Answering questions from readers about applying the ALG approach of acquiring a language by listening to comprehensible input with tutors and language exchange partners
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.
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.
A pair of inspiring videos provides a method for picking up a language without study through comprehensible input. Just listening when first using it and speaking one’s own language can lead to more native-like abilities, and let people acquire each other’s languages together.
ALG theory suggests that adults can effortlessly learn languages as well as young children do when they learn them like children: picking them up through listening and understanding without conscious study or practice.
This means teaching the language by speaking it in ways that students can understand it at their level, using non-verbal communication as needed, without adding things like translation or speaking practice.
I also couldn’t find any content that was suited to this kind of approach, such as videos in a foreign language that are both highly understandable and interesting for adults who are just beginning to learn it.
How then could I acquire a language the way I wanted to?
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.
Could the lack of interesting and understandable content explain a common behaviour among language learners?
A good friend not long ago remarked that he’s “starving for comprehensible input”—opportunities to hear the language he’s learning in ways that are both highly interesting and highly understandable at his level.
He lives in Bangkok, just a few stops away from a one-of-a-kindprogram that provides hundreds of hours of Thai input in ways even beginners can understand no matter their first language, but a busy schedule keeps him from going there.
He occasionally takes lessons with a Thai tutor who understands the importance of comprehensible input, but is also too busy to do much about it—booked solid with students who demand not to hear a lot of Thai in understandable ways, but rather, to get explanations of how the language works and how to say things in it.
Second language acquisition research shows that we acquire languages and become fluent in them not through study and practice of words and grammar rules, but through massive comprehensible input.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
It 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.
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.