What does “know” mean?

Roger Lass, in his The Shape of English, is describing how a speaker of English is constrained in his phonetics and morphology and syntax, etc. But the word he uses is “know”, the speaker “knows” that if s- begins a word, only certain other consonants can follow immediately.

This creates a false impression in people’s minds described nicely by Frank Smith when he says people look at what someone does and believe that if they break it down into steps and then teach each step, the learner can replicate the activity of the model.

So for instance, if you want to learn to speak Spanish and your language is English, the teacher’s job is to break the activities of the Spanish-speaker down into its most basic elements, package those elements in a package that possesses sequence, and then feed it to the learner.

For example, the teacher hears the Spanish-speaker alter the form of the adjective ’rojo’ when it is used with a noun ending in -a, e.g. “chamarra roja” and so explains this carefully to the learner and then has the learner “drill” or “practice” this [we won’t get into methods here – just assume the practice is decontextualized]. As complications arise e.g. some adjectives don’t end in -o/-a, some nouns ending in -a take the -o ending for its adjective mapa rojo, etc., these are explained and drilled in the same way.

All this stems from the use of the word “know” being understood to mean “consciously know” as when I know I must buy a slightly smaller length of PVC pipe to reduce water flow to my garden and hook it onto the larger main pipe with a coupler that reduces down from the main pipe size to the smaller pipe size.

This type of conscious, one might almost say “scientific” knowledge, often called cognitive skills, is so highly valued in our society that language teachers in the 19th and 20th centuries jumped on the science bandwagon and tried to break language down in this way so as to teach it more effectively. Over many decades, it has proved ineffective. Nevertheless, it is clung to by most language teachers in the U.S.

Psychologists have shown us that there are different kinds of learning. Learning a fl is different from learning how to lay out an irrigation system for a garden or yard, just as both are different from learning how to hit a tennis ball. Robert Patrick recently gave an elongated analogy of trying to teach someone to drive a car by explaining how the car works. Anyone knows you learn to drive a car by driving a car.

Sadly, whether the analogy is driving a car or a bicycle, you still get teachers shaking a boney finger at the analogy-maker and harrumphing, “Well, they HAVE TO know how it works if they are going to use it and besides, those college professors are certainly going to want them to know how to conjugate a verb.” It reminds me of our former drug czar, Barry McCaffrey, talking about marijuana as a gate-way drug on TV the other day. These folks should just come out and say, “I don’t care what the evidence shows, I want kids conjugating and I don’t want them smoking pot.” That’s honest.

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