Advice to heritage language learners: Don’t focus so much on the language!

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.

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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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Guessing for meaning can be helpful, but it’s not what ALG is really about

In my last post, I wrote about the dangers of focusing on certain aspects of Automatic Language Growth as it’s applied in places like the AUA Thai Program, then emphasizing these actually peripheral things at the expense of more central and critical aspects of the approach.

I looked at the avoidance of translation or first-language use that many people take note of in ALG classes, and argued that this isn’t really central to ALG: Using the learner’s first language to help get meaning across can be compatible with ALG when the learner’s attention is entirely on meaning rather than language.

Rather than focusing on avoiding or banning translation, we should be focusing on the heart of ALG: providing abundant compelling comprehensible input in the target language for learners at every level, with the goal of creating understandable experiences so rich in context and meaning that no translation is needed.

Following some recent discussions, I’ve been thinking about another aspect of ALG as it’s observed in practice: the role of guessing.

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The Dangers of “Cargo-Cult” Thinking in Applying the ALG Approach

A sometime enthusiast of the Automatic Language Growth approach recently remarked to me that there’s a somewhat cultish aspect to the theory.

I definitely agree that the central claims of ALG—that given the right experiences and approach, adults can acquire new languages effortlessly and approach native-like levels of fluency—are of the sort that can inspire potentially cult-like devotion.

One of the main messages I try to communicate is that there are good reasons to take such claims seriously and they need to be the subject of rigorous scientific research.

Research of this kind largely hasn’t been done yet, but I think it could yield important insights supporting far better language learning.

In the meantime, we need to think clearly and carefully about how we go about putting ALG ideas and concepts into practice.

A danger that can arise from an uncritical devotion to ALG based on aspects of the theory that can capture the imagination is to become dogmatic about applying it without regard to practical concerns such as the overall context.

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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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What is Automatic Language Growth?

Update: This new video gives an introduction to the Automatic Language Growth approach, telling the story so far of the ALG method and theory:

More information is available on the post about the video. You can find a script on Beyond Language Learning’s new page on ALG, where further background information will be added.

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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