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.

Learning to live with your Monitor, aka dealing with error correction

The Monitor Hypothesis is part of Stephen Krashen’s theory of Second Language Acquisition. The hypothesis is that the ‘monitor’ acts to apply conscious, explicit, learned grammar to ‘edit’ your output. The Monitor only does so when (a) you have enough time, (b) you focus on form/correctness, (c) you know a(n explicit rule) to apply. (you could know an implicit rule and apply it to, to be fair)

In Gaelic there is a structure called ‘the inverted nominal’. When your sentence begins with some kind of modal or modal-like construction, e.g. “I want, I need, I like, I dislike” etc.., then a direct object of the verb will precede it (the verb in question takes a form called the verbal noun).

Tha mi ag iarraidh cèic ithe – I want cake-to-eat.

Feumaidh tu bainne òl – You’ll need to drink milk.


I’m very familiar with the grammar rules that govern inverted nominals, I could explain them to you over and over. But when I’m speaking ex tempore and at pace, I often get them wrong. It doesn’t help that there are other verbal noun constructions that don’t invert. I suspect that in terms of order-of-acquisition, this one takes a while.

But this, of course, does not and has not stopped a teacher or two along my many-years Gaelic learning journey from both (a) explicitly correcting me, (b) marvelling, ‘How can you know this rule so well but you keep getting it wrong in speech? More practice needed!’

Now, I can tell you exactly why the second statement occurs. It’s not that I need more skill-practice, though it does help my monitor to do explicit skill practice. It’s that I need more and more comprehensible input. I need to hear those inverted nominal structures again, and again, and again, until they get deeply acquired, and not just explicitly learnt. ‘Cause I already learnt them, right? And any time you test me on them, with enough time, a focus on form, then I’ll apply the rules and get it ‘right’. But get my speaking at speed, and they’ll occasionally come out wrong.


As for dealing with teachers that like to error correct, even when you knew you said the wrong thing the moment it left your lips! (a not uncommon occurrence)? I’ve learnt to let it go. It depends on context, of course. In some circumstances, you could ask/tell a teacher/tutor to not correct you. In others, that ‘upward’ instruction/management might not be appropriate. Learning a language is relational, and this is one relationship you must navigate. So, as best you can, don’t take error correction to heart – it’s usually well meant, and if you can not get down about it, it probably won’t hurt you!

On neglecting, or choosing not to learn, new languages

I always marvel when scholar X talks about ‘picking up a new language’ like it’s nothing. Or even like it’s something. Perhaps I’m actually bad at languages. (I don’t believe that people are good or bad at languages, aka language aptitude).

For myself, I made a conscious decision to not continue investing in more languages. I’ve written previously about my experiences, learning (to one degree or another) some Japanese, Spanish, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Mongolian, and Scottish Gaelic, and superficial dabblings in French and German.

I’ve reached a point in life where I know that I do not have the time, either week by week, or long term, to truly learn French of German to a useful point. I have largely abandoned them. My Hebrew is… rusty. 3 years of grammar and exegesis at seminary were indeed useful, but the apex of my Hebrew ability is gone.

And yet, I do not mourn these, except insofar as I mourn the opportunity lost of many good things in this life. But my choice is not a passive one, it’s a very intentional and active one.

It’s the choice to pursue few languages deeper. I want to know Greek, Latin, and Gàidhlig really, really well. ‘Superior Speaker’ well. ‘Read any text with relative ease’ well. Converse with comfort well. And that takes a lot more focus, dedication, and narrowing, than ‘learning’ 15 languages would, or worse, 15 grammar + dictionary usage abilities.

I’ve been at these three a long time now. And not always efficiently. Well, not always optimally. The longer I’m in this game, the better I understand the game itself, getting better at learning languages, and learning these three better.

Theory Friday: Flashcards

One of my sidelines this year is to tutor an hour a week for students who are tutoring other students in introductory Greek. It always seems complicated to explain that. We are only in our second week, and in fact the student-tutors have not yet commenced their tutoring of their students, so we have taken the opportunity to do a little bit of meta-thinking about language acquisition/teaching and methods. Of course, you know this is just the kind of thing I like to do.

What follows is a post-factum write-up of some of the things I covered.


This week we spent some time thinking and talking through Flashcards. Good old flashcards!

What is the quintessence of the flashcard, physical or digital? I take it, that it is the direct correspondence of one discrete unit of information with another. This is both the genius and the weakness of the flashcard approach. For, the flashcard can never get away from this 1:1 correspondence model, even when it becomes something like X:y,z,a,b,c – it is still operating on a correspondence model. At the same time, this segmentation and compartmentalisation is what allows it to work so well for massive rote-processing. Once we accept this limitation, we can think through two related questions:

  1. How do we mitigate the traditional weaknesses of flashcards?
  2. How do we complement the use of flashcards for better learning outcomes?

I’ve gone back and forth on flashcard use. I think that overall they are an inferior method of learning vocabulary in general. But they do have their uses, which is why I swing back to using them occasionally. Their advantage is that they allow massive rote learning of vocabulary by a relatively automatic process. This is very useful for initial stages, at which constructing materials or finding texts that allow high comprehension is difficult. This is one reason flashcards should, in general, be built on corpus frequency – high frequency vocab initially acquired by flashcards can rapidly be both solidified and nuanced by extensive comprehensible input.

The weaknesses of flashcards include some of the following:

  1. Encouraging a correspondence/translation approach to language
  2. Reinforce native-language thinking patterns
  3. Present words in a decontextualized manner
  4. Prioritise Visual-Textual learning processes
  5. Ineffective for structures

Point 1 is the most difficult, because of the quintessence of flashcards. I think it best to mitigate this through complementary approaches. Point 3 can be mitigated by including contextual information on one side of the ‘card’ – a sentence, clause, or even a phrase, can contextual new information in a way that provides more language-oriented material than just ‘mental factoid’ gloss. This sentence or phrase should be relatively simple, it should be something the learner can process without any great mental difficulty – i.e. they shouldn’t operate in a sentence beyond what the learner is already comfortable with and the rest of the words should be familiar and immediately understood.

Point 4 and point 2 can be mitigated in relatively complementary ways: by replacing native-language glosses with pictures, and/or using audio information. Pictures have two downsides: they require a very large ‘up-front’ cost in generating a deck with relevant pictures (I’m thinking digitally here), and specificity of pictures can be problematic. One has to think carefully how to use a picture to represent a concept in a way that is non-ambiguous. I’ve never seen an audio-to –text deck, but I think it would be brilliant, if one whole ‘side’ of the deck were just audio material. I suppose the extreme would be audio-to-pictures.

Point 5 has to do with things like untranslatable particles/modal markers, etc., things that need to be understood as part of a larger unit. In Greek ἄν is my default example. Practically useless on a flashcard. This can be mitigate by embedding these kinds of words/structures into sentence level units and highlighting/underling/otherwise marking the targeted information. The learner then is responding to some actual language use, while being reminded of the target information.

On to my second question, how to complement flash-cards. As I said earlier, flashcards are really like intense boot-camp for acquiring a basic vocabulary. Personally, I think they make best sense when used solo, when other materials are not available. I would complement it by carefully constructed graded reading material, which is going to establish contextually comprehensible input and increase reading proficiency, and verbal practice of some sort. Flashcards would then be used to pass your time on the bus or something, reinforcing this basic information in another form. Next time I’ll talk about intensive and extensive reading practice and gradation.

Would love to hear your thoughts/experiences/relevant research on the topic of flashcards.