Saturday, December 19, 2009

learning standard english as second dialect

While enjoying a funny entry on Language Log (link) about a recent story arc thread on the Non Sequitur comic strip, I came across the following in the commentary:

I took a Russian course in the 1980s, and helped out a classmate who was struggling with the material. He had graduated with excellent marks from an American high school, but I quickly discovered that the reason he couldn't make his adjectives agree with his nouns, or choose the correct noun case, was that he did not know what a noun was.

I spent hours in Canadian grade school, circling nouns, underlining verbs and drawing boxes around articles and squiggly lines under adverbs. I had to memorize and parrot on exams lists of relative pronouns and prepositions.

It fascinated me that my classmate could speak coherently and write essays in his native language without knowing what the components are.

It’s that last sentence that struck me as odd. The idea that a person could not speak or write a language without knowing its grammar (in this case defined as being able to identify parts of speech) does not make sense to me. The grammar of a language has many components: phonology, morphology, syntax, etc. To many of my co-Anglophones, grammar instead means usage, orthography, etymology, and punctuation. This latter non-linguistic view of grammar is a holdover from the days when Latin and Greek were the languages being taught in grammar schools. And, pedagogically speaking, when you’re learning a new language (as an adult), it helps to be able to speak about its grammar using some terms, hopefully from the language grammatical tradition itself. (I have been thinking about this because recently I have been slowly learning Japanese linguistic terms in my Japanese class.) Latin these days has been replaced by General American English in US schools. And GAE is for many speakers in this country a different dialect of English than the one they learned on their mother’s lap.

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Blogger Bob Hale said...

An interesting post and, by and large, one that it's hard to disagree with. On the other hand when I was training to be an English teacher I was shocked to find that many of the other would be teachers on the course showed a similar lack of knowledge. They too couldn't reliably identify nouns, verbs or adjectives. Verb tenses were a mystery to them (as for voice or aspect - they struggled to even understand the concepts when they were explained.

I agree that it's not necessary to be able to identify parts of speech, analyse the grammar or break sentences into clauses to speak the language, or even to write it. On the other hand, personally, I think it's a damned good idea if the teachers can do it.

December 26, 2009 at 10:31 AM  
Blogger zmjezhd said...

Yes, I am constantly shocked by the poor educations that many of the people I run into on a daily basis seem to have, even from good schools. I simply love language and linguistics (even the applied variety), although I am beginning to grok taht it's not to everybody's tastes.

December 26, 2009 at 11:06 AM  

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