Learning grammar
Posted: 10 June 2012 07:41 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Re-reading the thread on the reintroduction of grammar to Australian schools leads me to ask:

1 Should grammar be taught at all to first-language/native tongue speakers?

If so,

2 What, for speakers of their native tongue, are the practical benefits of being taught the grammar of their own language?

3 At what stage of education or at what age should students be taught the grammar of their native tongue? eg primary/secondary/graduate/post-graduate?

4 Why should it be taught at this stage or age?

I’d like to hear everyone’s views, not just those trained in linguistics, so please don’t feel you don’t know enough to express an opinion.  OED, to my surprise, has no entry for the word “linguistics”.

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Posted: 10 June 2012 08:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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OED, to my surprise, has no entry for the word “linguistics”.

In my paper OED1, it’s covered under the headword linguistic, which includes adjectival and substantive uses, the latter in both singular and plural as separate subentries.

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Posted: 10 June 2012 08:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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The OED has: “B. n.  [-ic suffix 2] The science of languages; philology.” under the adjective “linguistic”

Anyway, I thought of Socrates’ response throughout the thread you refer to, when asked “can virtue be taught?” He responds (in the Republic, I think), “Yes, by all to all.”

I’m with you in spirit, dear Eliza, but I think that this is a process which is done best with a gentle touch (which I can only assume is how you do it).

I’ve raised two adult children whose grammar is impeccable in formal settings. My son is more vigilant and has inherited my more aggressive ways. He loves to engage friends in arguments such as the use of “literally” to mean “figuratively.” He now reads broadly and has given that one up as have I given up correcting good folks who end sentences with prepositions (a problem “up with which I will not put") and use split infinitives. On that last one, too many words between the infinitive can be cumbersome and interfere with meaning, but the rule in itself has no real meaning.

But that’s not what you’re talking about. As kids learn to speak, don’t we correct the speech as they go along without pointing out that the pronoun should actually be in the objective case rather than the nominative (or the other way round), or that the number of the subject should agree with the verb? The rule is not as important as is right communication. Or “register” as several have said in our last session.

A bright friend of mine recently used a semi-colon as a comma in a paper we were working on together and I just quietly pointed out that it wasn’t helpful. He changed it.

I think the strategy for teaching grammar is to enhance meaning not rules. But, again, I have no doubt that this is the way you teach.

My dear wife who read my early attempts at college papers 30 years ago just noted that my sentences just went on and on and recommended that I break them up. I did and I have ever since. She is not one to even know the rules much less enforce them; she is just a gentle teacher.

edit: pipped by the good Doc and the Socratic dialogue on virtue is “Meno”
edit2: or Protagoras. I’m too tired to figure out which.

[ Edited: 10 June 2012 08:52 PM by Oecolampadius ]
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Posted: 10 June 2012 09:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Or with humor: Whenever I leave the house to go on a long driving trip my wife will say, “Drive careful” to which I ALWAYS respond (and my kids and wife expect me to respond) “ly” as I close the door and exit to the car.

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Posted: 11 June 2012 12:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Oeco’s post and some in the other thread imply that teaching about grammar is about teaching a fixed set of grammatical rules: about telling people not to split infinitives and so forth.

To my mind, it is about giving someone the skills to analyse what role is played by different words and clauses within a sentence. I don’t think it should require an enormous amount of time each year, perhaps an hour a week for one term per year or something like that. I would hope that by the time they leave school, the students can identify the various tenses, moods, cases and parts of speech. If they choose to write using non-standard forms, so be it, but they should be able to look at what they’ve written and understand on a grammatical level what they’ve created.

Without this knowledge, their ability to discuss language will be incomplete. People will tell them things about what they’ve written and they just won’t understand.

I’m not in The Humanities at all but people do ask me to check their writing, for some reason. My cousin is going to be a primary school teacher, and last year she sent me a few pages of text to proofread. The target audience was her professor, I suppose, and it may well be that she has a good idea of his standards, but I made some corrections and simple suggestions to make it more appropriate for a formal presentation. There were broad structural problems, and the conclusion just petered out, but she understood these criticisms. She didn’t know what I meant by “Be careful with number agreement,” and “dangling modifier makes sentence ambiguous”. After I went through some examples with her, she still didn’t seem to get what I was saying. A bit more probing has told me that she doesn’t reliably know what a verb is: she was aware it was a “doing word” but considered that this would include words such “action"*.

You might say that if I kept on correcting the number agreement in her screeds for a few months that she would, by osmosis, pick it up without having to know what a verb is or what the phrase “number agreement” means. Given that she has been in the education system for some fifteen years now, I think she probably won’t: I think we can say that we tried that, and it didn’t work, at least in this case. If she had done just a little grammar, not a barrage or a whole course or anything like that, it would be easier for me to help her in this.

Maybe she’d still be making mistakes through inattention, but at least she’d see what I was getting at, and there’d be some hope of improvement. Next year she will be teaching English to children and this is one area she won’t be able to help them with.

I’m sure that you’ll be able to find non-standard grammar in this post. You’ll find what are universally regarded as errors. When you tell me about them, at least I’ll have some idea what the fuck you’re talking about.

It’s not the be all and end all. It won’t make someone a good writer. It won’t teach someone how to be witty, or how to structure a paragraph well. It won’t make me a sandwich. There are millions of things it won’t do. What it will do is empower someone to make more informed decisions about their own work, in this one particular limited aspect of language. It won’t benefit everyone, as different people learn in different ways, but it will benefit some. Mas vale algo que nada.

Very generally, I favour an informed populace. Not everyone needs to be Isaac Newton but everyone should have at least a smidgeon of science knowledge: some rudimentary grasp of the facts of the large processes at play in the physical world, and some kind of understanding of what science is. You don’t need to be Ben Bernanke but you should know in broad strokes what is happening in the economy. In a democracy, and to some extent even out of one, responsibility lies with “the people” that once lay only with monarchs. Everyone requires detailed knowledge pertaining to their particular profession, but each citizen should also be a generalist. Language is one of humanity’s most important tools, and it follows that each of us should know at least a sliver of linguistics. How could one give a general coverage of linguistics without touching on grammar?

*Yes, I am aware that action can be a verb. You may safely assume that I mean she considered it would include words such as “action” in cases where the context makes it clear it is a noun.

EDIT: removed the words “to have” before the words “some rudimentary grasp”

[ Edited: 11 June 2012 12:42 AM by OP Tipping ]
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Posted: 11 June 2012 03:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Anything that enables people to communicate clearly in English is fine with me and I’m of opinion that the teaching of basic grammar is useful in this endeavour.

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Posted: 11 June 2012 04:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I would argue for restoring the requirement for a second language, starting in primary school, when students’ brains can most readily absorb it, and requiring it all the way through high school. The formal instruction in grammar can be included there. I believe the comparison of two languages should make the grammar clearer, especially since so many of the grammatical forms in English are defective (incomplete), making them difficult to grasp conceptually unless you’ve got a language with a more complete structure of grammar to compare it to.

I learned most of my English grammar in German class.

[ Edited: 11 June 2012 04:30 AM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 11 June 2012 05:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I learned most of my English grammar in German class.

I think I’ve said before in this forum that I knew nothing about the subjunctive mood until I took German.

OP, great post. Thanks.

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Posted: 11 June 2012 01:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Yes, very well said, OP, and my thoughts precisely. The grammar I learned in primary school was hugely helpful in learning Latin and German at secondary level, apart from helping me to write better sentences.  When one of my offspring was struggling to learn a modern language, my old Latin notes (not even English) were dredged out of retirement and helped with the relationship of words within a sentence.

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Posted: 12 June 2012 10:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Equally agree.
Living in France I am regularly faced with friends hearing me use an English expression and immediately issuing a grammatical comparison that allows them to file it away for their later use.
I am filled with both admiration and pity; on the one hand this ability allows many of them to happily be tri-lingual (or more).  On the other hand, having to put this much effort into being able to construct even simple things “correctly” seems like quite a chore.
I think I am happy with English being defective ;-)

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