Input, Output, and the Brain


The propensity that we adults have to ‘test’ everything is not realistic. Though so fast we’re normally not even conscious of most of what our brains do – still time is required for the linking up of information. This is never more true than in language acquisition.

Current brain research indicates that knowledge is increased only when the new information links in the brain to existing information.  I is apparent that this is a process that takes time.  How often have you been reading or experiencing something new, knowing that you weren’t really ‘getting it’ and then a few days later it was as if a light turned on?  In fact, this is a common experience.  Between the point in time you received the new information, and the point in time that your ‘light’ came on your brain was at work.  What was it doing?  What brains do – linking up things.  As those links formed, new understanding developed and you saw things in a new way.  The fact that the adult brain as well as the child’s brain do this forms the basis for language growth and development.

Our brains soak up things from every experience we have – many more things than we’re aware of.  As we rest, our brains work, linking up of information in various ways.  What our brains don’t link up, is lost.  From this comes renewal to the saying, “Use it or lose it.”  Applying this directly to a word or phrase however is a mistake.  It moves the verb “use” from a passive activity of the brain, into an active thing that we do.  The point of natural language development (ALG) is that our brains are better at it that you are – so stop trying!

Yet I’ve watched teachers present a set of new words to students. Within the same hour, they then run this little test – to see if they’ve got it. While review of material has value, as a test nothing could be more useless.  Why?  Simply put, our brains haven’t finished with the linking yet.  So the students who look like they’re doing the best and are able to recall everything, are actually the ones doing the most unnatural thing and manually taking over the natural work of their brain.  Hence, a whole system is developed, (called language education) that is based on testing of things that haven’t occurred yet, and the people who shine are the 5 or so percentile who have the mental capability of recalling this abstract stuff.

Dr. Art Ong Jumsai is the NASA scientist who developed the first successful landing mechanism for the Viking I and Viking II spacecraft to Mars.  He speaks about how he came to find the design.  After several days of being alone and meditation, the picture came to him and he knew what needed to be done.  Breakthroughs have always been talked about in similar terms – a minds that has received input, and then left to rest – links up the relevant information and new ideas are formed.

The creation of the landing mechanism was a form of improvisation.  The basic tools are there, but it’s only when our brains are free to ‘play’ with them can we really improvise things.

Applied to language, what I’m saying is this: The input for language is experience.  When we gain experiences in a given language, the natural process if for our brains to start linking up relevant and similar information – not only sounds, words, meanings, and grammar, but also context, culture, intonation, expressions, mood, etc., etc.  This is far too complex of a need for even the brightest to do manually or through adult analysis.  It also takes time.

So the logical conclusion is this: If you wish to be truly fluent, you must give your brain the experiential input needed and the time to sort it all out.

That cannot happen word by word, nor can it be tested hour by hour.

Maybe I am completely mistaken, but I am wondering if the process of guessing is not a kind of translation. For example, when you watch the teacher in an ALG class, what can you do except guessing what you see in your own mother tongue?
Could you give more details about this very important skill? As far as I understood, it is maybe the main part of your approach.

Thanks for this question Julien. Among linguists there has been as much talk about whether or not people think in ‘language’ or not. I find that guessing about what’s happening in a situation leaves no time for verbalization to myself. Things happen too fast. You’re absolutely correct that this is an important skill, however taking the step past guessing about meaning, by applying a word to that meaning is problematic – some critics of ours say adults cannot do it. I found that I was able to guess without attaching words – a fuzzy sort of thinking. So when speak of guessing about meaning, we’re not talking about a specific sort of knowledge so much as a general direction or sense as to what it means. Once we begin doing this, we find that it can be quite distracting to try to identify an equivalent word in another language too.

Thanks David.
I recently discovered TPR and story telling. Is ALG language acquisition approach similar?

TPR is an element or aspect of what we do. It is integrated into the experiences that our students participate in. As a method, most people have found it fun for starting out, but no place to go with it. TPRS has grown in later years, and the focus on stories is consistent with our broader focus on experience. In practice, it appeals to language teachers more, because it utilizes tools that teachers are familiar with in terms of assessment, and focus on language. They are considered an input based methodology and Stephen Krashen is closely linked with them. In terms of philosophy, our main difference would be the idea that early speaking (more specifically analysis of language) is harmful. It is really this point that sets us apart from other natural or input based methodologies.

I just check and saw that they suggest 3 weeks-one month of “silent period” which is indeed much less than ALG:-)

Again, adults rarely give proper credit to the large amounts of time that children receive input, BEFORE speaking begins. It’s our adult propensity to analyze and test that is really the obstacle to natural (automatic) language growth.

I understand the experience problem or at least an aspect of it, as a 38 yr old approaching learning Mandarin, at that time there is so much language that a 38 year old Chinese native speaker has experienced, tussles over homework with his parents, the first time he got drunk with friends, the language that preceded the fight he had at school, the first girlfriend etc. etc. Reading the vocabulary from a exercise book will not teach me these things. But how does your system give those experiences to a student, do they live them vicariously somehow?

What is the solution for someone like myself studying a language as a hobby in spare time? Some replace the input with TV or video but do you think that can really replace experience? If a small Child sees food being prepared by an adult they can smell the food, they have a vested interest as they will have an expectation of eating the end result. A person watching the video is in no way connected in the same manner.

Chris, this is an excellent question – and one that brings right to the surface what I believe is the real core issue in language study: There are no shortcuts. If you want authentic language, you’ve got to put in the time. The old belief was that as a person learned vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, etc., he or she would come to a point where things just “became natural”. After years of practice, most of us have realized that this simply isn’t so. The point of language growth is that it’s a natural process that requires certain things (environment) in order to develop properly. Our focus must be on environment – as to what sorts of experiences, and how to gain them, the world is the limit. I don’t rule out anything, but if we begin to think of ways to gain experience in say Chinese, I feel the most crucial thing has to be centered in relationships. Get to know some Chinese people – and gain experiences with them. Ideally, (if it was me) I’d try to show them how to communicate with me in Chinese, but not to teach me, just to help me understand.