practice, correction, and the closed feedback loop

When people learn about Automatic Language Growth, they often listen and then quickly conclude that a program of input combined with practice makes sense. [When we began ALG at AUA in 1984, we already had a successful traditional Thai Program. The ALG program grew up alongside it, and then at one point for about 3 years, we also ran a combination course of the natural and structural program.  While it was appreciated by our clients, it was not beneficial as the results were always inferior] I want to talk here about Control Theory and why Practice and Correction of speech do not work. Studies of children learning their native language show that correction (some parents correct their children and some don’t) doesn’t have any positive effect but can often have a negative effect. Mostly, though it has no effect. Language development for children who are corrected and those who are not is equal. We can see why when we consider how a closed feedback loop works. This is also the reason why changes in language, or any other ability can be so difficult to alter.

In Control Theory with regard to langauge, there are three basic parts to the negative feedback loop. The brain, the mouth, and the ears. We all understand that these three are related. It’s also important to understand how they relate as well. The diagram to the right shows the basic parts. If things were as simple as this, language couldn’t work very well. There are some parts we need to understand better.  They are aspects of brain function but we should understand them separately.  There is the Reference, and a Comparator.  The Reference, or what we call a MIF, (mental image flash), is vital if our language is going to work at all. This reference is the equivalent of the thermostat setting on an air-conditioning unit.  Without a reference that is constant, there is no way for the system to work properly.  The ambient temperature is compared (see the small blue square) to the reference setting and the difference tells the Controller what to do.

So how does this relate to language acquisition?  Traditional language teaching has focused on the System Output, or Speech primarily.  The reason that it is ineffective is due to the fact that it’s all working on output  which has not effect on input unless there is no MIF to begin with.  Without changing the input, the output will never change significantly. But the output originates from the MIF – Just as it’s impossible to walk like a bonzo, so you cannot say a word you don’t have a MIF for.

Let’s apply this to a couple of issues that we see in language education currently.

People often say that their students are shy, and don’t want to speak. But when left on their own with  friends, they’ll talk non-stop, just not in the language the teacher is trying to help them use.  What’s happening?  They act shy because they have no clear MIF from which to say anything.  Once those MIFs exist, they demonstrate the same willingness to speak as in their native language.

Practicing pronunciation and drills are a common technique used by teachers. In an effort to help their students say if correctly, the teacher may lead their student to practice saying it correctly 10 times.  Most people can do this, however after a few days, the students resort back to the same pronunciation they had before.  What the teacher needs to realize is that MIFs cannot be altered by speaking.  Speaking offers output for the ears to hear, and then compared with the MIF, corrections will be make on the other side – not the speaking side.  The problem must be solved before the MIF is created.  Once a faulty MIF is in place, it may not be possible to correct it.

When people begin to acquire a new language, they often listen to us explain our program and then imagine that when they begin speaking they will speak perfectly. This is not the case. There are aspects of language that can only develop after speech begin. Language operates in a feedback loop and without speaking the loop doesn’t exist. But the reference point must be stable before the mouth starts working on it. The key is not that it’s supposed to come out correctly at a certain point, but that the language must rest clearly in one’s mind, before speaking can naturally begin.  Once the MIFs exist for a language’s phonemes, vocabulary and grammar, sentences can be improvised and we are able to speak.