The First 1000 Hours, Part 2: How ALG Works (March 2012)

March 2012

Information on ALG can be found online at several sources: aua, algworld and youtube, but I will give a brief summary here of how ALG works and of how the program at AUA is structured.

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).


4 thoughts on “The First 1000 Hours, Part 2: How ALG Works (March 2012)

  1. Tom

    Hi, this has been a very interesting read, and while I agree that language learning from the “inside out” is extremely important as a component within a broad framework for 2nd language learning I would challenge some of the the fundamental premises of ALG.

    Firstly, children emphatically do not learn their first language via “tagging along” and automatic acquisition: parents and child-carers all over the world scaffold their childrens’ language learning and use targeted language adjusted according to their perception of the child’s linguistic level. Later on children extend their linguistic skills through formal lessons at school.

    Secondly, as an infant you have no conscious knowledge of language or linguistic structures and features. It is not possible to replicate this scenario for adult 2nd language acquisition, or even to make a close approximation to it.

    Finally, 1000 hours of language learning is a huge amount of time when compared to other approaches to 2nd language learning, and any method is bound to provide some progress after that amount of time.


  2. adamf2011 Post author

    Hi Tom, I’m glad you found the post interesting and that you’ve taken the time to convey your thoughts about it. I’ll try to address some of your points:

    — First, about how children learn: Based on my experience growing up in the U.S., I would agree with you that parents and caretakers adjust their language to their children’s level, i.e., adults don’t talk to kids (especially small kids) the way that they would talk to other adults. Whether this holds true for all human societies, I couldn’t say. The ALG program at AUA does use fairly natural Thai, but it’s not quite the Thai that you’ll experience once you step outside the classroom (or flip on the TV set). At the lower levels of AUA classes, the subject matter tends to focus on concrete things and actions — the sorts of things that can be drawn or pantomimed — and the language follows suit; you’re unlikely to get a discussion about political issues in the beginner’s class. Teachers also tend to speak more clearly than “regular” Thai speakers, and to make digressions and give explanations, etc, based on the reactions of the class. Even the advanced class is still not quite the same as outside-the-class Thai.

    From my own experience outside the class, I’d say that the easiest people to understand — and probably the ones that I easily learn the most from language-wise — are the ones who know how to tweak or adjust their language in reaction to me, not in the sense of dumbing it down or speaking some kind of primitive half-Thai, but in the sense of being able to rephrase or explain something that I don’t understand, and in general, monitoring my reactions and adjusting accordingly. By contrast, some of the hardest people to understand are those who seem to be speaking to me as they would to another native Thai adult — especially when they have some kind of regional speech! — and don’t seem to be able to think of different ways to express the same idea.

    I don’t think I’ve ever described ALG as learning by “tagging along” — I’m guessing you got the phrase from J. Marvin Brown’s book “From the Outside In,” or perhaps the small excerpt from it on I haven’t read the book; but if just “tagging along” means just listening in on adult native speakers of your target language talking amongst themselves, not addressing you, and not in any way tailoring their language to your level/abilities/needs — then I’d say that the Thai program at AUA definitely does not fit that description.

    In any event, though the language used at AUA is fairly natural — I’d say it is “real” Thai — it’s definitely not quite real-life outside-the-classroom adult Thai; or perhaps more accurately, it might be fair to say that it’s probably just a small subset of real-life outside-the-classroom adult Thai. ALG works via “comprehensible input”, and the teachers at AUA work hard to make the input comprehensible to foreigners whose Thai abilities are minimal or even non-existent.

    –Second, you observe that “as an infant you have no conscious knowledge of language or linguistic structures and features. It is not possible to replicate this scenario for adult 2nd language acquisition, or even to make a close approximation to it.” Leaving aside the issue of whether this knowledge is “conscious” or not (or what that even really means) — I agree with you. As an adult, I already know a lot of things and have a lot of opinions about the world; and my worldview has been shaped by the society I grew up in and by my native language, English. English is the only language which I really speak fluently, and it’s been with me a long, long time. I sometimes find myself making assumptions — usually unverbalized and not even fully conscious — about Thai that are influenced by the way English works; it’s possible that I can’t totally step out of being an English speaker. But most traditional “learn by studying” language programs try to use one language as leverage to learn another — say, using English to give explanations, translations, transliterations, etc. concerning Thai. ALG avoids all that, so at least (I feel) it minimizes the impact of English, the extent to which my Thai will be influenced by English. And I actually think that the Thai that I’m developing is fairly free of English, pretty close to native Thai; what holdover(s) from English may remain in the long run is an interesting question, but one that I think I won’t be able to answer for a long, long time.

    There are also other factors that you’ll never duplicate: an infant probably has yet to form a lot of basic concepts about his/her world; an infant’s language learning is bound up with the social world of close family, friends, caretakers; an infant has no other language to fall back on, either for communicating with others or for thinking/analyzing with. I’m guessing these factors all have a huge impact on language acquisition; none can be duplicated for the adult learner — at least not in any normal learning situation.

    –Thirdly, the amount of time involved. I don’t think 1000 hours is a long time for learning Thai; in fact, I’d say that in terms of the real world, after 1000 hours in the classroom (and even assuming a good number of hours outside the classroom in addition) you’re still really just a beginner. That may sound discouraging, but language is complicated and extensive, and the Thai language is very different from English, as is Thai culture from Western culture.

    The real question would be, if you did x number of hours of Thai via ALG, where would you be compared to having done x number of hours in a traditional study program? What would your abilities be, and what kind of foundation for future language acquisition would you have? Answers to these questions vary from person to person; but so far as I know, no one’s done any kind of scientific study that might provide more objective evidence-based answers to these questions.

    My approach in this blog has been pretty much to focus on my own experiences learning Thai, both via ALG in the classroom, and extending ALG’s “learn without studying” approach outside the classroom. I really like ALG and would say it’s definitely now my preferred method of learning a language; but my purpose in this blog has been to document my own experiences, thoughts, and observations concerning ALG. Therefore what I present here is pretty much anecdotal, and limited to my personal experiences.

    But in one sense, I think I have shown that ALG works as a language-learning method: though I don’t yet consider myself fluent in Thai, I do have considerable abilities, and they have all come from the ALG approach (both within and outside the classroom). And if it worked for me, I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for anyone else.

    I would like to see ALG become more widely known and widely used; I think it’s an enjoyable way to learn a language, and that it works. It would be nice if there were more options to learn languages via ALG; at present, so far as I know, there is only the AUA Thai program in Bangkok, and an ALG-style Khmer program in Phnom Penh.

    On the other hand, even if ALG were more widespread, I wouldn’t say that it should be the language learning method for everyone. Choosing how to go about learning a language could involve a whole host of other questions, whose answers will vary from individual to individual depending on circumstances, goals, temperament, etc.

  3. Tom

    Thanks for your thoughtful and comprehensive reply. I agree that ALG is a very useful tool in the learner’s or teacher’s kitbag, though I do not see it as an all-encompassing “method” as such; actually it rather seems an anti-method.

    I also agree fully that “comprehensible input” as defined by Krashen is extremely important, and by definition would be within the student’s “zone of proximal development”, to use another term from another major theoretician, and thus consistent with parental language scaffolding of infant L1 learning . I enjoyed yet another theoretician’s riposte that “comprehensible output” is also critical!

    I would nevertheless maintain that 1,000 hours is a huge amount of time compared to any other classroom learning method that I’m aware of, and I would like to see a comparison of ALG with other approaches with regard to time taken to achieve a certain level. But as you say, such a comparison is unavailable.

    My biggest concern with ALG is that is widely used as a justification for TEFL teachers’ ignorance of English structures and features, and the ongoing myth that L1 should be kept out of the classroom. This is a cynical and self-serving posture within the TEFL industry even though it is widely discredited these days by most theoretical linguists.

    I also agree whole-heartedly that so much depends on individual circumstances, and that one should keep an open mind and a full kitbag of teaching and learning methods. Let’s take the example of a comparatively highly educated adult, who already speaks several languages. Such a student would undoubtedly be able to employ his or her knowledge of linguistics to short circuit the lengthy (and commensurately expensive) ALG approach.

  4. adamf2011 Post author

    Well, I do see ALG as a comprehensive method or approach; I think to really learn by ALG, you have to follow its approach — not studying or practicing, focusing on content and communication and not on the language, etc. You could certainly use techniques derived from ALG along with more traditional teaching techniques; or, if you’re going the traditional route of study and practice, you could also attend ALG-type classes as a supplement, to give yourself more input/exposure to the language you’re learning. There are plenty of students at AUA who do this. I don’t really have an opinion on whether this is a helpful approach or not; but I can’t see how it would be ALG. To me, ALG is letting your brain sort out the language without you having to do much other than keep paying attention to what’s going on; it’s letting the new language’s sounds, meanings, etc, resolve naturally without you making a conscious effort to interfere in the process. So if you’re doing study-type stuff, you’re derailing ALG as a process, even if you’re (as a teacher) borrowing some techniques (such as nonverbal communication) or, if as the student you’re supplementing your traditional studies with some time at AUA.

    Regarding the length of time, another point to keep in mind is that traditional study-type classes usually require that for each hour in class you spend 2-3 hours working outside of class; there is none of that at AUA. So it could turn out that 1000 hours of classes at AUA is the equivalent of somewhere between 250 and 333 hours of traditional class time — not 1000 hours. Still, you may be right: AUA might require more time. But it’s still an open question as to what results you get at the end of the time period in question, with either approach.

    I can’t really comment on some of your other points since I’m not a language teacher and know pretty much next to nothing about the theory/practice involved, except for what I know from my own personal experiences as a student.

    Again, I’m not really sure what if any information is out there that could “prove” that one method is better than another, or at least give some solid data as to what results the different approaches produce; so a lot of it is going to just come down to people going with their hunches as to what might work or what sounds appealing. I’ve certainly encountered a number of negative reactions to ALG along the lines of that couldn’t possibly work / I have no interest in that, but my guess is that actually most people looking to learn a language have no idea that ALG even exists. And so far as I know, right now not many people are faced with the need to choose between ALG and another approach, unless they’re in Bangkok and want to learn Thai or in Phnom Penh and want to learn Cambodian — or are willing to try to engineer their own personal ALG program with the help of tutors or other native speakers.

    Tom, you seem to know a fair amount about the theoretical end of things — are you a language teacher? A student?


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