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5 things everybody should know about language: Outline of linguistics’ contribution to the liberal arts curriculum

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Drafty

This was written in some haste and needs further refinement. Maybe one day that will come. For now, it will be left as it stands.

Background

This post outlines what I think are the key learnings from the output of the research of the field of linguistics that should be reflected in the general curriculum (in as much as any should be). This is in reaction to the recent posts by Mark Liberman suggesting the role and form of grammar analysis in general education. I argue that he is almost entirely wrong in his assumptions as well as in his emphasis. I will outline my arguments against his position at the end of the post. At the beginning I will outline key easily digestible lessons of modern linguistics that should be incorporated into language education at all levels.

I should note that despite my vociferous disagreement, Mark Liberman is one of my heros. His ‘Breakfast Experiments(tm)’ have brought me much joy and his and his fellow contributors to the Language Log make me better informed about developments in linguistics outside my own specialty that I would otherwise not know about. Thanks Mark for all your great work.

I have addressed some of these issues in previous posts here, here and here.

What should linguistics teach us

In my post on what proponents of simple language should know about linguistics, I made a list of findings that I propose are far more important than specific grammatical and lexicographic knowledge. Here I take a slightly more high-level approach – but in part, this is a repetition of that post.

Simply, I propose that any school-level curriculum of language education should 1. expose students (starting at primary level) to the following 5 principles through reflection on relevant examples, and 2. these principles should be reflected in the practical instruction students receive toward the acquisition of skills and general facility in the standards of that language.

Summary of key principles

  1. Language is a dialect with an army and a navy
  2. Standard English is just one of the many dialects of English
  3. We are all multilingual in many different ways
  4. A dictionary is just another text written in the language, not a law of the language
  5. Language is more than words and rules

Principle 1: Language is a dialect with an army and a navy

This famous dictum (see Wikipedia on origins ) encapsulates the fact that language does not have clear boundaries and that there is no formula for distinguishing where one language ends and another begins. Often, this disctinction depends on the political interests of different groups. In different political contexts, the different Englishes around the world today, could easily qualify for separate language status and many of them have achieved this.

But exploring the examples that help us make sense of this pithy phrase also teaches us the importance of language in the negotiation of our identity and its embeddedness in the wider social sphere. There are piles and piles of evidence to support this claim and learning about the evidence has the potential of making us all better human beings less prone to disenfranchise others based on the way they speak (in as much any form of schooling is capable of such a thing). Certainly more worthy than knowing how to tell the passive voice.

Principle 2: Standard English is just one of the many dialects of English

Not only are there no clear boundaries between languages, there are no clear principles of what constitutes an individual language. A language is identified by its context of use as much as by the forms it uses. So if kayak and a propos can be a part of English so can ain’t and he don’t. It is only a combination of subconscious convention and conscious politics that decides which is which.

Anybody exploring the truth of this statement (and, yes, I’m perfectly willing to say the word truth in this context) will learn about the many features of English and all human languages such as:

  • stratification of language through registers
  • regional and social variation in language
  • processes of change in language over time
  • what we call good grammar are more or less fixed conventions of expression in certain contexts
  • the ubiquity of multiple codes and constant switching between codes (in fact, I think this is so important that it gets a top billing in this list as number 3)

Again, althoguh I’m highly skeptical of claims to causality from education to social change, I can’t see why instruction in this reality of our lives could not contribute to an international conversation about language politics. Perhaps, an awareness of this ‘mantra’ could reduce the frequency of statements such as:

  • I know I don’t speak very good English
  • Word/expression X is bad English
  • Non-native speaker X speaks better English than native speaker Y

And just maybe, teachers of English will stop abusing their students with ‘this is bad grammar’ and instead guide them towards understanding that in different contexts, different uses are appropriate. Even at the most elementary levels, children can have fun learning to speak like a newscaster or a local farm hand, without the violent intrusion into their identity that comes from the misguided and evil labeling of the first as proper and the second as ‘not good English’. Or how about giving the general public enough information to have judged the abominable behavior of the the journalist pseudo elites during the ‘Ebonics controversy’ as the disgraceful display of shameful ignorance it was.

Only and only when they have learned all that, should we mention something about the direct object.

Principle 3: We are all multilingual in many different ways

One of the things linguistics has gathered huge amounts of evidence about is the fact that we are all constantly dealing with multiple quite distinct codes. This is generally not expressed in quite as stark terms as I do here, but I take my cue from bilingualism studies where it has been suggested (either by Chaika or Romaine – I can’t track down the reference to save my life) that we should treat all our study of language as if bilingualism was the default state rather than some exception. This would make good sense even if we went by the educated guess that just over half of the world’s population speaks regularly two or more languages. But I want to go further.

First, we know from principle 1 that there is no definition of language that allows us draw clear boundaries between individual languages. Second, we know from principle 2 that each language consists of many different ‘sub-languages’ or ‘codes’. Because language is so vast and complex, it follows that knowing a language is not an either/or proposition. People are constantly straddling boundaries between different ways of speaking and understanding. Speaking in different ways for different purposes, to different people in different codes. And we know that people switch between the codes constantly for different reasons, even in the same sentence or just one word (very common in languages with rich morphologies like Czech – less common in English but possible with ‘un-fucking-convinving’). Some examples that should illustrate this: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re screwed” and “And then Jeff said unto Karen”

We also know from all the wailing and gnashing of teeth derriving from the ignorance of principle 2, that acquiring these different codes is not easy. The linguist Jim Miller has suggested to me that children entering school are in a way required to learn a foreign language. In Czech schools, they are instructed in a new lexicon and new morphology (e.g. say ‘malý’ instead of ‘malej’). in English schools they are taught a strange syntax with among other things a focus on nominal structures (cf. ‘he went and’ vs. ‘his going was’) as well as an alien lexicon (cf. ‘leave’ vs. ‘depart’). This is compounded with a spelling system whose principles are often explained on the basis of a phonology they don’t understand (e.g. much of England pronuncing ‘bus’ and ‘booss’ but using teaching materials that rhyme ‘bus’ with ‘us’).

It is not therefore a huge leap to say that for all intents and purposes, we are all multilingual even if we only officially speak one language with its own army and a navy. Or at least, we enagage all the social, cognitive and linguistic processes that are involved in speaking multiple languages. (There is some counter evidence from brain imaging but in my view it is still too early to interpret this either way.)

But no matter whether we accept the strong or the weak version of my proposition, learning about the different pros and cons would make students’ lives much easier at all levels. Instead of feeling like failures over their grammar, they could be encouraged to practice switching between codes. They could also take comfort in the knowledge that there are many different ways of knowing a language and no one person can know it all.

If any time is left over, let’s have a look at constituent structures.

Principle 4: A dictionary is just another text written in the language, not a law of the language

The defference shown to ‘official’ reference materials is at the heart of a myth that the presense of a word in a dictionary in some way validates the word as being a ‘real’ word in the language. But the absolute truth about language that everyone should know and repeat as a mantra every time they ask ‘is X a word’ is that dictionaries are just another text. In fact, they are their own genre of a type that Michael Hoey calls text colonies. This makes them cousins of the venerable shopping list. Dictionaries have their own conventions, their own syntax and their own lexicon. They have ‘heads’ and ‘definitions’ that are both presented in particular ways.

What they most emphatically do not do is confirm or disconfirm the existence of a word or its meaning. It’s not just that they are always behind current usage, it’s that they only reflect a fraction of the knowledge involved in knowing and using words (or as the philosopher John Austin would say ‘doing things with words’). Dictionaries fullfil two roles at once. They are useful tools for gathering information to enable us to deal with the consequences of principle 3 (i.e. to function in a complex multi-codal linguistic environment both as passive and active participants). And they help us express many beliefs about our world such as:

  • The world is composed of entities with meanings
  • Our knowledge is composed of discrete items
  • Some things are proper and others are improper

Perhaps this can become more transparent when we look at entries for words like ‘the’ or ‘cat’. No dictionary definition can help us with ‘the’ unless we can already use it. In this case, the dictionary serves no useful role other than as a catalog of our reality. Performatively assuring us of its own relevance by its irrelevance. How about the entry for ‘cat’. Here, the dictionary can play a very useful role in a bilingual situation. A German will see ‘cat = Katze’ and all will be clear in an instant. A picture can be helpful to those who have no language yet (little children). But the definition of ‘cat’ as “a small domesticated carnivorous mammal with soft fur, a short snout, and retractile claws” is of no use to anybody who doesn’t already know what ‘cat’ means. Or at the very least, if you don’t know ‘cat’, your chances of understanding any definition in the dictionary are very low. A dictionary can be helpful in reminding us that ‘cat’ is also used to refer to ‘man’ among jazz musicians (as in “he’s a cool cat”) but again, all that requires existing knowledge of cat. A dictionary definition that would say ‘a cat is that thing you know as a cat but jazz musicians sometimes use cat to refer to men’ would be just as useful.

In this way, a dictionary is like an audience in the theatre, who are simultaneously watching a performance, and performing themselves the roles of theatre audiences (dress, behavior, speech).

It is also worthwhile to think about what is required of the dictionary author. While the basic part of the lexicographer’s craft is the collection of usage examples (on index cards in the past and in corpora today) and their interpretation, all this requires a prior facility with the language and much introspection about the dictionary makers own linguistic intuitions. So lexicographers make mistakes. Furthermore, in the last hundred years or so, they also almost never start from scratch. Most dictionaries are based on some older dictionaries and the order of definitions is often as much a reflection of a tradition (e.g. in the case of the word ‘literally’ or the word ‘brandish’) as analysis of actual usage.

Why should this be taught as part of the language education curriculum? Simple! Educated people should know how the basic tools surrounding their daily lives work. But even more importantly, they should never use the presence of a word in a dictionary, and as importantly the definition of a word in a dictionary, as the definitive argument for their preferred meaning of a word. (Outside some contexts such as playing SCRABBLE or confirming an uncertainty over archaic or specialist words).

An educated person should be able to go and confirm any guidance found in a dictionary by searching a corpus and evaluate the evidence. It’s not nearly as hard as as identifying parts of speech in a sentence and about a million times more useful for the individual and beneficial for society.

Principle 5: Language is more than words and rules

Steven Pinker immortalised the traditional structuralist vision of what language consists of in the title of his book “Words and rules”. This vision is almost certainly wrong. It is based on an old articulation of language as being the product of a relatively small number of rules applied to a really large number of words (Chomsky expressed this quite starkly but the roots of this model go much deeper).

That is not to say that words and rules are not useful heuristic shortcuts to talking about language. I use this metaphor myself every day. And I certainly am not proposing that language should not be taught with reference to this metaphor.

However, this is a very impoverished view of language and rather than spend time on learning the ‘relatively few’ rules for no good reason other than to please Mark Liberman, why not learn some facts we know about the vastness and complexity of language. That way instead of having a completely misguided view of language as something finite that can be captured in a few simple precepts (often expressed in one of those moronic ‘Top X grammatical errors lists’), one could actually have a basic understanding of all the ways language expresses our minds and impresses itself on our life. Perhaps, we could even get to a generation of psycholinguists and NLP specialists who try to deal with language as it actually is rather than in its bastardised form that can be captured by rules and words.

Ok, so I’m hoisting my theoretical flag here, flying the colors of the ‘usage-based’, ‘construction grammar’, ‘cognitive semantics’ crowd. But the actual curricular proposal is theory free (other than in the ‘ought’ portion of it) and based on well-known and oft-described facts – many of them by the Language Log itself.

To illustrate the argument, let’s open the dictionary and have a look at the entry ‘get’. It will go on for several pages even if we decide to hide all its phrasal friends under separate entries. Wiktionary lists 26 definitions as a verb and 4 as a noun which is fairly conservative. But each of these definitions also comes with usage examples and usage exceptions. For instance, in ‘get behind him’, it is intransitive but in ‘get Jim to come’, it is transitive. This is combined with general rules that apply across all uses such ‘got’ as the past tense and ‘gets’ as the third person singular. Things can be even more complex as with the word ‘bad’ which has the irregular superlative ‘worst’ when it is used in a negative sense as in ‘teaching grammar in schools is the worst idea’ and ‘baddest’ in the positive sense as in ‘Mark Liberman is the baddest linguist on the internet’. ‘Baddest’ is also only appropriate in certain contexts (so my example is at the same time an illustration of code mixing). When we look at any single word in the dictionary, the amount of conscious and unconscious knowledge required to use the word in our daily speech is staggering. This is made even trickier by the fact that not everyone in any one speech community has exactly the same grasp of the word leading to a lot of negotiation and conversation repair.

It is also the sort of stuff that makes understanding of novel expressions like ‘she sneezed the napking off the table’ possible. If we must, let’s do some sentence diagramming now.

Some other things to know

I could go on, some of my other candidate principles that didn’t make this list either because they could be subsumed by one of the items, or they are too theory laden, or because I wanter a list of 5, or because this blog post is over 3,000 words already, are:

  • All lexical knowledge is encyclopedic knowledge
  • Rules of the road like conversation repair, turn taking or text cohesion are just as much part of language as things like passives, etc.
  • Metaphors (and other types of figurative language) are normal, ubiquitous and necessary for language
  • Pretty much every prejudice about gender and language is wrong (like who is more conservative, etc.)
  • No language is more beatiful or amazing than any other, saying this is most likely part of a nationalistic discourse
  • Children are not very good language learners when you put them in the same learning context as adults (e.g. two hours of instruction a week as opposed to living in a culture with no other obligation but to learn)
  • Learning a language is hard and it takes time
  • The etymology of a word does not reflect some deeper meaning of the word
  • Outside some very specific contexts (e.g. language death), languages don’t decline, they change
  • Etc.

Why we should not teach grammar in schools

So, that was my outline of what linguistic expertise should be part of the language education curriculum – and as importantly should inform teachers across all subjects. Now, let’s have a look, as promised, at why Mark Liberman is wrong to call for the teaching of grammar in schools in the first place.

To his credit, he does not trot out any of the usual utilitarian arguments for the teaching of grammar:

  • It will make learning of foreign languages easier
  • It will make today’s graduates better able to express themselves
  • It will contribute to higher quality of discourse
  • It will stop the decline of English
  • It will improve critical thinking of all students

These are all bogus, not supported by evidence and with some evidence against them (see this report for a summary of a part of them).

My argument is with his interpretation of his claim that

a basic understanding of how language works should be part of what every educated person knows

I have a fundamental problem with the very notion of ‘educated person’ because of its pernicious political baggage. But in this post I’ve used it to accept the basic premise that if we’re going to teaching lots of stuff to children in schools, we might as well teach them the good stuff. Perhaps, not always the most immediately useful stuff but definitely the stuff that reflects the best in what we have to offer to ourselves as the humanity we want to be.

But if that is the case, then I don’t think his offer of

a modern version of the old-fashioned idea that grammar (and logic and rhetoric :-)) should be for everyone

is that sort of stuff. Let’s look at what that kind of education did for the likes of Orwell, and Stunk and White who have had the benefit of all the grammar education a school master’s cane can beat into a man and yet committed such outrageous, embarrassing and damaging transgressions against linguistic knowledge (not infrequently decried on the Language Log).

The point is that ‘grammar’ (and ‘logic’ and ‘rhetoric’) do not represent even a fraction of the principles involved in how language works. The only reason why we would privilege their teaching over the teaching of the things I propose (which cover a much larger area of how language works) is because they have been taught in the past. But why? Basing it on something as arbitrary as the hodgepodge that is the treebank terminology proposed by Mark Liberman only exposes the weakness of the argument – sure, it’s well known and universally understood by professional linguists but it hides as much about language as it reveals. And as Mark acknowledges, the aim is not to educate future linguists. There are alternatives such as Dickson’s excellent Basic Linguistic Theory that take into account much more subtly the variation across languages. But even then, we avoid all the really interesting things about language. I’m not against some very basic metalinguistic terminology to assist students in dealing with language but parsing sentences for no other reason than to do it seems pointless.

The problem with basing a curriculum on old-fashioned values is that we are catering to the nostalgia of old men (and sorry Mark, despite my profound appreciation for your work, you are an old man). (By the way, I use ‘men’ to evoke a particular image rather than to make any assertions about the gender of the person in question.) But it’s not just nostalgia. It’s also their disorientation in a changing world and discomfort with encountering people who are not like them – and, oh horror, can’t tell the passive voice from the past tense. Yes, it would be more convenient for me, if everyone I spoke to had the same appreciation for what an adverb is (particularly when I was teaching foreign languages). But is that really the best we have to offer when we want to show what should be known? How much of this is just the maintenance of the status of academics who want to see their discipline reflected in the cauldron of power and respectability that is the school curriculum? If the chemists get to waste everyone’s time with polymers, why not us with trees and sentence diagrams? In a follow up post, Dick Hudson claims that at present “we struggle to cope with the effects of [the disaster of no grammar teaching]“. But I don’t see any disaster going on at the moment. Why is teaching no grammar more disasterous than the teaching of grammar based on Latin and Greek with little connection to the nature of English? Whose rules are we after?

The curriculum is already full to bursting with too much stuff that someone threw up as a shibboleth for being educated and thus eligible for certain privileges. But perhaps our curriculum has now become the kind of stable that needs the janitorial attention of a modern Heracles.

Post script: Minimalist metalinguistic curriculum

I once analysed the Czech primary curriculum and found over 240 metalinguistic terms. I know, riddiculous. The curriculum was based on the work of eminent Czech structuralists (whose theorizing influenced much of the rest of the world). It didn’t make the Czechs any more educated, eloquent, or better at learning foreign languages – although it did make it easier for me to study linguistics. But as I said above, there is certainly some place for metalanguage in general education. Much of it comes from stylistics but when it comes to grammar, I’d stick to about 15. This is not a definitive list:

  1. Noun
  2. Verb
  3. Adjective
  4. Adverb
  5. Preposition
  6. Pronoun
  7. Prefix
  8. Suffix
  9. Clause
  10. Past form of verb
  11. Future form of verbs
  12. Present form of verbs
  13. Subject
  14. Object
  15. Passive

Languages with rich morphology might need a few others to cover things like case but overall in my career as a language educator, I’ve never felt the need for any more, and nor have I felt in the presence of uneducated people of people who couldn’t tell me what the infinitive was. In fact, I’d rather take some items away (like adverb, prefix, suffix, or clause) than add new ones.

Sentence diagramming is often proposed as a way of instilling some metalinguistic awareness. I don’t see any harm in that (and a lot of potential benefit). But only with the enormous proviso that students use it to learn the relationship between parts of their language in use and NOT as a gateway to a cancerous taxonomy pretending to the absolute existence of things that could easily be just artifacts of our metacognition.

Things are different when it comes to the linguistic education of language teachers. On the one hand, I’m all for language teachers having a comprehensive education in how language works. On the other hand, I have perpetrated a lot of such teacher training over the years and have watch others struggle with it, as well. And the effects are dispiriting. I’ve seen teachers who can diagram a sentence with the best of them and are still quite clueless when it comes to understanding how speech acts work. Very often language teachers find any such lessons painful and something to get through. This means that the key thing they remember about the subject is that linguistics is hard or boring or both.

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  • http://www.anthonyteacher.com Anthony Schmidt

    This is my first visit to your site. Excellent content! I really liked the ideas in this post, though I do have two minor points of contention.

    First, and least importantly, while we some could say we are all “multilingual” I think it is clearly understood that this means we are able to speak multiple languages (with their armies and navies) and not multiple dialects or variations of a single “language”. What may be more appropriate to say is that we can participate in multiple discourses, which is basically what your main point in principle 3. I’m saying this because, while I would absolutely love the label “multilingual” I am a monolingual undeserving of it.

    Second, related to principle 2, you say: “And just maybe, teachers of English will stop abusing their students with ‘this is bad grammar’ and instead guide them towards understanding that in different contexts, different uses are appropriate.” This is my biggest issue with linguistics. If this were actually true, then the sentence “Dog sleep now.” or “Sleep dog now.” would be perfectly acceptable. These are, in fact, cases of bad grammar – examples of constructions in which no variation or dialect of English would deem them acceptable. So, then, why is it wrong, from a linguistics perspective, to tell a student who has constant subject-verb disagreements or word order problems that they need to fix it?

    • http://researchity.net/ Dominik Lukes

      Sorry for the belated response. You are of course right that there is a continuum of multilnguality. And even if the boundaries are very fuzzy, it’s not hard to tell the difference. Unless you’re a child trying to figure out what language they’re speaking to you in your first years of school.

      The problem with your second argument is that you’re not picking real examples. All language happens in context. And given the right context, both of your examples can be made ‘grammatical’. I’m working on a long post to provide more examples. But even if they couldn’t be, it does not make them ‘bad English’. It would make them ‘non-English’. But most of the issues that teachers call ‘bad English’ are actually ‘different English’. Like agreement. “She work” is perfectly acceptable in many dialects of English. It is just not appropriate in the standard dialect. So why say things like ‘you speak bad English’, when we can say ‘in this context, you need to use this code’. The problem is that teachers most often cannot differentiate between ‘bad English’ and ‘different dialect English’, so they should just stay clear of labels. All that is required is saying ‘this is what is appropriate in this context’. It’s even fine to give students who don’t conform lower marks. But don’t diminish who they, their family and their community are as people. (See http://instruct.westvalley.edu/lafave/DFW_present_tense.html).

    • http://www.anthonyteacher.com Anthony Schmidt

      Thanks for the response. I agree with you that there is no bad English, or at the very least, very little bad English. I tried to pick examples that wouldn’t be found in any discourses but are authentic in that my learners have made these sentences.

      I would never say to a student that they speak bad English, and I would inform about dissent codes to a certain extent, but for a foreign language learner, mistakes in agreement, for example, will always be wrong because these learners are trying to learn a standardized English that makes them intelligible regardless of code. Of course, agreement is a bad example because it doesn’t lead to a breakdown in communication and is admittedly common for ELT speakers. My point is, though, that the code that is probably correct for these learners is a “standard” one that is mutually intelligible to most everyone, and one with little negative connotation, because having a foreign accent is probably enough stigma for them without attaching any more.

      I look forward to reading more of your blog posts.

    • Dominik Lukes

      Thanks. That’s a useful perspective. I was mostly thinking about first language education. Of course, second language students approach the whole enterprise assuming that there are right ways and wrong ways to speak. For them, correctness is an external factor, though. There’s still the pedagogic question of how much correction a teacher should do in opposition to communicative acts but by and large the question of standard vs. dialect does not come up as a significant factor (with some big provisos). In fact, what I’m sort of proposing is that even first language education should take the assumption that the language of the different school-related literacies is foreign to the students. Then, a correction does not undermine their sociolinguistic identity.

    • DanV

      Hi Dominik – this is my first visit to your blog, and I can see lots of food for thought – particularly enjoyed the post about Chomsky’s status as a linguist. Would just like to make one quick point about the whole ‘bad English’ issue. I’m sorry if this comes across as antagonistic, but I think you’re overstating your case when you describe teachers who talk about ‘bad English’ as violently intruding on someone’s identity, and as evil. As someone raised in a lower-middle class English family, I was very much indoctrinated with the need to ‘speak properly’ – and with the attendant prejudices against ‘inferior’ forms of speech. Having spent 14 years in the EFL profession, and 10 of those years trying to get my head around the beautiful mystery of how this whole language mess works, I have long since realized how misguided that approach to language is – and like you (I assume) I devote a fair amount of my class time to challenging the whole concept of ‘bad English’ that many learners seem to carry around with them. And yet…I can’t agree with you that the old-fashioned ‘that’s bad English’ brigade are evil. What’s more, I think by seeing this conflict in such black and white terms, you may make it much harder to convince people of the perfectly valid point you’re making, especially as, in my experience, the vast majority of ‘educated’ people outside the language teaching profession automatically default to notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ language. Anyway, thanks for an interesting read on a Friday morning, and I’m looking forward to spending more time on your excellent blog.