automatic language growth (alg)

Some times you come across something that is so refreshingly simple, you wonder why people have not been doing it all along.

This was how I felt when I attended my first ALG Thai class at AUA in Bangkok.

Here was my first experience of a formal language learning environment that was completely non threatening, non manipulative and that used authentic language, the type of language people use in everyday life, not some sanitized version similar to what we find in most ESL teaching texts.

This is not to say that the experience was not confusing.  I found myself in an environment where I was bombarded with so much language that my mind swam in circles trying grasp what was going on. How was I ever going to have a chance at to remember or understand the lessons and the language in them? The narrow boundaries of second language teaching drummed into me on the obligatory 120 hour observed teaching, industry standard teaching course, had been severely stretched.

Immediately after the experience, I rushed to the office of David Long one of the administrators of the AUA Thai program to try and find out what lay behind this before unheard of way of learning language.

Before I mention what I found out about ALG, let me recount my initial learning experiences in the following days.  At first my mind was awash with so much input that it took a while to settle into the rhythm of the lessons. After about the fourth visit I managed to relax into the routine of the class, learned to not worry about not understanding each and every word, and started to listen for the overall meaning of what was going on. I estimated at this stage that I only understood about 2-5% of the content. Gradually the whole learning process became more natural and letting the intellect go I started to use the same skills I use in my mother tongue when I don’t understand something, I started to guess and infer the meaning from the context. As I relaxed into the rhythm of the lessons and put my intellect in park, the enjoyment started to grow.

Any of you involved in teaching second language at intermediate to advanced levels will be well aware that the skills of guessing from context and understanding inference are generally pretty weak, and that these natural innate qualities of first language acquisition have to be consciously developed for second language learners to advance.

Firstly, to satisfy the academics amongst us who would like a formal definition of what ALG is, here it is.

ALG (Automatic Language Growth) is an approach to language acquisition developed to replicate normal, first language development.  Based on Stephen Krashen’s Input Hypothesis, the central conceptual difference in practice between ALG and other natural programmers is in the application of the belief that speaking occurs naturally given enough input.  Therefore, ALG focuses almost entirely on offering understandable experience (happenings being the building blocks of language).  ALG does not focus on speaking, and encourages students NOT to speak, until words occur on their own.

The ALG approach to language learning was developed in Thailand, by an American linguist, Dr. Marvin Brown, a long time resident of Thailand.  It is surprising that a successful approach like ALG has remained virtually unknown for so long. I say it is successful because the program produces speakers with incredibly high degrees of native speaker like fluency and furthermore, ALG has enjoyed a strong following from the paying public for more than 20 years and run at a profit.  It‘s origins may be the reason for it’s obscurity, as all the recognized methodologies and approaches have their origins in England or America.

What is it that makes ALG so radically different from any other language learning approaches?

There are some notable aspects of ALG that contrast dramatically with common methods of language learning and teaching.  These often take time for teaching professionals to come to terms with, because they do not sit well with current teaching practices.  These are as follows:

  1. the less a learner tries, the better the level of acquisition
  2. no tests
  3. no planned memorization
  4. no homework
  5. no text books are used until the start of the reading and writing program
  6. no grammar instruction,
  7. no modeling of individual words
  8. no practice phase
  9. no reading or writing by learners until they can converse freely in the target language

While these differences contrast dramatically to most language learning approaches, they do mean that learners enjoy stress free learning, and beginners can tolerate many more hours of learning than in traditional learning environments.  It is common for complete beginners at the AUA Thai program to sit through 6-8 hours of instruction in one day.

One of the underlying tenets of ALG is that adults can acquire language like a child does.  The main reason adults do not learn like children is that in traditional classroom based learning situations they think, use effort in trying to acquire a language, practice speaking and are further encouraged by teachers to do just this.  The ALG approach attempts to create a situation where adults learn like children, and structures its approach around creating a learning environment that encourages this.  Learners are encouraged not to focus on individual meanings of words, and not to analyze the language, but rather to listen for the overall meaning of what is being said, never thinking about the language, just like children.

The rejection of the ‘critical period hypothesis’ is central to understanding how ALG works.  Proponents of ALG would comment that if you want adults to acquire language like children you have to replicate the way in which children naturally learn.

AUA Thai classes run for 50 minutes on the hour with ten minutes set aside for teacher rotation and a break.  The two Thai teachers work as pair at the front of the class and interact with each other, while at the same time engaging the students.

The students listen and try to comprehend the overall meaning of the conversations, rather than focusing on individual words and their meanings.  The teachers talk on a variety of subjects including, food, news, Thai folk tales, travel, family, and Thai culture etc.

The stories are entertaining and are authentic (they are not scripted or taken from books), and the comprehension is aided by the use of non-verbal props, such as realia, actions, drawings, etc.  As learners’ progress to higher levels and their understanding improves the use of props, actions and drawings, etc. is reduced to accommodate the higher levels of understanding.

Ideally, the learners are so absorbed by the stories being presented to them that they are oblivious to the language being used i.e. they do not think about the language.

When discussing ALG with teachers and academics, one of the aspects of ALG that causes them the most concern is that it is effortless, and requires no conscious study to master language.  Consciously studying using the ALG approach actually limits your final level of fluency, which can reach 90 % plus native speaker like fluency.

I find this quite perplexing. Why shouldn’t learning language be effortless and passive, why not leave the struggle and suffering aside and enjoy language?  That to me is real learner centered education. So often I hear this phrase learner centered education applied to learning environments controlled and manipulated at every stage by teachers still rigidly in control of the whole process.

Ah! I hear you say, where’s the research to back up these preposterous claims?

Well there is is none. This is another reaction I find quite predictable and understandable. There is need for research and this is where the academic community can help, rather than using the lack of research to reject the approach outright.   I also notice that there is not exactly a wealth of research on acquisition backing up the way we currently teach language either, but I do not see people screaming out for it before they enter the classroom.