Monday 21 October 2013

Grammar talk - the latest chapter

Anyone listening to BBC Radio 4 World at One today would have heard an argument between two people talking about 'grammar', one the author of Gwynne's grammar books and the other, Harry Ritchie who has just written a book about grammar.

The argument which keeps doing the rounds is a) that there is a 'correct grammar' b) this must be taught (and always was in the old days) c) teaching this grammar enables poor people to succeed.

1. All language, dialects and languages have grammar. That's because grammar is the means by which words are strung together in meaningful chunks. It's like an invisible scaffold or skeleton.

2. Individual words in random lists are not totally meaningless but nearly so. In fact, when we are confronted by lists of words randomly spread out in front of us, we can't stop ourselves trying to find links between them. Some of these links will be the grammar inside us.

3. We learn grammar as we learn how to speak. No one teaches us grammar as such when we are under five. We learn how to make the strings: 'Me go,' a two year old says making the core structure of English (and many other languages) 'subject verb'. So we learn and know grammar as we learn to speak. This carries us through for the rest of our lives.

4. For thousands of years linguists and grammarians have analysed the parts and processes of speech and writing, noting patterns and differences.

5. At various times in history, some grammarians have thought that this job of analysis was also about determining correctness. They invented the idea that this involves 'rules' and that people who don't abide by these rules are wrong or incorrect.

6. Socially and historically, this was entirely to do with behaviour and etiquette: 'correct' grammar was a set of lessons which had to be learned in order to have and to keep a certain social status. In truth, this was mostly about the new middle classes seeking power against the entrenched power of the aristocracy. Some traces of this social cargo carried by 'correct grammar' can be found today.

7. Meanwhile, 'the people' have gone on using and changing the language they speak and write. To take a visible example. In English people didn’t always say and write: ‘Do you like apples?’ They said the equivalent of ‘Like you apples?’ This change was not made by grammarians or linguists.

8. This means that we need a description ( a ‘model’) of language which includes this fundamental aspect of language ie that it changes. People who only talk of ‘correct grammar’ have no model for how change happens in language. In fact, their model has precisely the opposite model: namely that language doesn’t change - which is wrong. It does.

9. People with power over any country or society will tend to develop a form of language which expresses the laws, the language in the courts, the language of high commerce (not shopkeeping) most of which will probably overlap with whatever is the established religion in that society. It’s this ‘prestige’ form of the language which is or develops into the ‘standard’ or ‘correct language’. It follows from this that the grammarians who think that this standard or correct language is the best, also say that this language or dialect has correct grammar and all other forms are not correct.

10. In its usual use, ‘correct English’ is in reality the English of ‘continuous and formal prose’.  I have argued that this particular prestige dialect is not a matter of being ‘correct’. It is a matter of being what it is: prestige, continuous and formal.

11. As David Crystal has pointed out in great detail and drawing on the flexibility of ‘Fowler’ - the Oxford University Press classic English usage text - within this apparently inflexible ‘standard English’ are many variations and alternatives in grammar, spelling and punctuation. These are the ‘acceptable’ alternatives which can be found in the variations between broadsheet newspapers, different publishing houses, different formal written language use across formal printed material - eg ‘different from’ and ‘different to’, ‘bored with’ and ‘bored by’ ‘tried to leave’ and ‘try and leave’ and so on and so on.

12. However, beyond these debates about ‘acceptability’, exponents of standard English and general linguists will identify uses of language that they say are ‘incorrect’. These are by their definition, any usage that doesn’t come within their definition of ‘correct’. The problem with this is that it is a catch-all that includes many different kinds of divergence or difference from ‘standard English’ or ‘correct English. So, lumped in together are regional usages that have been around for hundreds of years eg in regional usages in Yorkshire, Northumberland, London etc; usages by people from different parts of the English-speaking world - Jamaica, Australia, South Africa etc; usages from people learning English; usages from children learning how to write...and so on. In other words, the reasons why these very different kinds of users of English diverge from standard are themselves are different! In education, we have to decide whether we ignore the reasons why people don’t do exactly what is being asked of them, whether we incorporate these reasons into how we teach.

13. All talk of ‘correct English’ or ‘standard English’ is intertwined with issues of education ie how do you teach people to write standard English? First of all, a claim is often made that in the past ‘everyone’ used to be able to do it, and the reason why they were able to do it is because they were taught ‘grammar’ (ie the grammar of standard English) so that by the time ‘we’ were nine, we knew all the rules. (This is what Gwynne said on today’s World at One). Both these statements are absolute untruths.
A) Many people failed the tests and hurdles given to them in the 1940s and 1950s. As a result many people received no more than 9 years schooling (aged 5-14).
B) In state primary schools we were taught the ‘parts of speech’ but we weren’t taught ‘grammar’. This was taught to those of us who went to grammar school - a small minority of the total number of school pupils.

The importance of getting this picture of the past right is that a good deal of talk about standard English, ‘correct English’, grammar and rules is that it is fixed into the ‘narrative of decline’ ie that things were good in the 40s and 50s but then it has all slowly got worse since then. This is then used as the justification for insisting that a) there are rules b) the rules aren’t being obeyed, c) the rules must be obeyed, d) the fact that they aren’t being obeyed explains in part the narrative of ‘broken Britain’ along with eg crime, drug-taking, the presence of the ‘underclass’ and so on.

I think this is a classic case of blaming the victim. I believe that our economic system creates poverty and to blame the poor for being poor through eg their ‘bad’ use of English is to mask and disguise the real causes of poverty and inequality. In fact, the main determinant of school failure is itself the poverty and inequality caused by the economic system not people’s non-use of standard English.

14. In education, teachers, parents and pupils have to consider when is the best time to learn how to write standard English, how to teach and learn it, how to assess the learning of it.  At present, I believe that we have the worst of all possible worlds: it is being taught along the lines of the way it is being tested ie in short exercises which involve ‘examples’ ie writing taken out of the contexts in which they are used (ie in ‘real writing’), out of the context of children’s own writing; it being taught (at first) to children who are too young to understand the concepts behind the ‘rules’ that are being taught; it is being taught (at first) to children without relating it to other languages;  it is being tested by ‘high stakes’ national tests which are not about helping all to achieve but are more about selecting and segregating pupils as they pass through the system.

15. These grammar tests (and the kinds of teaching that they create) have been introduced by lying about the past, ignoring the evidence that shows the worth - or not - of teaching grammar to children right from 8 and 9 years old; ignoring the evidence that shows which methods are better than others, which age of children/students are best able to understand, learn and use the knowledge of grammar.

16. There is now a fundamental divergence between those who believe that the writing of standard of English can be best achieved through repeated exercises and testing from as  young as possible, and those who believe that you can do some of that  - most efficiently when students are older than 11 - but that this must be embedded in as much reading of standard English in enjoyable and interesting books as possible (‘reading for pleasure’) and in as much writing for purpose and pleasure as possible. Furthermore, one of the important and useful ways in which you can teach standard English is to compare and contrast it with non-standard uses - not cited as inferior examples but as examples of ‘how people speak’ or ‘how people have spoken’ or ‘how some people write’. So, rather than pretending that there is one perfect, correct system and everything else is not so good, and/or wrong, it approaches language as part of human behaviour. In these circumstances, this kind of teaching can observe extraordinary and successful usages of language which are non-standard.  This requires investigation and discussion.