F is for Feel

19 12 2010

Absolutely freezing: View from my hotel room in Warsaw last week

I’ve just come back from Poland where I gave a series of workshops on grammar teaching, one of which was called ‘Getting the feel for it’, and in which I told this story:

I was once teaching a group of fairly advanced students and the ‘structure of the day’ was gradable vs ungradable adjectives (of the type angry vs furious, hungry vs starving, cold vs freezing etc) and, specifically, the intensifying adverbs (extremely vs absolutely) that they collocate with. Not sure either of my ability to establish the difference nor of their existing knowledge of it, I decided to test the students first, and asked them to decide which intensifier (extremely or absolutely) went best with each of a list of adjectives, some gradable, some not. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, when I checked the task, most of the students had most of the answers correct. “Starving?” “Absolutely.” “Hot?” “Extremely,” etc. “How were you able to do that?” I asked at one point, fishing for the rule. Whereupon one student answered: “It just feels right”.

“Great,” I said, “you just saved me the trouble of having to teach you something!”

“It just feels right”: isn’t this, after all, the ideal state we want our learners to be in? To have the gut-feeling that it’s not “How long are you living here?” but “How long have you been living here?” and not “I like too much the football” but “I like football very much” – irrespective of their capacity to state the rule. This is what the Germans call Sprachgefühl – literally ‘language-feel’: a native-like intuition of what is right.

So, how do you get it? Proponents of the Direct Method would argue that instruction only in the target language is the pre-condition: any reference to, or acknowledgement of,  the learner’s L1 would threaten the native-like intuitions that an entirely monolingual approach aims to inculcate. Total immersion is an extreme version of this philosophy.

In the same tradition, but coming from a  humanist point of view, Caleb Gattegno believed that – in order to get a feel for the target language -  no amount of telling or of repeating or of memorising would work. Instead, learners must develop their own ‘inner criteria’ for correctness. In order to do this, they would need to access ‘the spirit of the language’. And this spirit was to be found in its words – not the ‘big’ lexical words, but the small, functional words that – in English at least – carry the burden of its grammar:

Since it is not possible to resort to a one-to-one correspondence, the only way open is to reach the area of meaning that the words cover, and find in oneself whether this is a new experience which yields something of the spirit of the language, or whether there is an equivalent experience in one’s own language but expressed differently (Gattegno, 1962).

Cuisenaire rods

In the Silent Way, then, learners engage with a relatively limited range of language items, initially, but with a great deal of concentration.  Concentration is facilitated through the use of such tactile devices as cuisenaire rods (see this comment in the last post on Body).

Subsequently, Krashen (e.g. 1981) would argue that a ‘feel for grammaticality’ cannot be learned; it can only be acquired.  That is to say, it can only be internalised through ‘meaningful interaction in the target language’ (1981, p. 1). Later still, the argument as to whether explicit knowledge can be converted to implicit knowledge, and by what means, has exercised the likes of the two Ellises (Rod and Nick), among others. Does practice induce it? Is exposure the trick? And how do you test for it? For example, do grammaticality tests (in which test-users simply decide which of a list of sentences are acceptable or not) provide a reliable measure of Sprachgefühl? And can learners eventually forget the rules they once learned, and function solely on feel?

Finally, connectionist models of learning suggest that feel is simply the effect of the strengthening of neural pathways that results from repeated firings across the mental network. This argues for massive exposure, coupled with continuous use and feedback: it’s really total immersion all over again. For many learners, of course, this is simply not possible. So, how else can they get a feel for English grammar?


Gattegno, C. 1962. Teaching foreign languages. The Silent Way.

Krashen, S. 1981. Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon.


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