ALG is a non-analytical approach to language learning that tries to replicate the way in which small children learn their native language. By non-analytical I mean that one does not try to understand how the language “works” in terms of some set of rules governing grammar, syntax, etc. So in ALG, you don’t learn the rules of how the language works, but you also don’t memorize lists of words, and you don’t translate between the target language (Thai) and your native language. In fact, you don’t focus on language at all; instead you focus on understanding the situations presented in class. In the beginning classes these are situations that are accompanied by language, ie, the situation is communicated largely through non-verbal means (gesture, pantomime, pictures, sound effects) and language is simply part of the mix; in the more advanced classes the situation is presented mostly through language (the teacher just talking), with the non-verbal components being fairly minimal.
What the student actually does in class is to focus on understanding the meaning of what is being said, and not the mechanics of how it is being said. So rather than trying to consciously figure out what a particular word sounds like or what it would translate as in one’s native language or rules of word order or how a particular verb is used, one just pays attention to the story being told, the topic being discussed, etc. In other words, you approach the language that you’re trying to learn the same way that you approach your native language: using it without thinking about it, remaining ignorant as to how it works.
Another difference between ALG and other language learning methods is the long period of time in which the student does not actively use the target language. So whereas in other programs one might be practicing speaking, reading, writing, and translating Thai right from the start, in ALG the student is discouraged from speaking Thai unless it is as effortless as speaking his native language. If you don’t know or can’t remember how something should be said, then you shouldn’t speak. Nor would you speak if, in trying to figure out how to say something, you find yourself getting consciously involved in or analyzing the mechanics of the language – again, you shouldn’t be thinking in terms of rules that describe how the language works, such as grammar or syntax; nor should you be translating from your native language. On the other hand, if when you want to say something, the Thai words simply come to mind automatically, then it is appropriate to speak. Otherwise, students can respond in class by using their native language, or through non-verbal communication such as gesturing.
AUA predicts that the average student will start speaking Thai “automatically” at some time around the 800 hour mark. Reading and writing are learned later on.
In practice, there are some departures, albeit fairly minor, from the theory outlined above; I’ll go into these later on.
The program at AUA is broken down into four different classes. AT 1 (the introductory class) is expected to take about 200 hours to complete, as is AT 2. AT 3-4 (usually just called AT 3) is expected to take about 400 hours to complete, while the most advanced class, AT 5, is expected to take about 1200 hours to complete.
The numbers of projected hours per level above are for westerners; supposedly, students who come from cultures that are closer to Thai culture should be able to progress through the levels in a shorter period of time. In actuality, moving up to a more advanced level depends upon an evaluation of the student by the teachers: the student is ready to move on to the next level when his or her “average understanding” is thought to be 80% or better. I’m a little unclear on what this actually means – I think it refers to the student’s understanding of the main idea or the general gist of what is being said in class. It certainly doesn’t refer to understanding 80% of the words that are spoken.
AT 1 relies heavily on non-verbal communication such as drawings and pictures, pantomime and gesture. The non-verbal component is severely reduced in AT 2, and fairly minimal in AT 3 and 5. As students progress through the different levels, the subject matter becomes more complex (ie, a lot of AT 1 is taken up by stories about bodily functions, naming parts of the body or different kinds of fruit, or descriptions of how to get from one part of Bangkok to another, all of this accompanied by copious drawing on the whiteboard; whereas by the time you get to AT 3 and 5, the topics tend become more complex and are often more abstract and less concrete, such as religious beliefs, customs, episodes from Thailand’s history, economics, current affairs, etc). As the levels progress, the language is spoken more rapidly and seems to become more complex.
In AT 3, teachers begin writing words in Thai on the board, but without any explanation concerning how characters are pronounced or rules of spelling (reading and writing is taught as a separate class, open to AT 5 students).