A Language Learner’s Dilemma
By Antonio Graceffo
Automatic Language Growth (ALG) has many advantages over other language learning methods, but the cost in time and dedication is high. You need to first determine your own personal goals and level of commitment before deciding which rout to take.
Mandarin Chinese is quickly becoming one of the most popular languages of study around the world, including the west. Anyone who has ever studied Chinese, myself included, can tell you how difficult it is to learn. First off, the language is tonal. For most westerners, Chinese would be the first tonal language they have ever tried to learn. Second of all, learning the reading and writing system is tedious. It takes years and years to even learn to read a newspaper. And if you try to learn reading writing and listening all at the same time, your progress in speaking will be greatly decreased.
According to a friend of mine who studied at the Defense Language Institute, a similar phenomenon was recognized there as well. Apparently the institute went through periods of teaching all four skills at once and periods of isolating speaking and listening, with reading and writing taught later. Apparently, students who studied speaking and listening first, achieved a higher level of overall fluency, but students who studied all four skills at the same time remembered more vocabulary.
When I learned Chinese, I opted for speaking and reading only. We were able to complete a chapter of the book every three days, and at the end of six months I was functional. My friends who chose to learn all four skills at once were only able to do a chapter a month, and at the end of six months couldn’t order food in a restaurant. But they could read the menu, where I couldn’t.
If you ask ex-pats working in Asia, they generally need or want to know how to speak the local language, but look at reading and writing as a luxury. In fact, most westerners working overseas sign a one year contract, which they may or may not renew. If they set out to learn reading and writing plus speaking and listening they wouldn’t generally be able to read a newspaper OR function by the end of a single year, particularly if they are only studying a few hours per week.
Since most ex-pats don’t need reading and writing and don’t have time for homework and exams, ALG would seem the perfect method for learning Chinese. In ALG, students learn through listening. They don’t read, write or even speak until hundreds of hours into the course. The idea is to get your listening to a high level first, so you know what the words should sound like, then later you start producing the sounds yourself. Much later, if you chose that option, you learn to read and write.
David Long runs the world’s leading ALG program, the Thai program at AUA Ratchadamri, in Bangkok. The program, and David, have decades of experience, using ALG method to teach Thai and Japanese. In a recent interview, we discussed the application of ALG to Chinese.
Since I published my first articles on ALG, nearly three years ago, I have received countless emails and letters from people asking if there is an ALG Chinese program yet. It seems that Chinese is so difficult for some people that they are open to any suggestion, or methods that might produce success.
At the time of this writing, I am in Vietnam where a group of Vietnamese student teachers are interested in learning the ALG method and using it to teach Vietnamese to foreigners.
ALG is good for Vietnamese because Vietnamese is both tonal and difficult to pronounce. One advantage to learning Vietnamese is that the alphabet is fairly simple, relative to Thai or Chinese. If a student started learning Vietnamese by ALG method, and without first reading anything, he would be much better off. When you look at Vietnamese script, it looks so much like Latin script that you start mispronouncing all of the words. Using ALG concepts, you would first learn to listen and speak. You wouldn’t look at a printed page till you were competent in the language.
This is exactly how Vietnamese children learn. They have a good size functional vocabulary before they learn to read or write at age six or seven. They know what the words mean and how to use them. Then they learn to read.
This is how we should learn Chinese or Vietnamese. But the bonus in Vietnamese is that if you were already competent in the language, learning to read and write would probably only take a few weeks of study, as opposed to years, as it would with Chinese.
The problem that we keep running into with exporting ALG outside of the classroom in Thailand is that it takes 800 hours of listening to learn Chinese, Thai or Vietnamese. Most ex-pats, on a one year contract wouldn’t be willing to or simply couldn’t put in the 16 hours a week that it would take to reach 800 hours by the end of their one year contract. And if they did, they would be on a plane, heading home the next day, because their contract would be over.
When I posed this point to David Long, he countered, asked what people hoped to gain by studying only four hours a week by any method.
“They would learn their numbers, hello, how are you, and be somewhat functional if not very, very badly.” I answered. David and I are strictly in agreement on the importance of listening and on proper pronunciation. Pronouncing Vietnamese baldly is useless because there are six tones and a million vowels and no one would have any idea what you were talking about.
In reality, most of the foreigners who believe they are functional are actually living with the illusion of functionality. But, they feel they learned something, so they feel their money was well spent. And really bad, traditional teaching methods continue to sell well.
David’s answer was, “But they wouldn’t be fluent.”
He is absolutely right. If you take a traditional approach, and if you only do a few hours per week, you would never achieve fluency. In fact, you would never achieve correct pronunciation. The National Language Service, Defense Language Institute, The Foreign Service Institute and ALG (Automatic Language Growth) all agree that you need 800 – 2,000 hours to learn Thai, Chinese, or Vietnamese. For ALG the first 800 hours would be spent listening, you would need an additional 1,200 hours for reading and writing.
These organizations can’t all be wrong.
Recently, a language learner wrote to me on the internet and asked, “But I have a Thai girlfriend and Thai friends, so I don’t need 800 hours.”
The answer is, yes, everyone needs 800 hours of listening, BUT they don’t all have to be done in the classroom. Depending on your lifestyle you may be getting tons of hours outside of class as well. It will still take 800 hours, but you may complete those 800 hours in 60 weeks or 60 days depending on what you are doing outside of school.
But living in a country is not enough. No one learns a language by osmosis. You have to have comprehensible input. This means you need to be able to understand about 60% of what you are hearing for it to do you any good. So, plopping in front of the TV for 800 hours, when you have no prior knowledge of the language probably won’t work. But after 200 hours or 400 hours, watching TV might be helpful.
For myself, I was functional in Chinese after six months of study. Then I went and lived in a temple in China, where my speaking and listening soared. At the temple I met a handful of westerners living in neighboring temples and after six months they still weren’t functional because they just didn’t understand enough of what was happening around them. Next, I lived in a temple in Thailand, with no prior knowledge of Thai. By the end of 3 months I could sort of function, but I was terrible at Thai. After attending school, I wished I could go back to the temple now, because I would get so much more out of it.
I receive emails from people all over the globe, everyday, asking me the best way to learn a language, particularly Chinese. My answer is and has remained, ALG is the BEST way to learn. But it is not the fastest. And you will take much, much longer to be functional, but in the end your results will be best. So, the question is not, which method is best, but whether to ALG or not to ALG. This is a question that learners need to ask themselves.
Antonio Garceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, is available at amazon.com. See his vieos on youtub.
His website is speakingadventure.com
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Contact Antonio: firstname.lastname@example.org