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David Crystal’s Analogy for Grammar

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.

Thoughts?

* 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!

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

 

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