When you want to explain something complex to a non-expert, there's no tool more useful than a good analogy. Sadly, there's are few tool more open to abuse than the humble analogy, and in a great many cases, the subject of this abuse is the humble automobile. There is a rule of thumb on the internet that says you should never trust a car analogy.
The danger in analogy is that it comes to what appears to be a logical conclusion, even when the analogy is false, but thankfully we've had the conceptual tools to analyse logic since at least Ancient Greece. Heck, even the words “logic” and “analogy” come from the Ancient Greek language.
Regular readers will know that I'm not a fan of the “learning/acquisition” distinction, or the school of thought that says that rules don't matter, and that the only way to “acquire” is through exposure. Well, recently I was reminded of that particular school-of-thought's own pet car analogy, and I would like to dismantle it here.
Grammar, they tell us, is unimportant. Do we need to know how a language works in order to speak it? Well, they say, consider a car: do you need to know how the engine works in order to drive it?
The reasoning seems persuasive to those who are predisposed to listen, but as with all analogies, the problem lies in the equivalence of the analogised items.
Is “how a language works” analogous to “how the engine works”? Certainly not – it is analogous to “how the car works”. Some commentators would suggest that the engine is how the car works – I would like to argue against this.
To a driver, a car is not the engine. From the very beginning, the goal of the engineer has been to abstract away features that the driver shouldn't have to think about and turn the engine into something of a “black box” – you read the instrumentation, manipulate the controls, and then the car responds in a consistent and predictable way based on what you tell it to do. The driver does not need to know what “RPM” means to recognise when they're over-revving the engine – revolutions-per-minute, cylinder cycles... irrelevant – but the driver does have to be told that over-revving is a bad thing, and has to learn the “rules” of reading the needle and listening to engine noise to avoid doing it.
The acquisition crowd are not, I hope, suggesting that you could put someone in a car with no knowledge of the steering system, gearbox, speed controls and indicator and just let them get on with it. The end result of this would at best nothing, at worst a seriously damaged car. OK, so you're not going to destroy someone's brain by throwing them into a language at the deep end, but if they can't even start the language's “car”, they're never going to get any useful feedback at all.
So we have three elements in the target of our analogy:
- The car as a whole
- The car's control system
- The car's engine
The question is, is the grammar the “control system” or the “engine”. Quite simply... urm... possibly maybe both....
Grammar as Control Sytem
Most of the grammar of a language is unambiguously “control system”, as the speaker must directly manipulate it in order to make himself understood.
Consider the spark-plugs in a diesel engine. Wait... a diesel engine doesn't have any spark-plugs. But this doesn't matter – this makes practically no difference to the driver. The accelerator works the same as the accelerator in a petrol engine with its spark plugs, and pressing it down harder makes the wheels spin faster. “The car”, as an entity, is operated identically – as far as the driver is concerned, it “works the same way”.
But let's look at a grammatical distinction, and for the sake of the argument I'll take the use of articles. English has them, Polish doesn't. If articles were like spark-plugs, that would mean that the article is entirely irrelevant to the manipulation of the language, but this is patently false. If you don't correctly manipulate the article, your sentence is wrong.
So a great many grammar rules are undeniably part of the control system.
Grammar as engine
Grammar as a whole has been a very expansive and extensive field of study – in fact, I'm led to believe that grammar originally meant the description of a whole language. Grammar today usually means “everything except vocabulary, pronunciation and spelling”, so a lot of stuff gets caught up in it which may be considered “engine”. Historical changes, derivational morphology (the etymology of the word presuppose is of very little use to the average learner of English) and distinctions like that between reflexive and impersonal/pronominal pronouns in the Romance languages.
But to use these few examples as a reason to throw out all conscious description of grammar is hugely short-sighted.
My car analogySo that's their car analogy disproven, and I'd like to replace it with one of my own.
To ask someone to learn a language without grammar is like putting someone in the driving seat of a car without drumming the words “mirror, signal, manoeuvre” into their heads, and without telling them never to cross their hands at the wheel.
On the other hand, a lot of grammar-heavy teaching is like teaching someone to drive by carrying out the exact same manoeuvre 20 times in superficially different (but functionally identical) locations, then moving on and doing the same thing with a different manoeuvre.
This is not what any good driving teacher does.
A driving teacher takes the beginner to a safe, simple environment (eg an empty car park) and teaches the basic rules of operating the vehicle. The learner won't even be allowed to start the engine until they've started building the habit of checking all mirrors. Then they will learn to start and stop. A bit of controlled speed, then a bit of steering. The complexity increases steadily, and the instructor chooses increasingly complex environments so that the learner has to apply and combine the rules in ever more sophisticated ways. Rules are introduced gradually, as required, and then applied and manipulated as the situation demands. The teacher initially picks routes that don't require turning across traffic, then picks a route with a safe across-traffic turn, then adds in crossroads, traffic lights, roundabouts, filter lanes etc one by one. But these features are never treated as discrete items to learn individually – they are elements of one continuous whole that must be practised in the context of that whole.
This is what a good driving teacher does, and this is what a good language teacher does. Listen to one of Michel Thomas's courses1 and you'll see that's exactly what he does: an increasingly complicated linguistic environment, and no language point ever treated in isolation beyond its basic introduction. That's proper teaching, and it's all built on grammar and rules.
1I mean a course that he himself planned and delivered, not one of the courses released after his death.