The Borg Cube analogy for language learning, complete with spiders

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.

I’m not fluent!

It’s a common question, “Are you fluent?” or “How many languages are you fluent in?”

But it’s not a very helpful question, because ‘fluency’ is a very difficult to define concept. Many people have the idea that you ‘learn a language’ and once you have learnt it you are a native-like speaker, with perfect pronunciation and complete mastery. This almost never happens for an L2 speaker.


Benny Lewis, of “Fluent in 3 months” fame, in his book of the same name, treats it as basically B2 on the CEFR and above. And he quotes “can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party”. It doesn’t help that ‘fluency’ is part of this criterion! Personally, I think B2 might peg what most people mean by ‘fluency’ a little too low, I think C1 might match most people’s perceptions a little better.


I’m not fluent in Latin or Greek. I don’t even pretend to be. I have far too little experience in speaking and listening, and conversation, to make any claims like this. I can read very competently, I can write moderately well, and I can buy my theoretical groceries (i.e. I have had and can have routine conversations about things I am familiar with). I wasn’t taught Latin or Greek communicatively, so it’s no wonder I’m not very communicative in them. Instead, I studied both in very traditional philological styles, grammar + translation + analysis. So I’m very good at grammar, translation, analysis.


However, I think this was a mistake; I think analysis is better achieved by learning communicatively. So in this regard I think of myself as a journeyman, someone who has at least done their apprenticeship and is on the way. One day, perhaps, I will be a master. And I take it that those of us interested in this kind of learning are on a journey together. We’re none of us perfect, but to quote a WAYK aphorism/technique, “We’ll all get there together.” Speaking a language isn’t an individualistic enterprise, it’s about a community of speakers. I’ll help you get further on that journey, and you’ll help me, even if we’re not in the same place to start with, and don’t end in the same place, we’ll both get a little further along the journey, which means the community will grow a little bit too.


Fluency is not a point. There’s no end goal where one arrives and says, “okay, I have learnt language X”. Acquisition of a language is not a binary Yes/No state of being. A much better approach is to ask:


* Did communication occur?

* Was the communicative event successful? (or was it failed communication? or miscommunication?)

* How successful?

* How ‘fluid’ was the communicative act? (Yes, we could use the word ‘fluent’, but it will only distract us; we are asking whether it flowed or whether it was halting, segmented, disrupted)

* How ‘comfortable’ was the communicative act on both sides? (Was it uncomfortable? Did it feel strained?)

* How much accomodating behaviour was necessary by one party or the other? (i.e. adjustment of language in order to facilitate communication, say, when more precise or fitting terms or structures would be more appropriate but would be less successful)


When we start to evaluate communicative actsevents, and discourses, we realise that the same speaker may perform and communicate outstandingly well at one time, but dreadfully at another. Are they a ‘fluent’ speaker? Fluency tries to raise the bar and say, “you need to be competent in all situations and communicative events”. I’m saying, junk that, let’s just work out how to learn from every communicative event that falls short, and work on how to improve not only an individual’s skills, but a language communities’ whole system of communication.