Part I – Where Does Language Come From?

“And that,” I said, as I put the finishing touch on my flowchart, “is a foolproof way to decide whether to use the present perfect simple, or the present perfect progressive. Of course, this all hinges on whether or not you should be using the present perfect at all.”

Several students nod, and hurry to make notes in their book, others are clearly distressed, and one makes her feelings plain:

“But Jak,” she says, “how are we supposed to make such a complicated decision in the middle of a conversation. We don’t have time!”

Well, friends, she is both completely wrong, and completely right – at the same time. Please indulge me as I show you how.

Language Comes…from Grammar

Broadly speaking, as children, we all learn a language. We absorb it from the world around us: from our parents, from the media, from our own interactions. As our interactions become more successful, we are able to reap the reward. “Hungrig,” you say, and food appears. Perhaps some false associations might be formed. You point at your dinner, and identify the food: “Hungrig!” Your parent, guardian, or sibling, shakes their head and corrects you: “Essen!”

You do not have a large vocabulary at first – in fact, you speak like a child – but using simple tools and a little creativity, and forced by the world in which you find yourself, you use the words you have to learn more. The process takes years. The false associations are many, but this does not matter. You are in no hurry. You have no idea what a verb is, and that verbs might have present and past participles could not be further from your mind.

Then, disaster strikes.

You suddenly find yourself thirty-three years old. The top brass sends a memo that the company language is now English. You are forced back into a classroom. Now, you are in a hurry: the longer it takes you to learn the language, the longer you must sit in this classroom – the implication of this being that you are less effective a worker.

You begin speaking like a child. The vocabulary you have been building for thirty-three years is of little use: even when using a dictionary to translate your snappy, professional sentences, your teacher sadly shakes her head and says: “That doesn’t work in English. No word-for-word translations. They are out.” The false associations come thick and fast, and they must all be corrected now. Your teacher is using words you have never heard of to discuss concepts you’ve never thought about.

“I haven’t got time to learn all these new terms!” you say, exasperated. “I don’t want to talk about the future perfect progressive, I just want to talk! Precisely.

Precisely.

It is because of the lack of time that your teacher is using these grammatical terms. We do not have the luxury of having a whole decade to get these ideas across, though we do have the luxury of your increased capacity for logical thought. Because of this, it is often necessary to attack new concepts from an analytical – rather than intuitive – angle. This approach suits both the adult brain and the time constrictions much better than the method by which you learned your first language.

Often, this analysis proves tricky, and can many times involve multiple steps of logic to get to the right grammatical neighbourhood. One can then begin to construct a sentence using the carefully-learned rules, and after one has done so, the sentence is, in a large proportion of cases, correct.

But, oh dear. While you were analysing, locating neighbourhoods, and building sentences, your conversation partner has aged, grown a beard, moved away, found a partner, fostered a child…

So it seems our hypothetical student was right. You really don’t have time to make such a complicated decision in the middle of a conversation.

Except, she isn’t right. And next month, I’ll tell you why.

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