Is Automatic Language Growth more successful?


Based on the claims that we make, one might imagine that all the students who attend our Thai Program at AUA become native-like in fluency.  Often and in many places people have noted that language teaching fails – not more that about 5% of adult students actually succeed!  Is it any different with our AUA Thai Program? In fact, it’s my estimation that in the AUA Thai Program not more than 5% actually achieve high levels of fluency.  This isn’t an estimate arrived at in any scientific manner mind you.  And in fact, we have no real idea.  Before you tune me out here, let me explain.

All language programs have some problems that are similar.  We share a few of those things.  One is this: language students stay with us for a period of time, but we seldom see them outside of and after the time they study.

I’ll share my experience as an AUA student here.  I attended AUA in 1987-8 for about 1 year / 1150 hours.  This brought me to a level of about 70% understanding – but what was my speaking ability?  Horrible!  At the end of my study, I invited the teachers to my home for a meal.  After dinner, I can remember trying to say a few sentences of thanks to them.  It was literally one of my most embarrassing moments – and I’m not sure if was embarrassed more for them or myself!  Nothing I said seemed to make sense.  After about 1 minute, I ended it and no one really said anything.  If there was a hole to crawl into, I’d have done it then.  I think Marv Brown was perhaps the only person there who was not disappointed or surprised.

I continued living in Thailand after that and 1 1/2 years later, began to feel that I could really express just about anything I thought.  This was 2 1/2 years from the time I first arrived.  I didn’t study outside of AUA with the exception of about 3 months at 4 hours a week with a writing tutor after I had completed my time at AUA.  She wanted to help my speech but I wouldn’t work on it with her.  My speaking ability followed along the same curve of development as my listening had, at a gap of about 800 or 900 hours.

If I had never returned to AUA to visit the teachers and staff there after my time studying, they may have all imagined that I never could speak at all.  This is true of all programs I think.  Do we measure a student at 3 months?  or 3 years?

Even though there are some similarities between Automatic Language Growth and other approaches, there are many more differences that bear on the percentage of students who achieve fluency.

baggage: Not everyone who enters the Thai program starts from the same place.  Over half of our students come to us having already studied Thai previously.  This has a huge impact on the outcomes.  It is on this single point where we gain the most criticism from academics – the idea that one can harm their ability to achieve fluency seems to make people angry.  Marvin Brown was big on using the word ‘damage’.  Of course from the standpoint of making people feel good and positive, it’s not a very good concept.  From our linguistic and real-life experience point of view, the exceptions to this are too few to mention.  Of course the world is full of false promises that continue to pull people in and language programs tend not to be any different.  “Learn to speak quickly!” is the lie we’ve just never seen supported anytime or anywhere though we agree it sells materials and programs quite well.

definition of success: People attend our program for many different reasons.  Some come to us for 3 months because it’s a great place to meet friends, or to enjoy the oasis of our facilities in the heart of Bangkok.  Some people go there because the classes are fun, and they really don’t care to learn Thai all that much.*  Some people are enrol to use the program to augment to their own study of Thai because we offer something no one else really does.  A few come to us because they wish to become truly fluent.

rate of acquisition: The people who attend our program do not follow the same schedules.  For example, I attended 7 1/2 hours daily for one year. while my friend Bill, attends for about 20 hours weekly, 6 to 8 weeks a year.  Bill first came to AUA in 2001.  For 8 years he’s been attending AUA for 3 to 4 weeks at a time, twice a year.  Just as when one assesses a 3 year old’s language ability, we look at Bill and assess his ability based on averages.  The things we look at for all students are similar to what we look at when considering the growth or development of a young child.  Things like understanding, and how she responds to things, etc.  Is Bill speaking Thai yet?  Not much.  How’s he doing?  He’s on track to becoming reasonably fluent.  He will be 100% successful in reaching his goals, and he will be moderately fluent, with some difficulties that the will arise due to the adult things he’s added to his natural language acquisition.

In short, the only thing we can look at consistently is what the student does while he or she is with us.  Based on this and added input from occasional conversations with students, we make educated guesses about their path or growth trajectory.   When we do meet up with the occasional student here and there, later in time, we look to see if our educated guesses and their abilities are consistent – normally they are.

* The following story may challenge some of your ideas about what it takes to acquire a language.  Most of us would say that we must be dedicated to learning, focused, etc.  Perhaps not…

As a group, the most successful students we’ve seen was a group of Swedes.  In those years, the Swedish government designed a program where people could enroll in education programs outside of Sweden at the governments expense.   This presented a great opportunity for people who wished to live in Thailand.  (If you’re familiar with Thailand, you already know that it’s not uncommon for people to love the life style, the pace of life, and the overall outlook of things here 🙂 The requisite for the program was that they must enroll in an education program somewhere.  We began to see many people arrive from Sweden and many of these people (not all) were not interested in the least in learning Thai.  They were there because we offered the least demanding program – one couldn’t fail, there was no homework, we gave no tests, etc.  Their motivation apparently was to attend so they could get the support from the government and to enjoy life – which they did to it’s fullest.  (these are very similar reasons why I attended AUA as well.)  In any case, to date these people achieved the highest levels of fluency we’ve seen!

Thanks so much for this post. Maybe those swedes were the most successful because they didn’t put any pressure to succeed on themselves and just wanted to have fun with the language?
I already noticed that daily exposure with fun and without any pressure is very efficient in learning any language. By the way, it seems all the kids learn this way!:-)

Hello Sir,
You wrote that the TV-method is a bit tough to use at the very beginning of learning a language since its very hard to understand what is going on, unlike the ALG classes for the beginners. I totally agree with that but what would you advise then at the beginning stage? Unfortunately there is just one ALG school in one country…:-)

This is a very good question, and one that we’ve considered for a long time. From my perspective, Crosstalk may provide a best answer however it’s not yet developed into the sort of thing that can be used easily yet. I have found some good things on YouTube, and this is where I’d look. Staying away from the language sort of videos, and looking for videos of funny or otherwise interesting things that people make – demonstrations, or pranks.

I have spent a fair amount of time both studying the thai language, and scoping out the various and sundry private thai language schools in the greater bangkok area. I actually post my opinions in the form of reviews on my experiences at the various schools on the Thai Visa Forum.

Anyway, I was (and still am) quite critical of your school and it’s methodology.

However I have noticed strong comments made by current and former students of your method about my less than politically correct review of your school.

I would like to come and sit a few classes again, as it’s been a while since I snuck in to spy, lol. Perhaps I’ll get down there this week and talk to the staff about sitting some different levels of classes.

FWIW; in my review of your school I did say you were the cheapest thing going as far as a per hour rate if you buy blocks of hours, and you’re by far the most convenient to attend with classes running thru-out the day like you have.

I think I’ll drop by to do another recon. ..
Great blog btw, and incredible videos on You Tube too..

Thanks Todd, for your candid comments. You are of course welcome to visit, and as a critic I’m happy to create the opportunity to visit more than one hour free if you’d like – something like one hour in each level or something. In any case, it would be nice to meet if you’re open to that and while I don’t spend my time in arguing or defending our position, I always welcome healthy discussion, which must include other points of view. Your’s will always be welcome.