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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.