Learn languages like children? Adults aren’t even given the chance!

“Children’s brains are like sponges,” is practically a cliché when it comes to language learning.

Often I hear this kind of remark from adults who, struggling with trying to learn a new language, marvel at the ease with which young children seem to acquire them: “They just soak them up.”

The assumption seems to be that adults’ brains are no longer like sponges. They have hardened in some way and language must be drilled in to them with great difficulty.

What’s interesting to me is that when people talk about children’s brains soaking up languages like sponges, they seem to pay little attention to the other element that this metaphor implies.

How does a sponge get soaked?

It is immersed in water.

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Is correction needed to learn to speak a language well?

When discussing language learning and input-based approaches like Automatic Language Growth (ALG), I encounter many people who insist that you need to have someone correcting you in order to learn to speak a language properly, especially if it’s a “difficult” one like Thai or Mandarin that has tones and other features that don’t exist in English.

They are often quite adamant about the need for instruction and constant correction and can’t seem to conceive of an adult learner being able to pronounce a language correctly without study and practice.

In my experience, it is possible even as an adult to learn to speak a language pretty clearly, to say the least, without any explicit instruction or practice.

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Real Language Learning

One thing that has kept me going through difficulties and discouragement in working to apply Automatic Language Growth (ALG) and related methods to help myself and others learn languages is the many moments where I’ve experienced effortless and enjoyable language learning.

When I was learning Mandarin Chinese without study, trying to pick it up by watching TV shows and cartoons, there would be moments where new words and grammar would suddenly click into place.

The context made the meaning of these pieces of the language abundantly clear, and I would instantly understand them, be able to remember them, and automatically start to think using them.

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The difference between ALG and AUA

An explanation of the Automatic Language Growth, or ALG, approach to language learning and the AUA Thai Program in Bangkok, where the ALG method has mainly been applied.

Image search results for ALG "Automatic Language Growth"
An image search for ALG and “Automatic Language Growth” brings up mostly stills of AUA classes. However, ALG and AUA aren’t synonymous.

At present, the ALG approach is being implemented in only one language program: the AUA Thai Program in Bangkok where it originated over 30 years ago.

Because of this, and perhaps also the uniqueness of both the approach and the program, people tend to conflate the two, drawing conclusions about ALG based on their experiences with AUA, or what they’ve read and heard about AUA.

Therefore, it’s important to make a clear distinction between ALG and AUA.

ALG is the language learning method and AUA—specifically, the AUA Thai Program in Bangkok—implements ALG, giving learners an opportunity to follow the method.

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What is Automatic Language Growth?

Almost everything I write here will directly reference or be influenced in some way by my knowledge and experience of Automatic Language Growth, so it’s worth starting off with a summary of this approach to language learning.

Automatic Language Growth, or ALG, is intended to bring learners of any age from no knowledge of a language to the native speaker’s level of ability without conscious effort.

ALG is based on the theory that, contrary to popular belief, adults have not lost the ability to pick up languages as effortlessly as young children do, and reach native-like levels of fluency and accuracy.

What has actually changed is their environment and the approach that they take, and these changes are the cause of the difficulties and lower attainment we typically observe in adults.

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Welcome

Over the past decade, I’ve been researching language learning methods and theories with the question of how we can more effectively learn new languages.

Based on what I’ve learned and experienced, I think it’s not only possible for the typical adult to reach very high levels of fluency and ability in new languages, it also doesn’t have to be a struggle.

In fact, given the right opportunities and resources, I think it could become normal for second language learning at any age to be an incredibly fun experience where the learner gains other skills and knowledge throughout the process.

We might even be able to go from zero ability to approaching the level of a native speaker having hardly spent any conscious time or effort on the language learning itself.

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