It’s a life to be lived, not a language to be learned.

Our Approach 

 You may have heard “the GPA” referred to as “a language learning method”. However, we don’t talk so much about language, because the GPA framework is focused on people as people (and people talk [a lot!!]) It’s about life together, which is highly interactive and yes, verbal (or better—discursive). However, words don’t amount to much, if anything, apart from the life they are woven together with and understood through. We deceive ourselves when we think that “Language” can be something all on its own. So growing participation is particularly about red-blooded, sentient people, in relationships and groups—especially groups who can understand each other’s speech, but live on this planet where a majority cannot understand their speech. 

Words don’t amount to much, if anything, apart from the life they are woven together with and understood through.

Think of a time when you were hearing people talk to one another and not understanding anything they said, nor even discerning any individual words in the flow of sound. You sensed that the speech coming from their mouths was quite meaningful to the talkers and to the ones they were talking to. Call the talkers and their listeners “insiders”. The insiders together inhabit a languacultural world. As to the sound coming from their mouths, the insiders hardly notice the sound as such. For them, the sound is a transparent window into the talker’s heart and mind. But you are radically excluded from the meaning that they share. For you, the sound of their speech is not a window but a wall—a wall of meaningless noise, utterly opaque, hiding some rich world of meaning from you.  

For the insiders, 1) the process of learning to understand speech and 2) the process of learning to understand the world that is spoken about, grew up together. Those words and that world are merged into one reality of action—hidden from me, the excluded one, to a greater extent than I even realize.

You will seek to experience life with host people as well as experience the talk that meshes with that life and reveals how the host people understand their life in their world.

Suppose you decide you want to participate in the life of this group. The insiders are the full participants in that life. You as a newcomer can become a growing participator (GP) in it, in which case the insiders will be your host people. Their home-world will be your host world. Following the Growing Participation strategy, you will seek to experience life with host people as well as experience the talk that meshes with that life and reveals how the host people understand their life in their world. 

We make the simplifying—but highly practical—assumption that the GP’s 100 waking hours per week divide cleanly into home-world-participation time and host-world-participation time. Host world time further divides into life-style participation time (immersion) and special-growth participation time.  The difference has to do with how rich the growth is at that time. Initially, very little growth happens through lifestyle participation and much growth happens in special-growth times. Special-growth time requires committed host people who have the role of nurturers in the GPs’ early days in their group, and of mentors later on. This strategy has six phases, which start with reliance on a heavy concentration of special-growth-participation activities. These eventually morph into reliance on lifestyle activities alone in the final phase.  

The GPs’ initial, powerful “host community experiences” mainly take shape in their little gatherings with their nurturer and fellow newcomers. Over time, the GPs lives spread more and more deeply and widely into the rest of the host community outside of their little special-growth community. All through Phases 1-5, GPs aim for about twenty hours per week of special-growth participation, since without that much time, they will soon find themselves on an ongoing plateau. (GPs on a plateau may be still growing, but so slowly that host people cannot see any change.) As they grow through the phases and life becomes less stressful, they add a goal of as much as ten more hours per week of lifestyle participation. In Phase 6, they continue to grow, relying on lifestyle participation alone, provided they engage in it for many hours per week (including in their place of employment).  

Keep in mind that the host people’s own understanding of words (including word combinations, word forms, entire stories and explanations) grew up together with their understanding of the world, such that the two “understandings” (words and world) are wrapped up together in one ball of wax. The process of growing participation is similar but different. Now, when brand-new GPs encounter host words as sound, they initially associate what they hear with concepts from their home-world. Eventually, as a result of participating in lots of talk and other host practices in many host contexts, the GPs will understand host words more and more as host people understand them, a process that continues in Phase 6. 

Our Six-Phase Program

We try to conceive of the phases first and foremost as phases in the way host people experience the GPs. The GPs strive to negotiate an effective identity in the host world, but are aware of the power of the “other-ascribed identity” that they have with host people. Their vision for growth is based on the idea that “I can become a ‘new me’ in the experience of host people”.  We consider a phase to include the amount of time it takes for such a “new me” to emerge in the host world by the end of each phase. Now let’s turn to those phases.

We try to conceive of the phases first and foremost as phases in the way host people experience the growing participators.

Phase 1: Connecting…  

…to a whole new world, primarily through one of its members. (Typically, 5 weeks.) 

By the end of Phase 1 host people who meet the GPs will have a sense that “these people have a special connection to us”—different from that of typical outsiders. 

Phase 1 begins with a loss of status that will never be fully overcome. That is, in their new world, GPs should know that they will be seen as radically less competent than they were (and still are) in their home world. They find redeeming value in the fact that their weakness empowers host people with whom they interact. They also take comfort as they see that their twenty hours per week of special-growth-participation activities with the nurturer are rapidly changing who they are in the host world.  

Because the GPs’ initial, urgent need is to cross that wall of noise— to start understanding host speech—the nurturer engages with them in structured play—around 100 hours of it—that has the effect of making the nurturer’s speech understandable to the GPs (within the confines of the play). The play is designed to be enjoyable. In some of the structured play, the nurturer helps the GPs as they undertake to make themselves understandable to her and fellow GPs. In Phase 1, the growing participators have the experience of understanding hundreds of words (often as many as 1,000) and high-frequency word patterns. For the most part, the expressions encountered in the structured play have application in daily life, and for making new acquaintances. There are also games aimed at highlighting meaningful word-form alternations, and word patterns and for discriminating sounds. 

Finally, during Phase 1 (Connecting) the GPs are on the lookout for people who seem interested in them, even though they cannot yet say much to those people beyond simple utterances, such as telling the vegetable seller, “One kilo of potatoes, please." Almost all learning happens in live interaction with the nurturer, as will continue to be the case.


Phase 2: Emerging…

…as real persons in the host world. (Typically, a further 8 weeks after Phase1) 

By the end of this phase, many host people will feel that the GPs are close to being real “actors” within the “lived drama” of the host world. The GPs will have changed from being “virtually nobody” to being “probably somebody”!  

The relationship with the nurturer becomes more clearly personal during this time. To aid the process of growing interaction with the nurturer, the special-growth conversations are largely in the context of wordless picture stories (for about 150 hours of special-growth activities). This helps the GPs to “loosen up their tongues” and start experiencing the rhythm of stories. More and more, host people other than just the nurturer, are seeing the GPs emerge into their world as real people. The GPs’ incompetence is now less radical than it was in the first days of Phase 1 (Connecting). GPs can make an effort at simple conversations with lots of host people, though those efforts are often not too successful. Still the GPs are willing to “give it a try” (some more readily than others at this stage!). 

The GPs are also much more deliberate about participating in public contexts, such as public transportation and shopping. Familiarity with as many such contexts as possible will play an important role in Phase 3 (Knowable). 

In Phase 2 the GPs continued to be on the lookout for those host people who seem to enjoy interacting with them, and who thus may become the “real friends” of Phase 3 (Knowable).


Phase 3: Knowable… 

…as “someone I could be friends with”.  (Typically a further 13 weeks after Phase 2.) 

By the end of this phase host people who encounter the GPs will see them not just as barely emerging people in their world, but as more interesting (“nuanced”) people. This happens because the GPs become “conversational”, and even able to tell simple, bare-bones stories. They are increasingly experiencing the texture of rich stories, and understanding explanations. They are increasingly correcting their misunderstandings of the host world.

Phase 3 is wonderful!  In contrast with Phase 2 (Emerging), if GPs in Phase 3 try to open up a conversation with a host person they don’t yet know, their effort is likely to be reasonably successful. Host people in special relationships with GPs—such as their household employees or close neighbors with whom they interact a lot—can over time, develop quite deep friendships during this phase. GPs now undertake to establish relationships, not just with isolated individuals but also with “friends of friends”.

The GPs continue to benefit enormously from their twenty hours per week of special-growth-participation activities with nurturers, and in Phase 3 these activities are much less play-like and increasingly adult-like in comparison with Phase 1 (Connecting) and Phase 2 (Emerging). They total about 250 hours altogether, and mostly involve conversations about “stuff-we-both-know,” such as shared experiences, familiar everyday routines, or stories with plots that are known in advance to both the nurturer and the GPs.

Finally, lifestyle participation becomes more and more important for rounded growth and by the end of Phase 3, the GPs aim for at least five hours per week spent in lifestyle-growth relationships. This additional five hours is possible because the twenty hours of special-growth activities feel much lighter than originally, while the lifestyle-growth hours are feeling more needful and more enjoyable.

In Phase 3 (Knowable) the GPs are on the lookout, seeking friends who will enjoy participating in the Deep Life Conversations of Phase 4.


Phase 4: Deep Personal Relationships…

which have a huge impact on all relationships, and on the ability to form new relationships. (Typically, 6 additional months) 

By the end of Phase 4, host people find the GPs to be nearly passable “co-members” of their group who behave appropriately (not just in how they talk), and who “really know our people well!” GPs come to know host life well in Phase 4 by coming to know individual host lives well. 

We said that Phase 3 (Knowable) is wonderful. Sadly, for many “language learners” in a variety of programs, this becomes the terminal phase of growth, partly because they are misled to believe that they are now “Advanced”. Well, Phase 4 (Deep Personal Relationships) is more than wonderful. Using a group of techniques that we call Deep-Life Conversations, the GPs find themselves spending hundreds of hours in what one anthropologist called the “sacred endeavor” of heart-to-heart connecting with a variety of host people. The host people who help the GPs to grow in Phases 5 and 6 no longer have the role that we call “nurturer,” but are rather “mentors”.  

Some of the Deep Life Conversations are related in practical ways to the occupational roles that the GPs are expecting to fill in coming months and years in the host world. For this we conduct Walk of Life Conversations. 

Finally, GPs can spend a few minutes per day with mentors in a special-growth activity called “Record-Yourself-for-Feedback,” in which mentors help GPs to uncover ways in which the GPs’ own speech (and other behaviour!) still differs from that of host people! (GPs’ can get to where their speech is highly intelligible and comprehensible, as well as [mostly] appropriate, but not accent-free and not “error”-free.) 

Following on from the Phase 3 (Knowable) strategy of seeking friendships with people in small social networks rather than just individuals, during Phase 4 (Deep Personal Relationships), the GPs are on the lookout for pre-existing natural host groups (“communities of practice”) in which they might participate, such as a group that meets in connection with a shared hobby, or even a small group of friends that hang out together a lot.  

In Phase 4 we recommend ten hours per week of lifestyle growing participation in addition to the twenty hours of Deep-Life Conversations. That means thirty hours per week of host-world time. (That still leaves seventy waking hours free for other life!)


Phase 5: Widening Understanding

…where the GPs’ understanding of host speech and other host actions becomes nearly full. (Another 6 month--twenty-hours-per week of special growth +10 hr. lifestyle participation)

By the end of Phase 5, host people increasingly find the GPs to be almost, in the words of one sociolinguist, “reasonable co-members” of their group (though still obviously foreign!) 

By the end of Phase 4, the GPs understand the host world quite deeply. Yet they still report, “When host people who know me talk directly to me, I can understand them, but when they ignore me and just talk to one another, I easily get lost!” So, GPs in Phase 5 want to spend several hundred more hours purposely experiencing speech that they find especially challenging, and speech connected to an ever-widening range of life contexts. They want to be able to understand host people who are talking among themselves, not simplifying their speech for foreigners. For this purpose, they will have strategic conversations with mentors centered around recordings of “native-to-native discourses”. A “native-to-native discourse” can be anything from a TV talk show, to a campfire legend, to a public speech, to a popular song, to a novel, to a book of poetry, to a school textbook (all levels—primary to post-secondary). Etc.! 

Within the larger host world, there are many sub-worlds with their own practices, including their own ways of talking. By Phase 5, GPs are already deep participants in the sub-world we call “everyday life with friends and family”. Good! There are also sub-worlds related to envisioned occupations, and the GPs have been growing into some of those sub-worlds since at least the Deep-Life Conversations of Phase 4. In many host groups there will be an important sub-world of schools, literacy and education, including higher education.

In Phase 5 we continue to recommend a strategic ten hours per week of lifestyle growing participation in addition to the twenty hours of special-growth participation. Some of that lifestyle-participation time might be spent starting to apprentice into the GP’s envisioned occupational role, in preparation for Phase 6 (Ever Participating/Growing), assuming that the occupational role is to be carried out within the host languacultural world in interaction with host people.


Phase 6: Ever Participating/Growing…

 …when to live is to participate is to grow. (More months & months, maybe years & years) 

The GPs are still seen as foreign in Phase 6, but less and less so as the years pass. They are ever-increasingly seen as those “reasonable co-members” of the host group. If the GPs have a formal teaching role, then they may want to continue developing their ability in host-world academic practices, for example periodically enrolling in host-world courses as normal participants alongside host students. 

The abilities of growing participators are constantly changing

At any point in Phases 1 to 5 the GPs may discontinue or greatly decrease special efforts at growth, and settle on a “plateau.” (Post-Phase 1 plateau, Post-Phase 2 plateau, etc.) GPs in Phase 6 (Ever Participating/Growing) understand nearly all that host people say and otherwise do around them or with them, so all that they hear and see host people saying and otherwise doing continues to feed their growth. GPs operating in this Growing Participation framework, will, by the end of Phase 5 have had about 1,500 hours of high quality, highly relational, special-growth participation activities with nurturers and mentors, and perhaps four hundred hours in strategic lifestyle participation (immersion in good growth contexts). They are now ready for more thousands of hours of meaningful participation during which they can grow and grow in host life for years to come.

Learn More


An invitation

Find more details about understanding, talking, and growth over time.

A Little Invitation to the Growing Participator Approach

An interview with the creator of this approach

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