The Focus on Age over Method in Language Learning Harms Children as Well as Adults

I’ve written lots 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.

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How Automatic Language Growth Might Help Preserve Endangered Languages

An approach inspired in part by the language learning practices of indigenous peoples themselves could open up more opportunities to revive indigenous languages and others that are endangered.

The United Nations has proclaimed 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages to raise awareness and mobilize efforts to protect and promote the languages of indigenous peoples around the world.

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.

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Automatic Language Growth: The Story So Far (New Video!)

Beyond Language Learning’s YouTube channel is up with its first video. In about seven minutes it tells the story of the Automatic Language Growth (ALG) approach and the unique AUA Thai Program, describing how they upend common beliefs about language learning in adulthood, and may represent the future of language learning. Enjoy!

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:

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Language learning research and opportunities for comprehensible input: a “chicken-and-egg” problem

While I intend to write on many different topics that relate to language learning, there are two main things I want to advocate for with this blog:

More research on language learning, especially on issues like age and second language acquisition. I think that research that controls for the differences between what adults and children typically do and experience when learning languages will reveal that adults have a much greater potential to effortlessly pick up languages than commonly believed if they are given the right opportunities, namely:

More opportunities for comprehensible input in second languages. I think we’ve really just barely scratched the surface in terms of creating media and experiences that adults can pick up language from without the need for study or translation, especially opportunities that are highly understandable and interesting for beginners.

As it is now, it seems the lack of research on language learning and the lack of opportunities for comprehensible input make up kind of a “chicken-and-egg” problem—a vicious cycle where the lack of one reinforces the lack of the other.

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The ALG-shaped hole in second-language acquisition research: a further look

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.

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The ALG-shaped hole in research on second-language acquisition

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”.

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