language and mind

January 4, 2011

Grammar – why think about space?

All languages spatialize, that is, use time expressions with reference to space. More, orientation in space precedes that in time as for developing humans – children first learn where objects are, knowing when things happen comes later. Hence the daring idea to try to explain grammar using prepositions (only four) and time planes, another spatial concept.

‘Whoa’, you might say. ‘OK, I can see that I say BEFORE here or there and I say BEFORE this or that hour. I can use the same word, BEFORE , to refer to time and space. And OK, I may believe that as a kid I first learned where objects were in space, only then I gathered what came after what. Yet, just four prepositions, ON, IN, TO, and AT – that’s not enough to make the picture of American English. Ya ever see a grammar book?’

‘No, no, no, no!’ another might shout. ‘Not the language of Chaucer and Shakespeare! Four prepositions? Ridiculous! Language is an art, metaphor, and abstract ideation!’

‘Not natural’, a yet another opinion might be. ‘Nobody’s gonna tell me I got any spatial thing in me head. All right, you may not like grammar – all those rules you learn just to get them hundreds of exceptions. But making things too simple is not gonna be the way round. I do not think in prepositions.’

Well, all grammar books say about the aspects and that there are four of them: Simple, Progressive, Perfect, and Perfect Progressive – nothing goes missing from the picture if we spatialize the aspects into the prepositions ON, IN, TO, and AT. Importantly, these are the aspects that native speakers of English use, not randomly assorted ‘-ing’ or other endings. This is why an integrative approach to the aspect is so vital in learning. Unfortunately, many grammar books focus on the tenses, not the aspects.

More, our abstract thinking does not become impeded with prepositional reference. The prepositions may become cognitive coordinates to allow thinking economy. One does not need to think about elaborate rules, prepositional reference leaving a lot of scope for the working memory. With this regard, the prepositions would not be used literally; they would work more like in phrasal verbs. They would be parameters a student learns to operate on his or her own. They would be abstract ideation.

Naturalness is obviously a very important argument. One may agree that a native speaker of English might not think in prepositions (yet maybe part owing to the fact that language knowledge has never been presented to him or her using such cognitive shortcuts). On the other hand, one could bet real money that given choice, a speaker of English as his or her first language would be able to attribute the prepositions to utterances intuitively, for example:

‘I think’

‘I’m thinking’

‘I have thought’

‘I have been thinking’

(Please put a preposition, TO, ON, AT, or IN next to the utterance imagining placing things on a map). If you get the answers ON, IN, TO, and AT, this is not trying to make things too simple. This is trying to do things natural.

Further, aspiring to be more entrepreneurial than revolutionary, one might ask if this is really natural to require of students to internalize definitions, which teaching and learning grammar has been pretty much like so far. First or second language learners, the students have been presented with formulations by other persons, namely grammarians. The fact that you are expected to adopt another person’s thinking for yours might impede your language autonomy, however representative grammarian thinking even could be.

‘The past progressive is not an equivalent for the imperfect…’ ‘The pluperfect tells…’

The above being very important labels when you are interested in grammar and want to study it, they may become a completely unnecessary burden on a beginning young mind. On the other hand, the immersion approaches to merely keep students with loads of language inputs have not been successful as not providing enough guidance. Spatialization could provide the necessary guidance without the encumbrance of forcing the formalized definition. The student may try to learn how to follow his or her own spatio-temporal orientation.

Finally, the spatialization approach might be adapted in various ways, especially if you think about teaching outside the mainstream. Although starting with a parallel to walking – this is usually when humans learn to walk that they acquire their first languages and part the cognitive variables remain working throughout the lifespan – the grammar journey may progress into imagined deltaplaning over a precipice with the four prepositions to carry one through. Obviously, the parallel requires abstract thinking, not physical ability. However, all parallels to physical activity might be changed in order not to influence an impeded student. Introducing virtual dimensions into language learning might prove effective.

Interestingly enough, I gave completely free choice to a few groups of students in a high school and a teacher training college. The students could just follow with the course books they had, get new course books, or try my spatialization approach. After a month, all groups decided to go on with the spatialization approach until the end of the school year. All students learned English as a second language in the mainstream.

‘Travelers in Grammar’

Copyright © Teresa Pelka, 2010 ISBN 978-1-4457-2901-5

The journey consists of four parts; two can be seen at

The first part of the journey

The ‘Proficient Traveler’ may be much more of a challenge :)

Please feel welcome to see my scribbling site

my poetry corner

or my other WordPress posts; they are listed at

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