Feel vs. know

For the past six months I’ve been teaching a close friend of mine once a week, on a one-to-one basis. He’s what most people would refer to as an elementary learner, but in many important ways he’s anything but your typical A2.

And that’s partly because he’s highly intuitive.

The more I teach him, the more I wonder whether all the syllabus-based grammar work that we do in class is of any use at all. Last week, for example, with a little help from me, he was able to say “I liked it much more than I thought I would” to describe a movie he’d seen. “I liked it much more than I thought I would” at A2!

Then back to page 43, simple present plus adverbs of frequency.

But I digress.

As fate would have it, a few weeks ago I stumbled on a very insightful article Scott Thornbury posted on his now-defunct A-Z blog back in 2010. The article, which I’d read before and was thrilled to be able to read again, discussed the role of linguistic intuition – or feel – in language learning. The central question Scott attempted to address is one which has been nagging at me for at least fifteen years:

What’s the role of linguistic intuition in language learning?

The feel vs. know / feel = know / feel + know debate is far from settled in ELT and it connects interestingly with an issue I have addressed here and elsewhere on a number of occasions: The inherent tension between knowing that (declarative knowledge) vs. knowing how (procedural knowledge) and the extent to which there might be an interface between the two.

I believe there are at least three key variables to keep in mind:

1.  The “structure of the day”

In my experience, it seems that certain structures / lexical areas are more “intuition-friendly” than others. Here are three examples off the top of my head:

a. gradable/non-gradable adjectives (very hot, absolutely boiling)

I’ve rarely had to “teach” these formally. In my experience, intermediate / upper intermediate students usually know – intuitively – that very boiling just sounds wrong.

b. subject / object questions (who did you see? / who saw you?)

Most of the students I’ve taught in recent years seemed to have relatively little trouble with object questions.  Subject questions, on the other hand, have always been a major stumbling block, across a wide range of levels, all the way up to B2.

c. use /omission of the definite article

This is an example of a language area that, in my experience, is best learned naturally, via tons of exposure and some degree of awareness raising, except perhaps for sentences such as “The Japanese are known for…” or “The rich ought to give to the poor”, which may be harder to deploy in communication on a purely intuitive basis, without an overt focus on rules.

2. The learners’ mother tongue

It would appear that students’ L1 background also helps to shape their linguistic intuition – to a certain extent at least. In my experience, structures with clear L1 equivalents usually require less explaining / clarification than those without. Case in point: the differences in meaning and use between the simple past and past continuous, which most Portuguese speakers at A2 / B1 seem to be able to grasp fairly intuitively.

This means that engaging students in too much grammar analysis  (“Why do we say was going rather than went here?”) might end up creating problems that were not there in the first place. In this particular case, rather than keep breaking through open doors, it seems more sensible to focus our energy on helping students get the underlying forms right: What were they doing? rather than What they were doing? or Michael and Bob weren’t – rather than wasn’t – working.

In other words, instead of lumping meaning, form and use into one big, homogenous group (as we often do), maybe we ought to stop and consider the role our students’ L1 might play in the process.

3. The lexical items within the structure.

This one has always intrigued me.

At B1, most students will intuitively know that the comparative form of old is older. This may well be, of course, because most A2 courses cover comparatives and superlatives in their syllabuses.

New/newer, however, “sounds odd”, they say.

The same applies to the present simple:

Play/plays, work/works, like/likes: “Fine!”

See/sees: “What? Really? Sees? It sounds wrong.”  

If these students were drawing mostly on explicit (rather than tacit, intuitive) knowledge, they probably wouldn’t frown upon newer or sees, which, to all intents and purposes, are just variations of the same pattern.

But most of them do.

Since there’s nothing intrinsically odd or difficult about newer or sees, students’ reaction could perhaps be attributed to a lack of exposure. After all, they do tend to hear older and plays far more often newer or sees. Or maybe newer and sees “sound strange” because of their phonological idiosyncrasies. It’s hard to tell.

At any rate, it seems clear that there are other processes at play here, which go beyond the conscious deployment of learned rules that most of us have come to expect.

Lots of questions, still relatively few answers.

Thanks for reading.

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Luis Otávio Barros

Luiz Otávio Barros (MA in Applied Linguistics, Lancaster University) has been teaching, training teachers, designing language courses and writing ELT materials since 1992. Formerly academic coordinator at Cultura Inglesa São Paulo (where he was responsible for the advanced levels, as well as COTE, DOTE and DELTA tuition), head of research and development at Associação Alumni São Paulo (where he was in charge of the adult segment) and BRAZ-TESOL’s second vice president, Luiz Otávio is co-author of Richmond’s English ID / Identities, Personal Best, and series editor of Access.

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