Part II – Language Comes From…

Last month, I talked about the way language tends to be taught to adults, especially when time is of the essence. Students often find themselves doing repetitive exercises, analysing sentences, sweating over verb tables, grappling with grammar, and thinking: is all this really necessary? And the answer I gave last month was…

Well, yes. It kind of is.

Language Comes from Grammar…or does it?

But, hold on, what is language after all, but a tool? as I have said many times before and tools do not have to be analysed every time they are used, do they? Of course not. Let’s take a screwdriver – a flat-head, to keep it simple. This one is for the loosening and tightening of screws with a slot in the top. When you see such a screw, you find yourself reaching for the flat-head screwdriver with barely a thought. People who use such tools every day find that there is little need for the amateurish trial-and-error that usually occurs as one tries to find the exact screwdriver that fits.

In exactly the same way, language is used to do a job. Your mind says: “I want to express this.” and your brain picks the right tool for the job. And now you’re learning English. And for many people, this means that after your brain has picked the right tool, it then bends itself to the task of painting that tool a different colour, sanding down the edges, and reversing the handle. Et voila! An English tool.

Would it not be so much easier to have an English toolbox?

The right tool for the job, immediately selected in the language required – that would be better, right? Of course it would. And the repetitive exercises, the analysis of sentences, the verb tables, the strange, outlandish grammatical terms that we use, all of these are designed to help you build your English toolbox. We spend time with you during class, honing your tools to a usable specification, so that when you leave the classroom, you can simply use them. Outside the classroom, it is no longer analysis, but intuition.

Allow me to return to that all-important sentence with which I introduced this two-month debate:

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

I spent last month’s column showing you how, indeed, you don’t have time for such decisions. I hope now, after reading the second part, you understand that this student’s argument is based on a false premise, and that premise is that she believes she is supposed to go through the process of analysis every time. She isn’t. Does she try every key in her collection every time she goes home from work? I doubt it.

Language Comes from Grammar…but it comes from feeling first.

The right tool for the job, studied and learnt through hard graft, so that it later flows as naturally as coming home.


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.


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.

The Present Perfect Will Not Go Away Just Because You Ignore It

Why do you think I spend the largest proportion of my teaching time on just one element of the English language, and the largest proportion of my planning time devising new ways to teach it? Is it because:
A) …this particular element is rare and difficult to put into context?
B) …this particular element is extraordinarily complicated and difficult to use?
C) …the element in question exudes a sort of protective magic that prevents learners from engaging with it?
I’ll not beat about the bush. It’s the magic one.

I’m talking about the present perfect. It’s a very common, everyday part of English speech and writing. It is used in a variety of contexts. During conversation, it is very often intermingled with other present tenses and past tenses, making it one of the most important structures to learn, even for those speakers wishing to possess merely ‚conversational‘ English skills. It is composed of one (1) helping verb – either have or has, depending on the subject of the sentence – and a past participle. In it’s progressive variation, it is even easier, as the verb that follows is always been. Aside from the relatively large amount of irregular verbs in the English language, then, it is not too difficult.

In that case, why is it that I am forced to teach and re-teach the same element over and over again, to students who seem to have no recollection of ever having heard of it before? If – as some might justifiably suppose – I am simply a terrible teacher, then there is nothing more to be done. For me, however, this is an unsatisfactory answer, as even the basest and most boring teacher can eventually achieve results by rote repetition and ‚drilling‘, results that, for some of my students, are a long time in coming.

I also have no desire to simply blame my students. For a start, it’s bad business practice, and secondly, it is far too easy. Let us assume instead that this tense has a magical power that encourages students to delete it from their heads. Let me give you an example: when I was studying music, there was a friend of mine who had to learn a very difficult piece. It was within her capabilities, but it was challenging nonetheless. However, she practised and practised, and eventually got the whole thing under her fingers, with the exception of one passage. It was a passage of fiendish difficulty, so disheartening to her that, in the end, she barely practised it at all.

When the time came for her recital, she played the piece very well – minus that one passage. She simply left it out. This was enough to fool anyone who had not heard the piece before, but not for fans of classical saxophone music, of which more than a few were in attendance. Also, sadly, it was not enough to fool her assessors, who were unable to give her a satisfactory mark. The piece, they said, was not complete. It did not sound full, or rounded. That one passage that she did not play left a hollow in the piece that no amount of diaphragm control and clever fingerwork could fill.

In exactly the same way, I believe, students of mine are thrown by the nature of the present perfect. For many learners, it is not intuitive in its usage, not exactly ‚user friendly‘. It requires a good knowledge of irregular past participles, a knowledge which is gained, in the most part, through drilling oneself with vocabulary lists, cue cards, and such things. Because of this, many students succumb to the present perfect’s magical powers of discouragement.

Because they do not like it, they do not practise it. Because they do not practise it, they do not use it. As long as they do not use it, they never become comfortable with it. And for as long as they are not comfortable with it, they do not like it. Round and round they go; hoping, perhaps, that nobody will notice, that they will somehow ‚get away with it‘.

But they won’t.

Because there are always fans of classical saxophone music in attendance, and there are always assessors. I should know: I’m both. But don’t let the title of this little piece lead you astray. In my world, the present perfect is a grammatical element. Maybe your personal ‚present perfect‘ is that new software your company bought that you don’t completely like. Maybe your present perfect is the particulars of tax accounting law. To use a metaphor from the world of fantasy: As long as you do not slay your dragon, it will continue to terrorise the countryside.

The present perfect will not go away just because you ignore it.

Slay it.

Vocabulary: Your Friends and Your Family

Let’s pretend, for a moment, that words are people.

I know, that’s an odd beginning, but bear with me.  If words are people, then the whole world can be divided into four groups:

  1. Family
  2. Friends
  3. Acquaintances
  4. Strangers

So, who are these people:
Family – These are the words that you are so familiar with, you don’t even translate them any more.  You don’t even feel the slightest inclination to do so.  They roll off the tip of your tongue, just as easy as thinking.  Not every word comes as naturally; some words in the sentence are likely to be..
Friends – Words that you know well enough to speak or to write, but that you sometimes think about in a way more similar to your mother tongue than to your target language.  Whether consciously or unconsciously, you’ll probably translate these words most of the time.  But still, you know them better than your…
Acquaintances – Unfortunately, you are not able to produce these words yourself.  Nevertheless, these are words that you recognise when you hear them or see them.  Not all the time, obviously.  Most of the time.  OK, about 75%.  In any case, you know what they mean.  Roughly.  You know roughly what they mean.  About 75% of the time.
Strangers – Brand new words.  You’ve never seen or heard them before.  Do they mean you well, or do they wish you harm?  You will have to rub shoulders with them if you want to find out.

Finally, what does this mean for you, the learner?
Firstly, it means that the words you consider your ‚family‘, you are unlikely to forget.  These words and phrases will probably be with you for life.  Hurrah!  The ‚friends‘, however, will eventually emigrate from your brain if you do not constantly use them.  Like a good friend, you can lose contact with them, only to have them suddenly pop back into your life as if they never left.  And like a good friend, with enough contact, they become members of your family.
The ‚acquaintances‘, on the other hand, will require lots of practice if you want them to become friends.  But do you want to?  Is it really worth turning every ’stranger‘ you encounter into an acquaintance, and then into a friend?  Wouldn’t that be a massive undertaking?  Yes, it would, and I don’t recommend it.

Here is another opportunity for us to learn clever.  Let’s say you’re reading a text, which has seven strangers and fifteen acquaintances among the friends and family.  You’ve looked up the strangers in a dictionary, or otherwise inferred the meaning – what next?  Some students will say: „Now is the time to sit down, make a vocabulary list, and put all of these words into my vocabulary!“
„Best of luck!“ I reply.  „Are nervous breakdowns covered by your insurance?“

Ladies and gentlemen, I believe I have a better idea.  If you’re reading this, you already have the basics of English covered.  Great!  Now take those strangers from the text.  Make a note of them and leave it somewhere you can see it.  Every day, you’ll want to take a little look at it (just a little one).  Now, those acquaintances, write down – on a different piece of paper – the ones you think there’s a chance you’re going to need.  After 2-3 days, those strangers will have become acquaintances, and you will have decided automatically which of them you want to make your friends.  Add them to the list of acquaintances.  Now add this complete list to your scheduled vocabulary training (you do have scheduled vocabulary training, don’t you?)

Learning this way gives you permission to recognise certain words passively, which takes the pressure off of you, allowing you to focus only on the high-priority words you have identified during your studies.  You clever little sausage!  Look at all your new friends!

                – Bekannte
bear with sb
                  – mit jmdm Geduld haben
                       – auswandern
nervous breakdown
     – Nervenzusammenbruch
nevertheless                 – trotzdem
rub shoulders
                – mit jmdm auf ‚du‘ stehen
             – (un)bewusst
                   – Unternehmung

The Brush Path

Let us imagine, for a moment, that you are on a deserted island, covered in brush and undergrowth. To get anywhere, you must first make a path. When you first do this, it is hard work. Perhaps you can see your destination, perhaps a little red flag is waving on the other side of the brush, but you cannot reach it. You push, you struggle. Eventually, you reach the other side, and the path is clear.

But there are flags all over the island! On the east side, there is an orange one, and to the south-east, the flag is purple. The most northerly flag is a pleasing shade of lilac. There are so many paths to clear that you leave the red one far behind, and blaze your trails all over the island until you create a network of paths. Exhausted, you sleep.

“Where are my flags?” you cry, for the island has reclaimed your paths, and you must once again battle through the undergrowth to liberate your coloured cloths. The job seems easier this time, owing to the fact that most of the flora has already been cleared once. That lilac flag, however…the path leading up to it is just as hard as it was yesterday!

You continue your work, day after day, because you know that if you stop, the brush will weave over and through your paths and all your work will be undone. After many weeks, every flag can be reached with only slight effort, and your daily tasks are little more than maintenance.

With the exception of that lilac flag.

Why? Why is this flag so damned hard to reach? Could it be the plants on this particular part of the island? Is it the quality of the sun here? The position of the moon? Does it even matter? If you want your flag, you have to clear away the creeping vines. There is nothing else you can do.

Or is there? With some tools, the work can go much faster. You make your own tools, you buy some more. With these tools, you discover many more flags, and you find that your island has grown. Will you bring an expert to your island to help you with your paths, someone who knows the best way to forge them and to connect them with each other? Or will you struggle on alone? The lilac flag is by now the least of your troubles. With your tools and experience, you can clear the path in less than a minute.

But now there are flags on top of mountains, flags locked in the roots of trees, flags in the middle of lakes. Your island has grown into a continent, and someone still has to keep the paths open. These days, you are discovering paths that you forgot about years ago. The traces are still there, but re-opening them takes a bit of work. It doesn’t matter. There are enough paths open that you can navigate the whole island without a problem, even if you have to take a few detours.

And then, after many years, the only thing needed to keep the paths open is to walk them, and enjoy the sunshine. In the distance, twinkling on the surface of the sea, is a very small island.

Perhaps you could build a boat.

The Wizard of the Adjustable Wrench

Ladies and gentlemen, I apologise for the delay.  Please enjoy a little story with a moral, for all you language learners out there.  For teachers, this is a good source of vocabulary, in particular adjectives.  It is free to use, but if you host this story please link to the source.

My uncle had a toolbox. It was huge. My uncle’s toolbox contained all kinds of things, which clinked and clanked as he carried it around. He didn’t carry it around very often, though, because it was enormously heavy. Inside this steel-grey cave of wonder were tools both old and new, rusty and shiny, even tools which were broken, but which he would not throw away.

If there was a problem in the house, my uncle would fetch his toolbox from the garage and drag it to the source of the problem. This often took several hours. Then, when he had arrived, he would spend a good fifteen minutes rummaging through his toolbox, searching for the perfect tool for the job. Often, it was dirty, or rusty, because it had fallen to the bottom of the box.

My uncle would clean the tool, test the tool, use the tool, and then put it back into the box. “The perfect tool for the job!” he would cry. Afterwards, the box would stay where he had put it down; he never had the energy to put it back in the garage straight away. It was always an ordeal, but nothing stayed broken for long in my uncle’s house.

My dad also had a toolbox, although his was much smaller. Just like in my uncle’s house, nothing in my house stayed broken for long, but whereas my uncle always had “The perfect tool for the job!”, my dad only had four. There was a roll of gaffa tape, a can of WD40, a pair of pliers and an adjustable wrench. With these four tools, my dad worked wonders. Never before had I dreamed of the possibilities of gaffa tape. Never before had I seen the beauty of WD40, the majesty of pliers, the wizardry of an adjustable wrench. It was marvellous to watch him work.

Now I am grown up, and I need my own toolbox. Which should I buy? My dad would spend more time working than my uncle, sure, but in the end the result was the same: something broken was fixed. But whereas my uncle would spend a vast amount of time dragging his toolbox around, emptying it, filling it, organising it, and searching through it, my dad had only to whip down to the kitchen and open his one up.

I think, in the end, that I would like to be like my dad: The Wizard of the Adjustable Wrench.

Art or Science?

So, it is rather clear that I cannot keep up with my ‚once-a-week‘ update target that I set myself.  I am therefore moving the goalposts a little closer.  From now, I will attempt to update at least once per month.  On this day, then, the last day of April, I ask you to consider the following question: Is language an art or a science?

Without defining all three of these words, it is a little difficult to continue.  By language, I mean the ability to speak, understand, read and write.  ‚Art‘ and ’science‘ are words I am using to describe two different approaches to speaking, understanding, reading and writing.  Whereas the artist will use their intuition to communicate, the scientist will use logic to deduce the ‚correct‘ way to communicate.  The artist will say what they feel to best express themselves, the scientist will say what they know to be correct.

So, is it better to be an artist or a scientist?  Well, at first glance, the scientist is the winner.  Teachers teach the ‚correct‘ way to speak, the correct grammar, the dictionary definitions of words.  Verbs are drilled, tables are learned, and the diligent student will achieve a good level of accuracy and fluency.  The student will probably be able to write essays of surpassing quality; they will eventually be able to read academic literature at a level considered too challenging for most natives.  They may even achieve native-level fluency in this way, if they work long and enough.  However, the chances of this are reasonably low.  For that, we need an artist.

Native speakers themselves are artists, of course.  Does a native consider the implications of using the past instead of the present perfect?  Not often.  Do they always use the ‚correct‘ word?  Not at all.  We natives can be rather creative in the words we choose; sometimes we even create brand new ones just for the occasion.  Scientists will often pause before they begin to speak, a check-and-double-check buffer that gives them the confidence that what they say is accurate.  Artists have little or no ‚buffering time‘ when they speak, and yet the majority of them, most of the time, will speak perfectly comprehensible English.  They may even be more engaging than the scientists, more idiomatic and colourful.

I am not saying that the artistic approach is the best.  Neither am I saying the scientist is the superior, more intelligent being.  I am merely saying that taking time to be both artistic and scientific at different times in your learning will yield positive results, while the opposite approach, perhaps, eventually, will hold you back from being the learner you could have become.