“The way we found out that our mother had diabetes was that ants would appear every time she peed.”
The teachers had been standing at the front of the room talking about bodily functions and toilet humor for nearly an hour. The next story was a Thai legend about a half woman and half snake spirit monster, which fed on human waste. I would have been appalled, except that it was all in Thai, and yet, after only a few weeks of study, I understood what they were saying. Maybe it would have been better if I didn’t understand. I could have tuned out. But I had paid money to learn the Thai language through this innovative approach, and apparently it had paid off. The shocking humor of the subject matter forced me to remember the new language.
The lessons weren’t always so unappetizing. Sometimes they were down right fun or silly. The teacher would say the Thai word for ambulance and the students would have to make ambulance noises. Or, she would say the Thai word for train and we would all make choo-choo noises. We were alowed to shout, laugh, get up, and act out. The one thing we were not allowed to do was to speak Thai. If a student answered a question in Thai, he would immediately get told off by the teacher.
Sometimes it was difficult, Thais have no sense of political correctness, which has been stressed in the Western world. More than once a Thai teacher, named Hom, would pull his slacks up to his nipples, squint his eyes nearly shut, stick out his buck teeth and pretend to play golf. “Look, I am Japanese,” he would say.
The first week of class I thought everyone associated with the program was insane. “If I wanted to listen to two hours of racist banter, and get yelled at for speaking my mind, I would just go have dinner with my father,” they admonished. After I understood the concepts behind the program, it began to make sense. Soon, it was like joining a cult. People who believed in the program couldn’t believe there was any other way to learn Thai. And now I think they are right.
The program, called ALG (Automatic Language Growth), was developed by an innovative American linguist, named Dr. J. Marvin Brown. ALG was based on a much earlier theory, dating back to the 1920s, called the Silent Way and later called the Natural Way. Basically the commonality between these theories is that they were listening based, and that they started by observing the way children learn language.
Chinese, Arabic, Thai, Korean, and Japanese are considered some of the hardest languages to learn, and yet small children in these countries speak them fluently. What is more, the children never sat in classes, learning their mother tongue. So, how did they learn it?
Children learn through listening. Children hear their mother and other adults speaking for months on end before they start speaking themselves. Obviously, you can’t be expected to do something correctly until you have seen it done several times. The same is true with learning a language. If someone tells you a Thai word once, you won’t remember it. If they tell you fifty times, you may remember it, but you will mispronounce it or misuse it. The only way to correctly learn a Thai word, or anything for that matter, is to hear it used, correctly, in context, repeatedly.
If you call someone, but they are already talking on the phone, you say the line is busy. If you are staying in a hotel and you don’t want the maid to enter, you hang a sign which reads, “Do not disturb.” If someone is using the toilet on the airplane, the sign reads, “Occupied.” If you want to sit at the movies, but someone is holding the place for a friend, he says “This seat is taken.”
Busy, do not disturb, occupied, taken all have similar meanings, but it would seem strange to us if you called someone and “the line is taken” or if the seat at the movie theater was “do not disturb.” You make linguistic choices everyday, when to use which of many similar words. If you think back, there was probably never a time in your past when you wrote out these four examples and memorized them.
You never wrote the phrase, “Always use occupied for the bathroom,” fifty times in your notebook. And if you did, it wouldn’t strictly be true. If you are in the bathroom in your house, as opposed to a public toilet, when someone knocks, you say “I’m in here.” Not, “occupied.”
When you tried to learn French or Spanish in school you probably did write out lists of when to use certain phrases and words. And, you probably got them wrong most of the time. Moreover, you would get frustrated when you discovered that every rule had fifty variations and twenty-seven exceptions.
Language existed for thousands of years. Rules have only existed for hundreds. Language is organic. It grows as we need it. Rules are static. And they are only amended long after they are out of date. Have you texted someone recently? The spell check on your computer tells you that word doesn’t exist. But we use this word every day. It may be years until the rule matches the reality.
So, how did you learn these intricacies of the English language?
“Experience is the best teacher,” says David Long, head of the Thai language program at AUA, Ratchadamri. David came to Thailand nearly twenty years ago to study under Dr. Brown. Since Dr. Brown’s death, David has been continuing his work. “To learn something, we have to have a meaningful, transportable experience.”
In other words, you learned “Occupied” because you flew on an airplane twenty times and needed to use the toilet. This was a real experience, and it was meaningful. You never forgot the experience of dancing around, waiting for the bathroom to be unoccupied. “Something taught through experience is infinitely better remembered than something taught through school,says Long. Homework, tests, and dialogues are all school concepts, not life concepts, so they are absent from the ALG program. ALG creates experience through teacher student interactions. The teachers stand at the front of the classroom, acting out stories. One hour of sitting in class is exactly one hour of listening, because the teachers talk constantly. More importantly, the teachers speak perfect Thai. So, the students are exposed to a perfect model. If students were permitted to speak Thai, then the other students would be hearing an improper model.
In lower level classes, the students interact, but not by speaking Thai. The interaction may be that they are asked to perform tasks or make noises. The concept here is that we can have meaningful interaction without speaking.
“Words are overrated,” says David Long. “We use them so much, they have no meaning.” According to David, studies show that we only hear one of five words spoken in our native tongue. This suggests that 80% of our communication is non-verbal. If we communicate in our native tongue non-verbally, why then would we expect to communicate in a foreign language using words? That is the first question ALG asks of language learners. Until your level of Thai approaches your level of your native language, you shouldn’t expect to be able to communicate effectively in Thai. “Most Thai people have had several years of English at school. It is not logical that you would be able to communicate better than them after only a few weeks or months of Thai lessons,” I was told.
A major key to ALG is, we don’t want to start speaking too early.
If we ask the average westerner to imitate a Chinese person speaking English, he will inevitably reverse his Ls and Rs. “Oh, me so solly.” The belief is that Chinese people can’t say the letter R. But Chinese babies adopted by western parents have no difficulty saying the letter R. So, it is not genetic. It is a question of learning, of modeling, hearing, and observing. Once again, Chinese babies adopted by western parents will listen for at least a year and a half before they start talking.
Thai is a tonal language, which means, changing the tone of a word completely changes the meaning. I asked a taxi driver to park the car, and instead, he kissed me. I felt flattered till I found out the difference between the word kiss and the word park was just a matter of tone. The next problem with learning Thai is that Thai has at least three times as many vowels, both long and short, as English. Once again, a small mistake in vowel choice can be disastrous. It can mean the difference between riding a horse and stepping in dog pooh. Hearing a word once or twice won’t help you to pronounce it correctly. You need to hear it in context and in some memorable and meaningful way, many times before you can remember it.
When I was a young lad in school, we had to make sentences with vocabulary words and memorize them. This was completely meaningless. As a result, of thousands of big words we were forced to “learn” at school very few of them became part of our English vocabulary. Children learn the words they need when they are ready to learn them. If you have a two or three year old at home, you have no way of predicting what they will learn on a given day. The child will decide. ALG allows adults to learn the same way. What one students learns on a given day may vary dramatically from what another student learns. But they are both learning.
The ALG Thai program lasts about 2,000 hours. Classes begin early in the morning and continue till late in the evening. Students can come and listen as many or as few hours as they like. Some students try to do two hours per day, others do six or seven. The program is perfect for busy people. As a travel writer I am constantly leaving Bangkok for periods of weeks or even months. When I come back, I simply walk back into the classroom and start learning again. Students are even encouraged to take breaks of several weeks to give their brain time to process what they have learned. Often, after a break of several weeks, a student finds his listening ability has improved.
Why are skeptics so resistant to a method that requires them to listen, without speaking?
“There are pride issues involved,” explains David Long. “People want to speak and get positive reinforcement. If you say anything at all in Thai, Thai people will say to you, oh, your Thai is so good. Even if they have no idea what you said.” Another common criticism of ALG is that it is 100% teacher centered. But looked at from another way, having a learner centered classroom is also the wrong model because we are focusing on the ones who don’t know the language instead of focusing on the experts, the teachers.
David Long feels ALG is learner centered. “Our way is learner centered because students decide what they will learn on a given day.” A professor of mine, at University of Mainz, told me, “I can’t sit down with my four year old and say, ok today we will learn the third conditional.” The child will just pick up the language, because the child has a constant perfect model. My sister took her four year old to the Bronx Zoo to see the lion. While the tour guide was explaining about the eating and sleeping habits of the massive cats, my niece turned to my sister and asked, “Mommy, how do they make a web like that?”
“Lions don’t make webs.” My sister answered, a bit perplexed.
“Not the lion!” exclaimed my niece. “I mean the spider.”
My sister looked where the little girl was pointing, and sure enough, there was a spider, building a web in the corner of the lion’s cage. The adults had planned a lesson about lions, but the child chose to learn about spiders.
Should this be called a failed lesson? In a traditional classroom, this would be considered a failure, because the daily learning objective was not met. In an ALG classroom, the day would be considered a success, because the student had learned something useful, even if it wasn’t the intended lesson. At the end of the day, a teacher’s intent is not important. The purpose of education is for a student to learn. If the student learns, the education is successful.
David expanded on Dr. Brown’s work and created a concept called Cross Talk. In the cross talk seminars, two people, who do not share a common language, are paired up and taught to communicate with one another. By the end of the first session, they usually come away knowing each other’s life story. “In Crosstalk, you can have genuinely interesting conversations with native speakers because you are concentrating on the content and meaning rather than the language. The communication becomes the focus, not the language. We need to do the same in language teaching.”
If you do your homework while you are watching a movie and cooking diner your grades will be lower and your comprehension of the movie will be lower. If we divide our attention, we under perform. The same is true of a language learner trying to have a conversation in a new language. If he concentrates on language as well as content, syntax, pronunciation, and meaning…the outcome will be poor communication, and enjoyment will be zero.
Enjoyment, meaningful experience, fun, freedom these all sound like appealing aspects of the ALG program. From hard linguistic standpoint, the idea of listening, not speaking, being the key to learning definitely makes sense. Anyone who has tried to learn an Asian language, especially Thai, knows the frustration of saying all of the words, but no one seems to understand you. Listening more and speaking less may make the difference.