When acquiring languages through comprehensible input, how can we help others acquire languages in the process? Here’s one thing I’ve been doing.
In my post on the first anniversary of this blog, Beyond Language Learning, I wrote how one of my intentions is not just to acquire new languages myself, but to do it in ways that will make language acquisition easier and more accessible to other people.
One small way that I’m doing this right now is with a project that might help other people acquire a language as I acquire one, and even enhance my own language acquisition in doing so.
I’m sharing it here because I’m interested in what other possibilities there may be for helping other people acquire a language in the process of acquiring a language oneself, and I hope that it can inspire other people to try similar things.
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.
Could the lack of interesting and understandable content explain a common behaviour among language learners?
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-kindprogram 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.
I’ve writtenlots 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.
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.
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.
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?