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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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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The ALG-shaped hole in research on second-language acquisition

Every academic discipline has its research gaps and holes—those areas that haven’t been adequately investigated and the questions that haven’t been answered, or even asked.

The field of second language acquisition is no exception.

What’s fascinating, and at times maddening, about looking at the Automatic Language Growth, or ALG approach, alongside existing research on second-language acquisition is how so much of what ALG asserts and touches upon has not really been examined.

These gaps coincide so much with ALG theory and practice that I would say it’s as if the research on second language acquisition has an ALG-shaped hole.

In this post I will focus on what I think are the most prominent parts of this research hole: scientific control in research on the issue of age and second language acquisition, and the so-called “silent period”.

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If language learning is harder for adults, why give them less and not more? Part two: A “silent period”

In my previous post, I wrote that while the ALG approach suggests adults can pick up languages as easily as young children can if they have the same learning environment and approach, even if language learning is harder for adults, the response should be to help them by offering them more of what children get rather than less.

I focused on how children naturally get many understandable experiences that allow them to pick up language without translation or study.

This kind of high-quality comprehensible input isn’t easily available to many adult beginning learners.

I asked why more such opportunities for input are not being created for adults, as has been done with the AUA Thai Program, which uniquely implements the ALG method.

In this post I want to look at another language learning opportunity that children get in abundance but is normally denied to adults.

This is the so-called “silent period”, but perhaps it’s better to refer to it here as “the right to remain silent”.

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Is correction needed to learn to speak a language well?

When discussing language learning and input-based approaches like Automatic Language Growth (ALG), I encounter many people who insist that you need to have someone correcting you in order to learn to speak a language properly, especially if it’s a “difficult” one like Thai or Mandarin that has tones and other features that don’t exist in English.

They are often quite adamant about the need for instruction and constant correction and can’t seem to conceive of an adult learner being able to pronounce a language correctly without study and practice.

In my experience, it is possible even as an adult to learn to speak a language pretty clearly, to say the least, without any explicit instruction or practice.

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