Starving for Comprehensible Input

Could the lack of interesting and understandable content explain a common behaviour among language learners?

A desert scene to depict a lack of comprehensible input today

A good friend not long ago remarked that he’s “starving for comprehensible input”—opportunities to hear the language he’s learning in ways that are both highly interesting and highly understandable at his level.

He lives in Bangkok, just a few stops away from a one-of-a-kind program that provides hundreds of hours of Thai input in ways even beginners can understand no matter their first language, but a busy schedule keeps him from going there.

He occasionally takes lessons with a Thai tutor who understands the importance of comprehensible input, but is also too busy to do much about it—booked solid with students who demand not to hear a lot of Thai in understandable ways, but rather, to get explanations of how the language works and how to say things in it.

Second language acquisition research shows that we acquire languages and become fluent in them not through study and practice of words and grammar rules, but through massive comprehensible input.

So where is all the comprehensible input?

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Freedom to Play

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.

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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 Young Children’s Mimicry of Language is Very Different from Adult Learners’ “Listen and Repeat”

When trying to imitate what young children learning languages do, we adults must also take into account how they think (and don’t think). Ignore this, and what we end up doing can be totally different.

I was interested to come across a recent post by Donovan Nagel on The Mezzofanti Guild blog titled “How To Learn Languages Like A Child (Yes It Is Possible)“.

Many other language learning bloggers appear quite skeptical about that idea, so I wanted to see what he had to say.

I think he’s on the right track in a lot of ways: for example, he says that adults can and should pick up grammar like children do, acquiring it through comprehensible input without explicit instruction.

He also writes that “[t]raditional language study and reading can actually get in the way of learning”, and suggests focusing on reading after getting attuned to the spoken language—a point I think is overlooked even by many proponents of “natural” or “learn like a child” approaches.

However, I think he’s also made the same kind of error that I’ve seen many other people make when they look at children’s language learning and try to apply it to adults.

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Automatic Language Growth: The Story So Far

Beyond Language Learning’s YouTube channel is up with its first video. In about seven minutes it tells the story of the Automatic Language Growth (ALG) approach and the unique AUA Thai Program, describing how they upend common beliefs about language learning in adulthood, and may represent the future of language learning. Enjoy!

The Automatic Language Growth page on this site features the script of the video and will eventually include and link to more detailed background information and research. For now you can watch the video and read this synopsis:

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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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