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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The Focus on Age over Method in Language Learning Harms Children as Well as Adults

I’ve written lots and even made a video pointing out a very common mistake made by academics and laypeople alike on the topic of second-language acquisition.

This is the conclusion that language learning is inherently more difficult and less successful with age, based on the observation that the older one begins to learn a new language, the worse the results tend to be.

What this assumption ignores is the vast differences between what adults and young children learning new languages typically do and experience.

Adults generally consciously study and practice new languages before they’ve even had much exposure to them, while children pick up languages implicitly, listening and understanding a lot before speaking much.

However, research and the experiences of many learners show that with a lot of comprehensible input—language presented in a way that’s understandable—adults too can pick up language without instruction as children do.

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Some Limiting Ideas about Language Learning and an Alternative Approach

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.

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This Whole Language-Learning Thing Really Affects People

Sometimes when I’m thinking and writing about all of these issues around language acquisition, so much of it can seem so highly technical or theoretical that I wonder if it’s all just academic with little actual relevance to everyday people’s lives.

Then I see or hear something that reminds me of the real need for better ways for people to pick up languages, and the huge consequences of limiting or simply incorrect ideas about language learning, leading to many opportunities (and perhaps even languages!) being silently lost.

I looked at some of these limiting ideas in a recent post on heritage language learners, many of whom seem discouraged as a result of the influence of “traditional” language learning approaches that put the focus on the language itself through study and practice.

Without knowledge of how they can improve in their language through comprehensible input and meaningful communication, many of these learners appear to give up on their heritage languages despite the great foundations they already have in them.

I saw another example of ignorance around language acquisition having big consequences in a TV interview that aired several years ago in Canada, where English and French are official languages and Quebec’s status as the sole Francophone majority province shapes the politics of the country.

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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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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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The Dangers of “Cargo-Cult” Thinking in Applying the ALG Approach

A sometime enthusiast of the Automatic Language Growth approach recently remarked to me that there’s a somewhat cultish aspect to the theory.

I definitely agree that the central claims of ALG—that given the right experiences and approach, adults can acquire new languages effortlessly and approach native-like levels of fluency—are of the sort that can inspire potentially cult-like devotion.

One of the main messages I try to communicate is that there are good reasons to take such claims seriously and they need to be the subject of rigorous scientific research.

Research of this kind largely hasn’t been done yet, but I think it could yield important insights supporting far better language learning.

In the meantime, we need to think clearly and carefully about how we go about putting ALG ideas and concepts into practice.

A danger that can arise from an uncritical devotion to ALG based on aspects of the theory that can capture the imagination is to become dogmatic about applying it without regard to practical concerns such as the overall context.

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We Need Opportunities To Pick Up Languages Without Study

About a month ago I released a video telling the story so far of Automatic Language Growth, the AUA Thai Program, and the need for better research and opportunities to support language acquisition for adults.

The response has been positive from those who are already familiar with AUA and the ALG approach, as well as from others who are involved in language teaching using comprehensible input-based approaches.

Of course, to focus on the response from this audience would be, to some extent, just preaching to the choir.

I’m more concerned about feedback from people such as those who are unfamiliar with comprehensible input and those who are skeptical of approaches like ALG, so that I can respond to their questions and criticisms and learn from them.

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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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