Learning Language on Your Own or with an Informal Teacher

In Linguistics and Language Learning on July 5, 2009 at 5:18 pm


Taking an ALG Approach to Self-Study

By Antonio Graceffo


Many people who have read about the ALG Automatic Language Growth method of language acquisition. The program is listening based, and is currently being used at AUA school in Bangkok, under the direction of David Long. Since the vast majority of the world’s people can’t travel to Bangkok, students have asked if it is possible to learn by distance learning or self-study. To date, there are no specific ALG distance learning or self-study programs available. Hopefully there are some products coming out toward the end of 2009.


Some people have written in and asked if they could approximate the ALG experience by

watching tons and tons of hours of TV in Japanese or Chinese or a foreign language. The answer is yes, BUT only if you already have sufficient basis to understand 55 -70% of what you are hearing. If you are a complete beginner, it won’t work. The TV would just become more noise.


If you are a beginning student, one way of “artificially” increasing your comprehension level is to first watch a similar movie or show in English. This is what we often did while I was studying to be a translator. We would read a current news story in several international newspapers and compare them. Or, we would watch a movie or TV show in English, and then watch it in the target language. I do this in Taiwan too. I watch a lot of Disney movies, like “Mulan”, “The Incredibles”, or “Kung Fu Panda” in English and then in Chinese. Over a period of months, I go back and forth between English and Chinese, watching them over and over again.


The trick is to choose few enough materials that you get constructive levels of repetition. If you choose too few, you wind up hearing the same story too frequently. You will get bored and tune out. Your brain will stop “guessing.” And when you stop guessing, you stop learning. If you choose too many materials, then it will take too long before they repeat. So, you must find a balance. You be the judge. After you embark on a disciplined program of listening on a regular schedule, then you can occasionally shake things up by throwing a new movie or TV show into the mix.


Just as an unscientific rule of thumb, depending upon how many hours you are listening per day, maybe you want to repeat a particular movie once per month.


People have asked about using the ALG method to learn reading and writing, particularly in Asian languages, which employ different alphabets. When children learn to read their native tongue, they already know nearly all of the words in their reading book. They need to simply learn the reading. ALG would say that most students of foreign language begin reading and writing to early. Reading and writing should be begun only after students have sufficient language. They shouldn’t e struggling with the meanings of words and phrases while learning to negotiate an unfamiliar writing system. In the case of Thai, which has many unique sounds which sound similar to the western ear, how can you learn to read and write these sounds if you haven’t mastered hearing and saying them?


Learning to read and write too soon is one more way of fossilizing mistakes, taking flawed language and making it permanent.


When you reach a point that you are read to learn reading and writing, you will need to employ a traditional methodology in order to acquire the alphabet and how to actually read and write in say Japanese, Thai or Chinese. In an ALG classroom, the teachers often write Thai words on the board while they are teaching listening, so that by the time the students get to their reading and writing levels, they already have some passive knowledge of the alphabet and have made assumptions about how it works. Studying on your own, you may not have this benefit.


Once you can read, you can use Core Novel Method, which is how I learned German. You just read and read and read stories and books that you enjoy reading, without a dictionary, Or with only occasional dictionary support. Once again, chose materials you are already familiar with in English. And you can go back and forth between English and the target language. With reading, I would advise not reading the same book more than two or three times per year.


Again, you can’t use this method if you are a complete beginner.


If you are a complete beginner you can use both ALG and Core Novel type approaches with your traditional learning materials. In other words, you can listen to your CDs and tapes over and over and over again and read your learner texts over and over. The reason ALG would actually steer you away from this suggestion, however, is that ALG is about listening to real language, not synthetic language, designed for the class room. Stories and movies are good because lots of real life situations and language occur in them. Arguably the news or an interview show is best for ‘real” natural language. Interview shows in particular are largely unscripted, so more authentic. The disadvantage, of course, is that there are no pictures to help you understand. So, an interview show would be only slightly better than listening to radio.


What I did for Chinese was to find several series of materials and buy two sets at the same level. In other words, I bought a complete set of beginning level 1 material: textbook, workbook, character book, and CDs for both the “Far Eastern Chinese” series and the “Audio Visual Chinese” series. This way, I had more practice at each level. If you are working with your teacher, you can have him or her teach you from one series, while you use the other series for self study. Make an appointment with your teacher once a week or so to check the homework from the series you do on your own.


ALG shies away from books, homework and traditional teachers. So, I am not strict ALG. But I take a lot of concepts from ALG and apply them to my language teaching and learning. In ALG there is an exercise called “Cross Talk.” This is a cross-cultural or cross-lingual communication tool developed by David Long, the man who is carrying on Dr. Brown’s work. In cross talk, two people who do not share a common language sit together and communicate by drawing on a paper, while they each speak their own native tongue. The idea here is that the listener has the visual clues of the pictures, plus body language, facial expression and tone of voice to help him understand what he is hearing. For an English native speaker, there is also the assumption that nearly everyone in the world has some understanding of English. So, this will also aid the listener in understanding.


I have taken cross talk a step further and employed it as a language learning tool, which allows any man, woman or child, who is a native speaker to become your language teacher.


Living in Asia, you will hear again and again that a foreigner is hoping to learn Chinese or Japanese from his or her partner. Often the linguistic development in the couple reaches a point of frustration, rather quickly, and they just give up on learning. They generally choose communication over development, and settle on a lingua franca. More often than not, couples communicate in English. The local, Asian partner, has generally had years of school English, where the foreign partner may have had a few months, or as little as zero training in the local language. So, the couple communicates in English, and the foreign partner never learns the local language.


Obviously there are many exceptions to this rule. We all know numerous couples who communicate in the local language. But most of the exceptions occur in couples where the foreign partner already had sufficient language to allow for communication and growth. Again, this concept of “already having sufficient language” mirrors Krashen’s Comprehensible Input Hypothesis and the ALG concept that if the language is too far over the listener’s head, it just becomes noise.


If we took a random sampling of mixed relationships, foreign and local, we would find that the bulk of them communicate almost exclusively in English.


The other method many foreigners try to employ is the language exchange. They meet once or twice a week with a local friend and agree to speak an hour of English and an hour of the local language. The problem again is that the foreign partner is generally at a lower level than the local partner. What the foreign partner needs is a teacher. But the local doesn’t know how to teach. And since such a large percentage of the foreigners living in Asia are teachers, the local partner benefits from a free English language lesson with a real teacher. The foreign partners often get frustrated, complaining that their girl friend, boy friend, or language partner doesn’t know how to teach.


You give an hour of English to your partner. When it is his or her turn to give you an hour of Japanese, you actually wind up with ten minutes of Japanese, and fifty minutes of clumsy explanations in curious English. I often see pairs of people sitting in Starbucks, with a Taiwanese friend, who has no concept of teaching or grammar, explaining the Chinese language, in broken English, to a westerner. It is often clear from the face of the westerner that he or she doesn’t even understand the explanation, but he smiles and says “Thank you” out of politeness.


The foreigner then usually looks at returning to school to learn the language. But school has a number of draw backs, such as boredom, inconvenience, and expense. These are the exact reasons why the foreigner quit school in the first place. In the end, many westerners never acquire the language of their host country, although upon arrival, this is one of the most commonly stated reasons why someone chooses to live in Taiwan, Japan, or China.


To circumvent this difficulty of learning from informal teachers, I came up with the concept of Language Buddies. Similar to traditional language exchange, you meet with your partner one or ten or a hundred times per week.


If you want to use your traditional learning materials with your partner, who is a non-teacher, you can prepare all of your lessons in advance. Then have your native speaker partner simply read all of the lessons to you, including reading texts and grammar exercises. When he or she finishes, then it is your turn to read. It can be very frustrating to ask a non-teacher to explain the language to you, so just use your native partner as a reader and pronunciation checker. Also, as soon as you ask him or her to explain the language, he or she will generally answer in English, which will eat into your Japanese listening time. ALG, of course, strictly prohibits analyzing the language or asking about the language. ALG would also want you to stay away from traditional language learning materials because they are full of synthetic, rather than “real” language.


For a more ALG type of approach: You use the Cross Talk Method, to tell each other stories, while drawing on paper. When you hear words you don’t know, you just let them go. Don’t ask for a translation. You can ask questions using English, but urge your language partner to answer in the local language. This way in your one hour of Japanese, you are actually hearing one hour of Japanese.


You and your language partner could plan your themes in advance. This way, you will each be using similar vocabulary. For example, you could both tell a news story which is currently running in the papers, or you could retell the plot of the latest popular movie. You could tell your partner in advance what it is you will be telling, and then he or she could prepare by first reading the story in his or her native tongue or in English. And you could do the same. Find out what your partner is going to tell you, and you prepare yourself in English or Japanese in advance.


What if you are both fans of “Star Trek” or “The Sopranos”? You could each agree to watch the same episode, whether in your own language or in the language you are studying, and then you would go in and tell the story in English, using picture stories, inflection, and body language. Your partner would then tell you the same story in Japanese.


Or, you could just let it be up to the speaker what he or she tells on a given day. This way you add the real element of surprise. The beauty of this exercise is that you are each in complete control of the story, while speaking, and the listener is free to listen. More importantly, the learner is free to learn whatever he needs to, or whatever he can, on a given day. One of the reasons ALG doesn’t like textbooks is because the books decide what the learner learns. In ALG the learner decides what he will learn on a given day.


Departing from strict ALG concepts, I would suggest using a digital audio recorder or camera to capture the story. You could listen to it again in your spare time, as part of your daily listening exercises.


Antonio Graceffo is the author of the book, “The Monk from Brooklyn,” and is he host of the web TV show, “Martial Arts odyssey.” See his linguistics videos and seminars on youtube


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