Looking For a Shortcut?

There are no true shortcuts to learning a language to fluency. But there could be far more efficient and enjoyable ways to get there.

Several years ago when I was learning Chinese, I encountered a guy at a language meetup.

He had lived in Taiwan and spoke fluent Mandarin.

As I remember it, he remarked that the vast majority of foreigners in Taiwan failed to learn the language.

He also said that the people there wouldn’t understand you if your pronunciation was even slightly off—even with very common words in their language like numbers.

I remarked that all these failures and difficulties pointed to a need for better resources to support language learning.

“You’re looking for a shortcut,” he told me with what sounded like a hint of annoyance.

I tried to explain that I was looking for better opportunities to learn languages—not so much a shortcut.

“And I’m telling you there isn’t one,” he reiterated.

He said that you had to put in the time and effort, and there was no way around it.

I am putting in the time and effort, I protested; I am listening to Chinese.

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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 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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How Automatic Language Growth Might Help Preserve Endangered Languages

An approach inspired in part by the language learning practices of indigenous peoples themselves could open up more opportunities to revive indigenous languages and others that are endangered.

The United Nations has proclaimed 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages to raise awareness and mobilize efforts to protect and promote the languages of indigenous peoples around the world.

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.

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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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How Meaningful Repetition of Language Supports Comprehension and Acquisition

A friend who uses the ALG (Automatic Language Growth) approach to learn and teach languages recently asked a discussion group what reasoning, if any, is behind so much repetition of words when teaching with comprehensible input-based methods like TPRS (Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling).

He had attended some language classes that used a lot of circling, a technique where the teacher asks many questions about a statement they’ve just made and solicits and provides answers.

For example, the teacher says “John is drinking coffee,” then asks: “Is John drinking tea?” (Students: “No.”) Teacher: “No, John is not drinking tea. Is John drinking coffee?” (Students: “Yes.”) Teacher: “Yes, John is drinking coffee. Who is drinking coffee? Is John drinking coffee?”, and so on.

From even this very brief example, it’s clear that the circling technique provides enormous amounts of repetition of language: “coffee” appears five times and the verb “drink” is used seven times.

However, my friend noted that even when a teacher made the meaning of a word clear and repeated it hundreds of times during a lesson, he usually wouldn’t remember it the next day.

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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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