On grammar

April 5, 2019

I’ve written about grammar, and its teaching, before, and if you’re interested, you will be able to find those earlier posts. But I’ve returned to thinking about it as a result of re-reading the Latin book I posted about yesterday, and my rediscovery of Winnie Ille Pu, which is a lot harder than de roma antiqua… more colloqualisms and invented words needed there!

My experience of English grammar has been fairly mixed: I was at school in the progressive late 1960s and early 70s, when grammar was rather out of fashion, and I never really acquired a structured and thorough knowledge and understanding of it; I did some study and serious preparation when I needed to teach it myself, but was aware that there were colleagues whose knowledge was far more comprehensive, and to whom I sometimes needed to refer.

My knowledge of grammar came from my learning of other languages, which I was then able to apply to English. Back in the day you could not get to Latin O Level without the famed Kennedy’s Revised Latin Primer (which I still have); everything was logically explained and copiously illustrated, usually from actual classical Latin authors. Because there is much more inflection in Latin than in English, there were many more rules which one could learn and apply quite logically, to end up with correct sentences in prose composition exercises. This application of rules clarified how my own native language worked, and how the correct use of grammar aided clarity and accuracy…

The same was true of other languages: French grammar was drilled into us by a teacher who, unlike many other MfL teachers at the time, put a clear emphasis on speaking the language, and used the same textbooks that French school pupils used, so we were totally immersed in the language. The rules were practised and absorbed. German was a very different kettle of fish: I learned it conversationally, and grammar rarely got a look-in, with the result today that, although I can speak the language and make myself understood reasonably well, my grammar is pretty poor, really: the correct cases don’t drop into place as I speak, my verb tenses are all over the place, and as for prepositions governing cases, well… My rather more rudimentary Polish suffers from the same issues, sadly. But Spanish, which is my newest project (still in progress) is well-rooted in grammar and I am really fortunate to be in a small class and taught by a traditional teacher who also understands and believes in the necessity for grammatical rigour.

It’s also the case that, in talking with all sorts of friends and acquaintances in various conversation groups that I’ve been part of, invariably they say that their knowledge of grammar has come from their study of MfL and not from any English lessons they had at school. So what is the problem?

I think that grammar went out of the window in English schools (along with quite a few other things) because it came to be perceived as dull and boring, at a time when school was meant to be exciting (!); also there was a fashion for believing that certain things would be learned ‘as you go along’ almost by osmosis as it were, without any conscious effort being required. There’s a baby and bathwater situation there, I feel; learning needn’t be dull, but sometimes there are things which cannot be rendered un-tedious and which have to be mastered; not all of life is going to be wild whoopee and excitement, and that in itself is a lesson worth meeting when one is younger…

The effect of the disappearance of grammar teaching then had its effect on MfL, which became rather less structured and rather more conversational (that not a bad thing in itself, but it lacked the necessary underpinnings) so that we eventually ended up with students memorising lists of sentences that they did not necessarily fully understand, in order to pass oral examinations in French or German. This then made the leap to advanced study of a language of such a magnitude that many students regarded it as far too difficult, with the consequent disastrous effect on the study of modern languages in our schools and universities…

And the disappearance of Latin from our schools, to which I referred yesterday, has its place in all this, too. Such structure and discipline could underpin the study of MfL as well as English, except that it no longer does. Too difficult… unnecessary…irrelevant… when one starts to apply such a purely utilitarian logic to learning and education, all sorts of things fly apart. But that is a much wider argument, so it’s probably a good place to pause.

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