They say that it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, and that you should be the change you wish to see in the world.
I’ve writtenalot about the lack of content that presents languages in ways that make them understandable so that even beginning learners can just watch, listen, and pick up languages efficiently without study, practice, or translation.
Experts widely agree that exposure to a new language in ways that you can understand what is being said—known as comprehensible input—is critical to acquiring the language and becoming fluent in it.
Yet decades after linguist Stephen Krashen popularized the concept of comprehensible input, for practically any given language, there is still very little material that lower-level adult learners can easily understand without added study or instruction.
This kind of comprehensible input seems to be so rare that I had to go halfway around the world to the uniqueAUA Thai Program in Bangkok in order to find it in abundance.
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.
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.
A pair of inspiring videos provides a method for picking up a language without study through comprehensible input. Just listening when first using it and speaking one’s own language can lead to more native-like abilities, and let people acquire each other’s languages together.
ALG theory suggests that adults can effortlessly learn languages as well as young children do when they learn them like children: picking them up through listening and understanding without conscious study or practice.
This means teaching the language by speaking it in ways that students can understand it at their level, using non-verbal communication as needed, without adding things like translation or speaking practice.
I also couldn’t find any content that was suited to this kind of approach, such as videos in a foreign language that are both highly understandable and interesting for adults who are just beginning to learn it.
How then could I acquire a language the way I wanted to?
Meaningful repetition helps learners acquire new language, both by increasing their comprehension through adding redundancy to the input and by increasing their number of understandable encounters with words and structures.
I talked a lot about the power of the circling technique, where a teacher makes a statement in the target language and then asks their students various kinds of questions based on what they just said.
Since that post, a friend has alerted me to another way of providing a lot of meaningful repetition of language.
He finds it so useful for acquiring language that he calls it “the crown jewel of comprehensible input”.
I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I can certainly see how powerful it can be.
We could call this technique the use of parallel structure.
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.
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.
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.
With indigenous languages making up most of the thousands that are in danger of disappearing, an important question is how to keep them alive.
Before getting into this topic, I must acknowledge that preserving and reviving endangered and minority languages requires the expertise of those who specialize in that area, and of course the involvement of the speakers themselves and other members of their communities.
I am not in any of these categories, but I want to share and discuss the Automatic Language Growth (ALG) approach because I think it presents some possibilities and methods that with research and development could be very helpful to language preservation.
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.