In which I nearly find myself agreeing with Willy Hutton

What\’s more, the initial years of studying a language are tough: there is no escape from the grind of learning how to conjugate verbs, construct sentences and to absorb enough words to begin to understand what is written and said.

To elect to do this, young boys and girls need to know that, like practising a musical instrument, designing clothes or playing a sport, the end-result will be worthwhile. They need teachers who can inspire them, classmates who encourage them and families who understand the value of the skill. In Britain, none of this exists to a sufficient degree.

It is not as though the situation is new. Successive education secretaries say how they deplore the trends.

Well quite, English is one of the glories of our culture. A complex and near infinitely malleable language, capable in well trained hands of conveying nuances unavailable in many other languages.

So yes, children really should be taught the grammar of it, drilled in the vocabulary: they\’ve been blessed with being native speakers of this language, it is important that they be taught how to manipulate it properly.

Ah, yes, sorry, my mistake. Willy is of course saying that everyone should learn French or German or Mandarin this way: but not that anyone at all should learn English this way. For that would be to go against the educational establishment\’s insistence that children should not be taught their own language, only be taught other ones.

Myself I am actually rather annoyed that I never was taught English grammar, sentence structure, all those things. Whatever I do know has come simply from reading others and having a little mental light going off…..that doesn\’t look right, play with it until it does.

This has caused problems: one American place I used to write for fired me precisely because I wasn\’t using the grammatical structures insisted upon by whatever style book it was that they used. I simply did not understand the points that they were making (incomplete sentences? WTF are they?).

Similarly, in learning foreign languages I\’ve no idea what the various books and so on are trying to say. Past particple? Gerund? Matching verb and object? WTF? What are these things? As I\’ve no idea what they are in English I\’ve of course no idea at all what they are in German, Portuguese, French or Russian (the other languages that I have a smattering of).

Whatever I have learned of these languages has been learned the same way I learned English: listen, repeat, keep doing so until people understand you.

This method has its advantages: I was in Prague on Friday talking to some sciency types about my favourite metal. A lot of the conversation they were having was in Czech (of course) and I was able to correct the interpretation to me of several things from my rudimentary Russian. It seems that it\’s a common Slavic language thing to get confused between the thousands, hundreds, tens and teens in numbers (the tisiche or thousand in Russian, and I noted in Czech, often gets mistranslated to the teen and vice versa. So when they mean 12, or dvatsit, we get two thousand, or dver tisiche, or somethimes twenty, dvesti, or sometimes even two hundred, dversot…..spelling there is terrible of course) in English.

So that\’s good, but that\’s all been done by ear. I really do wish I knew grammar in any one language (but am far too lazy to start now) so that I could learn it in others. Perhaps that could be better put: I wish that someone had beaten grammer in one language into me when I was still amenable to having things beaten into me.

But that still leaves us with that wonderful Willy point, doesn\’t it? That all children should be encouraged to learn other languages in exactly the manner that the educational establishment insists that English children should not learn English.

29 comments on “In which I nearly find myself agreeing with Willy Hutton

  1. Yup. I was taught German at school, and remember the A-Level class thinning considerably once we stated to be taught things like cases, gerundives and irregular verb conjugatioin. It was only us brainy sorts, who were able essentially to learn these things from scratch, left.

    On the other hand though, as English is so malleable and gorgeous, isn’t it near impossible to learn the basics of English sentance construction etc. ? Wasn’t that why we used to be taught Latin grammar instead?

  2. Indeed, Tim.

    When I started reading Japanese at Uni., I spent the first three months getting my head around English grammar.

    It would’ve been worse but for a primary school teacher refusing to drop grammar from the curriculum as she disagreed that it could be dropped. As a result, I had one year of schooling in which I learnt more about the English language than I did from the rest of my school years put together.

    I remember clearly that others in my Uni. class, who had not had the benefit of such a bloody minded teacher, did not even know what a verb, an adjective or a noun was.

    There are so many building blocks that are fundamental to lifelong learning that we do not teach in our schools across the spectrum of subjects (not just language). It is a travesty to our children.

    Personally, I spend a lot of time with my children teaching them these items as best I can to ensure that the world of learning is not unnecessarily restricted to them.

    Mr. Frost

  3. Tim,

    “Myself I am actually rather annoyed that I never was taught English grammar, sentence structure, all those things.”

    Likewise.

    The German teacher at my comprehensive was exasperated by the fact that he had to begin every other lesson with twenty minutes on the basics of English grammar – a subject unfamiliar to most of the ‘A’ stream class. Teaching the formal basics of the national language hadn’t been regarded as necessary by his more socialist predecessors. Apparently we were supposed to muddle through with intuition or a process of osmosis.

  4. I must have pre-dated commenters as I learned all this in Latin. But Tim is right. English is the most valuable language to learn now, and in fact foreign graduates write better English than our own badly educated ones. Not sure that foreign languages degrees are much use though. One of them just left me wasting 4 years at Oxford.

  5. I was taught English grammar at school. I hated it, but it undoubtedly improved my writing. It’s like music theory – everyone hates learning it but it’s essential to a better understanding of music.

    I agree with Tim on the idiotic way foreign languages are taught in schools. I think it is because we model foreign language teaching on the way in which Latin and Ancient Greek have to be taught – from the written word, not the spoken word. It is completely incongruous to use the same method for a living language, but the British educational establishment doesn’t seem to “get” this.

  6. Formal mastery of modern English grammar would help one barely at all with Russian, since the two languages are constructed quite differently. There’s nothing in English that would help one to grasp the perfective aspect or the instrumental case.

    Not unrelated to that: I suspect that the main reason why formal teaching of English grammar fell out of favour is that traditionally it was taught as if English were a form of Latin, which patently it is not.

    Rather than teach formal grammar in each language, perhaps schools should teach linguistics, including the grammar of every language on the syllabus and others.

    If you want to know what a gerund is, or a past participle, why not look it up? Wikipedia is adequate for this purpose. Reading* about this sort of thing on the internet has made** me less ignorant.

    * Gerund
    ** Past participle

  7. It is interesting to see that here you seem to connect the non-teaching of grammar to socialist teachers. Here in the Nordics it was quite the other way round in 1970’s: with the socialist wave of universal schooling systems, grammar was taught to everyone. I admit that grammar was very important even before that, though. It was too important: pupils would just shut up in fear of making a grammar mistake, instead of speaking and writing and using the language and thereby learning it.

    Even the mathematics teaching did not start from counting, adding, subtracting or such basic, practical skills. It started with set theory and other elements from so-called “new mathematics” – practical applications of maths were not considered important. You know, if a farmer sells 10 apples at 20 pennies each and the shop-keeper sells them on at 25 pennies each, how much profit does he make? It is sufficient to know that making a profit is reactionary. And anyway, because everyone is equally important and equally capable of absorbing mathematics, teaching everyone should start with the basic axioms with which university mathematics start up.

    After a few disastrous years (which were, unfortunately, the ones when I started school), the new mathematics was pushed away and pupils learned to add, subtract and multiply again.

    So, what am I saying? I am surprised and saddened that so many people say schooling in Britain is so broken. It is hard to believe.

  8. If you want to learn about English Grammar and syntax, the best way is to obtain an English as a second language book in a foreign language you can understand. Alternatively, attend a basic staff course run by the Armed Forces. 🙂

  9. Alternatively, attend a basic staff course run by the Armed Forces.

    Unfortunately the “joined up writing” courses stopped about the same time they flogged Greenwich off and it all relocated to the “Defence Academy”.

  10. Between 1957 when I started school to 1969 when I sat English Language at GCE O Level, I was formally taught English. (State education.)

    I also at secondary school I was taught French and Latin (compulsory) both of which complimented and were complimented by my training in English.

    I have heard all the horror stories about poor spelling and lack of proper training in reading and writing, but it comes as a surprise to me that English Language has not in recent times been taught formally; I had assumed just not taught well.

    I now understand the poor quality of speaking and writing in the media and why there are no Churchills among the political class – despite the private education some of them supposedly have had.

    They do not understand science either and appear not to be able to do simple arithmetic.

    I can see too, why so many people in the media do not speak in whole sentences: some have difficulty with whole words.

  11. At the risk of this morphing into some sort of help group…

    I was never taught grammar either at junior or in the early years of secondary school, much to my mothers amazement/despair. I also spent three years learning German, and we didn’t do much grammar there either.

    I’m 55, so unless you had my maths education, you can probably work out when I was at school :-).

    Like almost all of the problems we have with NHS, MOD and others, they’re multi generational.

  12. It depends on the eventual aim of the teaching.

    For a native language, then yes, proper grammar and spelling and such like needs to be taught. The point is to ensure that you are fully understood in both social and work environments. But neither should we be too worried about the changing language with “init” and other text speak coming into common usage.

    But for foreign languages the main aim at school is to be understood in a social environment. That will more be vocal rather than written. Grammar is not so important but the ability to speak more than the usual English method of shouting slowly. The grammer and nuances of the foreign langauge can come once the need to use it exists. At the beginning they can get in the way. The confidence in being able to at least understand and use some of the foreign language is a good starting point to become more fluent and articulate.

    I myself was fluent in two languages (even using the two in one sentance) until my teens when the need to use my 2nd language disappeared. But when I hear my 2nd language, it all comes flooding back and given a week or two of immersive teaching will be a natural speaker.

  13. I learnt English grammar at a Grammar school in the 60s (sounds logical!). I don’t really remember doing anything about the structure of language in primary school but when we started on French in the 1st form (aka year 7 now), I suddenly ‘got’ the concept of nouns, verbs, etc. However I still distinctly remember struggling with parsing in some 2nd form homework when my mum (a teacher) explained indirect objects. At that point I just ‘got’ it all and never looked back. That insight certainly also helped in learning French, and also Latin which I studied for 2 years.

    As an aside, I found the study of Latin very useful both as an example of a language with a very different syntax and as a source of words in Romance languages – helps me to translate French, Spanish & Italian signs & information a bit better.

  14. If you speak English fluently you already know its grammar – if it sounds right it is. The only common error in spoken English resulting from getting the rules wrong is the confusion of subjective, objective, and reflexive personal pronouns (I/me/myself). In written English, one needs to know some more simple grammar to put apostrophes where they belong. That’s not a lot of material to master if you care to do so.

    But grammarians have invented all sorts of prescriptions to give themselves things to drone on about. A well-known example is the absurd rule against ending a sentence with a preposition. You won’t write better for learning them.

  15. I had the blessing of a colonial education ( Kenya in the 60s) so grammar, parsing sentences etc were still very much mainstream. They still are in some ex colonies who still teach English in this way (India, Barbados are very strong examples). Which explains why many immigrants from our former colonial countries speak and write good well-structured English.
    You need to look past the accent sometimes….

  16. Tim, you should get started by learning the difference between parsing and construing – Obligato will know that already.

  17. “Myself I am actually rather annoyed that I never was taught English grammar, sentence structure, all those things”

    Something I noticed about English language textbooks here in the states is that, unlike math texts, they won’t give you the answer to any of the sample problems in the book. You get a simple definition of a term without a set of examples and explanations and then a buch of homework problems that you can’t tell if you’ve got them right or not until you get your graded paper back.

    As a result, even though I’ve been “taught” the grammar and structure of English I really have little formal idea of the rules. 20+ years afterleaving school all I know about gerunds is that they tend to end in -ing but I have no idea why that’s so important that is important enough to have its own term.

    Basically, almost all of my writing skill comes from having read a huge amount throughout my life and very little from the many, many years of formal English instruction in school.

    As a matter of fact, I spent my 4 years of high school taking successively more advanced English courses that ended up being identical to each other – half creative writing, half going over the same rules as the previous years.

  18. I’m surprised, given Tim’s upbringing as a public schoolboy, that he was not given explicit instruction in grammar etc.. I was taught English grammar in a formal, didactic sense at prep school in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s. We were drilled on the eight parts of speech, on tense construction, on punctuation, on subject-verb agreement, on phrases and clauses, on moods (especially the much-neglected subjunctive) and, further, on figures of speech, meter and scansion. This formalism was driven by two desiderata: that we should have a sure grasp of our own language and that we should not be thrown when grammatical concepts were introduced in second languages.

    One of the key benefits of a solid foundation in grammar is the ability to express oneself without ambiguity. It can also prevent the use of constructions that are outright barbarous. As I wrote, above, the subjunctive needs to be revived, if only to forestall the ghastly Americanism I dub the ‘conditional subjunctive’. That is the foul construction where, instead of saying “if I had done X,” the unfortunate analphabet says “if I would have done X,” thereby sounding like a yokel.

  19. The German teacher at my comprehensive was exasperated by the fact that he had to begin every other lesson with twenty minutes on the basics of English grammar

    I heard exactly the same story from a family friend who was brought over from Germany to teach German in a Welsh comprehensive. She spent all her time teaching English and never got around to teaching German.

    Some good points on here. I took the trouble to learn about 60-70% of Russian grammar, and it helps me heaps now I am learning French. I relate the French grammatical rules back to Russian, there are lots of similarities which cannot be found between French and English.

    And Hutton is right in one point: you need to spend hours and hours working at a language before you can even use it. It is during this period where most people give up because they feel they are not getting anywhere. It took me 18 months to have a conversation in Russian, I think it’ll be about 2 years for me to do the same in French.

  20. There’s nothing in English that would help one to grasp the perfective aspect…

    There is nothing on the planet that would help one to grasp the perfective aspect!

  21. SadButMadLad – “For a native language, then yes, proper grammar and spelling and such like needs to be taught. The point is to ensure that you are fully understood in both social and work environments.”

    I am not sure I agree with that. If you are a native speaker you hardly need to learn the grammar because you will speak your language naturally. English is a bit of exception because there is a strong class marker with the Upper Class traditionally trying to pretend our German dialect is actually a type of French. So you need to learn the grammar to prove you are brought up proper, but not for much else.

    “But neither should we be too worried about the changing language with “init” and other text speak coming into common usage.”

    Why not?

    “But for foreign languages the main aim at school is to be understood in a social environment. That will more be vocal rather than written.”

    But now I disagree totally. The grammar of your native language is something you can pick up with your Mother’s milk. But a foreign language, you need to study the grammar from scratch. You may want to speak it and you may pick up some holiday Spanish, but if you do not thoroughly understand the grammar, you won’t be able to read and you won’t get far on your own.

    “The grammer and nuances of the foreign langauge can come once the need to use it exists.”

    But that is to say never.

  22. “The German teacher at my comprehensive was exasperated by the fact that he had to begin every other lesson with twenty minutes on the basics of English grammar ”
    Ditto but my brother and French

  23. I find it helps to think of the European languages as a family of SIMILAR languages, rather than a collection of DIFFERENT languages.

    That’s all, just a different perspective but massively enabling. So, on a tin of Stella – wasser, hopfen, mout , geest (or something like that) – instead of what the f**k is wasser / geest, mout etc, try this “I ought to be able to decode at least some of the ingredients” – leads easily to water, hops, malt, yeast.

    As English speakers we are particularly well placed to have a bash at both Latin and Germanic languages. And if you’ve done French at school – which most of us have, then chances are that with a little guesswork most words will be familiar.

    Thus such as the following are commonplace – School, ecole (they’ve lost the s), escuela, schule, school (Dutch – google translate), scuola, escola, sigma chi omega lamda … (greek – look familar?),
    etc.

    This general concept of “family of similar languages” also extends to celtic and slavic languages. I am told that linguists can trace the fundamental similarities of the European languages back to ancient India.

  24. It’s a class issue, as always. You will have a natural ear for correct English grammar if you are constantly interacting with people who use it: if your parents are lawyers, for instance, or if you go to a school where foreign languages are widely taught (as the teachers will have a better grasp of English grammar than monoglots, for the reasons mentioned by posters above). Not teaching grammar at schools places those from shitty backgrounds at a greater disadvantage.

  25. Some good points on here. I took the trouble to learn about 60-70% of Russian grammar, and it helps me heaps now I am learning French. I relate the French grammatical rules back to Russian, there are lots of similarities which cannot be found between French and English.</i

    Ditto for me, except that my first foreign language was German, followed by French and then Russian. But having studied a language with cases like German helped inordinately when it came to Russian, something that others in my university Russian classes had more trouble with.

    And it helps to know what a direct object and an indirect object are in English when learning even German.

    There is nothing on the planet that would help one to grasp the perfective aspect!

    ? ????? ??? ?????? ??????? ????, ? ??? ??? ?? ??????. 🙂

  26. I regularly contribute to a Russian translators’ website, and when I’ve said that most English people don’t know what a verb, noun, subject, predicate is, they think I’m joking – it’s just too far fetched to be true.
    Imperfective v perfective? Simple. Perfective actions have an end. It’s also useful to regard their use in a textual context. A perfective is typically used, or can be used, in a narrative, where actions succeed one another. Imperfectives describe situations.
    A woman was sitting on the bed. On the table lay a book, and a parrot was bobbing up and down on a perch nearby. (imperfectives). The door opened and in walked a tall man. He shut the door, headed towards the table, and picked up the book. (perfectives).

  27. Yes, the difference between imperfective and perfective aspects can be understood – Russian children work it out even without the aid of formal instruction in grammar. But it can’t be understood simply by reference to English grammar, which doesn’t directly embody perfective and imperfective aspects. In English, “a book lay on the table” and “a man walked in” both use the preterite tense, which is usually, but not always perfective.

    (There is a simple rule that works in this case: if you can express the same concept using the past progressive “a book was lying on the table” then it’s imperfective. And if not, not. Once you’ve cracked that, all you have to do is remember two infinitives for every verb, with no consistent rule relating one to the other.)

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