Based on the claims that we make, one might imagine that all the students who attend our Thai Program at AUA become native-like in fluency. Often and in many places people have noted that language teaching fails – not more that about 5% of adult students actually succeed! Is it any different with our AUA Thai Program? In fact, it’s my estimation that in the AUA Thai Program not more than 5% actually achieve high levels of fluency. This isn’t an estimate arrived at in any scientific manner mind you. And in fact, we have no real idea. Before you tune me out here, let me explain.
All language programs have some problems that are similar. We share a few of those things. One is this: language students stay with us for a period of time, but we seldom see them outside of and after the time they study.
I’ll share my experience as an AUA student here. I attended AUA in 1987-8 for about 1 year / 1150 hours. This brought me to a level of about 70% understanding – but what was my speaking ability? Horrible! At the end of my study, I invited the teachers to my home for a meal. After dinner, I can remember trying to say a few sentences of thanks to them. It was literally one of my most embarrassing moments – and I’m not sure if was embarrassed more for them or myself! Nothing I said seemed to make sense. After about 1 minute, I ended it and no one really said anything. If there was a hole to crawl into, I’d have done it then. I think Marv Brown was perhaps the only person there who was not disappointed or surprised.
I continued living in Thailand after that and 1 1/2 years later, began to feel that I could really express just about anything I thought. This was 2 1/2 years from the time I first arrived. I didn’t study outside of AUA with the exception of about 3 months at 4 hours a week with a writing tutor after I had completed my time at AUA. She wanted to help my speech but I wouldn’t work on it with her. My speaking ability followed along the same curve of development as my listening had, at a gap of about 800 or 900 hours.
If I had never returned to AUA to visit the teachers and staff there after my time studying, they may have all imagined that I never could speak at all. This is true of all programs I think. Do we measure a student at 3 months? or 3 years?
Even though there are some similarities between Automatic Language Growth and other approaches, there are many more differences that bear on the percentage of students who achieve fluency.
baggage: Not everyone who enters the Thai program starts from the same place. Over half of our students come to us having already studied Thai previously. This has a huge impact on the outcomes. It is on this single point where we gain the most criticism from academics – the idea that one can harm their ability to achieve fluency seems to make people angry. Marvin Brown was big on using the word ‘damage’. Of course from the standpoint of making people feel good and positive, it’s not a very good concept. From our linguistic and real-life experience point of view, the exceptions to this are too few to mention. Of course the world is full of false promises that continue to pull people in and language programs tend not to be any different. “Learn to speak quickly!” is the lie we’ve just never seen supported anytime or anywhere though we agree it sells materials and programs quite well.
definition of success: People attend our program for many different reasons. Some come to us for 3 months because it’s a great place to meet friends, or to enjoy the oasis of our facilities in the heart of Bangkok. Some people go there because the classes are fun, and they really don’t care to learn Thai all that much.* Some people are enrol to use the program to augment to their own study of Thai because we offer something no one else really does. A few come to us because they wish to become truly fluent.
rate of acquisition: The people who attend our program do not follow the same schedules. For example, I attended 7 1/2 hours daily for one year. while my friend Bill, attends for about 20 hours weekly, 6 to 8 weeks a year. Bill first came to AUA in 2001. For 8 years he’s been attending AUA for 3 to 4 weeks at a time, twice a year. Just as when one assesses a 3 year old’s language ability, we look at Bill and assess his ability based on averages. The things we look at for all students are similar to what we look at when considering the growth or development of a young child. Things like understanding, and how she responds to things, etc. Is Bill speaking Thai yet? Not much. How’s he doing? He’s on track to becoming reasonably fluent. He will be 100% successful in reaching his goals, and he will be moderately fluent, with some difficulties that the will arise due to the adult things he’s added to his natural language acquisition.
In short, the only thing we can look at consistently is what the student does while he or she is with us. Based on this and added input from occasional conversations with students, we make educated guesses about their path or growth trajectory. When we do meet up with the occasional student here and there, later in time, we look to see if our educated guesses and their abilities are consistent – normally they are.
* The following story may challenge some of your ideas about what it takes to acquire a language. Most of us would say that we must be dedicated to learning, focused, etc. Perhaps not…
As a group, the most successful students we’ve seen was a group of Swedes. In those years, the Swedish government designed a program where people could enroll in education programs outside of Sweden at the governments expense. This presented a great opportunity for people who wished to live in Thailand. (If you’re familiar with Thailand, you already know that it’s not uncommon for people to love the life style, the pace of life, and the overall outlook of things here 🙂 The requisite for the program was that they must enroll in an education program somewhere. We began to see many people arrive from Sweden and many of these people (not all) were not interested in the least in learning Thai. They were there because we offered the least demanding program – one couldn’t fail, there was no homework, we gave no tests, etc. Their motivation apparently was to attend so they could get the support from the government and to enjoy life – which they did to it’s fullest. (these are very similar reasons why I attended AUA as well.) In any case, to date these people achieved the highest levels of fluency we’ve seen!