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Linguistics and education Linguistics and education
by Joseph Gatt
2021-04-28 07:51:36
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Famous linguists like Noam Chomsky or Steven Pinker have made it their life ambition to claim that language is genetically encoded in the brain, and that language is learned naturally.

What is implied is that you don't need to go to school to learn your native language. All you have to do is hang out with friends and chat, and there, you will learn your native tongue. You don't need grammar lessons and vocabulary lessons to learn how to speak your native language.

educ001_400This is scientifically undeniable. The Kabyle language, which is not taught in any school, is spoken by around 6 million people. The grammar is complex, the vocabulary very rich, and yet, no one ever picked up a Kabyle textbook to learn how to conjugate verbs or where to place the noun.

And I'd add to Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker that grammar lessons in school don't teach you grammar. They teach you to watch your mouth, to fear authority, to “think before you speak” and “not to say reckless things.”

So all those prescriptive grammar lessons are really about “inventing” grammar rules that are not naturally spoken rules, simply, as the French say “pour tourner la langue sept fois dans la bouche avant de dire une bêtise” (to turn your tongue seven times in your mouth before you say something stupid).

So language lessons in school teach you to blush, to fear authority, not to speak your mind. And writing lessons tend to involve constrained writing with arbitrary rules, the kind of writing rules that impair your train of thought and interfere with your ideas and stream of consciousness as you are writing. That way, writing rules avoid and prevent “spontaneity” in writing.

BUT. One thing they don't teach you in schools, and that you don't acquire naturally, is “precise” use of your native language. What do I mean by that?

I've travelled the world, and I love chatting with people. Old and young. Male and female. Rich and poor. Educated and uneducated.

The patterns that emerge is that a lot of times language use is vague, ambiguous, stilted, lots of awkward silences, questions that refuse to be answered, stories that don't add up.

Let's put it this way. I've worked for many companies around the world, mainly in France, Algeria, Korea and a few other places.

Now when you work with someone and you're trying to make the company money and profits, you want to communicate in precise manner, share information, precise information at that. You want to know who came to the company, what products are on the shelf, what the internal company rules are, what the legal framework surrounding the company is, who does what at the company, and what are the personality traits and pet peeves of my co-workers that I should be on the lookout for?

Problem is, I get told things like these “James is younger than you!” And I go like “what?” and then he tells me “James is young” and my Yiddish self goes “noo?” (so, what are you trying to tell me?).

Or I hear stories like these “call the bus driver!” and I'm like “what bus driver, to go where, what should I tell him, when should he come, who the hell needs the bus driver, or do I invite the bus driver for a cup of coffee or something?”

Even better, I get stories like these “put this thing on this thing and bring me that thing that's on the thing” and I go like “Washo and Coco the monkey would make better sentences than that!”

Then there's my favorite. Every evening around 7 or 8 PM my foster mother repeats the same thing: “close the door!” For years, I've been trying to teach her to specify which door. Of course 95% of the times she means close the metal door at the entrance of the house. But each time she tells me to “close the door” my brain starts trying to figure out, which one? The balcony door? The living room door? The kitchen door? Is it because of the wind? Or does someone need privacy?

Don't get me started on writing. Writing precisely is an art very few have mastered. While most use scientific grammar in their writing, I'd estimate that I have to “skip” around 70-80% of the stuff I read (mainly newspaper articles) online because the writing just does not make sense to me.

In sum, language is about phoemes and morphemes and syntax and semantics and pragmatics. But it's also about getting the person you are talking to understand what it is that you are trying to tell them.

And, a lot of times, I have no idea what people are trying to tell me.

Truth is, a lot of times, conversation between people goes like this. Person A tells the story of his or her life, person B pretends to listen but daydreams. Then person B tells the story of his or her life and person A starts thinking about what stories person B would be impressed with, all while person B is talking to person A and is trying to impress person A.

So there's precise use of grammar and vocabulary, but there's also the accuracy factor.

When I was a Middle school teacher French teacher back in September-November 2015, I asked my students (who were native speakers of French despite being Algerian) to do a simple exercise: come to the front of the class, and summarize your favorite movie.

There were laughs. We laughed to tears. Most students (in fact all students – they were 13-14 years old mind you) were completely incapable of summarizing the movie. They'd get lost in the story, they'd give long, tedious summaries, they'd insist on some scenes and omit others, and they'd make stuff up, and their classmates would point that out.

And that's what brings me to education. Indeed, as educators, we don't need to teach native English speakers how to speak English. We don't really need to torture them with grammar rules that will “break” their spontaneity. But, for the love of God, we need to teach those kids how to summarize a movie. And how to tell an accurate story in ways that are understood by the listener.

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