8 July 2010

The rise of Chomsky and the fall of grammar

In a recent post by Iain Dale, entitled Its Grammatikal, Innit?, he tells us that an earlier tweet about poor grammar (Why is it that so many people in their twenties have v little understanding of English grammar or basic sentence construction? Aaaaaaagh.) had provoked a huge response.

When I saw his tweet, I shared his frustration about declining standards of English grammar. But I was rather disappointed to see him using this to launch a generalised attack on 'progressive' educationalists on his blog - because I don't think it comes from 'progressiveness' so much as from the way news from the frontiers of different disciplines (e.g., in this case, linguistics), get watered down over a period of time before it reaches the syllabus of 'applied' courses like those provided for trainee teachers.

Dilution and dissemination
In a limited way, I know this from my own experience, because I saw some of my own early research into the sociology of suicide being 'watered down' to the point of being included in some of the 'A' level syllabuses - and never quite knew whether to be annoyed by the 'oversimplifications' or pleased to see my work reaching a wider audience.

I also know from my own experience that Iain Dale's point about the way learning a foreign language (as he did) helps you to understand the workings of grammar in your own native tongue. My late wife was head of modern languages in a comprehensive school during the 1980s, and was continually at war with the English Department about the fact that their reluctance to teach grammar meant that she and her colleagues had to spend huge amounts of time introducing pupils to verbs, nouns, adjectives, etc. before being able to teach them French and German.

Education is not a 'pure' academic discipline
The trouble is that education is not a 'pure' discipline built on it own body of knowledge and research. So the absence of much in the way of 'pure' educational theory drives lecturers in education departments (and former teacher training colleges) into the market for material from other disciplines, like psychology, sociology and linguistics, that can be borrowed, diluted and adapted for the benefit of aspiring teachers.

Enter linguistics
In the 1960s, a new discipline concentrating on language in general, rather than any particular language, began to take off. But to convince universities and their paymasters that it was worth establishing a new academic department, you need a few distinguished theorists whose work can be cited to establish the credibility and legitimacy of the discipline in the face of competing demands for scarce funding.

Enter Chomsky
For linguistics, the ideas of a professor called Noam Chomsky were just what they'd been looking for. The fact that he worked at an institution as prestigious as MIT was an added bonus when it came to demonstrating that there was some pretty serious stuff at the heart of the emerging discipline.

And so it was that Chomsky became the central orthodoxy that dominated the new linguistics departments that were springing up around the Western world from the 1960s onwards.

The diluted version of Chomsky
At the heart of his theory was the claim that humans are born with an innate ability to master grammar, and this is what explains the extraordinary mystery of language acquisition.

This was rather bad news both for empirically inclined researchers and for what was to happen to the training of teachers and, ultimately the teaching of English grammar in our schools.

Bad news for researchers
For those of us naive enough to believe that observing how people actually speak, interact and use language might be a good idea, our work could be written off by the Chomskians before we'd even started - because he'd decreed that language could be understood without bothering to dirty your hands with detailed empirical investigations.

Even worse news for grammar in the teaching of teachers and children
By the time the diluted Chomskian orthodoxy had reached university education departments and teacher training colleges, the news was that 'grammar was innate' and wired into the human brain. So, if it was innate in all of us, what possible point could there be in teaching it to youngsters who'd already been born with an understanding of grammar?

Of course, this might not be quite what the master had actually meant or intended.

But it has, I believe, played a critical and disastrous part in relegating grammar to the sidelines of teacher training - and in explaining why so few people in their twenties and thirties have so little understanding of English grammar and sentence construction.


Anonymous said...

All the great writers break the rules of grammar and we say wow, what great literature!

Jacinto Davila said...

This is very superficial reading of Chomsky and the science behind linguistics. If the author is right, perhaps this superficiality is to be blamed for all that.

Max Atkinson said...

Jacinto - you're right, of course, because the point I'm making is that, by the time academic stuff reaches wider audiences, it will have been massively 'superficialied' and/or dumbed down. Another classic example is the Mehrabian myth, that's led scores of management trainers into teaching that 93% of communication is 'non-verbal'.

boaby said...

You might find this blog entry on some recent and relevant linguistics research useful.