LOOK for meaning - listen to what you see.


Have you ever wondered how a blind child might learn a language?  It’s easy to imagine that a blind child’s understanding of a word like ‘sky’ will be more limited than a child who can actually see the sky.  In fact, when a blind child is acquiring a new language, they must substitute other senses for their eyes.  What senses can perceive the sky? ON THE OUTSIDE… As I watched my boys grow up it seemed to me that their PRIMARY sense in understanding their world was eyesight.  Sure they touched things, tasted things and heard things.  But the primary sense used for language acquisition was looking – and this was always true whenever they didn’t understand what they were hearing.  Later, when they understood words, they stopped looking as much.  This looking gave them a context of happenings that included sounds.

I have also observed adults – who normally do the opposite.  They will sometimes go into a class, where they know that they don’t understand the language, and close their eyes, getting frustrated whenever they don’t seem to gain anything!  In a new situation, a child’s primary means of understanding what’s happening is eyesight – and this is always true whenever they don’t understand what they’re hearing.  It should be the case with adults, but we seem somehow unable – or unwilling to apply this to language learning.

Imagine that you’ve found yourself in a deep cave with people whose language you don’t understand at all.  The cave has no light at all.  What senses will you use to find your way around?  If you think that finding yourself in a situation where you can’t understand what you hear is bad, try losing both understanding of what you hear as well as the inability to see! At the very basic levels of language acquisition, children use their eyes – adults often refuse.  And with language classes, the focus is always on what you’re hearing instead of what you’re seeing!  Starting out learning a new language is sort of like entering pitch black cave.  The only way we really have to make sense out of our new world is to look as we don’t understand what’s coming in our ears!

What is the ability here that children DON”T have but adults do?  The ability to consciously turn sounds into some sort of meaning – try to encourage the average 4 year old to translate the word ‘cat’ into another language.  You will lose their interest in about a second or less!  Play around with a cat however, and use the new language the child doesn’t know, and they will stay attentive – provided they like the cat and the cat likes them. You might say that this sort of thing is play, not language class.  We would agree.  For the majority of people, and for all children, language classes don’t work.  Stop wasting time on them.  What we need to acquire a new language are experiences that we understand.  How do we understand them when we don’t know what we’re hearing?  Look! ON THE INSIDE… Here I’m thinking about what our minds are doing.  How are we holding what we see?

When a student comes to the Thai Program we always send them to visit a class for 1 hour before registering.  It’s important for both them and us to know what they’re getting into. On occasion, they come out of that first hour a bit frustrated.  Often, they tell us they didn’t understand a thing!  In an agitated voice, “It is all in Thai and I don’t understand Thai!”  When we ask them to recount to us what happened, the retell what the class was all about.  Although they didn’t understand the words, they did know what was happening!  In this two things are demonstrated: First, they demonstrate that they are able to receive input in the same way that children do – looking and understanding what’s happening.  Secondly, they demonstrate that they’re focused on what they’re hearing rather than what they’re seeing.  This is the adult habit.  As adults, we focus on what we hear in this way because we can.  Somehow, children know not to focus on what they don’t understand.  Somehow adults act as though the only way to understand things is to get at meaning through words. UNLIMITING YOURSELF… If we stop and think about it, communication is made up of many things – not only verbal but non-verbal as well.  As an adult, the first step is to recognize that words are only one way to get at meaning, and when it comes to acquiring a new language, focusing on what’s happening is of much greater benefit than being able to “translate” a few words.  There are three very important things here to consider: 1) Culture and real meaning is normally held in the non-verbal communication, such as expression, eyes, body language, etc.  2) By focusing on happenings you will not only gain the culture and real meaning of things, you will gain verbal input in each experience.  Not only will you be able to get by much better, you will develop a greater sensitivity to the people you’re wanting to get to know – which only enhances communication!  3) You brain is well qualified to sort out, integrate, and develop a new language without any help from you!  Give your brain what it needs to do this, and you will experience the automatic growth of that new language just as young children do!

On a closing note, many people will read this and say, “A good combination is to do both – input as children do, and conscious learning as adults do.  Without getting into this point in detail at the moment, let it suffice to say while this might sound great, I have never seen nor heard of an adult who could match a child in acquisition through using adult means of language learning. Why not simply do what we know works everywhere, with every language?  If a young child doesn’t need to do it, then you don’t need to either.  To date, there isn’t an adult, conscious, learning methodology that produces the results of what nature does – not even close!  With Automatic Language Growth, we want to get as close to that natural process as we possibly can.


Thanks syddguyy, for your comment. I definitely agree that listening to the radio, or listening to conversations without being able to see them is able to provide good input for a learner with a working knowledge of the language already, just as reading can also do to a large degree. However if I’m listening to the radio and don’t understand what I’m hearing, I doubt that it’s very useful. Stephen Krashen gave us the key when he said that language is acquired through “understandable input”. If it’s not understandable, then I doubt it has much benefit. So the question becomes, how can we understand from hearing when we don’t understand the language? If we take the adult strategy to focus on language to get at meaning, we can expect adult type results.


While I agree that this method works, what about those that advocate listening to the radio as a learning method, where there is nothing to look at. I read the other day

Also often there are times where no meaning can be gather from looking. For example watching a news reporter blandly explain an event with no pictures, emotions etc. Or how about watching to strangers converse in the target language that arn’t using much body language or emotion or tone of voice.

Visual cues arn’t always available, so surely listening carefully to words in these instances can not hurt?

Also what about language podcasts and audio language CD’s, surely these are of some benefit?