Effortless English Archives

Automatic English For The People

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Intuition vs. Analysis

by AJ

"Ive been living in San Francisco for about five months now. Last year I lived in Bangkok, but I was ready for a change so I decided to come here and give it a try".

Imagine the above is a quote from a native speaker. Now imagine you ask that speaker, "why did you say 'have been living' instead of 'live'? Imagine you ask them, "Why didnt you say 'I have lived'.... "Why did you use the past tense in the second sentence?"

Unless they are English teachers, most will hesitate and struggle to give a clear, rational explanation. Why? Because native speakers are masters of Understanding & Using the language... not analyzing it "logically". Native speakers have what Krashen calls a "feeling for grammaticality". Native speakers operate on "feel", "intuition". Native speakers detect errors not through formulas or complicated analysis.. rather, most will tell you "it just doesnt sound right".

But what about English teachers and English language students? In the classroom, analysis is prime. Students and teachers in traditional schools spend the bulk of their time learning ABOUT the language. They break the language into hundreds (thousands!) of parts. They break each part into complicated rules and explanations. Then there are the exceptions... because most grammar "rules" are not, linguistically speaking, "rules" at all. Real grammar "rules" are extraordinarily complex (read one of Chomsky's books.. or any "real" book on linguistics).

In fact, true grammar is far too complex for our linear, analytical minds to handle. Which is why native speakers rely on the far more powerful intuitive parts of the brain. Native speakers let the brain do its job, without interfering.

In my experience, the best students imitate the native speakers approach. The ones who progress most quickly, who are the best communicators,... who, in fact, have the best grammar usage... are the ones who dont "study" grammar rules. These students focus on communication. They ravenously devour authentic texts, TV shows, movies, audiobooks. They enthusiastically chat with people. They are fascinated by the target culture.

The worst students, typically, are the ones obsessed with grammar. Often theyve been analyzing English grammar for 6 to 8 years... yet still struggle with basic conversation. They cannot understand authentic texts, nor communicate with native speakers. Often these students are highly frustrated. They complain to me about their slow progress. They ask me for advice.

But when I suggest a different approach... that they throw away the grammar book and switch to authentic materials (for example), they resist. They claim they need to improve their grammar more. They insist that "grammar is necessary".

Well of course its necessary. The question is, what is the best way to develop grammatical accuracy? Through linear analysis of partial grammar "rules"... or through intuitive understanding of authentic language. The research, and my experiences, support the latter approach.

Whats the best way to run a marathon? Through analyzing the exercise physiology related to running.... or by actually running every day? Whats the best way to learn the guitar? By studying music theory... or by picking up the instrument and playing it? Do we learn to drive by memorizing the car's manual? Do we improve soccer skills by reading the FIFA rulebook?

Here then is the core problem.... students and teacher alike lump language with other "academic" disciplines like math and history. They attempt to teach/learn language using the same methods: memorize, drill, ruthlessly correct errors, test and test and test.....

But language is a performance art... closer to music, sports, or drama than math. Performance arts demand a completely different approach. With performance arts, no one gives a damn what you "know"... or how thorough your analysis is... all that matters is performance.

In other words, when it comes to language... the only question that matters is: Can you use it?

San Francisco, CA