John Dunia’s latest article ‘Grammatically Thinking’ rightly points out that it is far more important to communicate without bothering to take note of any grammatical mistakes and correct them. After all, transcending our prejudices regarding the w#ay people speak and write plays a big part in living (and not merely showing) empathy.
So it is good to remember that not everyone has/has had the opportunity of being exposed to and assimilate very good schooling. Nor are we all born into families and domains speaking a country’s ‘standard’ language, meaning the dialect that is regarded as correct for public and formal usage.
This latter reality explains the wonderful array of dialects spoken in any country, big or small which chracterise a community living in a given region; at times different ‘pockets’ within the same region. Though I rarely understand them, I love the ‘ring’ of dialects because they invariably intone the rawness of authenticity stripped of uniformity. It’s also a wonder to encounter dialects in villages dotting national borders because villagers on either side often communicate with perfect ease simply by sticking to their own dialect making you realise that what seems a language barrier is actually a criss-cross of intradialectic communication whether to exchange pleasantries or hurtle insults. I learnt this when I happened to be travelling along both the French/Italian and Italian/Slovenian borders.
Whatever dialect we speak, we need to factor in the many nuances of social strata, educational, generational and gender differences which impact every utterance.
A quick dip into sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics will soon intimate the complexities of the spoken word we take so much for granted.
Indeed, language acquisition (over and above learning how to read and write) is our greatest feat as human beings though sadly glossed over. Do give a moment’s thought to our learning what, how, when and where to say during our first months and years on this planet. It should have you dancing on the table in no time. More so, if you think of those who are severely language impaired. They too have stories to tell – stories which need listening to but will never be heard because they cannot be told or written.
Having said that, Dunia’s article also brought many memories of my being at the forefront of the ‘grammar police’ gang for I spent about 20 years teaching English language and literature.
And didn’t I wield my truncheon! Metaphorically speaking.
New students would take a while to believe me when I’d tell them with a Cheshire smile that I become a witch with the longest fangs and the deadliest talons when I correct their work. At first, they would laugh but they soon got the message. It took a lot of reaching out to deal with their dejected, bemused, or nonchalant expressions and adapt the ‘spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down’ according to their individual personalities.
As a language and literature teacher, correcting all kinds of errors is inevitable if you want a good job done. Correcting students’ spelling, grammar, word choice, syntax, register, cohesion, and sequence does not boil down to a technical exercise or a strategy to give them a downer. Correcting their mistakes without hurting their feelings and guiding them to come to grips with what they need to learn shows how much you care even if they could not care less. Nevertheless, teaching is a two-way traffic process built on mutual respect. It is also a fact that you can take the horse to water but you cannot make it drink. Those who do drink travel a road that goes much further than speaking and writing well.
I did not win over all of my students – no teacher ever does – but neither did I lower my standards because they would not raise theirs. Some people may call my stance snobbery or excessive perfectionism. While I admit that I am a perfectionist, I do not concur with snobbery because a willful carelessness in speaking and writing perpetuates mediocrity and worse. Worse as in a lack of self-respect, a lack of self-dignity; both of which may lead to cerebral shutdown.
It is also important to remember that no matter what we look like or happen to be wearing, it is the moment we open our mouth to speak that broadcasts our identity kit.
Back to the classroom, correcting students’ verbal and written mistakes gave me an inisght into their background, in my case particularly of the influence of code-switching when English was not their first language.
Take an essay written by a Russian student. It is bound to be replete with an incorrect use of articles for the simple reason that there are no articles in the Russian language. Strange as it may sound, teaching the use of articles in English is one of the hardest grammatical points to teach and learn because the pertinent rules are extremely complex. Who would think that ‘the’, ‘a’ and ‘an’ take much sweat when English is not your native language!
As for an Italian, French, Spanish or Portuguese student, you have long rambling sentences (read convoluted syntax) guaranteed for the simple reason that this style is their staple. Language is a repository of culture and as Federico Fellini, the great Italian film director said: ‘A different language is a different vision of life.’
This is relevant to any language teaching. Good language skills demand truckloads of reading and reflection piled high with ongoing self-criticism along a journey of never-ending work-in-progress. Of knowing the rules so well that you can break them to reinvent the wheel. Which basicially mirrors our lives in flux of constant becoming. And renders the present tense so fleeting that it is a chimera.
Teaching experience apart, I feel strongly about the use of language because despite and in spite of its limitations, the power of language enables us to articulate our thoughts and flesh our memories substantiating, possibly even transubstantiating, the crescendo and cadence of our individual and collective sense perceptions, critical or uncritical minds and concomitant baggage. For this reason, language is a repository of culture and should be a crucial cohesive force in retaining our humanity.
Words are therefore much more than a means of communication. In a world where image literacy is spiking at the expense of verbal literacy while seismic geopolitical shifts are shaking us – though many of us refuse to be shaken – I would like to refer to George Orwell’s dateless seminal essay ‘Politics and the English Language’. In doing so I need to veer away from the importance of listening empathically to people to the importance of listening to the sleazy world of politics, without losing sight of and respect for the former.
Penned in 1946, the politically éngagé Orwell could have very well written his diatribe against shoddy political writing styles this morning because of his equating abuse of language with insidious propaganda to spur abuse of power is as relevant as ever. The consequent vicious circle corrupts both language and thought so that the ability to think things out as well as individual and collective memory become befogged.
The end result? We encourage ourselves to be bamboozled and trodden over by the power wielders who are becoming more powerful by the nanosecond. Orwell does not mince his words when he exposes the devious ways with which political writers use to deceive their audiences. He is particularly slamming when he affirms: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.”
Writers of spin (even beyond politics) are extremely clever at impressing their audiences with meaningless blah fueled by their lack of moral compass and insincerity. (Unsurprisingly, Orwell considered insincerity to be the greatest ‘enemy of language’.) Spin doctors largely succeed by oiling a pitch-perfect propaganda machine which trashes intellectual liberty and collective memory so that we become effective colluders. Ultimately, it is our lack of critical thinking and our apathy which clinches their success. So, racking our brains goes more miles than raking our grammar.
Correct grammar and syntax will not up our empathy or humaneness. But both help to sharpen our minds by meaning what we say as well as crystallise our thoughts and values to hopefully empower us to see through the hollowness of spin.
Orwell’s insight into how a decadent language both mirrors and feeds a decadent society merits much, much mulling over. So much that he deserves the last word:
‘If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.’