September 9, 2012 | Portuguese
Prescriptivism Versus Descriptivism
One of my Portuguese grammar books is trying to teach me spoken Portuguese.
Over the past few days I have been working a lot in my Modern Brazilian Portuguese Grammar. Written by John Whitlam and published by Routledge, it actually consists of two parts: a “practical” guide and a workbook.
Teaching Me How to Speak?
In making my way through these books, I am confronting an issue I don’t actually remember encountering before in my foreign language study, namely, the battle between prescriptivism and descriptivism.
This issue comes up a lot in English. Should grammars and usage guides describe language practices as they exist in the real world today, or should such texts be more rules-focused and talk about how language should be if it is going to be, er, “correct”? There is grammatical tension between idealists (prescribers) and the realists (observer-describers), one that points to a larger philosophical question, which is: who are the gatekeepers of language anyway? The millions of people who, say, ride the New York City subways or the linguistic sophisticates who publish language columns and usage guides?
My grammatical approach is a fusion of descriptivism and moderately liberal prescriptivism, I suppose. I find totally descriptivist texts largely unreadable. I want to know what language experts think about the best version of a given language, and then I merge that with my own experience of daily use to eliminate constructions I find snotty or out-of-date or overly ornate or just plain untenable for whatever reason.
At least that’s what I think I do. Maybe I succeed, maybe I don’t. But I am definitely comfortable with language’s evolution. I proudly use “contact” as a verb, even though I was taught by conservative prescriptivists never to do that. If you can’t evolve, you get stuck writing things like, “Please feel free to call, fax, e-mail, or text me with any questions.”
Anyway, I wouldn’t call this Portuguese grammar descriptivist in approach, but it is as close as I have ever noticed in a foreign language instructional text. Most foreign language textbooks are firmly in the prescriptivist camp.
Whitlam, the author, constantly offers notes and asides on the differences between oral and written Brazilian Portuguese. For the first time in my grammatical life, I have been told to do certain grammar exercises in oral style (and others in the usual written). In one exercise, for instance, I had to translate a magazine-story excerpt into “spoken language style.” In another, I had to translate an oral account into a more formal written version.
The practical guide contains numerous qualifications and special cases, because oral language is messy.
I do like these books all right, but I am not keen on this unusually strong focus on spoken language. There are a number of drawbacks, from my point of view.
First, I am not clear on whether I am being taught, in all these special notes and asides, to speak like the average person walking down the street or to speak like someone who is self-aware and knowledgeable about the language. While I strongly prefer a simple, informal communication style, I don’t intentionally want to use imperfect instead of conditional in my speech (which is basically what I am being advised to do) simply because a lot of people happen to do that.
“Conditional verb forms have a ponderous and formal ring to them, which means that they are rarely used in the spoken language,” writes Whitlam. “In speech, the conditional is usually replaced by the imperfect.”
He offers this as an example: Ele falou que me ligava hoje, which means, “He said he would call me today.” (Ligava is imperfect; conditional would be ligaria.) I love conditional! I am sad!
Is that really what I have to do to sound normal?
Multilingual MTA Admonishment Seen This Week: Don’t Surf the Train
A second drawback to the spoken focus: when I am given too many choices about what I could do, it is often confusing to try to figure out what I should do. Right now I need more dictatorial grammar instruction than this. For instance, when I am told, “In the spoken language in particular, the singular is used with a generic plural meaning,” do I listen to that?
One of the examples from the book is this: Nunca como maça. That means “I never eat apples,” even though maça is the singular form, “apple.” Should I do that kind of thing, too? Or should I use the plural noun forms in such cases?
What to do, what to do…
A third drawback is that when a grammar book keeps describing all the variations in oral/informal and written/formal cases, the volume of data gets overwhelming. It is too much for a language learner in this delicate stage of the learning process. Give me the simplest prescriptivist explanations, and I will learn the special cases and exceptions and the weird idioms and all that other more casual stuff when I go spend time in Brazil and they keep correcting me every four minutes.
In general, if you learn a language in a country where that language is not natively spoken, you are often (and, in fact, usually bordering on always) going to end up sounding stupidly formal at first. Learning resources are on the more formal end of the spectrum, which is fine, because a hard-line, rules-based approach is the most efficient route to basic courteous literacy. If I were in the country, or even in a class, I would have more opportunity to learn spoken idiosyncrasies and variations.
In the meantime, I don’t think any grammar book will be able to teach me to sound cool.