I’ve writtenlots and even made a video pointing out a very common mistake made by academics and laypeople alike on the topic of second-language acquisition.
This is the conclusion that language learning is inherently more difficult and less successful with age, based on the observation that the older one begins to learn a new language, the worse the results tend to be.
What this assumption ignores is the vast differences between what adults and young children learning new languages typically do and experience.
Adults generally consciously study and practice new languages before they’ve even had much exposure to them, while children pick up languages implicitly, listening and understanding a lot before speaking much.
However, research and the experiences of many learners show that with a lot of comprehensible input—language presented in a way that’s understandable—adults too can pick up language without instruction as children do.
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.
Sometimes when I’m thinking and writing about all of these issues around language acquisition, so much of it can seem so highly technical or theoretical that I wonder if it’s all just academic with little actual relevance to everyday people’s lives.
Then I see or hear something that reminds me of the real need for better ways for people to pick up languages, and the huge consequences of limiting or simply incorrect ideas about language learning, leading to many opportunities (and perhaps even languages!) being silently lost.
I looked at some of these limiting ideas in a recent post on heritage language learners, many of whom seem discouraged as a result of the influence of “traditional” language learning approaches that put the focus on the language itself through study and practice.
Without knowledge of how they can improve in their language through comprehensible input and meaningful communication, many of these learners appear to give up on their heritage languages despite the great foundations they already have in them.
I saw another example of ignorance around language acquisition having big consequences in a TV interview that aired several years ago in Canada, where English and French are official languages and Quebec’s status as the sole Francophone majority province shapes the politics of the country.
When trying to imitate what young children learning languages do, we adults must also take into account how they think (and don’t think). Ignore this, and what we end up doing can be totally different.
Many other language learning bloggers appearquiteskeptical about that idea, so I wanted to see what he had to say.
I think he’s on the right track in a lot of ways: for example, he says that adults can and should pick up grammar like children do, acquiring it through comprehensible input without explicit instruction.
He also writes that “[t]raditional language study and reading can actually get in the way of learning”, and suggests focusing on reading after getting attuned to the spoken language—a point I think is overlooked even by many proponents of “natural” or “learn like a child” approaches.
However, I think he’s also made the same kind of error that I’ve seen many other people make when they look at children’s language learning and try to apply it to adults.
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 typical heritage language learner has learned their heritage language to some extent in childhood from parents and relatives, but they’ve become more proficient in the language that dominates where they’ve grown up and been formally educated.
The question they face is how they can develop their heritage language from their current level to higher levels of proficiency.
Heritage language learning is quite a complex area that encompasses a range of issues, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on it.
However, seeing a couple of questions recently from heritage learners on the subreddit r/languagelearning, I felt obliged to offer some suggestions based on my experience and knowledge of language acquisition.
To me the difficulties these posters express appear to be consequences of the influence of “traditional” language learning with its focus on language itself, and they point to the advantages of comprehension-based approaches such as Automatic Language Growth (ALG) that focus on understanding and communicating meaning.
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.