Category Archives: Growing Participator Approach

Breaking out of your vocabulary box

This isn’t an easy blog post to write.

The truth is: we all know you’re faking it.

You can speak fluently enough, but we can all tell it’s just the same hundred words over and over.

We all know that you can get by with people who know you, but that things drop off pretty quickly outside the office. It’s no secret that a lot of what people say goes right over your head.

Okay, sorry to aggravate your impostor syndrome. That post is written to everyone, because it’s something that everyone struggles with. We’ve all got limited vocabularies. We try to work around the, but we’re stuck speaking foreigner-speak. As someone put it to me a few years ago, “We don’t really speak Dari, we speak Glassman”—referring to the grammar book and vocabulary list that for years defined IAM’s Dari curriculum.

What can we do about it?

You’ve got to break things up. You’ve got to find new words: try to understand things you haven’t understood before, try to learn things you haven’t learned before.

But wait, you say: I don’t have a problem finding new words. It’s mostly just a mass of unknown words!

Exactly right. And what will happen if you try to get new words in a conversation with your language teacher? In one ear and out the other. Next week, you’re right back to where you started.

To solve this, you’ve got to work from new texts—something that you can record and listen to, or re-read later. Maybe you’ve already got a text that would be useful, or maybe you’ve got to create a new one; any text will do, or anything else as long as it doesn’t go away. If you study the words with flashcards as well, so much the better; otherwise, you can study by listening to or reading your text.

If you have a text relevant to your life or work, that’s ideal: perhaps curriculum from your project, or a translated policy. That’s the raw material for your language lesson. Look up those words in the dictionary, talk about it with a teacher, in short: massage the text. It’ll be immediately relevant.

If there’s no obvious text for you to work with, then you’ve got to find something new. This can be written text, a TV show, a recording from the radio, a story that you record from your teacher or a friend (or a stranger!). Next post will suggest a way to get new vocabulary from that fount of all knowledge: Wikipedia!

Phase Four of the Growing Participator Approach

This blog post is based on the guide to Phase 4 produced by Greg & Angela Thomson, which is available in full here.

My previous blog post gave a very general overview of the Growing Participator Approach, and its relation to our own Long course. This post follows that up with a (relatively) brief description of Phase 4.

Phase 4 is the “Deep Life Sharing” phase. This is when we move away from simple stories, or stories we have in common, and move deeper into the worldview of Afghan culture. That’s not to say that you haven’t been doing that since you finished the Long Course—we all have—but Phase 4 offers some very powerful tools for doing it in your language lessons.

Phase 4 consists of the three activities described below. You’ll notice that these are similar kinds of activities to what you did in the later stages of the Long Course. The fundamental activity is massaging a text. It’s really, really important for you to understand how to do that, so if it’s been a while since you took the Long Course, please review this guide to massaging a text.

You’re intended to use these activities to fill up 500 hours of lessons. That works out to about three years of language study time at three hours/week, or much less if you take the option for concentrated language study.

The Life Story Activity

This activity begins when you ask a local friend to tell you his/her life story, as you record it. You could begin with a teacher, but it would be better to ask a “normal” friend to help you out. Listen as you make the recording, and listen again on your own. Then take the recording to your language lessons and massage the text.

Even after understanding the words and the grammar, there will be elements of the story you don’t understand. Some things will have gone without saying; other things will be conspicuous by their absence. After massaging the text, go back to your story-telling friend and ask some more questions. Record the answers, and then take those texts back to your language lessons and massage those texts as well.

As a way to bring closure to this experience, summarize the storyteller’s life story, and retell the story to the person in his/her own words. This is speaking practice, and it’s also a way to validate and affirm the storyteller.

You’re going to learn a lot about culture simply from what is included in these stories. You should expect that life events that would require a lot of explanation in a Western story (e.g., leaving school after grade three, getting engaged) may not be remarkable in the Afghan context; conversely, events that seem routine to us might be very unusual in an Afghan story (e.g., a decision to leave home, or to move to a new city).

Walk-of-Life Interview

In this activity, you’ll find a person you know somewhat well, and ask him/her to tell you about some part of his/her work. What is a typical day like for a [nʌnwʌj]? For a taxi driver? For a newly married woman? What’s a typical day like in the office where you work? What goes into building a new house? You’ll want to record the question and the answer. For most people, you’ll need to ask some follow-up questions to draw more out of them. Take these back to your language lessons and massage the text.

You can repeat this activity on any scale. You can ask about daily routines. You can ask about big life decisions. Do keep in mind that not every person will be willing and able to speak about every topic, and of course that some topics may be off-limits altogether.

Observing and Describing

This activity requires more of you as a language learner. Your task is to go to a certain place, and to write down notes about what’s going on in as much detail as possible. Is it a store? Who’s coming in, how do they behave, and what do they buy? Is it a park? Who’s there, and what are they doing? And so forth. Once you’ve got your notes, take them to your language lesson and talk with your teacher about what you saw. Have your teacher retell those things to you, with explanations of whatever you saw that you didn’t understand.

Be wise with this activity, because if you do it wrong you’re going to look like a spy. Choose a context that’s so public that you’ll be inconspicuous looking around and writing things down (e.g., a park, a buzkashi match, or a street you can see from your window), or a context where you’re known and trusted (e.g., in a shop where you know the shopkeeper).

Life after the Long Course

Some years ago, LCP’s method of teaching the Long Course shifted away from the Glassman approach (i.e., following the Glassman book, with a lot of explicit grammar instruction and rote practice), and toward the Growing Participator Approach (GPA). Since we found that some students don’t respond well to the GPA, in recent years we’ve offered both courses. Still, the majority of our new learners favor the GPA. This post will give a bit more information about the GPA plan, beyond what we cover in the long course.

Most people know the GPA as “the method where you don’t talk,” which is indeed the most noticeable thing about the approach in the first 15 hours! But in fact, the GPA is much broader than that. It envisions 1,500 hours of language learning time, with the growing participator (not to say “language learner”) becoming more and more familiar with the host language and culture.

1500 hours! And how long do we have for the Long Course? 20 weeks. I’ll save you the math: you would have to take 4 hours of lessons a day for almost 19 months to put in all the hours required for the GPA. And that’s not all. Take a look at the time breakdown for each phase of the GPA:


Time Required

Phase 1

Here and Now

100 hours

Phase 2

Story Building

150 hours

Phase 3

Shared Story Phase

250 hours

Phase 4

Deep Life Sharing

500 hours

Phase 5

Native to Native Discourses

500 hours

Phase 6

Self-Sustaining Growth in Community

∞ hours!

In the Long Course, our time runs out about 100 hours into Phase 3. That is, people leave the Long Course without having completed Phase 3. Now one of the most common things I hear in talking to people is, “I need to go back and re-study the Long Course!” There’s a kernel of truth in that: you do need to spend about 150 hours more in Phase 3!

Once we’ve finished the Long Course, however, we get overwhelmed with work. If we keep up our language, our focus is on learning the vocabulary for our job and interactions with staff. Actually, the things we do at sound a lot like Phase 3 activities: “deepening relationships with others,” “simple expository speech,” “having simple conversations on many topics,” “fairly intelligible,” “starting to share experience more richly, entering into and discussing it.”

So, more-or-less, the early stages of working in a project correspond to Phase 3 activities. (The major difference is that the GPA’s “time required” estimates assume that the “time” is filled with focused and structured activities, rather than just on-the-job learning.)

I conclude that most people – once they’ve been out of the long course for a couple of years, and are up to their necks in project work – need to be working in Phase 4. What is Phase 4? That will be the subject of the next blog post.