyond Language Learning, is about creating a world where compelling comprehensible input is available in abundance to every language learner.

You’re reading this, I hope, because you too are interested in the same kind of goal, thinking about how to get there, and perhaps even working already to build that world.

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How Meaningful Repetition of Language Supports Comprehension and Acquisition

A friend who uses the ALG (Automatic Language Growth) approach to learn and teach languages recently asked a discussion group what reasoning, if any, is behind so much repetition of words when teaching with comprehensible input-based methods like TPRS (Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling).

He had attended some language classes that used a lot of circling, a technique where the teacher asks many questions about a statement they’ve just made and solicits and provides answers.

For example, the teacher says “John is drinking coffee,” then asks: “Is John drinking tea?” (Students: “No.”) Teacher: “No, John is not drinking tea. Is John drinking coffee?” (Students: “Yes.”) Teacher: “Yes, John is drinking coffee. Who is drinking coffee? Is John drinking coffee?”, and so on.

From even this very brief example, it’s clear that the circling technique provides enormous amounts of repetition of language: “coffee” appears five times and the verb “drink” is used seven times.

However, my friend noted that even when a teacher made the meaning of a word clear and repeated it hundreds of times during a lesson, he usually wouldn’t remember it the next day.

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We Need Opportunities To Pick Up Languages Without Study

About a month ago I released a video telling the story so far of Automatic Language Growth, the AUA Thai Program, and the need for better research and opportunities to support language acquisition for adults.

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.

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We Need Experience of All Kinds for Better Language Learning

Experience is huge in the theory and practice of Automatic Language Growth, which claims that even as adults we can effortlessly pick up new languages and approach native-like levels of fluency and ability.

The ALG approach is based on the notion of comprehensible input popularized by Dr. Stephen Krashen, who said the only way we acquire language is “when we understand messages.”

In developing ALG, Dr. J. Marvin Brown narrowed this idea of understanding messages down to “happenings”: hearing the target language in meaningful situations that have elements like a ‘who’, a ‘what’, a ‘when’, a ‘where’, a ‘why’, and a ‘how’.

The idea is to create understandable experiences through which students can pick up language without paying attention to the language.

ALG argues that rather than age, the adult tendency to focus on and analyze language is a main reason why older learners don’t learn them as successfully as young children, who cannot consciously do that.

But in implementing ALG, Dr. Brown wanted a lot more than plain old “happenings”.

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Is the Classroom Context Killing Comprehensible Input-Based Language Teaching?

classroom-1910012_1920It wasn’t long after I began to look into how we can learn new languages to very high levels of ability that I learned about comprehensible input.

The notion that we learn languages and become fluent not by studying and practicing words and rules, but through exposure to them in ways that we understand what is being said, revolutionized my thinking.

A further revelation was discovering the Automatic Language Growth (ALG) approach, which suggests that through comprehensible input alone, even adults can effortlessly approach native-like levels in new languages, provided that the input sufficiently precedes conscious output and study.

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AUA Thai Program Alumni Create Comprehensible Input for Beginners

In many of my posts I have lamented the lack of comprehensible input for language learners, whether it be in the form of classes or other resources.

In my last post, I observed that while academics today generally agree that comprehensible input is very important to language acquisition, more comprehensible input exists today mainly by accident—because technology has made so much foreign language media easily available.

However most of this media, like TV shows and movies, is aimed at native speakers and so is not very comprehensible for beginners to efficiently pick up language from.

Even though media is so easy to create and distribute today, there isn’t a comparable effort to create good comprehensible input for beginner and intermediate learners that doesn’t require study or translation.

In this post I want to take a more positive focus and highlight some work that people have been doing to create this kind of input.

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Where Is All the Comprehensible Input?

It’s been well over 30 years since linguist Dr. Stephen Krashen popularized the notion of comprehensible input as the basis for language acquisition.

According to Krashen, even as adults we become fluent in new languages not by studying and practicing words and rules, but by gaining exposure to language in ways that make it understandable to us.

You can see Krashen demonstrating comprehensible input in a 1983 BBC documentary where he’s shown giving an audience two brief German lessons.

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Audio description of TV and movies: a great source of comprehensible input for language learners

A potential goldmine of content might be just the press of a button away if you’re a language learner who wants to pick up a language through watching and listening.

Audio description, also known as described video, video description, or visual description, adds a narrator’s description of precisely what’s happening on the screen to a program’s soundtrack.

Various logos for audio description and described video

Audio description is primarily intended to benefit people who are blind or visually impaired by making the visual content accessible to them through hearing.

What appears to be overlooked is its tremendous value as a tool for language acquisition.

By providing a great source of comprehensible input—language made understandable through context—audio description also makes the target language more accessible to language learners.

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