How is a gear shift like a grammar point?

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Next month, I will buy my first car. While this is an exciting and very grownup-feeling thing to do, it's also a bit terrifying, for a variety of reasons. Not only will this be the most money I've ever spent in one go, but my future 2005 Chevy Kalos has...a manual transmission.

So, I recently started learning to drive stick. We started simple, in one of the few traditional student driver locations: a semi-abandoned parking lot.  On the way there the friend I'm buying the car from gave me the basic walk-through. This is the clutch, this is when you should shift, that's the noise you don't want to hear, etc. I'd also been given plenty of advice from friends and family, so I felt...entirely unprepared and marginally terrified. 

After posting about my learning attempts, I got a few interesting comments that kinda got me thinking. Wayne mentioned that he"can drive stick, but only in theory. I read a book. watched a how-to, and then had a friend explain it. I can explain it using a ski-hill analogy. But I feel I'm not ready to get behind the wheel yet..." which led to Harry's counter that "Reading the theory of motoring skill is like reading the theory of how to walk like a human. It's very hard in theory you know". 

This got me thinking. Yes, learning to drive stick is tricky, but since I'm already comfortable with the fundamentals of driving (turning, braking, signaling, running down annoying pedestrians, changing lanes, etc) it's not nearly as stressful or difficult as it would be if I were learning how to shift and use the clutch on top of literally everything else it takes to make a car (safely) go forward and backward.

Then, not unlike a car in neutral on a gentle slope, my thinking kept rolling forward until it bumped into something that I didn't expect to connect with: language learning.

Okay, stay with me here. We've got a pretty long extended metaphor coming up. Learning a language is like learning how to drive a car. There are a few different ways to start, everyone learns at a different time and at a different pace, and if you do it wrong you can kill hundreds of people. Wait, I think one of those only applies to driving...


We just hit 3 children!


There are two main ways to start learning to drive. On the one hand, you can start out by learning the theory. You can study the way an engine works, memorize every road sign and traffic law, Hell, maybe by the end of this surprisingly intensive theoretical driving class you'll be able to take a car apart and put it back together. But what you can't do is drive.

On the other hand, you can go about driving instruction in the style of my dad, by which I mean, force your daughter to drive a scary old van with a malfunctioning speedometer on a winding road over a mountain pass in the thick fog. That was one of the first times I drove. I later went on to take a class that taught me the theory, but I know plenty of people who never took a class and just learned by doing. 

Isn't language learning the same? There are two main learner types: the "I have to learn this crap in school" and "Oh crap I'm in a foreign country help". 

Too many, and by too many I mean nearly all of my students, fall into that first category. I've seen middle school English word lists with stuff like "incomprehensible" and "pretentious" on them, while the students memorizing those words can barely put together a full spoken sentence. They know grammar better than I do, but even a simple question posed, "What did you do yesterday?", poses a serious challenge. They know how a combustion engine works but they're stalling the car every 5 seconds. They know the rules of the road but they're too afraid to start the engine. You get the idea.

On the other hand, you have learners like, well...me. Before coming to Korea I knew a few basic phrases and the alphabet, but I mostly learned by doing. If I wanted to eat, go places, make friends, I had to speak Korean. I made a lot of mistakes, I still make a lot of mistakes. But slowly I'm learning the theory that corrals my Korean into a safer version of the chaos I started with. Even if you learn by doing, eventually you have to learn the rules, at least if you plan to drive and/or talk with other people.

I can't say if one way or the other is better, since grammar is important and so is speaking; hopefully both paths will eventually lead to a balance. Knowing the rules of the road is just as important as knowing how to start and stop a car.




Before I wrap this up I want to circle back to what originally got me started on this train of thought. As you know, I'm learning to drive stick after a few years of experience driving only automatic. Before getting in the car, the whole thing sounded scary and complicated and horrible. However, once I got going, it was...surprisingly easy. Sure, it's a new set of things to think about and muscle memory that I don't yet have, but since I already know how to juggle the basics of driving, adding one more ball wasn't the disaster I'd predicted it would be.


I had to find someone worse at changing gears than me.


I know a shower is the traditional place for sudden realizations and epiphanies (wait, it's not?), but this one hit me on the way to the bank: this is the exact situation my students are in. Stay with me here. I'm coming into a classroom and trying to teach them how to drive stick, but I have no idea how much previous driving experience they have.

For example, let's say that stick shift is the equivalent of a new sentence structure; let's use "Have you___?" as our sample sentence. For the students who already have some driving experience, aka they can form sentences and know the alphabet and a decent collection of useful vocab, adding this new form onto that, while tricky, shouldn't be too awfully difficult. They know the verb "to eat" so learning "have eaten" is manageable. On the other hand, if this is the first time they're sitting in a car, well...things aren't gonna go so well. Trying to explain "eat" vs "eaten" to someone who only knows half of the alphabet is an uphill battle. Can you imagine someone trying to teach you how to shift when you don't even know what a steering wheel does?

I wish I was exaggerating, but I've had 2nd and 3rd year middle school students who don't know the alphabet, sitting next to students who lived abroad and probably speak English better than I do. So I guess this big revelation reminded me to pay attention to where my students are, to remember that it's pointless trying to force them to learn the complicated stuff before they know the foundation. It's hard to manage in 45 minutes with classes of 35 students, but I don't think that's an excuse to not try.

If you have any tips, I'm always open to help. Unless it's backseat driving, or you want to change my music. If you want to play your own music, buy your own car!


Teacher Pretty
Middle school ESL teacher, lover of pink, eater of kimchi, addicted to Etude House, expert procrastinator, meeter of 2-dimensionial popstars: Ana. That's me.

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