Learn them to speak proper, like: John Patten wants our children to grasp the basics of English. Below, one teacher argues that the new syllabus will be based on ignorance; while another says Latin holds the key to higher standards

Share
Related Topics
IN ALL the discussion about the national curriculum, much has been said about the teaching of English and, in particular, the vexed question of how - and even whether - grammar should be taught. This is by no means the simple argument between traditionalists and modernists that it might appear.

Suppose sixth-form pupils in Kent ask me - their English teacher - whether the Kentish sentence 'They done it when they come' is grammatical. When I insist it is, they will ask me for proof because we all know that this sentence is commonly called not just ungrammatical but bad English, sloppy.

For the final answer we are supposed to refer to the definitive book on English grammar for our time, A Comprehensive Grammmar of the English Language by Sir Randolph Quirk and his team. This book was written for lay people and stands in my local reference library near the complexities of the British Rail timetable and the equally definitive book on vocabulary, the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary.

Unfortunately for me, the Quirk grammar does not list 'done' or 'come' as possible past-tense forms. Since the book claims to be a 'comprehensive grammar of the English language', the Kentish sentence must be ungrammatical. My students have won the argument.

But I know that linguists would agree with me that the sentence is grammatical. Kentish speakers do

not say on one day 'They doned it' and on the next 'They it doed'. When speaking Kentish, they always say 'They done it'. And this is

what grammar is: regularities in the ways we order and inflect words in sentences.

How, therefore, does it happen that, even though linguists themselves believe otherwise, our definitive book on English grammar makes the Kentish sentence seem ungrammatical?

Let us start with a little linguistic history. About 100 years ago linguists (that is, people who study language according to scientific principles) came to the revolutionary conclusion that, scientifically speaking, no part of language should be discarded as malformed or bad; language varies for many reasons and each variation is as worth studying as any other. In the years since John Patten and I attended school, knowledge about language has increased enormously, entirely due to this conclusion. One practical benefit is that speech therapists now diagnose and treat people with speech disorders more successfully than before.

Linguists are vilified for this revolutionary idea, just as other scientists (such as Galileo and Darwin) were when they overturned the conceptual world lay people lived in. But unlike Darwin, linguists have not succeeded in replacing lay opinions about language with scientific understanding. The revolution is incomplete.

Look in any modern grammar book written for lay people and you will find little or no reference to variation in English. The Quirk team, for example, included in its book only 60 instances of regional grammar, with no regional tense forms, not

even 'We was here'. This is partly why the book is so short compared with the OED. Moreover, two-thirds of the regional grammar that the team did include appears in small-print footnotes.

The regional systems of multiple negation ('Nobody said nothing') and of pronouns ('Where are y'all?') are as important in regional dialects as the Standard systems are in the Standard dialect - that is, the single dialect which is regarded by lay people as correct. But, whereas the team describes the Standard systems fully in the main text and allows one perennial problem in Standard English - the split infinitive - more than two pages, they relegate the regional systems to short footnotes - the typeface and place for unimportant information.

We must, therefore, conclude that the Quirk grammar and all grammars for lay people are incomplete by linguists' own definition of grammar. Despite their titles, they are not grammars of the English language. They are grammars only of the Standard dialect. Linguists would say these grammars have a gap where regional grammar should be. Lay people, however, do not notice the gap.

But lay people do more than state that 'They done it when they come' is ungrammatical. They also assign value: this sentence is bad English, sloppy. Linguists, however, know that the Kentish sentence is as grammatical as its Standard equivalent and is unambiguous - unlike, for example, the Standard English 'the balloons burst when we hit them'. The lay value judgement, therefore, is prejudice.

This is how prejudice fills the gap in the linguists' grammar and hides from lay people their lack of knowledge about language. This same lack of knowledge hinders teachers who try to remove the prejudice that, for example, you are thought unfit to become a doctor if you say 'I haven't got no tablets'. It also helps explain why John Patten, recalling what used to count as knowledge of language, is about to legislate for the teaching of the same flat-earth ideas about language that he learnt as a child.

He could not now legislate for a Fifties syllabus for physics. Years after racial and sexual prejudice have become unacceptable, language prejudice is still acceptable to an educated mind.

This year I am attending evening classes on botany. An ignoramus about plants, I am expected to use field-study guides that train me to observe plants as minutely and scientifically as my postgraduate linguistics course trained me to observe language. The guides are as dense with technical terms and careful observation as any specialist linguistics book. This is the level of knowledge about plants that lay people are expected and expect to achieve. It is as challenging and scientific as a linguistics course.

If you compare these guides with David Crystal's Rediscovering Grammar, then this book with its jokey cartoons and easy-read text really ought to be in the junior library with the other find-out-about-it books I am secretly consulting. On the back cover, moreover, someone has blurbed 'Rediscover grammar - an easy guide to getting it right'. But the primary reason for studying grammar, as for studying plants, is not to identify deviant plants or verbs, or correct ones. It is to identify and understand what there is. Only then will you know how to use English well.

I make this comparison not in scorn or blame, but to highlight both the low level of knowledge about language that lay people are expected and expect to achieve and the coexistence of scientific lingustics and language prejudice.

Teachers ought to find the teaching of prejudice professionally unacceptable. But, without the knowledge that regional English is grammatical, English teachers can hardly avoid either acquiescing in prejudice by making no comment or promoting it by censuring regional speakers and praising Standard ones. Their reasons for doing so are born of realism, but are also socially unjust and intellectually dishonest.

People tend to assume that, if teachers accept variety in English, they will teach variety and eventually we will cease understanding each other. But this assumption is a red herring. The aim is not to teach variety but to accept the English each child brings to school as the starting point and to teach them how to converge according to whom they want to communicate with. To think we must use the Standard to speak or write English well is prejudice. Kentish and Scouse are as grammatical as Standard English. English that conveys the intended message efficiently is good. Any dialect can convey messages efficiently.

The question is how are we going to teach good English: by relying on accurate knowledge of language, or by continuing to muzzle regional mouths with the ancient curse: vulgar, un-English, sloppy?

The writer teaches English to speakers of other languages.

(Photograph omitted)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
More From
TONY FAIRMAN
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Shirley Shackleton, wife of late journalist Gregory Shackleton, sits next to the grave of the 'Balibo Five' in Jakarta, in 2010  

Letter from Asia: The battle for the truth behind five journalists’ deaths in Indonesia

Andrew Buncombe
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth