Audio description of TV and movies: a great source of comprehensible input for language learners

A potential goldmine of content might be just the press of a button away if you’re a language learner who wants to pick up a language through watching and listening.

Audio description, also known as described video, video description, or visual description, adds a narrator’s description of precisely what’s happening on the screen to a program’s soundtrack.

Various logos for audio description and described video

Audio description is primarily intended to benefit people who are blind or visually impaired by making the visual content accessible to them through hearing.

What appears to be overlooked is its tremendous value as a tool for language acquisition.

By providing a great source of comprehensible input—language made understandable through context—audio description also makes the target language more accessible to language learners.

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My experiences using Crosstalk to learn Mandarin Chinese

Crosstalk is a term for multilingual communication where each person speaks their own language, using non-verbal tools as needed to make themselves understood.

It can be used to implement the Automatic Language Growth approach to language learning, which theorizes that adults can learn languages as well and as effortlessly as children do if they learn them like children—by picking them up through experience instead of study, and listening and understanding before speaking much.

Dr. J. Marvin Brown, the originator of ALG, found the adult propensity to try to speak a new language before having a sufficient foundation of listening experience to be responsible for many of the problems adult language learners face, such as pronunciation difficulties and “broken” grammar.

Seeing the pressure his students faced to speak from early on, Brown developed Crosstalk as a way for them to gain more listening experience and communicate with speakers of the target language without having to speak it themselves.

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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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How ALG relates to other comprehensible input approaches like TPR, TPRS, and Story Listening

Automatic Language Growth, or ALG, is a comprehensible input-based approach to language teaching, meaning it’s based on the idea that we learn languages by being exposed to them in ways that we can understand what is being communicated.

This puts ALG in the same category as better-known CI-based approaches such as TPR (Total Physical Response), TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling), and Story Listening.

What sets ALG apart is that it is a developing theory and method of language acquisition that was conceived with the goal of bringing adults from zero knowledge to native-like fluency in second languages.

The ALG approach can in fact subsume these other CI-based approaches where they are consistent with its approach to language learning.

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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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The ALG-shaped hole in second-language acquisition research: a further look

In a previous post I wrote that what’s missing from research on second-language acquisition overlaps so much with Automatic Language Growth theory and methods that SLA research could be said to have an ALG-shaped hole.

I focused on what I think are the largest areas of this research hole, starting with the lack of scientific control in research on the issue of age and second language acquisition.

ALG posits that adult language learners typically attain less with greater effort than children learning languages because of how their approach and environment typically differs from children.

Yet researchers have generally observed the lower rates of attainment in adults and assumed that they result from some loss of ability, without even proposing to try to control for these differences.

I argued a major part of controlling for these differences would be research into a “silent period” of listening to a language before speaking, based on the observation that while a child gets a lot of exposure to a new language early on, for some time their production is quite limited.

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