Sunday, 28 April 2019

Ideas on how we can look at language-in-use

One of the tricks that people in authority work on us occurs when they impose on us a system that seems for a moment to be 'the only way'.

This has happened with what passes off as 'grammar' in primary schools. My argument has been that 
a) the 'grammar' on offer is only one form of several kinds of grammars that can be taught, 
b) this one is particularly narrow because it mostly leaves out the context and purpose of why and how we use language; one grammarian in particular tried to widen the discussion of grammar to include context and purpose, M.A.K.Halliday. He even co-produced a wonderfully accessible text book for schools called 'Language in Use'. The story of why and how Halliday's 'grammar' and this book in particular is not used reminds us that even something as supposedly objective as 'grammar' is in fact a matter of choice, bias and ideology. The point is the view that we should help children and students look at language-in-use was overthrown and another view, with an entirely different approach to language has been put in place.
c) This 'grammar' treats language as if it has rules that are single, correct usages. This is not true of language overall and isn't even true of 'standard English' which this grammar (as taught in primary schools) is concerned with. These rules are not derived from context and purpose. They are derived by means of a method which treats language as if it is an abstract 'system'.  Here's one example: we can say, 'I went for a walk after the match.' And we can say, 'I went for a walk after the match was over.' According to the 'grammar' being taught in primary schools these two usages of 'after' are 'different'. The first one is a 'preposition' and the second one is a 'subordinate' or 'subordinating' 'conjunction'. How is this distinction  derived? According to the internal 'system' rules of this kind of 'grammar'. In the first example, the phrase 'after the match' has no verb. In the second example, the phrase 'after the match was over' has a verb. So, according to this internal 'logic' of the sentence, the word 'after' in the two examples is deemed to be 'different'. But is it? In terms of language-in-use, the word 'after' in both cases is being asked by the speaker to do exactly the same job:  tell the listener something about time sequence of things 'I' did. You or I could make up another expression to describe it, an expression that wasn't tied to the internal-system approach to language-use. It's a 'time-sequence word'. It's a 'one-after-another' word. 
d) This 'grammar' was only introduced into schools because the committee that produced the 'Bew Report" on assessment and accountability deemed that 'grammar' produces 'right and wrong' answers and would be an ideal medium for testing whether teachers were teaching what the government wanted them to teach. In other words the justification for teaching grammar - and this form of grammar - was not because it's necessary or good for children but because it was, supposedly, a good way of testing teachers. (It's a form of 'output' testing. You test the input by testing the output. The input (the teachers' teaching) restricts ways of looking language enough anyway, but then to reduce it even further to the demands of right/wrong answers results in a false picture of how and why we use language. 

I, along with many others, have said that there are many other ways of talking about how we use language. People who listen to the radio programme that I present: BBC Radio 4's 'Word of Mouth' will each week hear how it's easy and possible to talk about and analyse how we use language in ways that don't involve the narrow 'rules' derived from what I'm calling the 'internal systems' approach. 

When it comes to looking closely at language-in-use, in literary texts for example, I've suggested here on my blog and in my booklets that I've produced for teachers that there are many other tools we can use. The ones I've suggested, I argue, are much more fruitful in telling us what is going on in stories, poems, plays and ultimately in all texts. In the academic world, these 'tools' are quite hard to understand, but I've tried to break them down into much more user-friendly ways. These are:

narratology - the study of how we construct stories e.g. through 'flashback' or 'reveal-conceal', or e.g.  through 'red herrings', or how we indicate that a character is 'thinking' or how a story or poem is 'narrated' (e.g. first person, third person or 'omniscient' or a mix) and what shape or tone this narration uses (e.g. 'unreliable' or 'self-conscious'); how a text uses 'reveal-conceal' as a method, and so on;
prosody - the musicality of language and how this has meaning and pattern; 
intertextuality - how we use other 'texts' to create the text that we are speaking or writing;
rhetoric - how we use long-standing, historic strategies when we speak and write, and how these historic strategies are linked to desired 'effects';
stylistics - a bit of a catch-all term but one which looks at some of the above plus e.g. the use or non-use of figurative language (metaphor, simile, personification),  or the use of different 'registers'  - e.g. 'posh' or 'familiar'; 
pragmatics  is the study of dialogue, how we make conversation, what strategies we use when we talk to each other. We can adapt and use this when looking at how writers write dialogue for novels, plays, poems and stories;
lexical field - this focuses on the way that any passage or story uses clusters of words and expressions in a given 'field' of meaning e.g. lots of different ways of talking about 'light' or about 'water'; (I've added this to my checklist because I've been impressed by how my son's teachers have given him this tool when looking at texts. I think it's a good way to focus on how passages have fields of interest which they look at in different ways, creating patterns of meaning
flow - how our emotions and feelings change as a text proceeds and when we can encourage students to look at their reactions to characters, or to emotional states (e.g. tension) (some people do this with little graphs), it reminds us that texts have a time element in them ie the meaning comes in part from how one event (and its emotions) comes after another. Shakespeare is famous for this in 'Macbeth' for example with the Gatekeeper scene - great example of 'bathos' (see below for a book on 'Rhetoric'.)
ideology  - how all of the above contribute to producing in a text a viewpoint that belongs to a wider set of beliefs, attitudes and understandings. 

Though this sounds very technical. In fact, it's possible to break each of these down into very usable ways of talking about texts. I've often given the example I came up with of using 'secret strings' where the children look for the ways in which within any text there are invisible links between words on the basis that some sound similar (prosody),  some are linked by meaning (lexical field), some are linked by a particular metaphorical way of seeing things (stylistics) and so on. 

I don't suggest that this checklist has to be used all the time or that all of the points on the checklist have to be used each time. In any of this kind of work, any rigidity in method will reduce nuance and subtlety in how we respond to a text.  

My booklets are: 'Poetry and Stories in Primary and Lower Secondary Schools'; 'Why Write? Why Read?' and 'Writing for Pleasure'. 

They are available from . Just click on 'Books'. 

While we're on this, please let me recommend for anyone interested in how and why we use language:  'You Talkin' to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle, to Trump and Beyond...' by Sam Leith, published by  Profile Books.  

It's a fascinating example of how we can look closely at language-in-use without reducing it to a matter of naming of parts, supposed 'functions' (which are in reality just names for bits of the system derived from abstract rules not in how or why use language to make meaning). 

Here's one example of me using some of the above methods to look at the opening pages of 'A Christmas Carol':