On the Bicycle Analogy

You wouldn’t expect to learn to ride a bicycle by having the techniques explained to you by a professional cyclist before you’ve even bought yourself a bicycle.

Even less so by being shown the various parts of a bicycle stripped down and being told what they are all for and how each one works.

And yet, language teachers continue to use very similar approaches in their language classrooms, unsurprisingly to little or no avail.

I frequently see teachers writing explanations on their whiteboard of, for example, what an adjectives are and how they are used before the students even have their first encounter with a real adjective, let alone see or use one in a conversation.

Or else, teachers introduce new grammatical structures and language rules with complex formulae that seem as though they would belong more comfortably in an algebra classroom than a language one.

When I discuss these matters with teachers, either in direct feedback or in workshops, I often employ analogies such as the bicycle one above, or else learning how to drive a car or to swim perhaps.

Too often I receive the rebuttal, “but learning a language is not the same as learning to ride a bicycle”. Now, of course, no analogy is ever entirely a one-for-one likeness to its referent. However, I truly believe in the bicycle analogy, and I disagree that the two things are not the same.

It seems, as I have deduced from these conversations, that the discomfort teachers feel with the analogy lies in the fact that one is a physical skill and the other is a more cognitive subject. I have, at times tried to assert that the tongue is a muscle and that therefore language is a physical activity after all, but even I admit that that’s a little facetious.

So I see the distinction. However, I think it is a distinction without a valid difference. The assumption, with regards to physicality of riding a bicycle is that, while there is of course some information somewhere in the brain underlying the ability to ride, we do not spend any time actively recalling it and pondering upon it when we mount the saddle. Basically, we just… ride.

So then, by contrast, it is suggested that language, being more cognitive, is not thus. But that is where I disagree. Yes, I concede that language seems to be more of a cognitive activity than does riding a bicycle. But still, ask yourself, how much time do you really spend thinking about what you want to say when you’re engaged in conversation. Really, how aware even are you of what you are going to say before you say it?

The reality is that when we’re speaking in spontaneous conversation, it is just that: spontaneous. Basically, we just… speak. We are able to do this because the process of learning our language is very much a practical one. Almost every one of us learned our first language from our surroundings. Nobody explained anything to us. Nobody presented us with rules or formulae. We listened, we watched, we tried for ourselves. If that doesn’t sound analogous to learning to ride a bicycle, drive a car or swim (or even walk!) then I assume you haven’t yet learned to do any of those things.

When it comes to teaching and learning a second language, we would do well to remember the processes involved in learning our first language. They’re not all that different from those involved in learning to ride a bicycle after all. And we know that they work; we’ve all used them for at least one language, maybe more. To decide that we teachers know better than nature and to ignore these processes and devise our own techniques for teaching is, I would suggest, frivolous, if not arrogant.

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