Sunday, 26 May 2013

26 IATEFL correspondents ask...

Most readers of this blog will not know that yesterday I took part in a webinar for the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL), an organization of which I am proud to be the current patron. It was the first of their new series of webinars, to be held at intervals, and in my case it took the form of a general Q & A. Several people asked questions in advance, and I responded to these during the 45 minutes. There was then a 15-minute period in which people could send in their questions live. I managed to deal with a few in the time available, but most remained forlornly on the waiting list. I therefore give brief responses to these below, reproduced exactly as submitted (you have to forgive the typos and at times odd constructions, as people are typing at top speed on such occasions). My answers are not full explorations of an issue (as I like to do on this blog), but off-the-cuff short responses in the manner of a live exchange. Some of them follow up points made in the webinar, so the comments may not always be clear to people who were not there. But using my blog seemed the only way to provide individuals with an immediate response.

And to those IATEFLers whose questions are not here: as I said in the webinar, I can't answer questions where I have no experience - those asking about teaching methods, for example, or asking me to comment on policies in individual countries.

1. Suchismita: how can i make it little easy for a student for whom english is a 3rd language to feel that learning english will not be that difficult?
Not a question for me, really. IATEFL has SIGs which focus on this kind of thing. But the first step must surely be to establish communicative needs and areas of learner interest, and introduce relevant language. The short-messaging services, such as texting and tweeting, also tend to use simpler constructions and vocabulary, and have the advantage of being 'cool'.

2. Tatiana Ivanova: What is the most difficult thing about the English language you had to explain to students?
I can't think of anything that really stands out. There are different kinds of difficulty. For example, in pronunciation, explaining what is going on in intonation etc depends on whether the students have a good ear. If they do, no problem; if they don't, problem. And because it is difficult to transcribe, it is difficult to 'see' what is going on. In orthography, it's really hard to show the system behind spelling irregularity without getting bogged down in detail (see my Spell It Out for an approach). Some people are naturally good spellers; some aren't. In grammar ... probably the semantics of model verbs.

3. Olga Kuznetsova: What is the role of pronunciation in the way a person speaks the words of a language?
Not sure exactly what you have in mind, but one way of looking at this is to note that pronunciation has more than one role. It acts to identify words and it acts to link words together in connected speech. A dictionary pronunciation captures the former, along with variants. No dictionary captures the latter, which involves taking into account the interaction between segmental (vowel and consonant) and nonsegmental (intonation, rhythm, etc) phonology. For example, it isn't enough to know that 'and' reduces to 'n' in expressions like 'fish and chips'; one has to say it at an appropriate speed and rhythm.

4. Arthur Edgar E. Smith: How have you managed to get the motivation, time and energy to research, write and publish so many books (over 100) and articles in a widening field of English Language Studies and Linguistics besides your onerous academic and social responsibilities?
Well, I don't have the academic ones. Indeed, the reason I left the full-time academic world back in 1984, to become an 'independent scholar', was to give myself time to write. You can read the full story in my autobiographical memoir, Just a Phrase I'm Going Through. The short answer, then, is 'it's what I do'. The long answer would focus on various things, such as the nature of the subject, language (which is always offering new topics to write about), and above all the support of Hilary, who somehow manages to handle all the administration of our business while maintaining her own writing (you can see news of her new children's novel on my website).

5. Riaz Hussain: Mr, David Crystal i am Riaz Hussain From Pakistan, and i just did master in English literature, Now either i want to get TEFL or PGD in linguistic, i can't decided my self, what do you think which is essential to be a better Teacher of English, i am puzzled now which one i get, eiher if i get TEFL WHY or i get Linguistic Why, which one build my career and to be the best, i hope sir, I must enjoy your Lecture on mention time. Good Luck
If you're planning to be a full-time teacher, then you need much more than a linguistics background, and you should get as much TEFL training inside you as you can. If you are more a researcher by inclination, then developing a sophisticated linguistic skill-set would be good. If you do both, you have the best of both worlds, but few people have the time (or money)!

6. joel: As a coach of 2nd language learners of English listening and pronunciation improvement I’m experimenting with an “ear training” approach, analogous to the way that fledgling, non-note reading music self-learners teach themselves to play their instrument. The language self-learners teach themselves to play the “music” of English on their “instrument” which is their aural perception/oral production feedback loop. Using a small digital voice recorder, the learners: 1. Listen several times to a short, simple sentence recorded by a model speaker; 2. Record the same sentence next to the model sentence; 3. Listen repeatedly for the differences between their speech and the model speech; 4. Re-record the sentence again, next to the model sentence, striving to get their pronunciation closer to the model speaker; 5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 many times; 6. Repeat steps 1 to 5 with several subsequent short, simple sentences.
I did something similar myself in the days when I taught phonetics classes. The problem with self-tuition is whether the learners are able to judge when they are 'closer to the model speaker'. I found they needed a lot of help. Some felt they'd 'got it' when they plainly hadn't. And some kept going at it when they plainly had. A development of this approach would be to have software which would do the 'identifying' task automatically - rating how close you are. I don't know if any such software exists.

7. How did language start? (don't know who asked this question)
Nobody knows. There are various views. One is that there was a single source out of which all languages developed (a monogenetic hypothesis). Another is that it started simultaneously in different parts of the world, as a particular evolutionary stage was reached (a polygenetic hypothesis).

8 Marjorie Rosenberg, Austria: How did Yiddish get status?
The status of a language is always related to the power of its speakers, which can mean different things at different times - military, political, industrial, technological, economic, cultural, religious... In the case of Yiddish, religious power is the preeminent factor, being so closely tied up with Ashkenazi Judaism. As Dovid Katz puts it, in his marvellous Words on Fire: the Unfinished Story of Yiddish, Yiddish is 'irreplaceable as the spoken realm of traditional Jewish spirit, culture, and mentality'.

9 Rachel: How has the increase of multilingualism affected children's literacy? Is learning to read and write more difficult for bilingual children? Do they mix the languages? Especially those that have different alphabets.
There are too many individual differences to make it easy to generalize. I have seen kids whose literacy has been enhanced by their bilinguality; and the opposite. It also depends on the age of the kids, the character of their bilingualism, and the kind of education they are getting. There is bound to be mixing, as there is in spoken language, but this resolves over time. My grandson is growing up in Amsterdam with Dutch as his first language in school and English as his first language at home. He is only seven, so there is a great deal of interference going on right now; but this won't be there for long. Just naming the letters of the alphabet caused a problem, for example, as they are pronounced differently in English and Dutch. His mum had to keep saying 'English a' or 'Dutch a', and the like, to get him through this stage. Maintaining a steady reading and writing experience in both languages will be the critical factor.

10 Brahim Ait Hammou: what decisions, besides the political one, does it take for a country to really move a language from a dialect situation to a full language status? I have seen cases where a language is considered "official" in the constitution; yet, it's still deliberately restricted in use.
I don't like to generalize, because situations vary greatly. But if we take Welsh in Wales as a case in point, what it took to get it to its present recognized state was two kinds of political movement: 'bottom-up' activism on the part of ordinary people who wanted to keep the language alive; and 'top-down' support from the national government, which introruced Language Acts, fostered TV broadcasting in Welsh, and so on. The third factor was economic: it costs money to support a multilingual policy - not huge amounts, but enough to often make implementation of an official policy a problem, especially in these cash-strapped days.

11 Gopal Prasad Bashyal - Nepal: Language and power connected. What shuld the powerless ones do to preserve their language? As far as possible, become part of the international community which privileges language diversity. Is a country a signatory to one of the various conventions safeguarding languages? Let one of the widely read online outlets know of what is going on (such as the Foundation for Endangered Languages in the UK). Use the Internet as much as possible. Above all, be proud of what the language represents, and try to institutionalise that pride in the form of literature, folklore, and other cultural activities. People in power will listen if there are economic benefits to be obtained - and a strong economic case can be made for the preservation of linguistic diversity. I live just a few miles down the road from the longest place-name in the UK, which is in Welsh, and every day hundreds of tourists visit the place just to read it and be photographed by it. Some days you can't get into the car park for the tourist buses. Just one example.

12 @heikephilp, Belgium: I just wonder why two people who understand each other's language tend to speak only one language?
Because identity is the driving force. There are always two factors underlying language use: intelligibility (to understand each other) and identity (to show who we are). And of the two, it is the latter which carries the greater emotional force. People will march, riot, and even die for their linguistic identity, as we have often seen.

13 Laxman Gnawali: The "Did you spot the gorrilla?" test claims that knowing more than one language makes our mind better at discriminating the facts. Is that proven otherwise?
The early 20th-century view that monolinguals always perform better than bilinguals was totally wrong, as the comparisons didn't control for age, sex, socioeconomic background, educational environment, or even the language ability of the people they were comparing. All the recent research I know shows that bilingual people come out better in all sorts of cognitive ways. You need to follow this up with a specialist, so go to Francois Grosjean's blog, which also deals with the question (from Claire Hart) of the meaning of bilingualism.

14 Rachel: Does bilingualism refer more to the spoken word than the written?
No. All four mediums are involved: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. And signing, of course, in the context of deafness. Fluency levels vary in respect of all four. There is no single measure of bilingualism.

15 Vinaya Kumari: what is the use of english language in business in developing countriers like libya?
The answer depends entirely on the nature of the development. As businesses develop a more international outlook, involving languages other than their own, the need for a lingua franca quickly becomes evident. The lingua franca could be anything - in some parts of the world, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, Swahili, and other languages are useful lingua francas. But English is currently the one that gives the greatest access to the international business community, and I don't see any change in this role taking place in the foreseeable future.

16 Csilla Jaray-Benn, France: What's your view on whether English linguistically is adapted to be a global language? There is a whole debate about this in France and many say that it is not....
I don't know the debate you mean, and am not sure what exactly you mean by 'adapted'. But one of the big contrasts between French and English is the lack of anything remotely resembling an Academy in the latter. English has been allowed to adapt to the different cultural situations in which it finds itself, to meet local needs, without any attempt to control it from a central source. The interesting question, which we touched on briefly in the webinar, is how far these local adaptations will go, and whether any of them will influence the character of a putative 'world standard spoken English'. If you mean by adapted 'suitable', then it isn't a useful question, for two billion people have decided to use it in this way, so they have evidently found it so. The proof of the pudding, to adapt the old proverb, is in the speaking.

17 21685: Are African languages really an endangered species?
Depends where you mean. A large number of African languages (see the online figures at Ethnologue) are spoken by very small numbers, and several have died out in recent years, such as the example I cite of Kasabe (Cameroon) at the beginning of my Language Death. On the other hand, there are plenty left! There are still more languages spoken in Africa than anywhere else on the planet.

18 21685: English in Nigeria larely stifles the indigneous languages. Is there any way out? Nkem Okoh
See my response to 12 above. There is now a large literature showing various 'ways out' - that is, policies and strategies which can help to preserve and revitalize indigenous languages, in the face of a dominant language. Take a look at the FEL website and see whether a similar thing could be set up in Nigeria. Or perhaps something is already in place, but just not widely known. Linguists at Nigerian universities would be aware.

19 Eric Ekembe Enongene: Is your identity necessarily tempered with if you speak someone else's language or variety?
Not unless you want it to be. Some people who aspire to be 'citizens of the world' do end up with multiple identities, as they travel around, and their total personality is different from what it was - but they are happy about that. For the most part, what I see (and have experienced myself) is that the learning of a new language doesn't alter a source identity one bit. I have many friends who are as fluent in English as it is possible to get yet they remain resolutely Swedish, Dutch, or whatever.

20 Mike Hanacek (Austria): What I'm trying to say regarding deaf mutes is: what language do they use?
Few deaf people are actually mute. That is one of the myths. We find all possibilities. Many deaf people acquire excellent levels of spoken language. Many have poor spoken language. Many use one of the natural sign languages, such as British Sign Language or American Sign Language (which are not mutually intelligible, by the way). And some use one of the many artificial sign languages which have been invented for educational purposes (such as the Paget-Gorman Sign System in the UK). Many deaf people are multilingual, in exactly the same way as hearing people are.

21 Yulia Sergaeva: New words appear in English almost every day, especially now when many web resources encourage PC users to coin words. My question to Prof.Crystal and others is - in case of several coinages to nominate the same thing/concept, what linguistic and extralinguistic factors will help a new word to win in this "competition"? Why do some neologisms stay in language, while others are rejected?
That is one of the great mysteries, which has always been the case in the history of language. What was it that led discordant to survive from the 17th century when over a dozen other variants, such as discordable, discordic, and discordous, didn't? Many factors are involved, such as: use by a famous person (such as Shakespeare), use in an influential text (such as the Bible), euphony (some words sounding nicer than others), and avoidance of a clash with an already-existing similar-sounding word. Most neologisms disappear. Of the new words that came into English during the 1970s, for example, only about a quarter are still in use today.

22 Djalal Tebib (Algeria): Can multilingualism turn out to be a “linguistic schizophrenia”?
Not unless there are schizophrenic tendencies in place for other reasons. There is a huge myth abroad among monolingual people, that the brain cannot cope with multilingualism - that learning a new language threatens the quality of the one already there because there is limited brain space. The reality is that the brain can cope with an indefinitely large number of languages. With over 100 billion neurons available, a language takes up a relatively small amount of space (with just a few dozen sounds, a few thousand grammatical constructions, and a few tens of thousand words).

23 Vinaya Kumari: zainab Al oujali. An asistant lecturer / faculty of Arts and Scinece Ajdabia. Which is it better to teach students \word-sress during the initial stages or the final stages of their language stages? I can't comment on teaching strategies, as I have no experience of them. But, unless one is teaching only the written language, I don't see how one can acquire a word without its associated stress pattern. Remember too that stress isn't simply a phonetic phenomenon. It can make semantic contrasts (as in record vs record), relate words (as in poetry), underscore sentence patterns, and so on. It plays an important psycholinguistic role. If you've ever had a word 'on the tip of your tongue', you may not recall the vowels and consonants in it, but you'll probably recall the stress pattern.

24 Laxmi Prasad Ojha: How serious the governments in the developing countries are about the language shift and change?
I see huge variation. Everyone recognizes it, of course, as it is one of the most obvious facts of linguistic life. But governments respond to it in various ways. A distinction has to be drawn between policies relating to languages and policies relating to an individual language. Most countries are now aware of the issues surrounding language shift - such as in relation to minority languages or to the loss of functions within a language (eg English being used in higher education at the expense of the indigenous language). How serious they are about dealing with the problems depends largely on the state of the economy. In relation to individual languages, at one extreme we see an attempt at centralized control, as in the various Academies; at the other, we see a totally laissez-faire attitude. In between, various kinds of ad hoc policy-making in response to popular mood (such as measures to deal with English loanwords).

25 Marija Liudvika Drazdauskiene, Lithuania/Poland: I would appreciate hearing from you whether investigation of idiom in American spoken English compared with the idiom of spoken British English would be of any general interest?
It would. It's been a remarkably neglected field, when one takes into account all the regional variations in both countries, as well as indigenous variations (eg the Celtic languages in the UK), ethnic variations (such as immigrants), and the whole range of figurative expression (metaphors, proverbs, similes). Gunnel Tottie's Introduction to American English has an interesting chapter on metaphors in US English, which illustrates the point.

26 Cristiane Corsetti, Brazil: Within a pragmatic perspective addressing the use competent, what does conversational competence in L2 encompass, in your opinion Professor?
I don't think it's possible to make a generalization, as everything depends (from a pragmatic point of view) on what choices you need to make, on the intentions behind those choices, and the effects that the choices convey. Some settings require a very limited competence; others require a great deal. I once met a beggar child whose total vocabulary was less than a dozen words (as far as I could judge), and whose grammar was limited to a couple of constructions; but that was all he needed. Once upon a time, my total conversational competence in Latin was restricted to the utterances I needed in order to serve Mass. Because I left Wales before I was a teenager, there are areas of conversational competence in Welsh that I cannot handle (such as formal interviews, which require a kind of intellectual sentence connectivity that I never learned), whereas my 'domestic' Welsh is fine. There may also be a mismatch between one's level of comprehension competence and one's production competence. One understands more than one speaks, usually, though that depends on the personality factors of the person one is talking to (such as speed of speech, regional accent, shared knowledge of subject matter, and so on). A pragmatic perspective is essential here, as with so many other areas of language analysis.

Friday, 24 May 2013

On a question that/which interests people

A correspondent writes to ask about an old chestnut which/that I realise I haven't discussed in my blog hitherto. He asks about the relative pronoun that/which should be used in the following sentence: 'I believe we sometimes worry about things -- are not within our power, and disease is one of them.' The answer is, of course, either. So the interesting question is: what are the factors that motivate the choice?

The fact that there is a choice at all upset prescriptive grammarians in the 18th century, and they spent a lot of futile energy trying to get rid of it. The usual line was to insist that that goes with restrictive relative clauses (as in the example above) and which goes with nonrestrictive ones (usually shown in writing by commas around the relative clause, and by a separate tone group in speech). So, the recommendation we get in traditional grammar is illustrated by:

The exam, which was taken by class 3, was difficult. (The speaker is talking about only one exam: nonrestrictive, nondefining)
The exam that was taken by class 3 was difficult. (The speaker is talking about several exams, one of which was taken by class 3: restrictive, defining)

Fowler spends six pages trying to sort things out in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage (see the entry under THAT, REL), before throwing in the towel. It's a lovely instance where we see his underlying prescriptive temperament at odds with his awareness that usage is complex and divided:

'Relation between that & which. What grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes & dislikes. And yet the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible. ... The relations between that, who, & which, have come to us from our forefathers as an odd jumble, & plainly show that the language has not been neatly constructed by a master-builder who could create each part to do the exact work required of it, neither overlapped nor overlapping; far from that, its parts have had to grow as they could.'

He goes on to recommend an ideal solution, while acknowledging that it won't work:

'if writers would agree to regard that as the defining relative pronoun, & which as the non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity & in ease. Some there are who follow this principle now; but it would be idle to pretend it was the practice either of most or of the best writers'.

Indeed. And when we look at the way modern corpora present the evidence, we can easily see the absurdity of the recommendation when it comes to restrictive clauses (the wh- set is definitely the preferred choice for nonrestrictives). Both grammatical and stylistic factors are involved. Here are some instances where that is preferred over which:

- in cleft sentences: I saw the car that was involved in the accident.
- in a noun phrase containing an ordinal number: the first incident that took place was recorded on film.
- in an indefinite noun phrase: Any letters that are received after Friday will not be read.
- in a noun phrase containing a superlative: The circus was the biggest attraction that had appeared in the town for many years.

That provides the solution when the antecedents are a mix of human and nonhuman: I saw the woman and the dogs that were rescued.

Similarly, that saves us worrying about whether we should use who or which in cases like The foetus -- is allowed to come to term.... And if you are uncertain about the distinction between who and whom, that helps you out too.

Among the stylistic factors, we need to note several points:

- which is weightier, taking up more visual space than that; that is often described as being a 'lighter' word to use, and preferred as sentences become more complex (or 'dense') in structure. (It can also often be informally omitted, of course.)
- considerations of euphony and ease of articulation affect both forms: people find the car that was... slightly easier to say than the car which was..., and the car which those people bought... easier than the car that those people bought...

A particularly important stylistic effect is to avoid repetition. If one of the words is already being used, people try to avoid repeating it: I would never write That is the answer that I prefer or Which is the answer which you prefer? Speech is less predictable in this respect.

It's difficult to generalize, therefore. But, on the whole, that is considered to be more informal than which, and corpus studies show that it is certainly far more frequent in conversation and in fiction, whereas which is far more often used in nonfiction and formal speech such as news reporting. But the prescriptive tradition continues to influence. If a style guide recommends a usage, many will simply follow it. This is probably one of the reasons why the preference for which is so much more noticeable in American English, because writers have been influenced by the Chicago Manual of Style, following the Fowlerian line.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

On Donne in OP

OP (‘original pronunciation’), as regular readers of these posts know, has so far been mainly directed at Shakespeare. But in the last year or so, people have shown interest in taking the approach in other directions, both before Shakespeare and after. Later this year I’ll post about a project to make William Tyndale available in c.1525 OP. Here I give some details about a John Donne project, capturing how he would have sounded in a 1622 sermon.

John N. Wall, Professor of English Literature at North Carolina State University, is the director of the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project, which uses visual and acoustic modeling technology to recreate the experience of listening to John Donne’s sermon at St Paul's Cross outside St Paul’s Cathedral on 5 November 1622. Much of what follows is taken directly from his summary of the project.

The goal is to integrate what we know, or can surmise, about the look and sound of this space, destroyed by the Great Fire of London in 1666, and about the course of activities as they unfolded on the occasion of a Paul’s Cross sermon, so that we may experience a major public event of early modern London as it happened in real time and in the context of its original surroundings. It combines visual imagery from the 16th and 17th centuries with measurements of these buildings made during archaeological surveys of their foundations, still in the ground in London. The visual presentation also integrates into the appearance of the visual model the look of a London November day, with overcast skies and an atmosphere thick with smoke. The acoustic simulation recreates the acoustic properties of Paul’s Churchyard, incorporating information about the dispersive, absorptive, or reflective qualities of the buildings and the spaces between them.

The website allows us to explore the northeast corner of Paul’s Churchyard, and to hear John Donne’s sermon for Gunpowder Day, all two hours of it, in the space of its original delivery and in the context of church bells and the random ambient noises of dogs, birds, horses, and crowds of up to 5,000 people. In keeping with the desire for authenticity, the text of Donne’s sermon was taken from a manuscript prepared within days of the sermon’s original delivery, that contains corrections in Donne’s own handwriting. It was recorded by a professional actor using an original pronunciation script and interpreting contemporary accounts of Donne’s preaching style.

On the website, the user can learn how the visual and acoustic models were created and explore the political and social background of Donne’s sermon. In addition to the complete recording of the sermon, one can also explore the question of audibility of the unamplified human voice in Paul’s Churchyard by sampling excerpts from the sermon as heard from eight different locations across the Churchyard and in the presence of four different sizes of crowd.

The website also houses an archive of materials that contributed to the recreation, including visual records of the buildings, high resolution files of the manuscript and first printed versions of Donne’s sermon for Gunpowder Day 1622, and contemporary accounts of Donne’s preaching style. In addition, the website includes an acoustic analysis of the Churchyard, discussion of the challenges of interpreting historic depictions of the Cathedral and its environs, and a review of the liturgical context of outdoor preaching in the early modern age.

I have to declare an interest: I know all about it as I was the one who made the OP transcription, and Ben was the actor who performed it – and what a task that was, doing a two-hour sermon in OP, chunk by chunk, on a flexible surface in an acoustic studio. But the result is remarkable and without precedent. There is a link to the whole site here, or (for a quick view) here.

Monday, 6 May 2013

On a pair of alternatives

A correspondent writes from Oman asking me to resolve a question that has apparently been much debated at his university recently. What is the correct concord in the sentence In the 1870's the 1st pair of denim jeans was / were made?

As with so many grammar questions, the answer is 'it depends'. If usage is split, there's invariably a reason for it. In this case, the issue is one of 'notional concord' - that is, the verb agrees with the part of the subject that is most important in the speaker's mind. If the sentence had been The jeans are on the table there would have been no problem. The subject consists of just one notion, so there is no choice to be made, and normal 'grammatical concord' operates, with the plural verb.

As soon as you say 'A pair of jeans' two notions are brought together and now there is a possible choice. If 'pair' is the notion the speaker is focusing on, the verb would be singular according to normal grammatical rules. But the question arises: why would anyone ever want to do that? Pair is simply a routine summation noun. There is no semantic contrast. One wouldn't normally try to say 'I have a pair of trousers, not a --- of trousers'.

But as soon as pair is modified, things change. The first pair of jeans allows a contrast with later pairs. Now speakers have a semantic choice to make. If the notion of 'first pair' is dominant in their minds, they will go for singular concord. If, notwithstanding the adjective, they are still thinking of the sentence as being about jeans, they will go for the second. But surely the reason for saying first pair is to make that notion semantically pre-eminent - otherwise why say it at all? In which case I'd expect to see singular concord following.

And what happens (I hear someone saying) if both notions are equally important in the mind? Well, semantic reasoning is now ruled out, and people have to resort to other factors. If you have been steeped in a prescriptive grammatical tradition, you will follow the traditional recommendation, and use the singular (as in a number of and other such phrases). In everyday speech, however, 'concord of proximity' is the main influence - that is, we make the verb agree with the nearest noun - so the concord will be plural. When a 'grammatical' user and a 'proximity' user meet each other - as sometimes happens in the usage column in a newspaper - then sparks can fly!

Sunday, 5 May 2013

On a testing time

A correspondent (well, several actually) writes to ask what I think about the proposed test for 'English grammar, punctuation and spelling' (KS2, levels 3-5 materials). It would take more than a blog post to answer this question. My basic view is that it, and the view of language lying behind it, turns the clock back half a century. Here are four examples of my worries.

Several questions are of the type 'circle all the X in the sentence below'. Q16 Circle all the adverbs... Q23 Circle the connectives... Q42 Circle the preposition... Q44 Circle the article... This is how grammar was taught before the 1960s. The approach used to be called (after the Henry Reed poem) 'naming of parts'. I spent hundreds of hours in the 1980s and 90s, along with examiners such as George Keith and John Shuttleworth, running in-service courses where the aim was to move away from that kind of thing, and I really thought we were getting somewhere. The right question, in their (and my) view was not: 'Circle all the passives in the paragraph' - end of story - but 'Identify the passives and say why they are there' - beginning of story. This semantic and pragmatic perspective I eventually wrote up in my Making Sense of Grammar (2004). It was the way grammar-teaching seemed to be going, and I was delighted to see the message being put into practice in schools. Teachers would take students 'on a passive hunt' (we're going to catch a big one) - finding real examples around the school, in newspapers, and on the high street, and discussing what the effect was of using a passive as opposed to an active. It could be quite exciting - a word not traditionally associated with the teaching of grammar - and it certainly gave them a good basis for using (or not using) passives in their own writing. And now we have a test where it is enough, once again, for the students to simply 'Circle the passives'. Q3 in Paper 2: 'Which sentence is the passive form of the sentence above?'

The second thing that worries me is that some of the sentences to be analysed present students with problems because they ignore context. What would you do with Q1 in Paper 2, for example? 'A pair of commas can be used to separate words or groups of words and to clarify the meaning of a sentence. 
Insert a pair of commas to clarify each sentence below. (a) My friend who is very fit won the 100-metre race. ...' Of course, anyone with a shred of knowledge about relative clauses can see straight away that this sentence is perfectly all right without commas - depending on the intended meaning. It's not a question of clarifying anything. It's the basic distinction between a restrictive and a non-restrictive relative clause. In My friend, who is very fit, ... I have one friend in mind. In My friend who is very fit... I have more than one friend (the other one, who isn't very fit, nonetheless managed to win the egg-and-spoon race). Out of context the question becomes artificial and largely meaningless.

My third worry is that several questions ignore changing usage, and try to impose a black-and-white distinction where there is none. Take Q15 in paper 1: 'Which of the sentences below uses commas correctly?' The correct answer is We’ll need a board, counters and a pair of dice. The other examples all have a comma before the word and (the so-called 'serial comma' or 'Oxford comma') and are viewed as wrong. In the guidance notes to Q27 'Insert three commas in the correct places in the sentence below' markers are told 'Do not accept' the serial comma. Evidently Mr Gove, or his advisory team, does not like serial commas. In which case that's me failed, as I regularly use them. And most of Oxford University press too. But how can (how dare?) examiners ignore the facts of educated usage in this way? This is the ugly face of prescriptivism - defined as the imposition of unauthentic rules on a language - and it shows behind several of the questions in these tests.

One more worry: conflicting advice about basic grammatical terms. Take the important distinction between word and phrase. Q35 is 'Write a different adverb in each space below to help describe what Josie did'. This is actually a useful question, as it elicits creative thinking about how language is really used. But the test guidance notes say that adverbial phrases will be accepted, despite the question asking for an adverb. So, does that mean that anywhere a question asks for an adverb, an adverb phrase will be accepted? What is the correct answer, then, to Q16? 'Circle all the adverbs in the sentences below'. The sentences are: 'Excitedly, Dan opened the heavy lid. He paused briefly and looked at the treasure. The intention is obviously to get the two -ly adverbs circled. But if students were to take at the treasure as an adverb phrase of place (answering the question 'where did he look?') would they get their marks?

I could go on, and on... I found myself making comments of this kind on about two-thirds of the sample questions. I feel very let down actually, especially as I was one of those asked to provide some initial perspective, in 2011, and spent a worthwhile day (as I thought) discussing principles and examples with the government team tasked with taking these things forward. I left at the end of the day feeling optimistic. But my optimism, I fear, was misplaced. I hope things will change - and I especially hope that there are enough linguistically aware teachers out there these days to see the limitations in tests of this kind and continue with the more informed approach to language study that I know exists in many schools. There's nothing wrong with being able to identify adverbs as long as this is not thought to be the end of the story. It would be like giving people a driving test where all they had to do was name the parts of the car. With a linguistically informed approach, one can do this, yes, but then go on to drive the language, as it were, and take it to all kinds of exciting places.