Language Acquisition And Adult Learners
spongePo/Shutterstock.com

Review Of Jeff Brown's Video On Language Acquisition

It is risky to question the narrative of Jeff Brown’s video that was watched by a million users and received 42k positive likes. I dare to do it because I know that the most popular does not always mean the most efficient or useful. The objective “Acquire the language. Don’t learn it” is excellent, but the tools for achieving it were invented half a century ago and are obsolete today. They should be modernized to take advantage of the new technology available to us and the new learning habits of digital learners.

The statement: “… acquire a language much like a baby acquires his or her first language” is not accurate. It is cited so frequently but is, unfortunately, a fallacy. This quote from Heraclitus tells us why: “No man ever steps in the same river twice. For it's not the same river and he's not the same man.”

How Adults And Children Aquire A Language

Adults can't reproduce the processes which children use when learning their native language because children use subconscious learning, whereas adults use conscious learning. Moreover, adults continue thinking in the native language when learning a foreign language and thus have to overcome the barrier that children don’t have.

For children, it is a natural process—first listening, and then speaking. During the first year of listening, kids are subconsciously forming the database of symbols and feelings in which they think before they are able to vocalize their thoughts. It is important to understand that symbols are not images or pictures; for example, the symbol “Mommy” includes "average" images of a mother and feelings of love, warmth, security, known heartbeat, etc.

After about a year of listening, a child starts speaking; it is the second stage of learning the native language. For a few months, a child goes through one-word and two-word stages before he or she starts producing sentences. In this stage, the words are wired directly to the symbols which they describe.

Acquisition Theory

Krashen's acquisition theory advocates the principle “first listening and then speaking,” assuming that adults will copy the success that kids have demonstrated in the acquisition of the native language. Jeff Brown states: “I am not doing any reading or writing, only listening and speaking. Exactly what babies do.” However, a few moments later Jeff states: “Language acquisition is all about listening and not speaking. You acquire the language through listening.”

Kids and adults demonstrate two different learning mechanisms; that is why the adults are not able to reproduce learning in the way that they easily accomplished as kids.

Most adults will fail when using "only listening to a foreign language" because they are thinking in their native language. Visit the Chinese, Russian, Polish, and Spanish communities in the USA, and you will find there are a lot of adult people who have been listening to English for many years and cannot converse in English whereas their children speak English without an accent.

The Acquisition Hypothesis

The acquisition hypothesis was invented by Krashen half a century ago. Krashen stated that adults have two distinct and independent ways of developing competence in a second language: acquisition, which is subconscious, and learning, which is conscious. However, it is not easy to determine if a certain activity is done consciously or subconsciously.

Let’s consider a person who started to learn how to drive a car. In the beginning, he wouldn't be able to hold a conversation with anyone while driving as he would be focusing on the different moves involved. That's because he's still using his conscious mind to drive. A few weeks later, driving becomes a natural habit that happens automatically without needing to think about it. That person could even start using his Bluetooth earphone or talking to his friends while driving.

This has happened because the activity of driving has been transferred to his subconscious mind and so the conscious mind becomes free. The subconscious mind works on autopilot while allowing you to perform a few new tasks in the conscious mode! As this example shows, we often start an activity in the conscious mode that later turns into subconscious activity.

The acquisition hypothesis was a great leap forward and introduced many concepts that remain valid. For example, no grammar and no corrections of errors; use the subconscious process instead of conscious learning. However, it never became the mainstream method of language learning. In my opinion, the reason is that the application of the acquisition hypothesis remains unchanged in spite of all technological advancements and the new learning habits of digital learners.

Professor Brown adds a new feature to the acquisition hypothesis by recommending: “Find language parents (as many as you can).” To me, this suggestion seems feasible for an individual but questionable for implementation on a large scale. We have 1.5 billion people in the world learning English and for them, language parents would not work.

The Use of Mobile Applications In Language Acquisition

Professor Brown recommends using mobile phones, mainly for recording your own pronunciation and listening to it. It seems he is not aware that a mobile app is the most powerful tool that can create the environment for really subconscious training in English skills. Simply listening or learning words with language parents in the target language represents a typical conscious learning process and therefore they don’t follow the idea of acquisition as a subconscious process of training.

So, whenever you are aware of whatever you're doing, you can be confident that you are doing by using your conscious mind. The subconscious mind is the part of your mind responsible for finding the patterns when you practice language acquisition and allowing you to perform them in autopilot mode without conscious control or awareness.

The last 13 minutes of the video are recorded with the objective of demonstrating the appealing features of acquisition Arabic by Professor Jeff Brown using "language parents." The recording is done very professionally; it shows how Jeff remembered a multitude of pictures from magazines and children’s books pronounced by a parent in Arabic. Isn’t it similar to remembering the Arabic words from a picture dictionary? How was Jeff able to remember the Arabic words and avoid forgetting them and even transfering them to his working memory without creating the sentences which are emotionally linked to his experience?

It remains a mystery since most authors writing on the topic of learning vocabulary lists describe such attempts as futile. My assumption is that Professor Brown already knew six languages when he started to learn his seventh language and thus had acquired subconsciously (he is not aware that he has this ability) a very special skill of wiring the known symbols with unknown words of a new language. Unfortunately, a layman would not be able to reproduce his experience successfully.

Professor Brown first states: only listening, no reading or writing, however, in the second part of his video he declares: “Reading is hugely important. It is like putting the pieces of the puzzle together. A lot of grammar comes from reading.” Jeff quotes Beniko Mason, professor of Osaka University: “Students who read 100-150 pages per week had the best results.” Beniko does not mention if she means paper reading or screen reading. This citation looks questionable since we know from the latest publications that, for example, US teenagers haven’t read a book for pleasure in at least a year. Teenagers' use of traditional media—such as books, magazines, and television—has dropped off, while time spent texting, scrolling through social media, and using other forms of digital media continues to increase.

We can’t change this trend, but we can use it to our benefit if we repackaged the acquisition hypothesis as a self-training mobile app that could be used in the classroom and at home or work. The modernized, digitalized acquisition approach will ensure subconscious training in a foreign language right from the start and will eliminate the deficiencies of conscious learning. Remember this mantra: “Memorization goes to your short-term conscious memory, while acquisition goes to your subconscious long-term memory.”

I would like to elaborate on Professor Jeff Brown's statement: “I don’t think when I speak. I want to speak naturally without thinking.” It is a confusing statement since a person needs to think first before he or she is able to speak. Thinking and speaking are two different processes and each of them uses a special language for processing. Thinking is done in symbols; Steven Pinker gives to the language of thoughts a special name “mentalese.”

Children think in symbols first and then they acquire the native language subconsciously by wiring the known symbols to the words directly and forming a speech center in the brain.

Adults think in symbols too, which are already wired together with the respective words of the native language, thus creating the illusion that we think in the native language. We may conclude that the objective of acquiring a foreign language for adults could be simplified, as wiring the known symbols with unknown words of a target language. The easiest way to achieve this objective is to use subconscious training in the target language. Adults first formulate their thoughts in symbols and feelings, then when they are ready to speak, each symbol activates a respective word in the speech center and they speak out automatically in a subconscious mode.

Conclusion

I would like to stress the need to revitalize the acquisition hypothesis and turn it into the leading program in the language industry. The modernized acquisition hypothesis should use multimedia comprehensible input and create a mobile app for self-training language skills in which adult learners may use all their senses concurrently by reading, listening, and speaking simultaneously.

Using this modernized acquisition approach, adults are able to wire the database of known symbols to the unknown words in a foreign language directly, without cross-translating them into the native language. In this process, the main barriers—thinking in the native language and the innate habit of cross-translating—are turned off automatically because when the brain is fully loaded by performing three actions simultaneously, it cannot continue performing any other accustomed tasks.

Close