Learning Languages Like Children


When a family moves to a new country the children will eventually speak the language natively and the adults won’t. Many immigrant communities exist in New York City where the children speak perfect English while the parents speak little or none at all. One great example is Brooklyn, NY with its thriving Chinese community where it is possible for adults to live their entire lives without ever having to speak a word of English. Not so for children who attend school and commingle with English speaking friends from very early in life. These children almost always speak perfect English. Witness the great many Chinese Americans we see on TV as reporters and news anchors – a job that requires perfect English.

The normal explanation is that children have a “clean slate” or a special talent that they lose when they grow up. Perhaps, the answer is much simpler. Imagine a pre-school child and an adult reacting to somebody speaking to them in a foreign language. The child almost always simply listens, while the adult usually tries to talk back. Listening to a language spoken correctly is how children learn a language. It is not uncommon for children in bi-lingual homes to learn both languages simultaneously. In many cases these bi-lingual children go through a longer silent period and then speak (or at least understand) both languages once they begin speaking.

These simple observations have led to the evolution of completely new methods of teaching a first or second language to both children and adults.

The Natural Approach

During the late 1970’s and early 1980’s a method of language teaching was pioneered by Stephen Krashen and Tracy Terrell that emphasized communication, and placed less importance on grammar study and immediate error correction.  This method came to be called the natural approach.

In the natural approach, speech is not forced, but allowed to emerge naturally after students have listened to many hours (10 or more) of properly spoken language.  Lessons focus on understanding and place little or even no importance on error correction, drilling or on conscious learning of grammar rules. In the Natural Approach, learning a wide vocabulary is prized over learning grammar.

Learning Languages Like Children

Over thirty years ago, the prestigious American University Alumni Language Center in Bangkok took the natural approach a step further. After observing that the Krashen approach did not work as well with adults as it did with children, it decided that adult students’ speaking had to be eliminated entirely – for at least a year. Results showed that adults learn as well as children under this method. Simply put, adults talk too much.

This “Listening Approach” became what is now called “Automatic Language Growth” or “ALG”. ALG claims that any attempt to speak before natural speaking emerges by itself will cause irreversible damage and limit the end product.

Total physical response (TPR)

Developed by James Asher, professor emeritus of psychology at San José State University, TPR is a language teaching method based on the coordination of language and physical movement. Upon observing young children interacting with their parents, Asher concluded that speech from the parent was often followed by a physical response from the child. Asher also concluded that language is learned primarily by listening (sound familiar?) and that physical movement is a means of passively learning the structure of the language itself. He also believes that learning should not involve any stress.

All of these methods are based on the notion that the best way, perhaps the only way, to learn to speak a language like a native is to learn as children do. They have several elements in common:

  1. It is essential to listen to the language for an extended period – until it emerges naturally.
  2. Learning should be stress free.
  3. Learning grammar is not as important as vocabulary.

Effortless English

effortless-english-250x208Based on the pioneering concepts and life long work of Doctors of Krashen, Asher and Long, Effortless English was created by English teacher A.J Hoge to help adults learn English as a second language.

Hoge, who holds a BA in Journalism and a MS in Social Work from The University of Georgia also earned a Masters Degree in TESOL from Shenandoah University, where he studied  the “natural approach”​ rather than traditional “grammar translation” methods.  He studied abroad and observed classes at Thammasat University and AUA in Bangkok, Thailand.




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