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Learning Languages Like Children, How ALG works - Chapter 2 of Learning Languages Like Children

Chapter 2 of

LEARNING LANGUAGES LIKE CHILDREN

By Dr. J. Marvin Brown

HOW ALG WORKS

Most language teachers throughout the world are constantly telling their students to try to speak as much as they can, and to think carefully before they say anything so they’ll get it right. And now I’m saying that this kind of speaking and thinking is the very thing that keeps adults from learning languages well. But take careful note of the following point. And keep coming back to it every time you feel a strong opposition to the ALG position.

As opposite as our positions may seem, there is actually no disagreement. We’re just doing different things. With ALG we’re interested in natural language acquisition, while most of the world is settling for an artificial use of foreign languages by adults. They’re teaching their students to ‘contrive' sentences. We’re teaching ours to ‘improvise' them.

And surely there’s no argument as to which one is better It’s just that most of the world believes that natural language acquisition is impossible for adults, or at least that it would take too long to be practicable. And the purpose of this article is to show that it is both possible and practicable.

This will become clearer in part Four. But first we’d better try to make our counter-intuitive position seem more intuitive, or we might not have any readers left by part Four. So we’ll offer a little common sense theory here to show that we are simply following the natural working of the brain. Now we don’t claim to have any privileged information about how the brain works, but our experience may have given us some fresh kinds of guesses. Having identified them as guesses here, we won’t label them as such below. This will make for easier reading. But whenever the reader thinks it’s necessary, he should add something like this to each sentence of part Two; ‘we think that...' or ‘It looks like...'.

Memories are the brain’s natural way of recording things. Vast scenarios can be recorded in an instant and stored away for life. We record so many memories every day that the brain has to sort them out and systematize them for more efficient storage. And this is what natural knowledge is; systematized memories. The word ‘dog' for example, (an example of knowledge, not a memory) has been abstracted from thousands of memories of dogs (most of which have since been erased in order to provide new space).

So natural systematization of memories is one way to produce knowledge. But there is also another way. It uses memory instead of memories. Memory refers to the brain’s way of storing facts and figures (as opposed to happenings). This isn’t natural. It takes tricks or hard work to record something as simple as a phone number. So there are two different kinds of knowledge. Natural knowledge is the child‘s way; it is instantly available without thinking, and it can last a lifetime. Artificial knowledge is the adult’s favorite; we have to think about it in order to use it, and it‘s easily forgotten.

Forgetting is an attribute of artificial knowledge and plays little or no part in natural language acquisition. But our students didn’t know this, and when they returned after being away for some time they thought they would have forgotten a certain amount. But we were in for a surprise. They often reported that they were actually ahead of where they left off. (I myself experienced the same thing after a five-month break from my natural acquisition of Swatow Chinese).

How can we explain this? It looks like we don’t learn language in class at all. We just store away memories of what happened there and subconsciously sift language out of these memories later. But memories consist of happenings' not words. Sure we can build knowledge out of happenings-but a language? Where do the sounds of new words come from? Well it looks like we’ve got a third kind of knowledge. A kind that grows out of repeated traces carried by memories. Every trace that eventually grows into a word is associated with a happening. We remember only the happenings' not the traces; but the brain records the traces as well. (Psychologists have detected these traces and refer to their recording as ‘priming‘) Now words have both meanings and sounds. And in natural language acquisition, the meanings are distilled from memories, while the sounds accumulate from the sound traces carried by these memories.

The brain can’t use sound traces to speak with, but it can use them to build language with. It’s the recognition of this fact that is the whole difference between ALG and other natural approaches.

Now the brain continues to build language out of memories of happenings and traces of sounds while the students are away. Class time can be compared with eating a meal. Digestion and growth take place later.

Earlier we spoke of ‘building language in the wrong place - - the place that thinks'. And from that point on we have been contrasting two different kinds of brain activity. Let’s compare them by lists.

‘Try‘                                                     ‘Let‘

conscious                                            subconscious

memory                                               memories and traces

facts and figures                                  happenings

‘tricks and hard work'                            ‘recorded in an instant'

teach and learn                                    pick up

artificial knowledge                               natural knowledge

artificial language use                           natural language acquisition

have to think                                        don’t have to think

contrive                                               improvise

easily forgotten                                    stored for life

muscle control                                      image control

the adult’s way                                     the child’s way

But a theory built out of vague words like these isn’t going to be very productive. We need concrete units in our theory - - things that we can point to in space and in time. And we want those parts to be the actual things that are involved in processes like understanding, learning, and speaking. In other words, we want a theory built out of neurons, or areas of the brain, or something like that.

Of course we don’t know enough about the brain to actually do this, but we can at least try to place our vague words somewhere in the brain. Pictures of different parts of the brain in textbooks of neuroanatomy, for example, reveal different kinds of neurons stacked in different ways and affording different kinds of computing activity. We can visualize our two lists as being in two different rooms in the brain; one labeled ‘try' and the other one ‘let'. The important thing is not that these areas are in different places (in fact, it is possible that they are interspersed), but that they do different things; that is, they process information from the receptors in different ways. Now we’re suggesting that the baby is born with the ‘let' room, while the ‘try room slowly develops to an operable stage by age 10-12. The adult, then, has both rooms, and he switches from one to the other as required by the task. But modern education seeks to increase the use of the ‘try' room, even when the ‘let' room would be more appropriate. And the adult language student is caught in a conflict: natural forces are trying to turn his switch to ‘let'; while the forces from years of schooling are trying to turn it to ‘try'.

This distinction has long since been noticed by others. W. Timothy Gallwey calls it ‘Self 1' and ‘Self 2'. And Krashen calls it ‘conscious' and ‘subconscious'. We’re just trying to make the same distinction more concrete by picturing it as different neural hardware in the brain.

We are assuming two points which are unproven and thus open to argument.

1\. A theoretical assumption: The brain does indeed have the different capabilities described in this section.

2\. A finding from practice: Natural language acquisition is indeed both possible and practicable for adults.

If we really want to know how language acquisition works, we need to understand how our receptors receive input from the outside and then process it into language. After observing this happen in our students for many years as well as experiencing it within ourselves, we’ve come up with a budding brain theory to explain it. But this is not the place for such a theory, and we will deal with it in later publications. For our present purposes, all we need is to give a feeling that when left to itself the language will inevitably form - and form perfectly. And we can do this a lot better with a simple comparison than with an abstruse and incomplete theory. Here’s the comparison.

If we let rain fall on a given terrain, one and only one river system can result. And no engineer is needed. Nor could an engineer duplicate the system if he tried.

As long as we don’t interfere (that is, as long as we just ‘let' it happen), the building of a given river system depends on only three things; the weather (wind and rain), the terrain (the composition and shape of the ground) , and gravity. An elaborate river system will inevitably be carved in one and only one way (with minor variations) from a given kind of weather acting on a given terrain. And if an engineer ‘tried' to influence the formation of this system, he could only upset it in an irreversible way.

In like manner, as long as we don’t interfere, the building of a given language in a given individual depends on only three things; the language input (like the weather), the nature of the language part of the brain (like the terrain), and the chemistry of neural transmission (like gravity). A person’s native language is not the result of building the neural structures that we call language to match a pre-existing plan. It is the inevitable result of a given neural structure being buffeted by a given kind of input. And if we try in any way to influence this formation, we can only upset it in an irreversible way. The typical way that adults interfere with the process is to try to speak from a trace (before the full sound has been formed). But since the brain can’t use traces to speak with, the only way they can do this is to build the complete sound themselves (either from sounds in their native language or from their knowledge of phonetics). And once they do this, there is no going back. Subsequent buffeting will act on what they‘ve already done to the terrain. Compare this with a man-made channel in the river system. Once it starts carrying water, the engineer can’t restore the overall system to what it would have been no matter how hard he tries. And ‘what it would have been' (in the case of language) is precisely that language that native speakers speak.


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Chapter 2 of

LEARNING LANGUAGES LIKE CHILDREN

By Dr. J. Marvin Brown

HOW ALG WORKS

Most language teachers throughout the world are constantly telling their students to try to speak as much as they can, and to think carefully before they say anything so they’ll get it right. And now I’m saying that this kind of speaking and thinking is the very thing that keeps adults from learning languages well. But take careful note of the following point. And keep coming back to it every time you feel a strong opposition to the ALG position.

As opposite as our positions may seem, there is actually no disagreement. We’re just doing different things. With ALG we’re interested in natural language acquisition, while most of the world is settling for an artificial use of foreign languages by adults. They’re teaching their students to ‘contrive' sentences. We’re teaching ours to ‘improvise' them.

And surely there’s no argument as to which one is better It’s just that most of the world believes that natural language acquisition is impossible for adults, or at least that it would take too long to be practicable. And the purpose of this article is to show that it is both possible and practicable.

This will become clearer in part Four. But first we’d better try to make our counter-intuitive position seem more intuitive, or we might not have any readers left by part Four. So we’ll offer a little common sense theory here to show that we are simply following the natural working of the brain. Now we don’t claim to have any privileged information about how the brain works, but our experience may have given us some fresh kinds of guesses. Having identified them as guesses here, we won’t label them as such below. This will make for easier reading. But whenever the reader thinks it’s necessary, he should add something like this to each sentence of part Two; ‘we think that...' or ‘It looks like...'.

Memories are the brain’s natural way of recording things. Vast scenarios can be recorded in an instant and stored away for life. We record so many memories every day that the brain has to sort them out and systematize them for more efficient storage. And this is what natural knowledge is; systematized memories. The word ‘dog' for example, (an example of knowledge, not a memory) has been abstracted from thousands of memories of dogs (most of which have since been erased in order to provide new space).

So natural systematization of memories is one way to produce knowledge. But there is also another way. It uses memory instead of memories. Memory refers to the brain’s way of storing facts and figures (as opposed to happenings). This isn’t natural. It takes tricks or hard work to record something as simple as a phone number. So there are two different kinds of knowledge. Natural knowledge is the child‘s way; it is instantly available without thinking, and it can last a lifetime. Artificial knowledge is the adult’s favorite; we have to think about it in order to use it, and it‘s easily forgotten.

Forgetting is an attribute of artificial knowledge and plays little or no part in natural language acquisition. But our students didn’t know this, and when they returned after being away for some time they thought they would have forgotten a certain amount. But we were in for a surprise. They often reported that they were actually ahead of where they left off. (I myself experienced the same thing after a five-month break from my natural acquisition of Swatow Chinese).

How can we explain this? It looks like we don’t learn language in class at all. We just store away memories of what happened there and subconsciously sift language out of these memories later. But memories consist of happenings' not words. Sure we can build knowledge out of happenings-but a language? Where do the sounds of new words come from? Well it looks like we’ve got a third kind of knowledge. A kind that grows out of repeated traces carried by memories. Every trace that eventually grows into a word is associated with a happening. We remember only the happenings' not the traces; but the brain records the traces as well. (Psychologists have detected these traces and refer to their recording as ‘priming‘) Now words have both meanings and sounds. And in natural language acquisition, the meanings are distilled from memories, while the sounds accumulate from the sound traces carried by these memories.

The brain can’t use sound traces to speak with, but it can use them to build language with. It’s the recognition of this fact that is the whole difference between ALG and other natural approaches.

Now the brain continues to build language out of memories of happenings and traces of sounds while the students are away. Class time can be compared with eating a meal. Digestion and growth take place later.

Earlier we spoke of ‘building language in the wrong place - - the place that thinks'. And from that point on we have been contrasting two different kinds of brain activity. Let’s compare them by lists.

‘Try‘                                                     ‘Let‘

conscious                                            subconscious

memory                                               memories and traces

facts and figures                                  happenings

‘tricks and hard work'                            ‘recorded in an instant'

teach and learn                                    pick up

artificial knowledge                               natural knowledge

artificial language use                           natural language acquisition

have to think                                        don’t have to think

contrive                                               improvise

easily forgotten                                    stored for life

muscle control                                      image control

the adult’s way                                     the child’s way

But a theory built out of vague words like these isn’t going to be very productive. We need concrete units in our theory - - things that we can point to in space and in time. And we want those parts to be the actual things that are involved in processes like understanding, learning, and speaking. In other words, we want a theory built out of neurons, or areas of the brain, or something like that.

Of course we don’t know enough about the brain to actually do this, but we can at least try to place our vague words somewhere in the brain. Pictures of different parts of the brain in textbooks of neuroanatomy, for example, reveal different kinds of neurons stacked in different ways and affording different kinds of computing activity. We can visualize our two lists as being in two different rooms in the brain; one labeled ‘try' and the other one ‘let'. The important thing is not that these areas are in different places (in fact, it is possible that they are interspersed), but that they do different things; that is, they process information from the receptors in different ways. Now we’re suggesting that the baby is born with the ‘let' room, while the ‘try room slowly develops to an operable stage by age 10-12. The adult, then, has both rooms, and he switches from one to the other as required by the task. But modern education seeks to increase the use of the ‘try' room, even when the ‘let' room would be more appropriate. And the adult language student is caught in a conflict: natural forces are trying to turn his switch to ‘let'; while the forces from years of schooling are trying to turn it to ‘try'.

This distinction has long since been noticed by others. W. Timothy Gallwey calls it ‘Self 1' and ‘Self 2'. And Krashen calls it ‘conscious' and ‘subconscious'. We’re just trying to make the same distinction more concrete by picturing it as different neural hardware in the brain.

We are assuming two points which are unproven and thus open to argument.

1\. A theoretical assumption: The brain does indeed have the different capabilities described in this section.

2\. A finding from practice: Natural language acquisition is indeed both possible and practicable for adults.

If we really want to know how language acquisition works, we need to understand how our receptors receive input from the outside and then process it into language. After observing this happen in our students for many years as well as experiencing it within ourselves, we’ve come up with a budding brain theory to explain it. But this is not the place for such a theory, and we will deal with it in later publications. For our present purposes, all we need is to give a feeling that when left to itself the language will inevitably form - and form perfectly. And we can do this a lot better with a simple comparison than with an abstruse and incomplete theory. Here’s the comparison.

If we let rain fall on a given terrain, one and only one river system can result. And no engineer is needed. Nor could an engineer duplicate the system if he tried.

As long as we don’t interfere (that is, as long as we just ‘let' it happen), the building of a given river system depends on only three things; the weather (wind and rain), the terrain (the composition and shape of the ground) , and gravity. An elaborate river system will inevitably be carved in one and only one way (with minor variations) from a given kind of weather acting on a given terrain. And if an engineer ‘tried' to influence the formation of this system, he could only upset it in an irreversible way.

In like manner, as long as we don’t interfere, the building of a given language in a given individual depends on only three things; the language input (like the weather), the nature of the language part of the brain (like the terrain), and the chemistry of neural transmission (like gravity). A person’s native language is not the result of building the neural structures that we call language to match a pre-existing plan. It is the inevitable result of a given neural structure being buffeted by a given kind of input. And if we try in any way to influence this formation, we can only upset it in an irreversible way. The typical way that adults interfere with the process is to try to speak from a trace (before the full sound has been formed). But since the brain can’t use traces to speak with, the only way they can do this is to build the complete sound themselves (either from sounds in their native language or from their knowledge of phonetics). And once they do this, there is no going back. Subsequent buffeting will act on what they‘ve already done to the terrain. Compare this with a man-made channel in the river system. Once it starts carrying water, the engineer can’t restore the overall system to what it would have been no matter how hard he tries. And ‘what it would have been' (in the case of language) is precisely that language that native speakers speak.