After Krashen, learn the rules of the road

Thomas Leverett, 2007

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 This project is dedicated to the idea that people learn languages in much the same way they learn to drive: they look carefully at what everyone else is doing; they assume that that's the easiest and best way to do things; they do things the way they've learned; they occasionally experiment to find better ways; and, finally, they trade notes with others who might be able to teach them. The world is made up of people who learn mostly inductively, and for the most part have better things to do than argue about the fine points of how they get from here to there. But occasionally, in big cities like Chicago, you'll find people getting into passionate arguments about whether to take the tollway or the Edens, or about whether people actually get tickets for cutting each other off too closely.

The system at any given moment is made up of thousands of people, all making their own decisions, all doing what is best for themselves, and all collectively making up what is known as the traffic pattern, a fluid and ongoing mass of cars which in turn influences the decisions of each person getting on the road, particularly if they are listening to traffic radio. I mention this because language learning is like this: all of the decisions are rational, though some are better informed than others. People learn new systems, or habits, when it becomes worth their while to take the trouble to incorporate them into their routine. This may be long after they know for sure that it would be good for them; they don't always change their habits immediately. Nor do they always change their habits consistently or absolutely. Nevertheless, the human mind is on our side in this one; it is always looking for a better way, an easier way both to get from here to there, and to transmit meaning in a language. It will find the right way eventually, like water going downhill. It doesn't have to be forced.

So, for example, we could learn a lot about acquisition order, the order by which language learners learn grammatical rules, in much the same way we watch traffic patterns change in a city. It has been suggested that this order is absolute, genetic, programmed into us. I don't believe it. I believe that learning a new language is a lot like learning to get around a new city. We may already be comfortable with the process of driving, but even that was learned at one time; and, in certain new cities, like Boston or Mexico City, much of this has to be relearned anyway. But the essence of it is taking the main roads for a while, until one really becomes aware of alternate routes and the consequences of taking them. The main roads are always there, always busy, and not necessarily direct, but it's easy to ask people where they are, and they tend to be safer. In the same way we might stick with a certain grammatical pattern in a new language, long after we notice people using other, better ones to communicate the same ideas. We'll change our patterns when we're ready, when we're safe and when we're sure we'll get where we're going with the least amount of inconvenience or social discomfort. And for some people, this might mean never.

One of the key ideas in the analogy is the idea of different currencies; I haven't quite decided what else to call this. Certain things are rational, scientific, measurable, such as speed limit, number of lights, etc. In our own calculating way everyone who is going from point A to point B keeps track of this and comes out with the same result; we can say that these people are using the same currency. But where people differ is the value they place on more intangible considerations. My wife, for example, dislikes driving through the neighborhoods, where they have less traffic, and stop signs instead of lights, because of the inconvenience it causes the neighbors, whereas I consider this a price of buying a house on a through- street, and have much less sympathy for the people I'm buzzing as I cut through the back city roads. This is an emotional price, and each driver has to put that price into rational currency in order to make the ultimate decision.

Here is another example. One neighborhood route that I take feeds into a street that borders the university, and is transected regularly by crosswalks, with occasional bicyclists popping out from behind bushes, and people walking who are not in my view until I am right upon them. I find this rattling, especially in the morning, and though I am careful and try not to hit any of them, I consider that vigilance part of the price of taking this particular route. If I am not willing to pay that price, I take a busier route, with lights, that is less direct, and takes a little longer, but allows for a little more daydreaming. One can see here the intersection of my values with what is essentially a rational, time-driven decision. We can say many things about these decisions that people make that determine, basically, which streets are busy and which are not, on any particular day at any particular time, in any given town or city. One, the decisions that matter are made by hundreds or thousands of people, on their own, given the information they have at hand, with a natural inclination to do what's best for them, with various competing values at play, translated into a single currency to arrive at a single decision. Some people will always take the route that allows them to arrive at their destination in the fastest way, knowing full well that this will involve speeding, and hopefully will not involve getting a ticket. But for the most part, the law has very little influence in people's decisions; a good example is my own small town, where, sure, I don't want to hit a bicyclist, but really, I don't even want to have to worry about it.

Second, many people are carrying out habitual actions, so their decision really involves stronger action than simply impulsively choosing one road over another. Truly changing their habits will require a little thought and planning, and might not appear as a permanent decision until some experimental test-runs have taken place. And some of these test-runs might be misguided: they took place at a bad time, ended up with an undesirable result, or were unpleasant for the evaluator for entirely unknown or unique reasons, resulting in this route's never being taken again.

Traffic administrators actually study people's reasons for taking roads such as the tollway instead of roads such as Western Avenue or Lakeshore Drive, and for very good reasons; for similarly global reasons we language educators should also study people's patterns of taking on new grammatical structures in the process of learning a language. In both situations, fear is a big player: fear of humiliation, fear of great effort with no result, fear of time spent for naught. Yet with ruthless efficiency we watch other people; we pay attention to likelihood of success; we try new systems and habits when we suspect they might work better. It's all done for reasons, and the main point is, these reasons are unique to individuals, and therefore different changes will happen in different ways for each one. We could in fact ask people why they did what they did, but they might not always know exactly, or give you the whole story. In any case, however, whether driving across town or choosing a grammatical structure, they went through a process; they chose their route; they set out to do as they planned; they knew and measured probable results.

Traffic and language learning share one other curious trait. In both instances, we are guided and/or controlled, to some degree, by the tools that we use, though we don't often think of them consciously or even factor them in much, as a practical matter, most of the time. The Volkswagen driver, for example, is leery of the tollway because of the semi factor; large trucks box him in and make him nervous, not to mention emasculated. In the same way, a language learner might avoid -ing verbs just because it's hard to say words that end in -ing, given his language background; this will inhibit this learner's acquisition, but is unrelated to grammar, genetics, or difficulty of understanding a rule. Awareness of the tools being used to accomplish the goal is a key skill in getting from here to there; furthermore, our awareness or evaluation of our own skill regarding those tools is probably more important than our actual ability to use them, as the two are not always the same, and our actions are based upon our perception more than genetic inevitability or pure desire to master a grammar.

This project sets out, as a goal, the idea that these things are measurable; that the variables are similar for all humans and all languages; that a good clean explanation is possible and also useful; and, finally, that a good model can be used in many different ways. Stay tuned!


 Leverett, T. (2003). Review of Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use: The Taipei Lectures, by Stephen Krashen,

TESL-EJ, vol. 7, no. 2, Sept.

Leverett, T. (2007). Volume theory. Unpublished manuscript. Available

Leverett, T. (2004). Translation Plateau. Unpublished document. Available

 Blog posts:

Learning theory, 6-2-07

It 's all relative, 6-8-07

Acquisition of present perfect, 6-14-07

Principle wanted, again, 3-8-07

Originally appeared at but was removed and put here in 2010.