The expectation that we can learn a language through practice demonstrates the need for increased understanding about how language works.I have conversations with people from time to time that indicate some misunderstanding about what we’re saying when we talk about speaking. We have observed that for a native English speaker, it’s an average that one begins speaking at about 700-800 hours. So the other day, a friend came into my office and asked to see some of those students who speak perfectly at 600 hours. I was a bit set-back by this. No where do we even make such a claim. To begin speaking, we further say that we mean the equivalent of a two year old child. That’s our definition of speak. The student has the ability to form their own unique sentence. Perfectly? Absolutely not. So I want to talk about that here. PERFECTION – To begin with, I reject the concept of perfect language. Whenever I hear someone talk about correct or incorrect language use, I smile to myself. As I see it, the only way to judge correctness is to consider the gap between intended meaning, and understood meaning. Whenever the gap between intent and understanding is “0”, the language used was perfect, but is that ever the case? I doubt it. There are so many other aspects to communication that don’t come under the heading of ‘language’ and they all play a part. The purpose of native-like fluency for us, is to take as many of the communication obstacles out of the way as possible. To illustrate this, I remember a conversation between a friend of mine and myself. We had both lived in Thailand for over 20 years when we shared the fact that both of us often spoke with our Thai spouses and employees using English rather than Thai. The point we made with each other was that this actually lowered the chance of miscommunication – by putting the burden of understanding on the listener, as well as taking away the tendency for them to place blame on our lack of language skill whenever a misunderstanding occurred. We both agreed that it wasn’t an issue of language fluency or skill on our part at all – it was something all together unrelated. WHY 700 HOURS? – There is no such thing as listening until everything comes out right on the first time speaking. We identify 700 to 800 hours for the native English speaker (less for some language/cultures) in acquiring Thai as the equivalent of the 2 year old child. We are saying that at this point, you have the basis for fluency. All over the world, in every language and country, the baby begins to form their own unique sentence at 22 months average. This means that there’s really no such thing as a difficult or easy language. It also means that there’s a certain volume of input that’s required before speaking begins. Observing that nature is better faster, and more efficient that all of the adult language learning methods, Automatic Language Growth is all about finding ways to help the adult acquire language naturally. We don’t believe that it’s good reasoning to say that just because you’re no longer a child, your brain can no longer learn in the same way. And all of the studies that seem to show that the adult brain acquires language differently seem to draw their evidence from adults who have learned their second language in an adult way. So do two year olds speak perfectly? I’ve met very few two year olds whose speech I could understand. I’ve also met few I ever thought had a problem with their language. It’s a growth process. So what is it that causes adults to expect that it will be perfect immediately? Perhaps it’s a good thing to note that the child doesn’t even think about it. I talk about the more technical aspects of this in my blog: Practice, Correction, and the Closed Feedback Loop but for now, let me outline the basic things that happen naturally when we don’t apply the adult ability to analyze everything. (And to stress our point here, it is the abiity to analyze that cases the adult difficulties in language learning. Whenever those abilities are not used, a natural process is enabled that is better, faster, and more efficient.) 4 STAGES IN FORMING THE BASIS FOR FLUENCY Stage 1 – (learner knows no language) understanding comes from what’s seen and felt. This period is characterized by guessing about everyday activities, and play. [English learning Thai = 0 – 300 hours] Stage 2 – (learner knows many words) Simple words, questions and responsed such as yes, or now, are understood and may be used by some people. Many of the phonemes of the langauge are not clear, nor is the grammar. Many simple nouns and verbs are understood clearly, but there is a growing discomfort (for the adult learner) regarding the increasing number of words that are not clear. Those words that are almost clear cause the most difficulty for the learner. There is a feeling that one must do something in order to make them clear. This is a mistake as the only natural way is for them to recur in experience. The natural process will suffer if the process is short-circuited by adult methods of manual learning. [200-400 hours] Stage 3 – (learner is grasping the grammar and more abstract words) This is the stage that poses the greatest problem for the adult language learner. Not only are the number of words that are almost clear increasing, we add the remaining phonemes, many of which are almost clear and the grammar – also nearly clear but not quite. Speaking of simple words, and two or three word sentences is common. The frustration levels at this point can be high. For the best results, the learner must NOT analyze it all – if he cannot set aside the worries, then the benefits will be diminished greatly. It’s important to realize two things here – 1) no child ever is concerned with these problems, and 2) The same process that has brought the student to this point, will continue to work and clarity will come in all aspects of the language through the recurrence of sounds, words, and grammar correctly used. [400-600 hours] Stage 4 – Grammar and vocabulary have now reached a critical mass and unique sentences start to form in one’s mind without forethought. The phonemes become fully clear during this time. What’s important here is that the learner does not pre-think. This is rather difficult but necessary. Let the words that are there, be used, while those that are not, emerge on their own later. Focus your attention on the meaning you want to communicate rather than the language you’re using. The difficulty at this stage is caused primarily by the gap which exists between your thoughts and your limited ability to express them. Your thoughts are adult – but your ability to express those thoughts is child-like. This can be somewhat frustrating however it’s a fantastic thing when one learns to simplify their thoughts and get to the basic communication. Learn to think simply. The ability to form a truly complex sentence is not yours at this time – use what you have but don’t force things. [600-1000 hours] Many adults who understand our principles think that the thing that makes sense is to do a combination of listening with practice. All I can say about that is that it is the analyzing (which is necessary for any form of practice) that gets in the way of the natural process. And no one beats that process in any way – ever. Add an element of practice to the acquisition process and the end result will suffer. Period.