How Can We Learn to Speak a Language without Speaking It?

Answering questions from readers about applying the ALG approach—acquiring a language by listening to comprehensible input—with tutors and language exchange partners

In my last post I described the language exchange method that polyglot and language instructor Jeff Brown has explained and demonstrated in a couple of popular YouTube videos.

With his method, you pick up a language from partners or tutors who speak it by having them speak it to you in ways that you can understand, such as by using actions, describing pictures, and telling stories using illustrated children’s books.

I wrote about how the method provides a way to acquire a language following the Automatic Language Growth (ALG) approach, which at present is only being used in one program to teach one language—the AUA Thai Program.

Both ALG and Brown’s approach are based on Dr. Stephen Krashen’s input hypothesis, which says we acquire languages by listening, not by speaking, and that we subconsciously learn to use them correctly and fluently by getting comprehensible input—hearing them in ways that we can understand—not by studying and practicing things like grammar rules.

The main difference with the ALG approach is that it advocates delaying producing the target language until it emerges naturally, without trying.

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Starving for Comprehensible Input

Could the lack of interesting and understandable content explain a common behaviour among language learners?

A desert scene to depict a lack of comprehensible input today

A good friend not long ago remarked that he’s “starving for comprehensible input”—opportunities to hear the language he’s learning in ways that are both highly interesting and highly understandable at his level.

He lives in Bangkok, just a few stops away from a one-of-a-kind program that provides hundreds of hours of Thai input in ways even beginners can understand no matter their first language, but a busy schedule keeps him from going there.

He occasionally takes lessons with a Thai tutor who understands the importance of comprehensible input, but is also too busy to do much about it—booked solid with students who demand not to hear a lot of Thai in understandable ways, but rather, to get explanations of how the language works and how to say things in it.

Second language acquisition research shows that we acquire languages and become fluent in them not through study and practice of words and grammar rules, but through massive comprehensible input.

So where is all the comprehensible input?

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Freedom to Play

As someone who’s interested in advancing research on second language acquisition to help people better learn languages, I think that a careful and rigorous scientific approach is tremendously important.

Good research of lasting value involves carefully planned studies and experiments that require the investment of a lot of time, money, and human resources—not things that can be thrown together on a whim.

At the same time, I think there’s enormous value in also being able to research and experiment in a much more informal way: through unbounded play with language acquisition.

The ability to try out many things spontaneously can help us break away from preconceived notions and generate new insights, and this can ultimately lead to better research questions and better formal studies.

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Abundant Compelling Comprehensible Input: What We’re Aiming For, and How to Get There

There’s no shortage of compelling things to communicate in every language. The challenge is having people make them highly comprehensible even to those who don’t yet know their language at all.

In order to acquire new languages as effectively, efficiently, enjoyably, and effortlessly as possible, the most important thing is to have an abundance of compelling comprehensible input at every level.

Compelling comprehensible input means being able to hear the language you’re learning in ways that are both highly interesting and highly understandable to you.

Unfortunately, although we have both the technology and human resources to create it in abundance today, compelling comprehensible input remains needlessly scarce.

This is especially the case for total beginners, but it’s true for every level of learner, all the way up to advanced.

This blog, Beyond Language Learning, is about creating a world where compelling comprehensible input is available in abundance to every language learner.

You’re reading this, I hope, because you too are interested in the same kind of goal, thinking about how to get there, and perhaps even working already to build that world.

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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’s another aspect of ALG that I would also emphasize strongly 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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