LINGUIST List 8.817

Tue Jun 3 1997

Disc: Grammar in UK Schools

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <annlinguistlist.org>


Directory

  1. Marc Hamann, Disc: Grammar in UK Schools
  2. benji wald, Re: 8.792, Disc: Grammar in UK Schools -- a response
  3. MILLSCUCENGLISH.MCM.UC.EDU>, Re: 8.792, Disc: Grammar in UK Schools -- a response

Message 1: Disc: Grammar in UK Schools

Date: Wed, 28 May 1997 11:33:31 -0500
From: Marc Hamann <gmhamannsickkids.on.ca>
Subject: Disc: Grammar in UK Schools

I was disturbed to find some traditional fallacies in Geoffrey
Sampson's discussion of the teaching of grammar in schools. Though I
no longer have a copy of Prof. Cameron's original post, I do recall
the essentials of it, and found that Mr. Sampson had passed over the
valid point it was making in favour of a prescriptivist, "back to
basics" defense of traditional grammatical education.

Prof. Cameron is perfectly correct in ridiculing the inflexible, rote
and prescriptive approach to grammar which is conventionally inflicted
on students throughout the English speaking world. The issue of being
able to use Standard English (or perhaps _a_ standard English)
correctly is entirely separate from the reliance on traditional
"rules" which are frequently unhelpful, and often grossly inaccurate.
The rule regarding finishing sentences with prepositions, as one
glaring example, is a total misunderstanding of both the history of
English, and an unhelpful preoccupation for effective communication.

>strikes me as akin to suggesting that teachers of
>French should forget about teaching the past participle of "vivre" in
>favour of getting their pupils to develop considered opinions about
>the theories of Derrida.

Though Mr. Sampson has used an interesting rhetorical image here, it
is in fact a false analogy. Teaching students to get a feel for the
function of grammar and language is a far cry from teaching them GB
theory or HPSG. An understanding of how sentences, clauses, verb
tenses, adverbs, etc. actually function on a basic level IS a very
reasonable educational goal, and far more worthy then just creating a
bunch of "Don't"'s and "Never"'s and calling that grammatical
education.

>Beyond that, though, teaching orthography and grammar at school level
>has a much broader educational value. One of the lessons we all have
>to learn is that nothing big and worthwhile is ever achieved in this
>life without careful attention to endless tedious and often arbitrary
>details.

At the risk of making a gross national stereotype, I feel compelled to
quote George Bernard Shaw: "The British believe that they are moral
when they are merely uncomfortable." This notion that education (or
work, for that matter) must be unpleasant to produce results is a
Puritanical relic. In my personal experience, the very successful
people tend to be precisely the ones who know how to delegate, slough
off or avoid wasting time with "tedious and arbitrary details".
(Please read the preceding paragraph with the tongue planted in the
general vicinity of the cheek.)

In a spirit of greater seriousness though, I would like to second
Prof. Cameron's call to educators to abandon prescriptive, rule-based
approaches to grammar, and embrace a more general approach based on a
comprehension of more fluid and meaningful principles. I believe that
the result would be students with a BETTER grasp of the form and
function of language rather than a shallow and inflexible mastery of
facile rules.

- ---
Marc Hamann
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Message 2: Re: 8.792, Disc: Grammar in UK Schools -- a response

Date: Thu, 29 May 1997 21:36:44 -0700 (PDT)
From: benji wald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 8.792, Disc: Grammar in UK Schools -- a response

I was fascinated by Geoffrey Sampson's defense of traditional
educational language standards, and cannot resist commenting on some
points.

He says:

 it seems to me that teaching correct usage, the
>standard terminology for elements of grammar and punctuation, and the
>ability to remedy formal errors in faulty prose are exactly the kinds
>of thing that need to be taught in this area at secondary-school
>level. To say that school pupils should be taught to engage in
>"explicit, systematic reflection on what it is that we are doing when
>we use language" strikes me as akin to suggesting that teachers of
>French should forget about teaching the past participle of "vivre" in
>favour of getting their pupils to develop considered opinions about
>the theories of Derrida. Even assuming this type of cognitive
>achievement is worthwhile in principle, it is quite impractical for
>the average secondary-school class to attain it.

Setting aside the possible implication of elitism in the phrase "the
*average* secondary-school class", I view the charge of
"impracticality" with suspicion, since it is a typical way of
dismissing any innovation. It means "It's very nice but there's no
time for it. We have already identified the priorities, and we're
having trouble getting them through in the time we have." Cf. we
have no time or money to investigate the "so-called" causes of crime,
because there's so much of it that we can hardly keep up with the
demand for more prisons -- that's the top priority - no time for
anything else, thanks anyway.

Nevertheless, in principle I was not put off, and read on to find out
why the top priorities are what they are. I was not disappointed,
though the rationale offered seemed predictable to me, and also
arguable.

>People need to learn to write their national language accurately
>because much of modern life depends on complex written communication,
>and prose that is full of unsystematic deviations from the conventions
>interferes with successful communication, as dirty windows interfere
>with successful vision -- the message gets lost amid problems with the
>medium. People need a terminology for talking about the bits and
>pieces of language, as a car mechanic needs to know the names of the
>parts of a motor, in order to provide an apparatus for thinking out
>what has gone wrong and how to cure it when prose doesn't "work".

This all sounds reasonable. And I am indeed in favor of students
knowing these things. In fact, prescriptive grammatical terminology
and analysis do set a foundation even for what linguists do when they
"engage in explicit, systematic reflection on what it is that we are
doing when we use language" Namely, linguists start with the
traditional categories, explore their motivations and then discuss
where they seem to be inadequate and what would be more adequate, in
view of whatever larger linguistic facts are brought to bear on
whatever problem of traditional grammar... I realise, of course, that
Geoff is not arguing for this -- and so I WONDER if traditional
grammatical analysis etc. is EITHER necessary or sufficient for
effective "complex communication". Probably nobody would defend the
"sufficient" condition in view of much obscure, if not
incomprehensible, (though "grammatically" flawless) standard writing,
but I also wonder about the necessary "condition". That is, do you
have to be able to analyse to imitate the standard way of writing? Is
the standard THAT different from a "natural" language (first learned
type)?

(At least with some good, also professional, creative writers I know,
they are not actually aware of some of the key elements of their
style, e.g., one who is very effective in using and even coining
nominal compounds, but did not show recognition of this as a
characteristic of his style when I mentioned it to him.)

Thus, I am not challenging the notion of a standard or necesarily the
demand for its use in certain contexts, but how it is presented,
esp. is it this great logical thing it's generally portrayed as,
that's gonna solve all those "communication" problems that have
alarmed English publishers since the time of Caxton? But even more,
does it have to be*explicitly* taught? (Maybe a lot of teachers screw
up teaching "grammar", because that's where a lot of students complain
they get irremediably bored and just want to get the hell out of the
classroom. Who knows, even linguistics might be more popular, if many
students hadn't earlier been turned off to "grammar".)

>Beyond that, though, teaching orthography and grammar at school level
>has a much broader educational value. One of the lessons we all have
>to learn is that nothing big and worthwhile is ever achieved in this
>life without careful attention to endless tedious and often arbitrary
>details. I can't see a better domain for learning this lesson than
>the orthography and grammar of one's national language: it contains
>the tedious details, but it relates to material which surrounds the
>child in his everyday life.

This is the discipline and "moral fibre" argument, which is the last
ditch attempt at enforcing authoritarianism. As a friend of mine, an
English teacher observed, his supervisor is an ambitious man, and a
stickler for discipline. Night school students should not wear hats
in class, says the supervisor. So my friend the teacher told one
recalcitrant student that once (these are night school ADULTS). The
student took it off and put it right back on. My friend said. That's
it. I'm here to teach English. He's not bothering anybody else. I'm
not going to get sucked into some authority game. But school for
children is full of such petty discipline things that are insisted
upon along with learning "subjects". Obediance is more important than
understanding. The argument is that the discipline that comes from
obedience will lead to understanding in time, if there is any argument
at all, cf. learning declensions and conjugations before approaching
texts. (And often the teachers don't even know why something is
insisted on. They just know that they have to be obeyed, or else the
authoritarian structure collapses, and their supervisors will come
down on THEM.) This is what lots of kids resent about
school. Probably not the same ones who actually like to cause
disturbances (or can't control themselves somehow). Is ANYone
unfamiliar from their childhood with what I'm referring to? So what
basically is this "discipline" argument. It seems to me the argument
is: the student who has mastered standard English has demonstrated
ability (not necessarily inclination) to FOLLOW relatively complex
ORDERS and routines, and therefore can be considered capable for
positions in hierarchies where following fairly complex orders is
considered necessary (or at least desirable). Little wonder some
actually call this behavioral skill "morality". But can I question
Geoff's rationale without questioning his view of "(British)
civilization" (that's a quote from his message)? I don't know. --
Benji
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Message 3: Re: 8.792, Disc: Grammar in UK Schools -- a response

Date: Fri, 30 May 1997 8:59:52 EST
From: MILLSCUCENGLISH.MCM.UC.EDU> <MILLSCUCENGLISH.MCM.UC.EDU>
Subject: Re: 8.792, Disc: Grammar in UK Schools -- a response

Having been engaged in the same sort of debate for several decades on
this side of the Atlantic, I tend to agree with Professor Sampson's
remarks on the value of teaching grammar in the UK schools. But
because we do not all agree on _what_ "grammar" should be taught, and
because the public, even the educated public, even school teachers and
administrators, are, at least in the U.S., ignorant of the last
century's work in linguistics, teaching grammar does not turn out to
be as easy as Professor Sampson seems to imply it is.

For example, for many, probably most, linguists "correct usage" is not
part of grammar. As a sociolinguist, I would prefer that correct
usage be taught in secondary schools--but clearly labeled as something
other than grammar. And even within what nearly all of us would
consider "grammar," what should be taught. Most educators (sic) in
the U.S. and most politician would seem to prefer traditional grammar,
which we linguists have misnamed "prescriptive grammar" (when it is
actually mostly proscriptive). To me, teaching traditional grammar
has all the attraction of teaching phlogiston theory to non-scientists
and passing it off as serious science. Many of my colleagues in
linguistics disagree.

So the question is not "Should grammar be taught in UK schools?" but 
rather "What sort of grammar should be taught (everywhere, I think)?"


Carl Mills
University of Cincinnati
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