I often find myself coming up with analogies and illustrations that help students understand not only how a particular piece of language works, but how languages, and language learning, works as a whole. Here’s one that I think is good, but a little bit odd.
Think of your language ‘knowledge’ as a kind of cubic tower. And you’re trying to build it. And there are three factors in this analogy that you can work on. Firstly, you can build up. The tower gets taller. This is adding grammatical understanding of syntax, and morphology. You pick up your textbook, read about feature X in the language, find out how comparisons work, or indirect statements, etc., and the tower gets taller.
Now, a lot of textbooks in the grammar mold, they’re prime aim is to get you through ‘all the grammar’. That is, to get your tower up to a minimum specified height, as quickly as possible. Yes, you need a bit of vocab along the way, but that’s mostly secondary to them. And this is the premise of all titles that talk about ‘teaching you all of X language’, they mean ‘all the grammar’. But tall towers are very flimsy.
Secondly, then, you can acquire vocabulary. And in this analogy, that’s extending the breadth and depth of your tower. It’s thickening the diameter, extending the sides. Maybe your cube is actually a triangle. Maybe it’s a cylinder. Whatever. maybe it’s an odd shape because you have extensive breadth in only a few specific domains of language use. Who knows. The point is, vocabulary doesn’t scale up, it scales out. Think of every piece of vocabulary as an individual piece of the cube, but they are posts, bars, planks, etc.. So, build a broad tower that’s not so high, it’s still pretty useful. You can talk about lots of stuff, in simple language. Build a broad, high cube, now we’re talking.
But there’s a third feature to the cubes we build. And that’s the spiders. Imagine the spiders are semi-autonomous robot spiders, and what they do is they shoot across your whole tower with spiderweb, linking individual ‘chunks’, morphological chunks, syntactical chunks, and vocabulary chunks. They jump from low to high, from near to far, up, down, sideways, and everytime they do they are making a connection, and those connections are thickening the cohesion of your language inside your mind. It’s this that creates the structural integrity that let’s the cube-tower rise higher and higher, and get broader and deeper, without all falling apart.
And this is why I’m never in a rush to add too much height or too much breadth to learner’s language-systems, too quickly. Slowly, slowly, we can add more words, more morphosyntactic structures, but the real question for me is how much time are we spending exposing your brain to messages in the language. That’s what is going to keep making those connections, and binding in the new elements, the new vocabulary and new structures, into the Cube.