How to Make Input-Based Language Teaching More Efficient: Comprehensibility, Repetition, and Memorable Experience

With around a million followers across social media, A.J. Hoge is perhaps the most influential former student of the AUA Thai Program so far in terms of impacting language learning in the wider world.

A.J. Hoge Effortless English ad
A.J. Hoge in an online ad for his Effortless English system

In developing his Effortless English system to help learners who have studied English for years but still can’t speak it well, Hoge (rhymes with “rogue”) surveyed a variety of language-teaching methods, especially ones based on comprehensible input.

His research included attending AUA in Bangkok for over 600 hours of classes taught uniquely using the Automatic Language Growth (ALG) methodology, where students pick up Thai without study or practice through listening to teachers who speak it using non-verbal communication and context to make it understandable.

Thankfully, Hoge blogged about his experiences at AUA around 2004 and shared his thoughts and analyses, and his writings have remained online since then.

I didn’t give his posts much thought when I first read them, but after attending AUA myself for over a year, noting how it differs from what was intended for ALG, and surveying other comprehension-based approaches, I realize that I’ve arrived at very similar views on how AUA’s implementation of ALG could be improved.

As I’ll explain though, there is another aspect of ALG that I would emphasize much more in improving how the approach is implemented: the power of highly-memorable experiences in the target language.

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Some Limiting Ideas about Language Learning and an Alternative Approach

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.

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How Young Children’s Mimicry of Language is Very Different from Adult Learners’ “Listen and Repeat”

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.

I was interested to come across a recent post by Donovan Nagel on The Mezzofanti Guild blog titled “How To Learn Languages Like A Child (Yes It Is Possible)“.

Many other language learning bloggers appear quite skeptical 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.

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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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An ALG student understands only a few words after over 30 class hours. Has that time been wasted?

Recently I was following some discussions that an Automatic Language Growth enthusiast prompted through writing about their experiences as a student for the first time in the AUA Thai Program, where the ALG approach has mainly been applied.

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?

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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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