May 18, 2010 | Spanish
Urgent: More Grammar Needed
Grammar matters, for foreign-language study and for life.
Today I passed by John Jay College of Criminal Justice, at 59th and 10th, where I taught for several years in the early 1990s. I was an adjunct there, a part-time instructor in the English department, as well as at Long Island University, Queensborough Community College, New York University, and other area colleges.
Most faculty I knew considered students’ writing skills poor, and grammar appalling. However, the major pedagogical trend at the time involved what I referred to as a learn-writing-by-osmosis approach, i.e., just keep the students reading and writing, and they will pick things up. Many professors and instructors I worked with did not believe there was any point to teaching grammar systematically. I did, and so I did some of that anyway, along with other things one would normally expect to find in college writing classes.
Educational fashions come and go; this was not the first time in American pedagogical history that grammar had played such a minor role. I don’t know how much the theoretical winds have shifted in schools and universities since I was teaching in these English departments, though I have since read occasional articles claiming that grammar is becoming more prominent again in schools. I’m not sure whether that is actually true, or whether it is instead wishful thinking. I have attended a couple of conferences of the Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar; the passion of the ATEGers, as they are sometimes referred to, certainly inspires me, but I am already a member of that choir.
When I walked by John Jay today, I reflected again on how important grammar knowledge is to foreign-language acquisition. I am not saying it is essential. I mean, people with little understanding of language structure can, and do, go to other countries all the time and learn new languages through immersion.
Unless they are extraordinarily gifted, though, it is going to be hard for them to speak and write a new language as well as they would if they knew something about language architecture. For example, I have had plenty of American students over the years who couldn’t find a verb in an English sentence. If you can’t identify a verb, how, then, do you learn verb conjugations? Instead of studying verb patterns efficiently and precisely, you end up acquiring your knowledge of forms in a more piecemeal manner, committing more errors along the way because you lack the tools to approach language studies systematically.
I view the decline in grammar and writing skills in the United States as tragic. A decline was already underway well before I went through high school in the early 1980s, but the relationship between the average student and language has continued to become less intimate, less rich with each passing decade.
The impoverishment of this relationship affects all areas of life in which one must communicate (which means basically all areas of life). It also affects the student’s relationship to new and unfamiliar languages, which necessarily become more burdensome, even frightening, to acquire.
Small wonder so many people pretend to learn a language by eating their way through the associated national cuisine.