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.
A highly experienced language teacher expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of the ALG method, and was unimpressed with the student’s report of being able to recognize many words, though not yet understand most of them, after 30 hours of classes.
The teacher uses TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling), another comprehensible input-based language teaching method.
TPRS teachers use tools such as translation to establish the meanings of new words, very slow speaking of the target language to ensure understanding, and asking many questions to provide meaningful repetition of language and check student comprehension.
They generally aim for very high levels of comprehension on the part of their students, with some trying to ensure that nearly 100% of the words that they say in the target language are not just comprehensible to their students, but indeed comprehended by them.
To these TPRS teachers, it may appear that the time that the student has spent in the ALG classroom has mostly been wasted.
What acquisition of language could have occurred if the student has comprehended so little of the actual language that they have heard?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.