You are hereWhen it comes to language, what does "perfect" mean?


By dvlong - Posted on 15 March 2010

When it comes to language, what does "perfect" mean?

Who cares about perfection in language?  I seldom meet the person. I often speak to students just starting to learn Thai about their goals in wanting to learn a language.  Interestingly, most people don't seem to have very well-defined objectives - and almost always the objectives they do have are short-term.  "I want to be able to tell a taxi where I need to go." which often means I want to say things like, "Turn left." or "Turn right." or "Stop here."   Being as these are words that the majority of taxi drivers already know in English, it seems unlikely to me that the motivation is really to speak to taxi drivers at all.  (watch for my upcoming blog about reasons to speak) But in any case, these students would be happy, so they believe, with a basic working knowledge of Thai.

I also speak with many non-Thais who've lived here a long time (many years), and they have a basic working knowledge of Thai.  These people are rarely satisfied with their level - and are looking for ways to improve.

The traditional view is that with motivation, patience, hard work, and practice, you can improve.  This is a lie that we've been taught, primarily through an educational system that is full of failure when it comes to language teaching.  This is not unlike the lie of the 'American Dream' - that fulfillment in life is found when you get a good education, which of course leads to a good career, a house, two cars, family, health, etc.,  In fact, it seems to me the realization that the 'American Dream' is a lie is what has brought many people to Thailand.  (For some interesting reading about the lies of the American Dream, and Education both read the book, "If You Want to be Rich and Happy, Don't Go To School" by Robert Kiyosaki, the author of "Rich Dad, Poor Dad")

You don't need to be a professional teacher or linguist to understand that language teaching is largely a failure.  All one needs do is look around.  Everywhere in the world, where families with young children move to new places, we see this scenario:  Mom and Dad enroll in a local language school, hire a maid or baby-sitter, and study.  These parents are dedicated to learning.  They've bought the lie - that motivation, patience, hard work, and practice will enable them to 'achieve' what they need to - and this certainly seems to be the case - for a while anyway.  Within just a few days, they're able to speak and perform - having used their superior mental capabilities to 'learn' the new words and phrases.

Don't misunderstand me here - motivation, patience, hard work, and practice (MHW), may 'feel' right.  It's just that when you look around, the best language learners aren't the ones who use MHW.  The best language learners are the young kids, who do something entirely different.  While Mom and Dad are paying lots of money and studying hard, what's happening at home?  The babysitter goes out into the community, with the child in tow.  This child meets other kids her age.  Pretty soon there's a small group of neighborhood kids roughly the same age, and they play.  In fact, the child's entire life, could be characterized by one word - PLAY.  Largely quiet, (because most of the kids don't understand her language, and she doesn't know theirs, everyone does things together.  With gestures, body language, and all sorts of rich non-verbal communication, these kids play.  At first, no one thinks about all the 'language' that's being learned.  No one's considering the fact that this child will become fluent.  All the while Mom and Dad, working hard at 'learning' may end up speaking quite well... "for foreigners".

Now the question I've been hoping to raise as I began centers around a recurring conversation.  When I say that Automatic Language Growth is about giving adults the opportunity to do what children do in learning a second language.  Invariably, someone is sure to say, "The problem is we're not children!"  And every time I hear this, I think to myself, "What is it that I'm missing?"

While I'm no linguist, Dr. Brown was (see "From the Outside In" by J. Marvin Brown).  He strove to be 'perfect' as a language learner and came close.  Language was easy for him.  But still, children and uneducated adults kept doing better and with a whole let less work.

So me, the non-linguist came along.  I wanted to learn Thai well.  Perfect?  Never even thought I could.  I knew that I didn't want to speak in such a way that would strain the listeners and I knew based on previous experience, that I'd have problems in a traditional program.  One year of language study (not really study at all) in the AUA Thai Program and I've been sold ever since.

In the days when I was a student, the idea of a LAD (language acquisition device) was still popular.  So was the idea that the adult brain was somehow 'fixed' and this was why we couldn't learn the same as a child.  Thankfully, modern brain research is breaking down the myths and demonstrating, in spite of all our assumptions, that the adult brain continues to be molded by things that happen (experience) to us.  This is good for those who want to learn a language in the same, effortless way that a child does it.

Here's what made sense to me when I was a student, and still does.  Perhaps you can help me see what I'm missing.  Of course I wasn't a child when I learned Thai, and while ALG has been used with children effectively, most of my work has been with adult learners.

  • It's better to understand what's said to me than to be able to speak but not understand the responses.
  • Thai's had already studied English many more years than I was able to study Thai, so their broken English listening ability, was going to be better than adding my broken Thai speaking into the conversation.
  • My intellectual development was not at the level of a young child (possibly debated by some people). Still it made sense that my language development in Thai needed to catch up with my adulthood - which was naturally going to take some time.  So my language development would probably need to pass through many of the same stages.
  • I needed to be aware of what was going on inside, and look for ways for that natural process to be replicated.
  • The excuses that people used, (from then until now) seemed to be off the point entirely such as, "We have to speak Thai, because Thais don't use English very much!"  While in fact, most of my ex-pat friends  have lived here for quite a long time and speak very little Thai.
  • Children don't do anything like the adult form of practice.  They soak up experiences without any apparent focus on the language.
  • I could re-learn how to not attach my new experiences in Thai, to language from another place.

I hope you can begin to see the dilemma that I have.  In answer to the goal of Automatic Language Growth to provide people with the means to effectively acquire a new language naturally like a child does, saying that we're no longer children doesn't work at all.  Of course we're not and that's the point!  Does the fact that we're adults mean that we're somehow damned to be poor at language?  I don't think so and in any case such logic is faulty.  When compared to what children do naturally, the results gained from adult language learning methodology everywhere is poor at best.  So what is it that makes it impossible for adults to become native in a second language?  The fact that in education we've laregely never even tried to replicate what the child does may show the degree of assumptions that we're working from.

As a friend pointed out to me recently, all over Thailand there are foreigners from countries that don't use Thai, who've come here to live, and those who pick up Thai in a child-like way, and do very well, are those who are poor and often uneducated.  They don't know that they can't learn Thai, and they seem to naturally do what the child does.  Look, listen, and play.  Perhaps if they'd gone to school more they'd have learned that they couldn't do that.

So if you've followed with me to this point, perhaps you're asking, "What then does ALG offer?  What's the AUA Thai Program all about?"  In fact, we offer the opportunity to gain understandable experiences in Thai, with native Thai speakers.  This is the basis for language in the life of a child, and adults too - when the natural process is allowed to work.

Perfect language?  I'm settling for as good as it can be and when it comes to methodology, based on results, children and uneducated adults seem to have everyone beat.  Even then, I still want you to write in here and tell me why adults can't do what the child does.

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Quite the interesting article!! I still want to sit a few more of your classes before I'm 'sold' on your methodology, as well as talk to some current/former students who can actually speak more than 'two-word-thai' to gauge their ability.

I give you credit for being dedicated to this method, for NOT going down the path that mant thai language schools do in the "visa-mill" arena. I too believe it is only a matter of time before the MOE decides to really test students trying to secure extensions of stay based on learning thai.

Thanx for the time, good luck.
Tod