David Crystal’s Analogy for Grammar

20 Oct

Professor David Crystal (Photo from University of Salford on Flickr)

I recently attended a talk by David Crystal in Chichester – ‘Grammar Rules’.  I’d only had the pleasure of seeing Professor Crystal once before and that was online in a very engaging talk he gave a few months ago on the influence of the King James Bible on the English Language (follow this link for that talk).  So this was actually the first time I had seen him in person and the topic was grammar.

The purpose of this post isn’t to regurgitate the talk but to give voice to a somewhat random thought I had relating to an analogy Professor Crystal made.  It went more or less like this;

On the topic of grammar we should think about a car mechanic.  A good car mechanic can take a whole car apart and put it back together again.  However, this has little bearing on the mechanic’s ability to drive a car.

I thought this rather apt as it certainly fits with my current view* that covert grammar is a better pedagogic option to go for over explicit grammar in most cases.  In fact, I might go even further and say that this analogy perhaps helps us to understand many of our learners who are obsessed with grammar rules (just as much as some of us might be with teaching them) but at the end of the day are very poor producers of the language.  This is especially in the case of the spoken medium but sometimes in the written one as well: they are training to become car mechanics when they should be focusing on becoming drivers!

However, later in the talk it became very apparent that the audience was quite a mix of professions and academic interests and that lead me to consider how much this analogy could really be applied to ELT.

So I asked myself the question, ‘How does ELT work in this car analogy of Professor Crystal’s?

What assumptions are we making here?  Are we saying that native speakers are given a car whereas non-native learners have to build their own car first?  Surely a non-native learner’s L1 is a car as well… doesn’t that count for something?  Obviously, learners have to learn how to ‘drive’ their new ‘car’ in a different country and clearly language learning is a completely different monster to adapting your driving to the rules of the road of a different country.  The question really becomes, where does the car come from?  In what state is the car presented to the learner; in parts, half assembled, fully assembled?  How necessary is it for a learner to know what is ‘under the hood’?

I suppose in a way, these questions have different answers for each and every learner but where we run into a problem is when we have students who come to us wanting to know how to drive and then insist that we teach them how to become car mechanics.

I’ve already heard disagreement from one of my colleagues about how applicable this analogy is and, as one of my other colleagues in attendance pointed out, the analogy isn’t perfect and perhaps I’ve exhausted this one far beyond its usefulness.


* I say “my current view” as, having just started a Masters, I’m sure that my opinions and views are going to be thrown this way and that, turned upside down and many of them simply thrown out the window… just as it should be. 🙂

ADDITIONAL: I’ve just come upon Professor Crystal’s blog and now I know I’m going to get less sleep because he’s been blogging regularly since 2006!


Posted by on October 20, 2011 in MA Linguistics & TESOL, Reflections


Tags: , , , ,

5 responses to “David Crystal’s Analogy for Grammar

  1. David Warr

    October 20, 2011 at 9:25 pm

    I think it’s a good analogy. I like talking in analogies, and it’s good to get to the point where it breaks down, because it shows a deep understanding of the subject. Beginners in a foreign language would perhaps be like the Flintstone’s car!

  2. Gordon Scruton

    October 20, 2011 at 10:11 pm

    Thanks for the comment, David. Your comment about the Flintstone’s car is good on so many levels! Typical ‘caveman’ language always seems to simplify the grammar down to its very basics – which really isn’t so far off elementary-level learners.

    So, does handing them a Flintstone car mean that we are asking them to invent the engine (with our help of course)? At the risk of mixing my metaphors and confusing my anthropological epochs, isn’t that a bit like having them reinvent the wheel? Does it follow that they need to “reinvent” and evolve English for themselves to be competent users of the language? I suppose this process of breaking it down and rebuilding should be seen as learners taking “ownership” of the language. After that, it’s all a matter of degrees – how broken does the English need to get before it is rebuilt?

    Oh darn! I think I’ve now moved into a general construction metaphor. 🙂

  3. brad5patterson

    October 21, 2011 at 10:48 am

    Hey Gordon-

    aaa… I’m so not a greasy mechanic and I really don’t enjoy teaching grammar. As a learner I’m not a fan either and the last 3 languages I learned were almost “grammer-free”, but that has a lot more to do with the language environment opportunities I had.

    Keep throwing those opinions up and down and all around. I’m a big fan of Noam Chomsky’s advice: “read widely and critically”

    I had just found out about DC’s blog this summer and have been doing a bit of “catching up” too, so I know what ya mean ! Cheers, Brad

  4. Gordon Scruton

    October 22, 2011 at 9:11 am

    Thanks for the comments and support, Brad. We are all birds of a different feather when it comes to language learning and I think the real challenge here is not to let our own view of grammar (be it good or bad) affect our teaching too much. We should (yeah, I know, should) be able to adapt to our students and so if more explicit grammar is what they want, and what they are comfortable with then maybe, for them, that’s what we need to provide. Until we can prove that it’s not really helping them, we don’t really have a leg to stand on in their eyes.

    I’ve just finished a week in class where the resounding feedback has been “go through the book faster, teach us more grammar” so I guess I’ll be trying that one out next week and see how effective it is. Trial and error, trial and error.

    • brad5patterson

      October 24, 2011 at 7:13 am

      I agree that “our view” shouldn’t (don’t like that word either) affect how we teach what our students require or ask for. trial and error indeed. keep us posted !


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