Today is National Grammar Day, a holiday that probably doesn’t sound very relaxing to a lot of Americans. It hasn’t earned us any time off work yet, and even with the spunky GrammarGirl blog as the driving force behind it, I don’t expect that we’ll see too many people celebrating in the streets.
Even though I’m a LinguaGeek, I understand why. Too often, grammar is taught as if it only consisted of punctuation and spelling rules when really, punctuation is an attempt to describe the grammar that is in your head. This grammar is a systematic set of “rules” that you learn when you are two, and nobody has to give you explicit instruction in order to teach you to talk. It’s only when we try to transfer this wonderfully rich system of speaking or signing to the written word that explicit instruction is needed. This is largely because the written word–while wonderful in its permanence–is lacking in a number of other ways (intonation, pauses, and body language, to name a few). Punctuation and spelling are attempts to differentiate ambiguities that wouldn’t be needed in spoken context, but when we don’t teach students about the underlying structures they’re designed to highlight, we’re doing them a disservice.
Worse yet, the primary motivation for students to learn about this very limited aspect of grammar is often presented to them as “You need to learn this so that so people don’t think you’re _______.” You can fill in the blank with your favorite insulting adjective (stupid/uneducated/trashy) or your favorite derogatory noun (an idiot/a loser/etc.).
This is no way to motivate students, and we wouldn’t allow for it in any other context. Science teachers don’t motivate students with, “You need to learn science so that people don’t think you’re stupid.” They motivate science lessons by explaining that having a greater understanding of the world makes you a stronger person, and that’s exactly what we should be doing as language teachers, too. Sure, you don’t need to know the difference between an intransitive verb and a transitive verb to talk, but that’s not really the point. I don’t need to know how the lungs work in order to breath, but I’m still glad they taught about it in biology class.
Language may not be entirely unique to humans, but no other species has a communication system quite like it. We use language to communicate ideas, but we also use it to communicate our identity. Language is as important to us as breathing. Therefore, we should know something about how it works.
Check out GrammarGirl’s webpages for more information about this holiday, and stay tuned for more “Language News” posts about it here, too.