Learning Languages Like Children
By Dr. J. Marvin Brown
In 1984, the American University Language Center in Bangkok started using a new approach to teach the Thai language. The method is called ‘The Listening Approach’. In more recent years it’s become known as ‘Automatic Language Growth’.
The method says that any attempt to speak (or even think about language), before automatic speaking comes, will cause damage and limit final results! In other words, the method uses a very long “silent period”.
During the “silent period”, students focus only on listening. After 6 – 12 months of intensive listen- ing, students begin to speak spontaneously and naturally– without effort and without thinking!
ONE – THE CHILD’S SECRET
Everyone knows that when people move to a new country the children will eventually speak the language natively and the adults won’t. The normal explanation is that children have a special ‘talent’ that they lose as they grow up. Teachers said that for adults, languages should be taught and studied instead of learned naturally. But are we any better with present language teaching? Why, for example, do adults in Central Africa do better when they move to a new language community than our modern students do? Could it be that early teachers were mistaken? Maybe adults can do what children do. Maybe it’s just adult behavior (not lack of talent) that prevents them from succeeding.
THE MISTAKE – Children can do something that adults cannot.
THE UNASKED QUESTION – What would happen if an adult were to just listen for a year without speaking?
OUR ANSWER – Both adults and children can do it right, but only adults can do it wrong.
Imagine a 4 year-old child and an adult reacting to somebody talking to them in a foreign language.The child most often just listens, while the adult usually tries to talk back.
Now imagine that ‘not trying to speak’ was the child’s secret. It makes sense that listening to things that are always right would build the language right, while saying things that are always wrong would build it wrong.What would happen if adults were to do the same thing children do, (that is, just listen for a year without trying to say anything).
In 1984, the AUA language center in Bangkok started doing exactly this in its Thai classes. The students just listened for as much as a year without speaking at all. We found that adults get almost the same results that children do. If adults understand natural talk, in real situations, with- out trying to say anything, for a whole year, then fluent speaking with clear pronunciation will come automatically.
It seems that the difference between adults and children is not that adults have lost the ability to do it right– but that children haven’t yet gained the ability to do it wrong (that is, to destroy it with forced speaking).
Forced speaking damages adults. Consciously thinking of one’s sentences – with translations, rules, substitutions, or any other kind of thinking prevents you from speaking like a native.
Natural speaking (speaking that comes automatically) won’t cause damage (not even when it’s wrong). The damage doesn’t come from being wrong; it comes from thinking about the lan- guage.
What we’re suggesting is this. The reason that children always end up as native speakers is because they learn to speak by listening. And the reason that adults don’t is because they learn to speak by speaking.
Adults talk too much.
The formula is this: ‘Listen’, ‘Don’t speak’, and ‘Be patient’. And now it appears that this is not only the child’s secret. It’s everybody’s secret. And while children do it more faithfully, adults can do it faster.
TWO – HOW ALG WORKS
Most language teachers are constantly telling their students to try to speak as much as they can, and to think carefully before they say anything, so they’ll get it right. And now I’m saying that this kind of speaking and thinking is the exact thing that prevents adults from learning languages well.
THREE – PUTTING ALG IN THE CLASSROOM
We look at children who have moved to a new country, and we see them ‘listen, laugh, and stare’. The child’s secret; ears open, mouths shut, no tests. They become near-native within two years.
Then we look into language classrooms around the world, and we see just the opposite; ears practically closed (the students use their eyes instead), mouths open, and a lot of tests. Very few of these students become near-native.
Two things are needed for modern students.
First, they need experiences in the language that are so interesting (fun, exciting, suspenseful, etc.), that the students forget that a new language is being used.
And second, the students understanding must be high enough to learn – and this means 80-100% from the very first day!
It takes a lot of work to train teachers to be both interesting and understandable. But it is the secret to success! Interesting and understandable listening, and a long “silent period”, is the key to speaking like a native.