Thursday, October 16, 2008

from the outside in

There are some documents worth reading over at ALG World. Among them, I highly recommend Dr. J. Marvin Brown's book, From the Outside In. By reading this book, you will understand the background and proof of Automatic Language Growth. You see, a lot of people who are aware of ALG do not realize that this is a proven method. To everybody, including myself, who have just heard about AUA Thai in the last two years, it seems that this is a new approach, but in reality, AUA has been teaching Thai this way for over 20 years now! So it's not just theory. It has been tested, verified, and implemented. When they say that speaking is not necessary and will hurt your ability to acquire the language, they know what they are talking about!

Here are the things you must not do while acquiring a new language as stated in the book:
  1. Don't Speak!
  2. Don't Ask!
  3. Don't Look Up Words!
  4. Don't Take Notes!
  5. Don't Think!
All of this means, don't analyze the language. We all do this naturally as adults to some degree, and if you look at the worst language learners, you will see this over analyzing. I have worked with ESL students as a teacher or conversation partner, so I have run into these people who analyze and think about the language more than anyone else, and let me tell you, they drive me nuts! They will start thinking about the language and trying to figure out how to construct a sentence and totally ignore their teacher. It's like, hey I'm going to tell you how to say it. Would you just stop thinking and start listening! But, of course, it's the system's fault. Everybody is expected to speak and everybody expects the quiet person is not getting anywhere.

A little background on Dr. Brown will show you that he had been there and done that. He had been through the FSI drilling and "practicing until it becomes automatic" type of learning. In fact, he learned Chinese through the Navy in the 1940's and was the guinea pig for the Army Method in the 50's. He is the one who proved that their methods "worked." And in 1980, he again set out to prove that practice makes perfect:

I was excited as I walked into the Japanese class that fall quarter of 1980. I had never been less than number one in a language class—and that was without trying. This time I was going to knock myself out. Getting an “A” wouldn’t be enough. Being the best in the class wouldn’t be enough. I was going to be the best the world had ever seen. You wouldn’t believe the extremes I went to.
I practiced until I could deliver it with perfect pronunciation and without a single hesitation. Then I practiced up to double speed without a hesitation.
I did this sort of thing with daily drills and quarterly speeches for three years. It didn’t work. And I could see that it never would. Not a single sentence was ever triggered by a thought. And this had been one of my requirements for success. I had set out to prove the success of practice. I proved, instead, its failure.
So, as you can see, Dr. Brown went from a motto of practice, practice, practice to a motto of don't practice! Another thing to point out is that Dr. Brown had created Thai language programs in the traditional way. He had many years of experience in revising the program and trying to improve it the traditional way. He had left AUA and when he came back is when he started the ALG way. With the old methods of teaching Thai, in 30 years he never had a single student pass his own abilities in Thai. And he wrote that after 10 years with the ALG method, he saw students passing him up all the time.

First, we need an understanding of how advanced Dr. Brown was in Thai. He studied Thai for 4 years and was immersed in Thailand for 40 years.
Now what was my own language preparation? I had studied Thai for 2 years at Cal at 3 hours a week and 2 years at Cornell at 6 hours a week. ... So when I arrived in Thailand I had been through almost 500 hours of classroom study by the Army Method. I could make near-perfect sounds once I had assembled a sentence for delivery, but I couldn’t even begin to ‘carry on a conversation’.
Where was the guinea pig after 32 years? I told you that by 1960 I thought I had arrived. Well I kept getting better and better through the 60’s ... People described my Thai as ‘legendary’ and I tended to believe them. When I gave lectures to Thai schools, the teachers would later tell me that my Thai was better than theirs. Now I knew full well how damning this comment can be, but I still lapped it up. More convincing were things like this. I phoned to speak to an American friend, and the servant who answered the phone later told him that a Thai man had called -- and swore by it. “Are you sure it wasn’t a foreigner with perfect Thai?” (he had been expecting me to call). “No. It was a Thai. I’m 100% certain.” I could see through this too, but I was succumbing to something I said earlier: ‘Short term satisfaction tends to blind us to long term goals.’
Now, the point that I am making here is that when your language skill is that much advanced and you recognize that someone else is even bettter, then that "better" person must be really, really good!
But what were the long-term goals of the guinea pig? I had set out to prove that the Army method could produce perfect speakers. Then, I thought I had proved the method right. Now, I can see that I had proved it wrong. The difference is hiding in the word ‘speak’. Then, I was thinking of ‘delivery’ (how the speaking comes out). Since my delivery was near perfect, I had proved it right. Now, I’m thinking of ‘production’ (how I get from thought to sentence). Since my production of Thai is very different from my production of English, I must have proved it wrong. Let me put it this way. When I speak Thai, I think in Thai. When I speak English, I think only in thought--I pay no attention to English.
A mif is a mental image flash. There is an article on it by David Long at the ALG World archive page. For now, I just needed to tell you what 'mif' stands for so when you read the next quote, you won't be wondering so much.
I found long ago that whenever I was in a Thai-speaking group together with other foreigners, I could easily tell whether they were better or worse than me. When I could see what they were trying to say, I would be flashing my own internal speaking (mifs), and I could easily see how my mifs compared to theirs. Was I faster or slower than them? Better or worse? Of course anyone could do the same thing for their own range. We’ve all got such a meter.
So, how long does it take for a successful student of the ALG method to pass up Dr. Brown at speaking Thai?
Our first success story came in 1988 when our course had grown to a full year. He was the first ‘student’ to pass me up. It took him about 5 years (one year of class plus 4 years of partial immersion). The most recent success story that I noticed was in 2001--after our course had reached new heights. It took her 2½ years (1½ years of class plus 1 year of partial immersion). And this is the current state of the art: 2½ years.

Remember now, I’m talking about a level above me. Her 2½ years had overtaken my 40! Notice also that my ‘bell test’ could only come at some time after a student had finished our course; that is, after a certain amount of immersion. It just so happened that the two people mentioned above worked in our department after their course and we were thus able to observe their immersion.
So, the proof is there. The concept has been proven. To sum it up, I'll state it this way. Not thinking about the language while acquiring it is far superior to drilling, practicing, and learning the language.


  1. I'm sorry but I find this "proof" to be incomplete. Brown started off in an almost completely rote learning environment, and it is fairly widely accepted that rote learning does little to develop individual creative ability.

    It is trivial to show that any course incorporating any amount of meaningful learning is many times better than one with no meaningful component.

    Any proof of an method has to prove that it's more than just meaningful vs rote.

  2. This is not about meaningful input vs. rote memorization. It's about producing the language like a native vs. producing the language like a learner. If you have read the whole book you would understand that. If you haven't, please don't post your opinion.

  3. Keith, let me admonish you politely. I think asking people not to post their opinion is not an invitation to dialog. I agree with you whole-heartedly the standard of comparison is the native speaker - and should be. That is the standard of "proof" we should orient from. If we start from there, lots of reasoned dialog can come about. Unfortunately so many in the language industry and the academic community are not themselves 2nd language speakers. Or if they are they are hesitant to acknowledge the serious problems advanced students (or themselves) face in achieving native like fluency. Because their methodology does not produce native speaker results - adults must have lost the ability to acquire language effortlessly, like children do. ALG proves this is not the case. Because language is such a complex experience - documenting results is a daunting task for any approach. People are not lab rats. I am an ALG student and I can see the results around me - to various degrees. Dr. Brown's results seem to be correct as far as I can see. Unfortunately, very very few students progress to the advanced speaking levels while at AUA ALG. The retention rate is not good, for various reason not discussed here. What happens to them after they leave AUA is a good question. On the whole, I believe (in the absence of proof) Dr. Brown is correct.

    Dr. Brown addressed some critical issues in 2nd language learning, language and stress, students hitting ceilings of comprehension and production, fossilization, the origin of accents. If what Dr. Brown states is true. It could truly be a turning point and a model for teaching language. Which brings us to a good point. Why isn't it?

  4. I only ask that if someone wants to have a discussion about the book, they should read it (the book) and not just my post. I'm not interested in discussing a topic with someone who is not interested in even reading the book. The first comment is by a person who did not read the book, did not bother to provide any kind of name, and clearly does not understand what the book is about, what the book says, or what proof the book provides. Instead, that person is blinded by his own preconceptions and provides his own arguments to try to discredit the ALG method. This tactic is known as a strawman. You cannot have a meaningful discussion with someone who is unwilling to try to understand the issue. So obviously that kind of person is unwelcome. Is it so unreasonable to ask someone to read the book? Or should we just allow them to go on making erroneous statements and we have to keep telling them every time that they guessed wrong about what the book says?

    It is not I who said the comparison is the native-speaker. It is Dr. Brown who made a statement about the standard of comparison should be the native speaker.

    Thank you for your comment, tbmpvideo.

    To address you last question, it seems that not enough attention has been given to the ALG method. The Google engine does not usually provide what you want and give you the most relevant results. I think ALG World needs to do more promotion.

  5. Thank you very much for the links! I'll devour these documents. You're a language learner with a good instinct and I'm always curious when you provide a link. Are there more?


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