Is the classroom context killing comprehensible input-based language teaching?

classroom-1910012_1920It 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 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.

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AUA Thai Program alumni create comprehensible input for beginners

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.

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Where is all the comprehensible input?

It’s been well over 30 years since linguist Dr. Stephen Krashen popularized the notion of comprehensible input as the basis for language acquisition.

According to Krashen, even as adults we become fluent in new languages not by studying and practicing words and rules, but by gaining exposure to language in ways that make it understandable to us.

You can see Krashen demonstrating comprehensible input in a 1983 BBC documentary where he’s shown giving an audience two brief German lessons.

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My experiences using Crosstalk to learn Thai

In my previous post I detailed my experiences learning Mandarin Chinese using Crosstalk, a method where each person speaks their own language using non-verbal tools as needed to communicate.

Crosstalk provides a way to implement the Automatic Language Growth approach, which theorizes that adults can learn languages as well and as easily as children if they pick them up like children, through understandable experiences without study or practice, and letting speaking emerge on its own.

This suggests that adult speakers of different languages could use Crosstalk to communicate, gradually gain understanding of each other’s language, and with this, have the basis to go on and approach native-like fluency in their new languages.

While most of my experience with Crosstalk has been with Mandarin, I also have some experience with Crosstalk as part of learning the Thai language.

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One year of Beyond Language Learning

Today is the start of a new year, and it’s been exactly one year since I started this blog.

My focus remains on topics around language learning, and in particular, how we might effortlessly learn new languages to very high levels of ability at any age, while having fun and learning other things in the process.

Reflecting on a year having passed, I can’t help but think of the many language-learning opportunities that have been silently lost over this time.

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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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What is the future of Automatic Language Growth?

It’s been over 30 years since the American linguist Dr. J. Marvin Brown originated the Automatic Language Growth approach to language learning.

The ALG approach claims that adults can become like native speakers of second languages as easily as young children do if they learn them the same way, picking them up implicitly with a lot of listening before speaking much.

AUA behind gate
The AUA Thai Program’s former location on Bangkok’s Ratchadamri Road. This building has since been demolished.

Since its inception in 1984, the AUA Thai Program in Bangkok has been one of the few programs anywhere that allows adult learners to follow the ALG method, giving them the opportunity to pick up Thai language through understandable experiences without translation or study, and without having to practice speaking.

Today, after more than three decades, ALG has hardly gotten any further than where it began in Southeast Asia.

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