How Can We Learn to Speak a Language without Speaking It?

Answering questions from readers about applying the ALG approach of 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.

I wrote about how the method provides a way to acquire a language following the Automatic Language Growth (ALG) approach, which at present is only being used in one program to teach one language—the AUA Thai Program.

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.

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How to Acquire a Language with Tutors and Exchanges, and Speak It Like a Native Speaker

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.

When I first learned about Automatic Language Growth (ALG), I wanted to acquire a language by following this unique approach, but I didn’t know how.

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.

However, I couldn’t find any classes that taught a language like the AUA Thai Program, where ALG has mainly been applied.

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?

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How “Parallel Structure” Can Enhance Comprehensible Input with More Meaningful Repetition of Language

In a recent post I wrote about how meaningful repetition of language can help provide comprehensible input (CI) to language learners and support acquisition.

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.

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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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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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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 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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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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