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?

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a given language, and then I merge that with my own experience of daily use to eliminate constructions I find snotty or out-of-date or overly ornate or just plain untenable for whatever reason.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

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.

Comments (9)

jose luiz serafini • Posted on Mon, September 10, 2012 - 6:52 pm EST

Ellen, as a Brazilian, allow me to be a little prescriptive: (a) use your conditionals without guilt; in the example given, it would be even more “normal” to say “ele me falou que ia me ligar/ iria me ligar hoje”; “que me ligaria” would also be far from too formal; (b) as for apples etc, ALWAYS use the singular: nunca como maca, nao gosto de pera, detesto abacaxi (pineapple), adoro banana…

You’ve been very helpful in all respects

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, September 10, 2012 - 10:29 pm EST

Jose, I am so relieved! I am going to go crazy with the conditional now. And I know I can adapt to the singular fruit.

Muito obrigada!

josé luiz serafini • Posted on Wed, September 12, 2012 - 1:19 pm EST

Ellen, as an afterthought, and how about the fate of the future tense? It’s vitually fallen into obsolescence in spoken Brazilian Portuguese (not so in Portugal, though). It’s substituted for the present tense (viajo amanhã para Paris) or by an analytical IR (to go) + infinitive (vou viajar amanhã). But the conditional fares relatively well, although it had better times

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, September 12, 2012 - 3:03 pm EST

José, that use of simple present in lieu of future is very familiar to me from other languages—but how interesting that there is a difference between Brazilian and European Portuguese! I’m surprised.

I confess I do kind of like the immediacy of the present tense in such situations. It feels natural to me in a way that substituting imperfect for conditional does not.

Thank you for this information!

Luciana • Posted on Fri, September 14, 2012 - 8:38 am EST

Ellen, I’m glad I remembered to look for your blog this morning. I come here from time to time to see if you got to Portuguese :). I’m Brazilian and online Portuguese teacher and I wanted to read your impressions of Portuguese.
Then after reading this post, I was going to say the same as José Luiz:  intead of “Ele falou que me ligava hoje” I would say: “ele falou que ia me ligar/ iria me ligar hoje”. And the singular x plural problem (maçã or maçãs): people use the singular form!
And now “my problem” during the lessons: sometimes I explain the grammar to the students and then I say: ok… and now I’ll tell the way people speak and it is totally different from the correct (??) way. Or sometimes the students tell me: I want to speak the way you normally speak to your friends and family. So what do I do? I ask the student why they want to learn the language. And depending on the answer I teach one thing or the other, but I always tell them what is according to grammar books and what is not!
Now I’ll read the other posts about Portuguese, I love to know what people think about my native language and the language that I teach!
Thanks for your blog!! :)

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Fri, September 14, 2012 - 9:52 am EST

Thank you for your note, Luciana! Now that I have read your post, I can’t help noticing that you used José Luiz, whereas I used just José. Am I supposed to use both names? If so, my apologies to the owner of the name.

Tim • Posted on Sun, December 09, 2012 - 10:04 pm EST

I completely agree with you about the need to learn the “correct” forms, especially for a beginner. Once you understand the framework of a language, then you can make sense of the variations, colloquialisms and inconsistencies.

But as an English teacher I see the limitations of it. My Japanese students can generally decipher written English much better than they can deal with spoken language in real time. At least when it comes to pronunciation, I think it’s really important that they have practice hearing natural speech, with all of it’s gonna’s and doncha’s.

Tim • Posted on Mon, December 10, 2012 - 12:59 am EST

its, not it’s. That’s a bit embarrassing for an English teacher.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sun, December 16, 2012 - 9:48 pm EST

Tim, I agree about the limitations. But I guess I generally like to get the “correct” forms from books, and the variations on those themes from oral communications. Getting so many variations so early on was confusing for me.

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