You are hereForbidden to Speak! - (and comments about Steve and Benny)


By dvlong - Posted on 11 March 2010

Forbidden to Speak! - (and comments about Steve and Benny)

I'm probably that 'guy in Thailand' who is accused of forbidding students to speak in the following podcast.  (http://lingosteve.posterous.com/benny-the-irish-poyglot-and-steve-the-linguis)  This is one of two misunderstandings people sometimes have.  It may indicate that I am simply ineffective in communicating in any language whatsoever.  On the other hand, it may indicate that some people aren't vary careful in their listening.

At AUA, I tell people to speak when they are ready, but never to push it.  The fact is that every language is different.  As a native English Speaker, I can acquire Spanish in about 300 hours of input, (please see Z.Hock's and my comments below in regard to this point) whereas Thai takes over 1000!  I agree with Steve that speaking should only begin when a person feels they're ready.  Frankly, I don't believe it's healthy to 'push' something like this.  Everyone naturally speaks their native language when they're ready, and those who are pushed often have problems.

I will say that, based on our experience (as well as a nifty scientific theory about why and how), best results are only achieved by not speaking until things are ready to come out naturally.

In answer to queries about my opinions here let me outline some things where we agree and disagree with Steve and Benny.

We do agree on many points: spending 6 months gaining input prior to arriving in the country makes sense - if you can find the input.  Input is vital.  I admire that Steve has made it such a focus.  Steve also give credence to the fact that it simply takes time and shortcuts, as well as formal studies, do work for some, they're not his preferred way of learning.  (Here I don't believe it's about preferences though as much as personality and adult abilities.  The fact that 5% of the adult population can learn a language through formal studies, is no indication the the methods are good or desirable, even for that 5%.)

I find in listening to both Steve and Benny, they seem to have differences in short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals.  They address this and for me this is central.  As language students, we really need to define our goals.  One thing I always tell my students is that irregardless of what your short and mid range goals are, I've never met a person who was 70% fluent and was happy with 70%.  Where ALG differs with every approach and method I know of is that we believe and our experience supports the idea that speaking too soon (i.e. pushing the speaking through your mouth or internally to yourself either one) lowers the end results you will obtain.

So we come to definitions of fluency.  There seems to be a big gap between Steve's and Benny's definitions of what fluency means.  To us, it means the native speaker and this is the only comparison we want.

There are vast differences in various languages and this is something I feel was alluded to in this dialog.  For a native Spanish speaker, learning a language like English is vastly different to learning a language like Thai.  First of all, to my Californian ear, a Spanish or Latin accent is very pleasant and it would not be a benefit for a Latin to speak English with an accent or pronunciation like my own unless it was difficult to understand what he was saying - which can often be the case.  This is one form of limitation (mentioned in the paragraph below) that people don't grow out of no matter how long they live in an English speaking environ.  Thai for example, is not forgiving of other's accents.  If you don't speak like a Thai, in terms of accent, pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary, they will misunderstand or not really listen to begin with.  In European languages the equivalent may be French in this regard.  Speak it well, or don't even bother.  With English in the United States, you'd best be understood the first time, otherwise people will just often tune out, wondering to themselves what you're doing there in the first place.  This has always interested me being as the entire country is mainly composed of foreign immigrants!

One main difference between ALG and Steve may have to do with what Steve considers good input.   For us, in order for input to really qualify, it needs to be both 'experiential' and 'authentic' communication.  The meaning from Steve's form of input seems to tend towards being entirely verbal or word based.  With ALG, the exact opposite is true.  This is because we see words as growths out of experiences.  Words cannot develop naturally apart from experiences.  I think that this is what Benny was driving at in part 2 as he and Steve discussed the point of whether or not Steve's methods are actually real or authentic communication or not.  In the end, they both are using adult ability to augment a natural process.  I've never seen evidence that this produces better or faster results for the long term, and I've seen lots of evidence that indicates that using adult abilities creates lifetime limitations.

Both Steve and Benny seem to lack a scientific basis for their ideas and I would encourage both but especially Benny to read, "Behaviour:The Control of Perception" by William Powers, also an electrical engineer.

The Bottom Line for me is this...

No one ever beats the child - they are the perfect language learners - and nature is better and faster than any adult ability-based technique or method.  I've never seen an exception to this and believe that the closer we align with the child's natural process, the better the end results will be, every time.

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Thanks for your answer David. The discussion between Steve and Benny is indeed very interesting for all language learners.
I am wondering how 5-10 years old kids manage to learn a foreign language so quickly.
Don't you think that some speaking is involved from the beginning? Most kids are anything but silent after all!:-)

I have nothing to prove it, but from casual observation of newly arrived foreign kids I'd say most of them don't say much (if anything at all) at the beginning. They listen and observe and try to understand what's going on around them. I don't think it's much different to what younger kids do when they learn their native tongue. But that's just a guess on my part...

Julien,

I've observed the same thing as Bakunin, at least with younger children. Older children seem to need to 'fit in' and so may often isolate themselves, until they find someone that they can relate to. I've watched an 11 and a 12 year old finally connect, and each began speaking their own language to each other as if the other understood them. This was magic so far as I'm concerned.

In more direct answer to your question though, there is a lot of information available on what children do - the question always comes down I think to what it means. With newborns, there are so many other things going on, such as physiological development, etc. I think a better comparison is the 3 year old, who moves to a new country. My observations is that they take it all in, and only start to "play" or mimic after quite a long time.

Hey, this is a great post. It would be awesome if you were to also create a video response to Steve's video that you linked to in your previous post. You'll get a lot of views that way. Just a suggestion.

Steve and Benny have spent many hours/days/months on language learning. If they were willing to spend just a small portion of that time exploring the experiences of the polyglots of the past they would understand at least the meaning of "input". Translating a 200-word texts word-by-word and than listening to it 20 times (Lingq) or phrases from a phrasebook (Benny), is that input, the one that Krashen is talking about, the comprehensible one, or is it the old grammar-translation method but without the exercises part that you do after you've analyzed the text enough times? If they have not understood that you cannot expect them to understand things like silent period, learning-acquisition distinction, MIFS etc. I'll have to disagree with Keith's suggestion here, sorry Keith.

You could acquire Spanish in 300 hours of input? Not a chance. Unless "acquiring" means something other than acquiring the full language. 300 hours is chump change, right? That means anyone can give it a try and gauge the number to see if it's even in the ballpark. It's not. There is no way you're fluent, reading books and so on after 300 hours of ALG or any other kind of input. If it could be done, the U.S. would be full of bilinguals. The claim is outlandish. And yes, I know Spanish and I know very well that it is the easiest language going for a native English speaker, obviously so, but 300 hours of input is nowhere near enough to acquire the language. 300 hours might be fine for getting by in Spanish in everyday situations, but that wouldn't be a special achievement by any means and a far cry from acquiring the language. It is impossible to acquire a sensitivity for nuance in any foreign language in 300 hours, and until you have that kind of sensitivity even as a passive, recognitive ability, you are very far from fluency.

Thank you for you input Z. You are right, and I have miscommunicated the point I was making. Fluency requires a certain amount of input, as a basis. If this input comes after formal study, fluency will most likely never be obtained. The basis for future fluency in Thai is input of about 1000 hours. At this point, a person will be able to understand about 70% of what's being said in everyday communication, and speaking would be about that of a two year old. The equivalent of this, for an English native speaker acquiring Spanish would be about 300 hours.