In the past we’ve used the analogy of acquiring languages as being like learning to swim. Is it best to jump in the deep end of the pool with no support? Is it practical to learn the techniques and physics of swimming before you get into the pool? Can a spray bottle simulate the same experience as being in water?
Recently, we created this new meme with a new analogy: You don’t need to know how an engine works to drive a car. And you don’t need to understand grammar rules to speak a language.Imagine you are a sixteen year old. What do you want to do? Drive! You get your driver’s permit and you start driving… in parking lots at first, then local streets, and finally highways. You are always accompanied by an experienced driver.
Before you get your license you don’t learn how to be a mechanic. You don’t study the mechanics of the car engine. You’re satisfied with the simple information like how to fill the gas tank and where to put the wiper fluid.
Very few students are interested in the mechanics at this point. But of course, some students will be. Some students may take shop-class and learn how to change the oil and more detailed engine-related work. But the average teenager doesn’t care. They want to drive. They want to use their license to get from Point A to Point B.
So how does this relate to language? Our students want to speak the language! They don’t care about the grammar details. Just like a student isn’t going to be a better driver by studying the engine (what makes the car run!) a language student is not going to be a better speaker by first focusing on the grammar. Grammar is certainly what makes the language flow, but our children who speak the language as toddlers don’t learn mechanics of the language first. That comes in time. Is their language perfect? No. Is it understood? Certainly. Does it get refined over time? Yes. Maybe that’s why they have bumper cars.
I also want to be clear: I am not saying grammar is bad. No one is making that argument. I’m saying that instead of teaching a level 1/2 student all the different rules of ser and estar (and believe me, I used to do this!) that instead we let them test-drive the language while we are their GPS. We offer the road-side assistance and maps by providing them the necessary input (hearing the language used in proper context). They will hear the correct use of “ser” and “estar”. Are they going to mix it up at first? Absolutely! Do I still understand them if they say “El carpeta es debajo del libros?” Yes! Encourage them. Recast, “Oh sí, yo veo que la carpeta está debajo de los libros” and overtime they will make less mistakes, but they will be more willing to stay on the highway instead of Exit at the first off-ramp after level 2.
Language is a highway. It opens up the world to students. They can communicate with people who are in a different area. We need to encourage them to stay on the road- keep learning. Let them experience language with the windows down and their hair blowing in the wind. They don’t want to be in a dark shoproom staring underneath the hood.
What do you think of this analogy? Would love to hear your thoughts: Comment below!