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  • Language lessons: It's time for English teachers to stop teaching that the earth is flat


Comments Dec 2, 2009 7:11 pm

That right/wrong idea of language carries over into college. I am teaching English 102 this semester and getting questions about all the grammar rules they were taught in the past. I explained the difference between descriptive and prescriptive approaches and told them to approach scholarly English as if it were a foreign language so they could get through school. I love the Cajun English they speak here ("I caught a flat on the way to school") and one of my students is from Haiti and his version of English is as pretty as any language you ever heard, but every day I am sorting through their writing and feel I have to narrow my parameters a little so the history prof or other English profs they write for later will pass them. It's an interesting balance we keep.

Reply to at 7:11 pm Dec 3, 2009 10:43 am

English teachers get a healthy dose of linguistics in their education? Where I took History of English, the professor knew that that class was likely to be the only linguistics class a number of future English teachers would ever take, so he made a strong point of making sure people understood what the basis of prescriptivist rules are (and aren't.) I know grad students in English (elsewhere) who drill prescriptivist rules into students with nothing about them being stylistic contextual choices.

Reply to at 10:43 am Dec 3, 2009 11:12 am

Properly taught, teaching students Standard Formal English DOES address the issue of audience. It provides them with the tools to be taken seriously in the larger world.I also like the colorful language my rural Southern Iowa students speak, salted with Spanish from newcomers to the area and various idioms from other parts of the country. We need to arm our students with the linguistic tools to compete in the world of formal communication without depriving them of the artistry of their own backgrounds.I don't think we do that by rejecting the idea of rules; we just need to emphasize the skill involved in knowing the rules but also knowing when they can be bent or broken to a writer's advantage!

Reply to at 11:12 am Dec 4, 2009 8:55 am

Thanks for the excellent commentary. But I have to agree with the 2nd post: I don't think English teachers get much linguistics. Many grad students who teach first-year writing courses are lit majors with (perhaps) a few courses in composition; very little in language and linguistics. With so much emphasis on accountability and standardized testing, it seems easier to use multiple choice questions about usage and correctness. When elementary school teachers refrain from marking surface errors on expressive writing samples, they're castigated as fuzzy liberals who don't have any standards--by the students' parents! I recently came across a perceptive examination of these issues in David Crystal's "The Fight for English," a 2006 book which many people who visit this site may already know. It's British, of course, but I recommend it to those who may have missed it.

Reply to at 8:55 am Dec 6, 2009 10:59 pm

I teach a reading methods class with a linguistics foundation for teachers of English language learners, and every quarter there are students who urgently and angrily speak of the need to teach "proper" English to the kids. It doesn't take long to unravel the word "proper" - your proper may be my prissy, or pedantic, or long-winded. I believe that teachers of English can absorb lots of the important lessons through their own discovery process by learning to write better in several genres. As we examine our own writing or edit with our peers, we start to see the way language shifts endlessly for different purposes and audiences...and "proper" falls away in favor of "appropriate." When you sing a blues song, you sing "it don't matter anymore," and that's neither proper, nor even correct, but it's 100% appropriate.

Reply to at 10:59 pm Dec 7, 2009 3:59 am

The purpose of language is to communicate. Grammatical rules are intended to make communication clearer, and mostly they do: after all, the difference between "I will go", "I go" and "I went" is purely grammatical. In some cases, people tie their sentence into knots in order to abide by some archaic rule, and communicate far less clearly. The rule against split infinitives originated with people who insisted on applying Latin grammatical rules to English. You can't split an infinitive in Latin because it's one word. In English you can boldly go where no man has gone before.And by the way, "Take up arms against a sea of troubles" is a wonderful, vivid metaphor, even though it's definitely a mixed one.

Reply to at 3:59 am Dec 7, 2009 7:02 am

WHAAAATTT?I've been a teacher of English for over fifteen years, and an administrator and designer of curricula for ten.Perhaps you have been living in some journalistic ivory tower, but the English I teach and promote to people I hire, is inclusive of ALL aspects of the language. To assume otherwise is to deny English as culture and reduce it to empty form. The credo of anyone I hire, and indeed the basis of my training in Canada is, and should be, that we teach communication, not grammar.What we promote is that no subject is tabu, and that English is, above all, dynamic and democratic. This is what is demanded from our students so....Get off it. This has been ESL methodology for decades now. Your assumption of some nineteenth century attitude toward English is incorrect, and I know many teachers who find this article simply laughable.

Reply to at 7:02 am Dec 7, 2009 8:52 am

Recently I read, and have been mulling over, an article on how the brain works. According to this article, the brain prefers to function in a rote fashion, particularly in terms of every day survival stratagems: "This stimulus calls for that reaction, now move on." In other words, evolution has trained us to rely a great deal on prescriptive memory: These berries are edible--pick. Those berries are poison--avoid. Hear the twitter of a bird--relax. Hear the roar of a beast--skedaddle.Perhaps it is no wonder that we hanker for prescriptive rules. The brain desires an uncomplicated certainty. (Let's just tell 'em, don't split infinitives and never begin a sentence with "and" or "because"--such forms make the beast roar.) I shared the article with my first-year writing students. Some made the connection, in terms of why we seem to want rules for our writing even as we resist them and are bewildered by them. I think the matter worth pondering, that so much of our educational establishment--including our students!-- seem to be in favor of the reptile brain. And this despite overwhelming evidence of the brain's plasticity, particularly (and perhaps ironically) in language use. Oh, what it is to be human, and to be wracked and stimulated by so many contrary impulses!

Reply to at 8:52 am Dec 7, 2009 9:39 am

English should be an evolving language but always for the betterment of communication and high-level thought processes. Due to its flexibility, English has the largest vocabulary of any language in the world and that should be encouraged. Unfortunately , communication is often diminished by the "dumbing down" of the language. Tenses which aid in communication for precision are being lost and many other changes (which make me cringe) are acceptable, and the speakers and writers of such drivel are also accepted.

Reply to at 9:39 am Dec 7, 2009 9:58 am

While I confess to freely breaking any and all grammatical rules when it suits my fancy, I strongly urge the teaching of these rules. When my daughters tell me, "Me and her are going...," I correct them. (In fact, when their inflection rises in a valley-girl quality in the middle of a statement, I ask if that's a question.) My rationale is that, despite the examples given by the auther and other commenters, the chief cause of rule-breaking is ignorance: of grammar, of vocabulary, of syntax. If there is a reason to even teach a language, it must be to teach better communications. This necessitates that we do not allow the lowest common denominator to be acceptable. If it is, what do we need educators for? (oops! caught in my own trap!)In a world in which English is already "the language of international business" and in which globalization and, more importantly, security are dependent upon communications that are clear and decipherable, following the rules allows us to determine the answer to "What did she mean by that?"If'n it ain't, we be all in each other's face and sayin' that thing but not like knowin' stuff.

Reply to at 9:58 am Dec 7, 2009 10:03 am

Dennis: Thanks for this. I'm sharing it around.Terry_h12: I'm in Canada, too, and I'm surrounded, just plain old surrounded, by people who believe all sorts of frankly false and baseless mumpsimuses about English, such as the inane fictions about split infinitives, not ending sentences with prepositions, etc. And many of them swear they learned it in school. And many of them were in school within the last 15 years. I also meet many people who think, for instance, "Take a picture of my friends and me" is bad English and should be "...of my friends and I." Which obviously no sensible teacher would tell them. But they're getting these ideas in spite of your efforts. Because _someone_ is telling them about grammar if you're not.And that might be just the issue. You say you don't teach grammar, you teach communication. I agree that teaching communication, and taking a pragmatic approach, is important, but I really do hope that you also actually teach them about the mechanics of grammar so they understand what's going on, why they use what they use, etc. Not prescriptivism, but the same kind of understanding one gets in an introduction to linguistics (at a high-school level). Otherwise, it's like saying "We don't teach sex, we teach love." The problem with which being that they'll still learn about sex, but they'll learn wrong things about it from unreliable sources. People pass around these "rules" about grammar, and if your students haven't learned what's really the case and why, they'll just latch onto the false beliefs. Which of course impairs communication.

Reply to at 10:03 am Dec 7, 2009 4:56 pm

This whole discussion involves exchanges using prescriptive language. We're abiding by the "rules" to make our thoughts clear. Having lived in Texas, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and overseas, I recognize colloquial differences in daily speech patterns. Yet I learned to write and speak by the linguistic rules which are as normative in Texas, my home state, as in Wisconsin, my current state of residence. When learning a language, we always get it "wrong" at some point. Listen to the interaction between a parent and a young child and you often hear correction. "Me want ball." "I want the ball." If we don't have basic rules of engagement, communication suffers. I don't want to wipe out the regional differences like the Texas twang, the Southern drawl, the Carribean lilt, or the Midwestern news anchor, but I do want to recognize the need for prescriptive language. You borrowed evolution and intelligent design from the scientific realm to suggest progress and change. Both ideas have to meet the basic rules of scientific study. Ultimately one or both will prove to be wrong in part or the whole based on those guiding principles.

Reply to at 4:56 pm Dec 8, 2009 3:16 pm

I'm a professional writer, not a teacher, and while I split infinitives with abandon, my guide remains the internal compass of grammar that I acquired as a child who read voraciously, diagrammed sentences and discussed books with friends. I've shared my love of grammatical rules -- and my love of breaking them -- with my daughter. She is exceptionally well spoken and articulate -- so much so that people often mention it to me. Ironically, one of her college linguistics assignments was to analyze a passage that included localized or specialized patterns of speech. She chose a newspaper article from the New Orleans Times-Picayune. When she referred to a chunk of quoted patois as "not proper" English, the professor told her she was narrow-minded, that there are no rules and reduced her grade from an A to a B.

Reply to at 3:16 pm Dec 10, 2009 2:10 pm

I think I've seen your theory (about context being more useful in language mastery than grammar rules) in action. When I took Japanese in college, I took two years of immersion courses, followed by ten months on exchange in Japan. In the immersion courses, the teacher spoke only Japanese from the first day, and we were allowed to use only Japanese or gestures. Most of the students had never taken Japanese before, and at first we were all pretty terrible, but we were allowed to be, and we learned FAST. Then, on exchange, I took structured Japanese classes (complete with grammar rules and learning kanji by stroke order), but I learned (and retained) far more by talking with my roommate and her friends. I was close to fluent by then, and they were all very surprised that I'd learned so much in less than three years. English is a mandatory subject in Japanese schools; by the time a student graduates from high school, he'll have taken about eight years of English, but it's extremely rare to find anyone who's come out of those eight years able to hold a conversation in it. This is a bit more understandable when you take into account the fact that they teach English GRAMMAR (explaining it in Japanese), with an emphasis on memorization and writing (and diagramming) correct sentences, and incorporate little to no conversation or "free" oral practice. (I'm sure there are some exceptions, but this is how the public school system handles it.) By the end of those eight years, the students are so anxious that their English won't be "correct" enough that they're very hesitant to attempt conversation at all, and will usually stop at the first mistake. I've seen articles (in Japanese) claiming that Japanese brains just aren't wired to learn English, but I seriously doubt that every single Japanese student who's spent time on exchange in Australia and come back fluent was somehow "wired differently". Over-thinking things that are meant to be natural is very rarely helpful.

Reply to at 2:10 pm Sep 6, 2011 10:14 pm

I agree with the blog's idea that language is much more than the mere complexities of the english conventions. However, it is evident that this society is governed by conventions and in order to succesfully flourish one must participate and carry out such conventions. Moreover, the english language is so complex that in order to provide a sustainable form of communication in this language rules and conventions must exists in an equal shape or from for everyone.

Reply to at 10:14 pm Sep 10, 2011 6:54 pm

One of my professors once pointed out that no matter what new methods we future teachers learn in college or in grad school, we end up teaching the way we were taught. This is a deeper issue than Mr. Baron addresses in his brilliantly sarcastic way. We can teach more advanced science than Galileo could, but perhaps we teach it the way we learned it, i.e., with lectures, with the expectation that students will passively receive the information and take notes (unless they are shopping online instead). Except that, unlike science, content and method seem to be fused in the prescriptive instruction of English grammar. The statement, "many students can't figure out the difference between the passive voice and the past tense," jumped out at me, because if students don't know that, Dr. Baron may have a point, namely, that the old way of teaching grammar is ineffective. Would his more open, relaxed instruction of the complex, individual nature of grammar and communication effectively teach the nuts and bolts? Are there any nuts and bolts left? I myself learned all this grammar stuff the traditional way (though I learned somewhere along the line that a noun can also be a concept, such as liberty and love), and it's helped me in writing and communication. But for some reason I liked learning it, so I'm a freakish exception. And it's true that there was no room for creativity in my early education.At the conclusion Dr. Baron seems to be making a case for not teaching grammar, but rather to "trust our language instincts." He's assuming that all students are literate enough, that all ELLs are receiving excellent English instruction, to do so...unless when he writes "...And when we study language..." he means those who teach it, not those who learn it.

Reply to at 6:54 pm Sep 13, 2011 8:44 pm

I really enjoyed reading this article. I must say that I have to agree with the fact that language has changed so much over the years. But for some reason we continue to use and teach these methods or writing that completely do not make sense. As a child I found it hard understanding why I could use a double negative in Spanish, but in English it was grammatically incorrect. At times I still make this mistake.I find it hard to also explain why my students can not use it, when I feel their is nothing wrong with it. "Perhaps the most important grammar lesson to learn, then, is to trust our language instincts instead of mimicking some ideal which turns out to be a moving target." (Barron) This really spoke to me in that I 100% back up this ideology.

Reply to at 8:44 pm Sep 13, 2011 8:58 pm

I am a history teacher and I am also a student in a TESOL program. i truly believe that there is a correct, standard way of speaking and writing that all students should be taught in school. I enjoy listening to people who with little or no effort speak proper English. Proper, meaning that their nouns verbs and adverbs match up and they are well versed in the use of figurative language. If one word could describe my philosophy of language it is perscriptivism.Language, like most things else in life, allows itself to be stadardized. When something is standardized it can be measured. It becomes a science. While everyone is speaking and writing in their own vernacular, communication is not really happening in a global community just to the local, select few who understand. I believe that perscriptivism is the science of language. Speaking and writing in the vernacular is the art of language. It can sound very poetic and draws a picture of the microsociety of the people that speak, write and understand it. It is the standard English that transcends time and crossed boundaries.Sonia Sevillano

Reply to at 8:58 pm Sep 13, 2011 9:22 pm

As a third grade teacher reading this blog definitely made me question how my school views grammar and the connection we teach students to make when learning the English language and when writing. When students are in the lower grades they are encouraged to write, & inventive spelling is encouraged and accepted. As my third grade students begin their writing baselines, I am noticing that grammar is something we need to teach and explain thoroughly. In the article the following sentence stood out to me And last but not least, theyre taught to regard their students language not as something to be constantly graded and corrected, but as an energetic, highly- competent, continually- evolving form of language, complete with its own standards and variants. It made me question what should I correct? For example when a student hands in an assignment or reading response reflection should I be correcting every word that is mis-spelled, every punctuation mark that is not included or placed incorrectly? And so on.In my opinion, teachers need training and workshops on how to teach grammar, because over the past 250 years language has evolved and we should teach grammar in a way that students could understand why it is important to learn the grammar rules and use them when they write and speak. J. S. ESC 757

Reply to at 9:22 pm Sep 14, 2011 1:49 am

ESC 757 Section ONH81The first question that pops in my mind is "who created Standard English"? After reading this article, I feel I have more questions to ask than answers to give. Who determines what is standard and what's not? English is a complex language to learn. I was applying all its rules when I was learning Vietnamese and Spanish. I was just lost on how to create a sentence that was grammatically correct. (I still am today with Vietnamese. As for Spanish, I hardly every use it now.) Each language has its own version on what is correct in both the written and speaking forms.If technology can improve or change over the years, why not language? It is not set in stone. The reason I say that is hundreds of years ago the Vietnamese language used to be written in characters like the Chinese but when France colonized Vietnam, the language is now in roman letters.As I mentioned before, "who determines what is grammatically correct in his / her language"? I think that's a tricky question to answer! At least we can now prove the Earth is no longer flat with scientific evidence.

Reply to at 1:49 am Sep 14, 2011 4:55 am

It has certainly been interesting reading this article and everyone's take on it. As a former ELL, a current AP Spanish Language teacher, an immigrant and now a TESOL student, I believe now more than ever in the importance of teaching English grammar in a meaningful and modern way. America is a melting pot and the monolithic approach to teaching grammar conventions may not be the right instructional method for everyone; however, as instructors and ambassadors of our respective languages, we must make an effort to prepare ALL students to succeed in mainstream America and in order to do this, we do need to teach what is considered to be standard English. This is not a matter of teaching "proper" English, but a matter of teaching our students the "appropriate" tools to give them a genuine chance to truly succeed in America! I believe a good teacher can acknowledge and reconcile his/her students' diverse language backgrounds and cultures and teach English grammar through a communicative approach. When I came to America, I spent my first five years in bilingual education which back then meant that most of my classes but ESL were in Spanish. This held me back tremendously and I learned more in one year in a monolithic setting that I had done so before! I disagree with the article completely when it proposes that there are (or should be) many varieties of standard English. Perhaps there are many different regional accents (North, South, Midwest, etc.), but the core of English grammar and conventions remain constant throughout all. If teachers give in to this idea that there are may variants of "appropriate English" than, what are teachers suppose to teach? Who will then draw the line and what "version" of this version of English should we then teach? I do agree with the article when it says that as teachers we should not explicitly put labels and designate a "right" or "wrong" English. By telling a student the way you speak or write is wrong, we are rejecting them. Not one student is alike and thus, we must prepare them to recognize that while their home dialect of English or slang may be appropriate given their environment, they need to learn academic language and discourse. In order to do this, we must teach students "standard grammar" without once again, discarding their "home language." Also, I would say GOOD teachers do not think the earth is flat in the least. On the contrary, we seek the latest and most effective tools and techniques to ensure our students can learn not just grammar, but everything that will help them strive in life.R. Genao ES 757

Reply to at 4:55 am Sep 14, 2011 9:25 am

ESC 757I am a teacher of Italian and just like the rules of the English language are not written in stone, nor are those of the Italian language. It is imperative for my students to have a general understanding of Italian grammar mainly so they can express themselves with ease and also, because it makes them aware of how diverse language actually is. What seems innate in English for example, he went, raises so many curiosities as to why its irregular in Italian. Through my own personal journey with language, I found having an explanation and a set of rules to follow helped me to write with clarity. Language is continually evolving and the notion of whats right and wrong is limitless. I can recall many a discussion about how to teach our students the present perfect vs. the imperfect because natives and foreigners use it differently. I am a firm believer of prescriptivism and descriptivism coexisting.

Reply to at 9:25 am Sep 14, 2011 12:51 pm

I agree with the prescriptive grammar. If a prescriptive grammar did not exist we would be at the time of the Babel Tower. Of course that the language is spoken by people and as such it evolves. That does not mean that the rules to follow should not exist and teachers should not focus on teaching rules, correcting students or work on teaching a correct and standard language to their students. I am of the opinion that if a good standard language exists as the base of any students' education he or she will be more than skillful to color it more with any dialect or notion picked up in their speaking language.

Reply to at 12:51 pm Sep 14, 2011 1:29 pm

I agree that people should be able to express themselves however they see fit, and not focus on maintaining every grammatical rule set in place, BUT that should only be for individuals who already know the rules and how to use them. Poets, authors, and other writers are professionals in the sense that they know the English language well enough to manipulate it and write how they please, and still be able to provide a well thought out, and written, work that will transcend time because of not only what it says but because how it's written as well.I don't believe people should take liberties with the English language until they've mastered it themselves, otherwise it's people being lazy and looking for a way to avoid writing proper sentances.

Reply to at 1:29 pm