Let The LAMP Die: Missionary Language Learning

Outdated language learning techniques still hang on in the mission community, despite better options being available out there. What does this say about our ability to adapt to the future?

Back in the mid 1980s, when Sue and I first started our training for Bible translation work, we were introduced to a book called LAMP (Language Acquisition Made Practical). Full of cartoons, wise sayings and practical ideas it was the latest word in self-directed language learning techniques. Though, even then, the ideas behind it were ten or more years out of date.

Seven or eight years later, after significant practical experience, a lot of reading and having helped numerous other language learners, I wrote a paper critical of LAMP called, Speech Led Versus Comprehension Led Language Learning. This was subsequently developed into a paper for the British Association of Applied Linguistics annual conference.

I won’t go into a detailed description of the issues here; I want to keep the few readers that I have. But the problem with the LAMP method is that it places a heavy stress on the language learner memorising phrases and repeating them essentially parrot fashion. This can give an impression of fluency very quickly, but the learner may not have a clue what is being said back to them. Lyman Campbell catches this dilemma in David Sinclair’s excellent guide to cross-cultural church planting (appendix 2).

A worker in India once told me, “When a stranger first starts talking to me in Urdu, I often have difficulty understanding him. Once I catch on to the theme, I do a lot better.” It interested me that this man had probably been using Urdu for twenty or thirty years, and was effective in
relationships and in his work. I encounter similar stories among people who have been working in a language group for five or ten years: “I can understand people who know me, when they are conversing with me, but when they begin conversing with one another, I can easily get lost.”

That worker in India illustrated that even with many more years, the situation may not change greatly. I believe that this profile—limited, though effective, language ability—often results from what Eddie Arthur calls “speech-led language learning.”

Some language learners tell me, “I only learn things that I feel I will have a definite need to say.” One such person, attempting to narrate an action cartoon for me in her field language, was unable to express the idea that “a drop of water fell and put out the cigarette.” She later commented

that she would never want to say that, in any case. This demonstrates a philosophy of language learning that focuses on “things I want to be able to say.” The problem is that five minutes from now someone might want to tell me a story in which a drop of water fell and put out a cigarette, or any of trillions of other possible, ordinary life events that might  have taken place—events which I might never have thought I would need to know how to communicate about.

Something that Campbell also highlights is the fact that the LAMP style learner must continually turn in on themselves to find information for language learning; whereas for the person who focuses on comprehension, every encounter with a native speaker is a learning opportunity.

In comprehension-led learning, by contrast, we aim for our own speech to be largely based on our growing familiarity with host peoples’ speech. Our vision is to move steadily and deliberately toward full comprehension of all we hear and, as a result of that, to keep growing indefinitely.

Don’t get me wrong; LAMP isn’t all bad. In its time it was revolutionary. It provided a daily structure and a wealth of ideas for the learner and these are extremely valuable. When I wrote my article criticising LAMP back in the 1990s, I wasn’t able to offer any better alternatives. However things have moved on in the last 20 years and self-directed language learners have far better options than LAMP available to them. Perhaps the best option is the Growing Participator Approach which you can read about here (there are lots of good links and resources to follow there).

So why am I rabbiting on about a twenty year old argument? Well, the thing is, despite having been superseded by more effective and more theoretically valid models, LAMP is still the language learning method of choice for many missions and mission training agencies. This worries me; if we can’t update our peripheral methodologies, will we be able to make the radical paradigm shifts needed for mission agencies to survive into the future?

By the way, if you are likely to have to learn a language or if you are responsible for training others in language learning techniques and you haven’t taken this course, then you should.

This post is more than a year old. It is quite possible that any links to other websites, pictures or media content will no longer be valid. Things change on the web and it is impossible for us to keep up to date with everything.

4 replies on “Let The LAMP Die: Missionary Language Learning”

This is a CRUCIAL topic. A study of the effective, continued use of translations done by Lutheran Bible Translators identified whether the missionary learned the language fluently as a key variable in predicting the sustained use of the translation when it was finished. (Local decision-making was another key variable). It is obvious from experience, and research is showing that learning language is a key to missionary effectiveness. So it is most important that we update our methods and training. Thanks for this post.

Eddie, it’s hard to believe that it nearly 22 years since I met you and Sue, when you were teaching on the predecessor of the LACA course, and were well known to everyone at Horsleys Green that summer of 1992. I was taking a general linguistics course but I think we had the same language learning component. And I remember being introduced to LAMP but also warned about its shortcomings. These were surely the same concerns that found their way into your paper from the same period, and into this post. I’m glad to report that mostly avoided LAMP techniques when I came to learn a language. So I know exactly how to say “a drop of water fell and put out the cigarette”, at least if I can remember the correct word for “cigarette”.

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