A Bit Of An Explanation

I am not a professional. Not anywhere near it. But I like to think that some little observations I have about language and the social construction of it are worthwhile.

Some of these notes were originally written for acquaintances with no linguistic experience whatsoever, so please be patient through the explanations of basic concepts, and the simplistic tone.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Changing How We Frame Grammar

Take a look at any prescriptivist piece about grammar. Go on, try it. I'll wait.

What I want to ask is: Is it positive? Do people talk about how much of a miracle it is that the human mind can separate all these individual words into their own categories and ascribe meanings to their combinations, with barely any effort at all? I'll wager it's a no - instead, it's probably talking about the "ruin of the English language", moaning about how today's generation is "borderline illiterate", raging against text lingo, all the stuff we've heard a thousand times before.

Here's the thing that frustrates me: This is how most American schools teach grammar, too.

I'm not saying 1st grade teachers take class time to rant about society "lax attitude toward syntax" (oh lookie, I made an unintentionally terrible rhyme). But throughout school - whether it's elementary, high school, or college - teachers are constantly putting grammar and English in general in a negative light.

Parts of speech, literary devices, and spelling are taught as rigid rules to be obeyed. Through countless exercises of "correcting improper usage", students come to see grammar and spelling as iron rules that will get points taken off their essays.

I've gone to several schools and had many different English teachers. I can't recall a single one of them framing grammar/spelling as anything except "follow these iron rules or you will fail". (Even my favorite teacher, unfortunately, did this quite a bit.)

We need to let students see language for the wonder that it is. I understand that it's hard for a lot of people to be passionate about learning, but think. Maybe take a minute out of your gerund vs. participle drills to talk about how cool it is that verbs can be used this way. In a more advanced class, maybe mention some interesting similar constructions that other languages have. Instead of ruthlessly correcting your students' pronunciation, have a lesson about regional dialects.

(Brief digression: I plan to write more about the place of dialects and education, especially AAVE.)

Instead of spelling test #503, have a lesson about how English spellings have changed over time.

Language is a vast, fluid, and fascinating thing. Don't teach children that's it's a narrow, restrictive clamp on their speech and writing.

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